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Women remain outsiders in video game industry

Female characters are hypersexualized and workers discomforted in an industry known for its frat boy culture

Amy Kaufman, the first woman hired at Nuukster, now works alongside cofounder Joseph Williams at The Tap Lab.

PAT GREENHOUSE / GLOBE STAFF

Amy Kaufman, the first woman hired at Nuukster, now works alongside cofounder Joseph Williams at The Tap Lab.

Marleigh Norton was attending a technical lecture on software architecture in video games last year when the presenter, an established game designer in his late 30s, clicked on a PowerPoint slide innocuously entitled “Dialogue Trees in CRPGs.” She found herself staring at a close-up of a voluptuous female buttocks.

For Norton, cofounder of and game developer at the Cambridge-based Green Door Labs, the slide and snickers that rippled through the predominantly male audience were reminders of the “boys locker room” mentality that permeates much of the video game business.

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“If you are a woman in the industry, there are all these little signals that you are not part of the club, that this is not your tribe,” said Norton, 35. “After time, it wears you down.”

The billion-dollar video game industry is growing quickly with the explosion of mobile gaming, but women remain outsiders. Female game characters are hypersexualized, and female workers are frequently subjected to unequal treatment, harassment, and hostile atmospheres. At last year’s industry convention in San Francisco, for example, one company hired topless models for a professional networking event. Others sponsored parties with S&M themes.

The effects of this frat boy culture are captured in glaring industry statistics: Women account for only 11 percent of game designers and 3 percent of programmers, strikingly low even when compared with the broader fields of graphic design and technology, where women make up about 60 percent and 25 percent of employment respectively, according to surveys.

Also, women video game programmers earn an average of $10,000 a year less than their male counterparts, according to a salary survey published in 2011 by Gamer Developer magazine, and women designers make $12,000 less.

In Massachusetts, where video game employment has jumped nearly 80 percent since 2009 to more than 2,000, there are no statistics available on the number of women working at local companies, according to industry groups. But Tim Loew, executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute, or MassDIGI, said there aren’t many.

“What you can pick up from women who work in the industry is that it’s not a fair place for them,” Loew said. “We have to do better because there is opportunity here for both genders.”

These issues attracted national attention in November when women spoke out in an industrywide Twitter conversation about feeling overlooked, unsafe, and unwelcome. Tens of thousands of gamers and developers — women and men — participated in the discussion, sparked by a question from an employee at the crowd-sourcing company Kickstarter: Why aren’t there more female game developers?

“Because conventions, where designers are celebrated, are unsafe places for me,” wrote Filamena Young, a game designer and co-owner of Machine Age Productions in Orange County, Calif. “Really. I’ve been groped.”

“Because I got blank stares when I asked why a female soldier in a game I worked on looked like a porn star,” responded Caryn Vaino, a user interface designer in Seattle.

Amy Kaufman, 24, became the first woman to work on the 10-person staff at Nuukster, a Cambridge firm developing games for Facebook. She said in an interview that she was never harassed or made to feel uncomfortable, and was generally treated as an equal — notwithstanding a few “honeys” and “dears.”

But she bristled at a game the company was developing for middle-aged women, the largest demographic playing games on Facebook. It involved a mother bird building a nest, courting a mate, laying an egg, and raising the baby.

“There is a sense that we need to cater to a certain demographic,” said Kaufman, who recently left Nuukster for another local game company, “and it seems to be based on these very antiquated attitudes towards women.”

David Engel, Nuukster’s chief executive, said he has spoken to many women who enjoy the game. He added that it is difficult to find qualified women applicants for programming and other technical jobs. When he was hiring in 2011, Engel said, he received plenty of resumes from female artists, but zero from female coders.

The small pool of women candidates has been a problem for other technology sectors, which in turn has spurred efforts by industry, higher education, and even the Girl Scouts to encourage girls and women to enter so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. Some chief executives at video game companies acknowledge they need more women in the industry, since nearly half the customers are female, and women over 18 are the fastest growing demographic.

Having a female perspective on the team is “invaluable” said Dave Bisceglia, chief executive of The Tap Lab, a Cambridge video game developer that employs eight people, two of whom are women. Before women started working at the company, he said, the all-male design team had trouble designing female avatars.

“None of the outfits the guys created were very appealing,” Bisceglia, 25, recalled. “When you build games for a male and female audience, you need men and women working on the games.”

Such attitudes are beginning to change the atmosphere at video game companies, both men and women said. The overall percentage of women employed by video game companies has increased to 20 percent from 12 percent in 2005, but nearly all that growth has come in nontechnical fields such as public relations.

Jen MacLean, former chief executive of 38 Studios, Curt Schilling’s bankrupt video game company, said she expects the environment to improve further as the business grows up, maturing from garage start-ups to larger companies with professional managers who understand the value of diversity.

“Now, there is a recognition that women exist as consumers,” she said.

Today, there are local and national organizations promoting women in the industry. Mentoring programs connect young female developers with seasoned pros.

Most major gaming conferences have sexual harassment policies, and many conferences have started to eliminate “booth babes,” the scantily clad women used as promotional tools. Games themselves have started to include more female characters.

Still, many video business insiders say there is a long way to go. “It’s true, the industry is not as actively bad as it used to be,” said Courtney Stanton, a game designer and founder of the networking group Women in Games Boston. “But not actively bad is an embarrassingly low bar.”

Anna Cail, 33, an avid gamer studying game design at Becker College in Worcester, said she sometime feels she is entering an industry “openly hostile towards” women.

As a gamer, Cail said, she has seen female players harassed, hit on, and asked to show their breasts via webcams. As a student, Cail said, she has had a few encounters with other students skeptical of her technical abilities because she is a woman.

So why get into the business?

“I was raised that when I see something wrong, I shouldn’t put my head down,” Cail said. “In games you don’t run and hide. You stand and fight. I can fight this fight.”

Leah Burrows can be reached at lfburrows@gmail.com.
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