Gaming Industry Careers & Gender Equality: Please wait, still loading…
This panel discussion took place live on 19 March 2021, as part of the Singapore Francophonie Festival 2021. It was organised by the Singapore Games Association and the Embassy of France in Singapore, in collaboration with Pixel Studios and the High Commission of Canada to Singapore. A recording of the entire panel discussion can be viewed below.
- Ariana Yeo, Student, Vice President of the NTU E-sports Society
- Rika Lim, Lead Level Designer, Ubisoft Singapore
- Sybil Collas, Narrative Designer, Writer, Speaker
- Sophie Mallinson, Senior Game Designer, Electronic Arts Vancouver
- Kah Hui Teo, Ambassador, Women in Games Singapore.
This panel was organised to raise awareness on gender issues in the gaming industry, and to provide guidance and recommendations to both the gaming industry at large as well as students/young professionals living in Singapore and beyond.
For Ariana Yeo (she/her), the gaming industry, and e-sport especially, suffers from a very negative image, which she believes is strongly influenced by wide-spread internalised stigmas about gaming and the gaming industry – the chief of which is gaming being regarded as a chronic waste of time.
Additionally, among children, gaming is also unfortunately perceived to cater only to boys, and not to girls – video games are for boys, and girls are not welcome. In fact, very few school-going girls play video games, as it is not considered to be an appropriate social activity for them. From her experience, girls are often encouraged (or sometimes even ‘pushed’) to choose more ‘suitable’ activities befitting their gender, such as dancing.
From the outset, boys are perceived to be ‘better gamers’ than girls are. This is a misconception. For the most part, any truth to this is attributed solely to the fact that boys have a disproportionate early start to gaming, compared to girls, alongside more direct access to video games and societal acceptance of them being involved with video games. It is not because they are innately skilled at gaming. With practice comes muscle memory, and like any other sport, those who begin playing video games from a very young age would have better chances of being successful, compared to those that started gaming much later.
Ariana’s view is that if a woman wants to embrace a career in e-sport, she will have to be prepared to face many challenges. Apart from having to overcome the lack of early exposure to gaming and the initial gap in accumulated experience that is a result of that, they would also need to contend with common salary gaps in the professional gaming industry. To illustrate this: among the 100 top earning e-sport players globally, not one of them is female. It is also quite common that all-women gaming teams have no choice but to pursue gaming part-time, because they don’t earn nearly enough money from it for them to make it a full-time profession.
In Rika Lim’s opinion (she/her), a career in the video game industry is not a walk in the park, as existing gender biases are very strong and in many cases, demoralising. In Asian families like the one that she grew up in, boys are given more access to the computer to play video games on, whereas girls often find themselves needing to fight with boy relatives for a chance to play on a computer, as Rika had to in her childhood.
At university, Rika chose Game Development as her major. She found that very few non-male students did the same (or even chose it an elective course). Over the course of the year, female representation gradually dropped. Rika also shared that, from her experience, some modules such as Programming was also more challenging for women on the outset, as they came in without the same level of prior knowledge as their male classmates. This was because it was common for men to be encouraged by their families and friends to pick up programming basics earlier on in life.
According to Sybil Collas (they/them), video games were classified as a ‘distraction activity’ when they were growing up. For instance, in the Catholic school that they attended, no one gamed before university and playing video games was perceived in a negative light. As a student, Sybil had the opportunity to pursue Game Design, but they could not shake off the feeling around the fact that non-binary people were not welcome. This made them realise that overall, gender equality initiatives/efforts often fall short of being truly inclusive, as they often apply to cis-gender women and men, only.
For Sophie Mallinson (she/her), joining the gaming industry only became a conceivable option much later in life, even though she enjoyed playing video games from a young age. Sophie didn’t realise she could become a game developer until she was an adult, because she didn’t have an inspiring role model growing up. As such, it is apparent that visibility and diverse representation in the gaming industry is critical for societal change.
- Learning and development in the Gaming Industry
As gender biases stems from an early age of cognitive development, it is virtually unavoidable in today’s gaming landscape. This is why special mentorship for underrepresented genders, is important.
For instance, when Rika joined Ubisoft Singapore, she found that she was the only female game designer. Unlike her male colleagues, who had a large pool of mentors to approach, she was not able to benefit from another woman’s mentoring due to the lack of representation. While her colleagues were keen on helping her whenever she asked, she felt that her transition process would have been much smoother if there was a female role-model within the company. As such, when the time came to choose a mentor, Rika chose a female leader in the Human Resources (HR) department – HR is of course, not exactly related to her expertise, but she found that it was still useful to gather insights of a female leader in the company, as well as to tap on her mentor’s expertise in management and leadership. Change is the only constant, and Rika noted that things are changing – slowly but surely. Today, there is a much larger female representation at Ubisoft.
Ariana feels that in e-sport, women often can be their own worst enemy. She chanced upon a couple of forums online that published false ‘scientific justifications’ about why men are better gamers i.e. because they are naturally ‘better decision makers’, have innate reaction times that are faster than women etc., some of which were written by women.
Ariana also noticed that there is a huge lack of support for women in the gaming sector – both financially and mentally. Apart from facing remuneration challenges, women in e-sport also face a constant obligation to prove themselves worthy of their gaming achievements, and in so doing, undermine their mental health. In fact, when a woman is succeeding in the e-sport sphere, it is as if no one can quite believe it – she is often perceived to have ‘cheated’ or ‘hacked’ her way to get to where she is. As a result, it is not unusual that women in e-sport find the need to game LIVE in a controlled environment, to prove their worth and capacity for gaming. This is highly stressful and should be completely unnecessary – and yet the pressure to do so is overwhelming.
In general, female gamers are not taken seriously. When Ariana games with a male friend, the other players online will assume that this friend might be her boyfriend, and that the only reason she is playing is to ‘accompany’ her boyfriend. This in turn also has an impact on communication in gaming. Communication is, of course, a key aspect in e-sport, and the use of a micro is very important. Sometimes, Ariana finds herself hesitating to use her micro because she knows that it triggers a lot of negative stereotypes in the minds of fellow gamers.
Ariana is no stranger to being confronted by hurtful comments about her legitimacy in the e-sport industry. In the pro scene, there is this assumption that if a woman plays against a man and the latter does not win the game, it is largely because he performed poorly, and not because she was more skilled. The constant demeaning and belittling of women in the gaming industry discourages many women from joining the e-sport scene, and forces existing female gamers to quit.
On the other side of the spectrum, Ariana has also been at the receiving end of a lot of genuine and positive support from the gaming community. When some gamers realise that she is a woman, they send her words of encouragement, which keeps her going strong. In general, when a player is trashed online because of her/his/their gender, receiving support from the community is vital.
Indeed, underrepresentation of genders in the gaming industry is a problem that everyone has to come together to address – it is not only the responsibility of women to call it out. Due to the multitude of negative stereotypes around women and underrepresented genders in gaming, their behaviour is always unnecessarily scrutinised and criticised. Oftentimes, this begets the development of an ‘impostor syndrome’, and overtime, the e-sport ecosystem becomes an inhospitable place for women and those of underrepresented genders, which in turn gradually pushes them away from gaming altogether.
As a gender fluid person, Sybil has witnessed emotional stress in many different situations in the gaming industry. They have had discussions with many female students that decided to drop out of gaming-related studies, activities relating to gaming, or just gaming in general, because of the stress that comes with prejudice against them and their abilities. In Sybil’s view, the system is by default, constantly rejecting and questioning the legitimacy of underrepresented genders. When a junior gamer of an underrepresented gender joins the gaming industry, they can be easily destabilised by the constant barrage of negative comments and remarks on their pairs, especially when they come in with no prior knowledge about the state of discrimination in the e-sport industry. To make matters worse, they often feel powerless to react against this tide of negativity, and many end up believing they do not ‘belong’ to the group.
This is why education is important, and why teachers have such a huge role to play: by being aware of the current situation in the gaming community, they can guide their students towards understanding the situation, and also help them navigate challenges when they arise.
Currently, many underrepresented gender students and young professionals are pushed to engage in careers that traditionally associated with their gender, but which they might not be interested in at all. For instance, women are supposed to have the ‘maternal skills’ to take care of people, and so should engage in studies or activities that require that trait. However, they are perceived to have little or no ‘masculine skills’ which are seen as essential in field of game design. In consequence, underrepresented genders find themselves ignored, unheard and unseen, as they constantly have to prove their credibility. In the eyes of the gaming world, the technical skills that they possess are ‘not enough’ – this is why specific training, in relation to the impact of their gender in video games, is critical to help overcome the challenges that they face.
There are clear parallels between e-sport and game development, when it comes to how women are perceived. Sophie shared that at gaming industry events and conferences that she has attended in the past, whenever someone approached her to open a conversation, she was often asked who she was accompanying – a huge assumption made on their part, but a pretty common one that she is familiar with. Similarly, during meetings, she has noticed over the course of her career that design ideas from women were more likely to be discredited by the rest of the group, in comparison to ideas tabled by male team members.
- What can be done to create a more inclusive e-sport community?
Rika advocates for an education system that emphasises on diversity and inclusion across all aspects – from the way we look at gender, career options etc. She noticed that Primary and Secondary school-going pupils are usually not exposed to the game industry as a viable career path option: a long-term career in the video game industry is often not seen as a ‘legitimate’ option i.e. ‘gaming can never be a job’, ‘it is not professional to be a gamer’, etc. Additionally, she has noticed that Programming lessons are still very male-oriented, and this discourages female participation – more must be done to encourage female participation.
Rika feels that companies in the gaming industry should lead by example, as they are well-placed to alter the course of the current narrative and affect lasting change in the gaming industry as a whole. They can do this by prioritising and advocating for gender inclusion in their various departments, alongside appointing relatable and representative mentors and role-models. Companies would also need to focus on communicating messages around this effectively, so that it is clear that they are in favour of inclusivity, no matter a person’s gender, religion, ethnicity or race.
Ariana feels that despite the present day challenges (outlined above), society as a whole is moving towards being more open-minded and accepting of e-sport. For example, even though Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has an e-sport club today, e-sport is not part of the ‘pro teams’ of the university. Because of this status, the e-sport society in NTU does not have a dedicated club room, and it is not taken as seriously as other sport clubs.
Sybil shared that there is a lot of unspoken expectations of underrepresented genders. The expectation of queer people today, in a nutshell, is to simultaneously ‘blend into’ the ‘conservative’ society around them as well as to raise awareness about who they are and what they represent, in the communities that they live with. This is a huge burden for those from underrepresented backgrounds, as they often already struggle to be accepted by those around them. As such, societies need to find a way to come together to create environments where people can be both truly heard and seen. They need to look beyond the stereotypes, and to take gender fluid individuals seriously. Additionally, to boost gender representation in the industry, the panel noted that open discrimination should be severely frowned upon, and those perpetuating it should be penalised appropriately; advocating militants should not be arrested.
For Sybil, gender diversity in game design and development is very important as it affects gaming content and the representation i.e. it is natural for gaming design professionals to design content that they are familiar with. If you don’t have diverse representation in the industry, then you will not have games that reflect diversity. Expanding on this point, Sophie discussed the term ‘inclusion’. She believes that it involves not only important discussions around gender, but also encompasses much more than that: realising inclusivity is part of a bigger fight on preconceived notions around sexuality, disability, ethnicity, and religion. Homogeneous teams (e.g. those that only feature white, middle-aged men) have similar life experiences and, as such, tend to make games that reflect just their set of experiences. On the other hand, diverse teams mean diverse perspectives, which in turn drives innovation and challenges the status quo in gaming.
- What actions have companies put in place to be more inclusive?
According to Rika, there have been many positive steps forward, such as the founding of diversity and inclusion councils or the creation of new positions that have the power to address important issues like gender representation, inclusivity and diversity. Rika also mentioned that having a code of conduct in an organisation is very important as well, as it is a company-wide platform where gender discrimination issues can be addressed. Equally critical in the journey towards creating more inclusive work environments is providing toolkits, easy access to relevant content, and holding open discussion sessions to educate staff – all of which is now currently being done at Ubisoft Singapore.
For Sybil, the creation of a non-partisan association that focuses on advocating for inclusivity in gaming, would be key in creating a platform that provides a much-needed space for underrepresented genders to be heard and seen.
Sophie added that great efforts have been made at Electronic Arts (EA) to work with localisation partners and development teams as a whole in order to better represent different genders, sexualities, and cultures in their games. The Inclusive Player Experience (IPeX) team, which is part of EA’s Positive Play Group, was formed to support developers, by advocating for a more consistent and deliberate effort for inclusion and diversity in both products and game development processes.
Ariana feels that it is important to raise awareness about how the gaming industry should not classify female and other gendered characters as just ‘token’ characters in games – these characters deserved to be developed and invested in. Overcoming this misrepresentation would be an important step forward for the gaming industry.
- How can the ‘older generation’ learn about the actual state of affairs in the gaming industry today?
According Ariana, younger folks need strike a balance in their lives: they need to show their parents / those of the older generation, that gaming is not harmful, and that it doesn’t consume their entire existence – that they can juggle work and play. Additionally, children need to find meaningful ways to demonstrate to their parents that their gaming achievements matter, as what they are doing is part of a multi-billion industry i.e. that video games are not a ‘waste of time’ and contribute to the society as much as other entertainment industries – maybe even on a much larger scale than they are aware about!
If you have additional questions to our panellists or if you need support, feel free to contact them to:
- Rika Lim on Twitter: @jubbileus
- Sybil Collas on Twitter: @Sybil Collas
- Sophie Mallinson: https://sophiemallinson.com/