Wanted: more women in Vancouver’s video-game industry

Shannon Lee, a game designer at BigPark in Yaletown, says that storytelling and interactive experiences are a draw for her when it comes to playing games.

Female developers are in demand for the perspective they bring to their work
By Stephanie Orford, September 7, 2011

Deirdra Kiai remembers one time a male employer in the video-game industry handed her a list of potential game characters. “Okay, I know I’m biased. Tell me which of these characters can be women,” he said, according to Kiai, who is a Flash game designer and programmer at Vancouver’s Agentic Communications.

“I’m happy that he sought my input, but at the same time kind of sad for the greater state of society that this was necessary,” she said, laughing, during an interview with the Georgia Straight at a Gastown restaurant. “And it’s not just men who do this. When I was younger and creating my own characters, I would often make them male by default myself until I was like, ‘Wait a minute!’”

There are lots of stereotypes around video games, their players, and their makers, according to Zoe Curnoe, a development director at Electronic Arts Canada in Burnaby.

“The game players are stereotyped a certain way, and then it’s perceived that those same types of behaviour are replicated within the industry,” Curnoe said.

Even though women and girls make up 42 percent of U.S. gamers, according to a 2011 report by the Entertainment Software Association, they’re still fairly few and far between in the local development scene. These days, Curnoe and others are asking why that’s the case and making an effort to get more women involved.

Curnoe and Kiai both said they have never worked on a game-development team that had anything close to a 50/50 gender split and reported that their workplaces were roughly 10 percent female. Most women in the game industry work in art, communications, or human resources, rather than in programming or design, Curnoe noted. She said every studio she knows would like more women to apply, but few do.

Kiai, who has worked for four years in the Vancouver game industry, believes there’s a larger reason for the gender gap. “You’ll find a lot more young women, comparatively speaking, who will take up writing or craft-making or other kinds of solitary creative hobbies, but for some reason [making] video games doesn’t get on their radar,” said Kiai, who created her first games when she was a kid.

When video games are mostly made by men, that’s the perspective they’re going to tend to portray. Kiai’s male-character dilemma is a case in point.

A sea change has begun, however, with a greater diversity of games hitting the market over the past few years. Games like L.A. Noire, Heavy Rain, Mass Effect, and Fable are social, personalizable, and story-based—elements that research shows spark women’s interest.

That wave of change in game content has already flooded the casual-games sphere—the world of small online and mobile games. According to a 2007 report by the Casual Games Association, 51 percent of casual gamers are women. Kiai cited Silicon Sisters Interactive, Big Fish Games, Vivity Labs, Blitzoo, Ayogo Games, and Tiny Speck as companies building casual games in Vancouver.

Shannon Lee, a game designer at BigPark in Yaletown with a degree in English literature, noted storytelling is a major draw for her when it comes to playing games. “More and more companies have been able to make games that are interactive experiences,” she said, adding that someday she would like to make games for families, as playing together can be a bonding experience.

Companies in Vancouver and around the world have begun to make more games that appeal broadly to a female audience, and hopefully more female-oriented games will lead to more girls and women becoming interested in the game industry, Curnoe said.

That’s where Women in Games Vancouver comes in. Curnoe sits on the board of the group, which strives to get more women into the local industry.

Last year, Women in Games held a panel discussion just for girls at a high school in North Vancouver. The group holds monthly social events to foster mentorships and relationships among women in the sector. Curnoe, Kiai, and Lee all started out in the industry with female mentors.

Vancouver Film School’s game-design program, where Curnoe teaches, started offering the Women in Games Scholarship in 2009. Worth up to $50,000, the award covers the cost of tuition for the one-year program.

Winning the inaugural scholarship helped Lee get where she is today, and she said women who want to get into the industry need to do their research. Lee advised learning about the jobs and companies out there, and finding places and projects that knock your socks off. Don’t be afraid to talk to people in the industry and find mentors, she said. Aspiring game developers should be sure to specialize so that they can market their skills in the job hunt. Aspiring game designers, for example, could emphasize level design or game mechanics.

It might take work, but so does every great career. Lee said she’s hearing the message from all her colleagues, loud and clear: “We want more women in the industry!”

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