Computer game industry looks to women for fresh insights

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Moving Toward Diversity

There are some positive trends toward diversification. Graner Ray says a typical WIGI event now draws 250 to 300 women, whereas 10 years ago a major event wouldnt have even brought in 100.

And recruiters say theyre trying to draw more women into the field, although gender alone wont get them the job. If a woman were to apply for a software engineering position, wed think, Thats great, because maybe a woman breaks the mold, says Maggie Bohlen, director of human resources at High Voltage Software Inc., a game developer in Hoffman Estates, Ill.

Bohlen says her company doesnt take any extra steps to recruit women, however. First, we look for talent: What can they bring to the company? she says. But she adds that company leaders do see the importance of getting more women into the gaming workforce.

And while Bohlen says shes seeing more women in gaming, she points out that the technology field overall still has a lot of recruiting work to do. There are still not as many women in the computer programming and software engineering field, she says. I dont think thats simply related to gaming.

More women would enter the field if there were more games on the market to inspire them, suggests Tracy Fullerton, an assistant professor in the interactive media division of the University of Southern Californias School of Cinematic Arts and co-director of the universitys EA Game Innovation Lab. That is finally happening, she says. The industry is not only maturing but also broadening, so technology professionals are seeing more options, opportunities and reasons to enter the field.

Just look at the variety of games on the market. Guitar Hero, a rock guitar simulation game from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Red­Octane Inc., as well as free downloads of virtual tennis prove that gaming isnt just about video anymore.

And then theres the Sims series, which includes some of the most popular games among women and overall, according to Fullerton. The Sims games, published by Maxis and distributed by Electronic Arts Inc. in Redwood, Calif., are simulations in which players control characters and, thanks to artificial intelligence, see how other characters react and interact.

Pointing to Maxis figures, Fullerton says its interesting to note that 50% of the original Sims design team was female, and 40% of those credited as producers were female. Although she wont speculate that gender balance has anything to do with the games popularity, she notes that women can find a lot of challenges in the work itself.

One of the [attractions] of being a game designer is that every game has a new set of problems to solve, so its actually very exciting, Fullerton says.

Technologists with gaming experience are also branching out. They are increasingly being hired to develop educational and training games, which are particularly attractive to women, Fullerton says. Women are very interested in making a difference, she says.

She points to one female student who developed an activist game to raise awareness about the genocide happening in Darfur.

Other students built games that rely on emotional and cognitive exploration, both growing areas in the gaming industry today. One such game, called Cloud, is an action game that allows players to simulate the fantasy of flight, manipulating clouds and creating weather.

Most games today require strategic skills or mental dexterity players must react quickly and fuel aggressive emotions, Fullerton says. Cloud, on the other hand, is meant to draw out peacefulness, wonder and awe.

Such games have broad appeal, which supports the contention that increasing the ranks of women in gaming is key to expanding the market, Fullerton says.

When I demo these games, she says, men and women alike say they never play games but these make them want to play.

Who's Game?

Stats: Game Developers Average Age: 31

Years in the Industry: 5.4

Education: 80% are university-level-educated or above
Male
  88.5%
Female
  11.5%

White
  88.3%
Asian
  7.5%
Other
  4.7%
Hispanic/Latino
  2.5%
Black
  2%
Base: 6.437 Respondents to a survey on the international game developers assocation web site.

Source: International Game Developers Assocation 2005

Stats: Game Players

Average Age: 33

Playing Hours Per Week:

Women: 7.4

Men: 7.6

Male
  62%
Female
  38%

Age 18-49
  44%
Under 18
  31%
50 or older
  25%
Base: Almost 1,700 U.S. Households that own a game console or a PC with entertainment software

Source: Entertainment software association 2006

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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