The old stereotype of video game players as spotty, socially isolated boys in basements is finally disappearing after decades, but the popular image of game developers is enduring. They are imagined to be white and beardy, with glasses and a probable fondness for sci-fi and fantasy, and this is hardly unjustified. Cast an eye over the development floor of pretty much any major game developer in the western world and there’s an undeniable homogeneity. The same can be said about video games industry executives. Whether clean-shaven or bearded, besuited or smart-casual, creative or corporate, they are almost universally white and male. In 15 years on the games beat, I have interviewed more men called Phil in senior games industry positions than women and people of colour combined.
But new data from the University of Sheffield, shows that things are changing. Backed by games industry trade body Ukie, it conducted a census of more than 3,200 game developers in Britain, and discovered a young and increasingly diverse workforce. The researchers found that two-thirds of the UK’s game development workforce is 35 or under; 28% are women and 2% non-binary; 10% come from BAME backgrounds; 28% come from somewhere other than the UK; and 21% identify as LGBTQ+, a particularly surprising statistic given that only 3-7% of the general population do so.
On two of those measures – BAME representation and LGBTQ+ representation – the games industry comes out above the average for the UK’s creative industries. But when it comes to gender balance, it still lags far behind, at 68% male. However, this still represents progress: in 2009, according to the International Game Developers Association, only 11.5% of game developers identified as female. The number of women involved in all areas of the games industry has been creeping upwards.
Despite these encouraging statistics, women and people of colour are particularly underrepresented in senior roles. Samantha Ebelthite is an exception. She has been country manager for the UK and Ireland at EA, one of the giants of the global games industry, since 2018. “Every company is in a slightly different place in this journey. At EA, the team I work in is actually mostly women, so my experience has been quite different, but when you look at the studios it’s more in line with the census,” she says. “There’s lots being done, but there’s also lots still to do.”
Ebelthite cites EA’s internal employee support networks and openness to flexible working as important to an increasingly diverse work culture. The company’s job specs, too, are pored over to ensure their language is as inclusive as possible in the hopes of attracting a greater range of applicants. She plays down the business case for greater diversity in favour of the creative one: “You can’t have diverse games without diverse people making them.
“People don’t realise how many different kinds of genres and forms exist in video games and, without a diverse group of people coming up with ideas, that won’t flow through into the games. We need to push ourselves and we need the industry to push to be better in order to create games that appeal to everyone.”
The sentiment is echoed by Jo Twist, CEO of games industry body Ukie. “Diversity isn’t a nicety; it’s a necessity if the industry is going to grow, thrive and truly reflect the tens of millions of people who play games every day in this country,” she says. “A diverse industry that draws on myriad cultures, lifestyles and experiences will lead to more creative and inclusive games that capture the imagination of players and drive our sector forward.”
Ukie’s response to the census has been to sign up developers to commit to inclusive hiring practices and ensure representation across all areas, from development to marketing. EA, Facebook, Jagex, King and Xbox are already on board. Ukie intends to repeat this census every two years to see how its members are matching up to their good intentions.
However, among female and BAME games workers the feeling is that keeping employees is as big a challenge for the video games companies as attracting them. This is not an industry famed for employee wellbeing or family-friendly working hours, with infamous “crunch” periods where people are working 10, 12 or more hours a day in the runup to a game’s release, a practice that is especially unfriendly to parents. Greater awareness and reporting of this issue has pressured large companies such as Rockstar Games into changing their practices, but this recent census data suggests that there is a long way to go: 31% of respondents, particularly those working in junior and mid-level roles, said they were living with anxiety and/or depression. The national average is 17%.
Meanwhile, high-profile examples of a culture of sexism in game development, such as last year’s Riot Games lawsuit, show that hiring women is just the first part of addressing video games’ gender balance. You also have to ensure that they are welcomed and listened to when they’re in the job.
The changing face of the games industry is already resulting in changes within games themselves. Different stories than the well-worn power fantasy are being told through the medium – take last year’s anti-colonialist sci-fi Falcon Age, or the forthcoming Tell Me Why, whose lead character is a trans man – and female avatars and a range of skin tones have become an expected requirement for any game that lets you create your own character. Stereotypes take a long time to die, but this census data shows that though change may be slow, it is happening.