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We know that women play games. So why do men still dominate the developer landscape?

Four women from the game industry came together during our GamesBeat Summit 2021 event to talk about this issue in the “Representation in-game matters, and it starts with developers” panel. Jen Oneal, executive vice president of development at Blizzard Entertainment; Lydia Bottegoni, executive vice president of story of story and franchise development at Blizzard, Beenox studio head Nour Polloni; and moderator Eunice Lee (senior vice president of Call of Duty development at Activision) discussed diversity in game development and how in-game representation can impact it.

Lee noted that there are over 1 billion women who play games. “But in the development community, especially at the highest levels, there remains a gender imbalance,” she said. In non-development gaming positions, such as roles in administration that have equivalents in other industries, you’ll be more likely to find women. Game development, however, has long been dominated by men.

More women in games

Part of that goes back to how gender has been portrayed in gaming, which often favored strong male characters while the women were often damsels in distress. This trend would slowly improve as more strong women characters became part of gaming culture, including Lara Croft. And when more women see characters that they can relate to, they become more interested in the whole industry.

But it’s also important for everyone already working in games to help make a more diverse workforce feel welcome.

“We as a company, we as an industry, are becoming much more conscious to the need for being inclusive,” Oneal said. “We’re really trying to invite women in, making sure our job descriptions are worded in a way so it doesn’t feel like only a certain kind of person can apply.”

“I think it’s really important to just encourage more women to enter the industry today,” said Polloni.

Although the industry is making gains to make women feel more accepted in development, it can still be an intimidating field to enter. And then can also be a narrow perception about how you have to enter the industry.

“The other thing we can do is remind people that STEM isn’t the only option,” Bottegoni said. “There are so many disciplines in the games industry. Whenever I talk to high school students or people who express interest [in gaming], especially young girls, I remind them that if their passion is in games, there are so many options. Just because they’re not an engineer, doesn’t mean they don’t have an option to work in the games business.”

Aside from programmers, it takes an army of artists, testers, planners, and more to make many games possible. There should be enough room for all kinds.

“Our mandate, our goal, is to bring people together with our games,” said Bottegoni.

Sometimes, the actual players can make that difficult. In multiplayer games, it’s far too common to see abusive, sexist, and hateful comments from teammates or opponents. If you’re a women, you’re more likely to be the target of online gaming crudeness.

Blizzard has tried to combat this with AI programs designed to moderate against hate speech. It also tries to use positive reinforcement tools, like the endorsement system in Overwatch that lets players commend players for good play. Polloni mentioned Call of Duty’s efforts to improve its in-game reporting tools, which lets players self-police bad behavior.

“It’s something that we take very seriously in this company,” Polloni noted.

More women making games

But in-game representation may remain the industry’s best tool if publishers and studios want to bring in more women developers.

“People want to play as an aspirational version of themselves,” Oneal said, bringing up how Activision’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 remake as an example of how it was able to make in-game cast feature better representation, including the franchise’s first nonbinary skater. Polloni related a story about how Raven Software added more gender options for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, and as a result, the studio saw an increase in gender diversity during job recruitment.

The correlation is real. Better diversity in our games means better diversity in our developers.

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