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Diversity in gaming: small improvements but still an uphill battle

“It’s been a horror show … and probably worse in video games than in other industries.”

Video game developer Tantalus Media’s CEO Tom Crago says when it comes to diversity in the Australian digital game industry, it’s been an uphill battle to get marginalised workers heard and respected.

Despite increasing numbers of underrepresented genders getting a foothold in the industry, the ever-growing list of allegations against one of the world’s biggest video game companies, Activision Blizzard, are a stark reminder that there’s plenty of work to be done both globally and locally.

The last few months have shone a light on the alleged “frat boy” culture of Blizzard, with accusations of harassment, wage disparity and rife sexism throughout the workplace.

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is suing Activision Blizzard. The lawsuit, available to the public, details disturbing accounts of the workplace culture and behaviour in the organisation.

In the document are alleged accounts of unwanted sexual comments and advances from male workers towards female employees, inappropriate jokes about rape and details about the lead-up to an employee suicide.

Gamers have responded by boycotting multiplayer juggernaut World Of Warcraft after its former senior creative director Alex Afrasiabi was named in the lawsuit.

Afrasiabi’s office was nicknamed “the Cosby suite”, after alleged rapist Bill Cosby, because of his blatant and repeated harassment of female co-workers. His actions were without repercussion despite being well-known by former Blizzard president J. Allen Brack.

Boycotting has also gained traction for games like Hogwarts Legacy and Diablo II: Resurrected due to recent ties with transphobic and sexist creators.

While incidents of overt sexism and employee mistreatment are becoming less common in the Australian games industry, underrepresented genders are still struggling to engage with the industry long-term.

Diversity in gaming: small improvements but still an uphill battle

Leena Van Deventer has been a vocal advocate for women, and a well known figure in the Australian games industry.Picture supplied

Diverse gamers on the rise

The IGEA reported in 2018-19 that only 21 per cent of employees in the digital games industry identified as female. While this is a massive jump from the 2011-2012 ABS statistics, where women only held 8.7 per cent of the game development roles in Australia, it paints a stark picture of an industry still struggling with a lack of diversity.

The discrepancies between the percentage of women hired to work on games and the number of women actively engaged in gaming are in direct contrast.

The Digital Australia 2022 report found that 46 per cent of Australian gamers identified as women and 1 per cent as non-binary, taking up a much larger proportion of the community than in previous decades.

‘Making Space’ for women in tech

Leena van Deventer and friend Liah Clarke were “exasperated” by the lack of support for women in tech. Deciding to do something about it, the pair created Women in Development, Games and Everything Tech, or WiDGET, now known as Making Space.

“[We] decided to start a group of our own because we couldn’t find any that really clicked with us … A lot of them were very corporate-focused, and we wanted something a little scrappier, a little more punk rock,” Ms van Deventer says.

Ms van Deventer has made a name for herself in the local industry as a women’s advocate. She is a director of the Victorian Women’s Trust, a co-author of Game Changers: From Minecraft to Misogyny, the fight for the future of video games, an integral part of WiDGET, and up until the middle of last year was a teacher of game design at RMIT.

After a decade of freelance work, Ms van Deventer is creative producer and writer on the upcoming Dead Static: Drive, produced by Melbourne-based studio Reuben Games.

“My proudest achievement so far is probably being in the position I’m in right now, actually,” she says.

“I’m proud that I now have extremely rewarding full-time work and don’t have to be worrying about hustling up the next gig while still finishing the last one. This job is an absolute dream scenario for me.”

Diversity in gaming: small improvements but still an uphill battle

Ms Deventer is currently working as a writer on Dead Static Drive. Image: Internet Game Database

An industry in metamorphosis

Australian academic, narrative writer and designer Brooke Maggs, who has worked in the industry for seven years and now works at Remedy Entertainment in Finland, says representation is important.

She says the fact that video games are still often perceived as a male pastime—both inside the industry and out—holds under-represented genders back from engaging with games as a career.

The more we change this way of thinking, the more women will feel like games can be for them, and then more women will want to work in games.

Programs such as the Film Victoria’s Women in Games Fellowship, of which Ms Maggs was a recipient, are an integral part of helping spotlight women and non-binary people within the industry. The program “helps women move beyond their first few years in the industry”, she says, and offers mentorship and networking opportunities.

Ms Maggs visited Remedy Entertainment as part of the fellowship, which led to them offering her a role on their Finnish team.

“The experience was invaluable, and it changed my life.”

Striving for equality

While larger global companies like Activision Blizzard seem to be falling behind, many local games studios are striving to set an example for workplace equality.

Mr Crago says the Melbourne based company prides itself on a “flat, informal, non-corporate, and mostly ego-free work” environment.

“We are a meritocracy, and the concept of equality is baked into all aspects of our human resources function,” he says.

Mr Crago is adamant the industry needs to improve its treatment of underrepresented genders and says while steady progress has been made over the last five years, there’s still plenty more to do.

Women have been appallingly treated, in many studios, and sadly by the gaming community overall.

IGEA COO Raelene Knowles says the industry can always do more to ensure equality, including through the examples set by studios.

“Women are important across all of society, not just the games industry,” she says.

“The more knowledge we share and the more recognition for these issues, the better the industry will be for underrepresented genders.”

Looking for role models

Diversity in gaming: small improvements but still an uphill battle

Brooke Maggs says it’s important for under-represented genders to see themselves reflected in senior industry role models. Picture: Brooke Maggs

Ms Maggs says the industry is improving, and she has had many more positive experiences than negative ones. However, she feels there is a dire need for more diverse role models and veterans to inspire the next generation of the Australian games industry.

“I’m where I am today because of other wonderful women in the game industry.”

“I think the next step is helping women in the beginning of their career progress and helping middle-to-senior women into positions of leadership.”

She says ensuring underrepresented genders have the opportunities to learn, be considered for jobs and be promoted would be the best way to achieve this.

I’d like women to feel like games are meant for them.

Ms van Deventer says there is still “a long way to go” when it comes to moderation in the gaming community.

“It’s nowhere near perfect … I think a lot of games spaces need to model the kind of user they want to see, so people can emulate it. We need role models and spaces designed to encourage desired behaviour, instead of the opposite.”

As for change within the gaming industry, Ms van Deventer has supported calls for a game developer’s union.

“It’s absolutely clear that we need a union and that we needed it decades ago,” she says.

“We need to learn from film and other industries about how collective power can drastically improve conditions for workers and stop lionising auteur developers to the point where they’re seen as unimpeachable by stakeholders.

“Gamers can show their support by amplifying the voices of marginalised developers, not giving their money to companies they know are doing questionable things, and contacting companies urging them to unionise.”

Paving the way for the next generation

Video game developer Leura Smith is an educator for Girl Geek Academy, a company dedicated to getting girls, non-binary people and women interested in and upskilled in technology.

She says she first noticed the lack of diversity in the industry when she attended events outside of the Melbourne scene.

“I remember thinking, ‘there’s a lot of the same type of person here’.”

Diversity in gaming: small improvements but still an uphill battle

IGEA’s 2019 report on the Australian games industry provides a snapshot of the changing state of the workforce. Image: IGEA

She says Girl Geek Academy aims to teach one million women and non-binary people worldwide tech skills by 2025. They hold events such as women’s hackathons worldwide and have helped 12,000 kids start learning STEM.

“We work all across the pipeline—across all different age groups and stages in people’s careers,” Ms Smith says.

They hold events like Miss Makes Code, aimed for girls between five and eight, all the way up to events for adults already in the industry or looking to upskill.

Other initiatives like The Working Lunch, founded by senior producer at Mighty Kingdom Studios Ally Mclean, provide seminars and mentorship programs for underrepresented people in games, offering a platform for entering the industry.

Ms Maggs says initiatives aimed at breaking the glass ceiling are just one part of the strategy that hopes to see the local gaming industry thrive with diverse workers creating diverse narratives.

“The more women feel like games can be for them, the more women will want to work in games, and therefore the better the games we will make due to more diverse teams.”

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