At a TED talk in California in 1998, pioneer games designer Brenda Laurel asked why gaming companies weren’t making games for little girls when the market was worth six billion dollars? She concluded the male-dominated games industry was missing out on so much money because it only knew how to appeal to its own demographic.
The games industry may have heard her. Soon, the race was on to diversify game themes, characters and spaces. Most gamers welcomed diversity, but some saw it as a threat – typified by a large, highly organized misogynistic harassment campaign, #Gamergate, emerging in 2014.
Diversification in gaming was, however, unstoppable. Although today’s gaming sector is still male-dominated, there is growing involvement of girls, women and non-binary people. In the 2020s, a rising four in ten gamers are women.
I am the writer and presenter of Season 2 of Kaspersky’s award-winning podcast Fast Forward, examining trends shaping technology from the perspective of the recent past. In Episode 2, I interview leading women in the gaming sector to discover how the industry is changing for women and non-binary people, and what other businesses can learn.
Women-centered events and targeted mentoring
In parts of the world where cultural and religious beliefs make it hard for women to game, some are working to create a smoother, safer path for young women who want to game or work in gaming.
Many women’s gaming events and networks have emerged worldwide. The expansion of game content and formats has helped – popular titles now include adventure games, role-playing games, cultural games that aim to solve local or global issues, and more.
Ghada Almoqbel, Chief Executive Officer of Saudi Arabia’s convention for women and girls in gaming, GCON, says that today women make up around 46 percent of Saudi’s gamers, but were once much rarer.
Ghada tells how she got involved. “I started playing video games when I was little. The only girls I knew that played were me and my sister. In 2012, I heard of the girls’ convention, GCON. I didn’t go, but the pictures and videos on social media were amazing.”
The next year, my sister and I entered this huge convention with tons of games and three-thousand girls. It was one of the best days of my life. I knew I wanted to be part of enabling this community.
Ghada Almoqbel, Chief Executive Officer, GCON
Ghada started with GCON as a volunteer, writing articles and helping organize events like ‘game jams’ – where everyone works together to make a game from scratch. She became Chief Executive Officer in 2018.
Ask women what they need to succeed
Through Ghada’s leadership, GCON is growing and changing. “Our new strategy involves three departments: Game development, eSports and entertainment. Before we plan events or activities, we ask questions like, what do women need in eSports or game development?”
Ghada elaborates on GCON’s eSports program. “It aims to identify talent, support and empower. We want to make them role models. We want them to have more exposure in Saudi Arabia and internationally. But we’re careful with eSports, because there’s still lots of harassment.”
Have clearly communicated anti-harassment strategies
In its 2021 survey, global anti-hate organization ADL found five in six adults who played online multiplayer games experienced harassment. Research has also found hostile sexism is a significant motivator of in-game harassers.
If we look at broader society, women face abuse and discrimination. We shouldn’t imagine it will be different in gaming environments.
David Emm, Principal Security Researcher, Kaspersky
David advocates for clear ways to report harassment. “In situations involving trolling, abuse or anything harmful, players need to know how to report it.”
He also thinks male-dominated game design may contribute to the problem. “We must see more women involved in game design and production so that the environment reflects all genders.”
But gamers aren’t always using all available security features. “There’s a fear that protecting a device might slow down the computer, but that doesn’t have to be so. Gamers should check internet security solutions will work around their gaming experience. Look for gaming or do-not-disturb modes, which turn off notifications while you’re playing.”
Ask non-binary people what they want from your products
Jennifer Donahue is Head of Publishing and Marketing at HiDef games in California, US. She’s worked in gaming for 25 years.
Jen believes players care about being able to be themselves through their character or avatar. “Growing up, there were no strong female Jedi in Star Wars, so I wanted to be Luke Skywalker. I ended up mainly being male characters because I wanted those powers. Today, you have more options. You can largely create a character that looks like you.”
However, some groups are still largely marginalized from game character development. “We know non-binary folks have difficulty finding representation in avatars and gaming.” Non-binary people are those who see themselves as neither male nor female.
HiDef learned a lot from asking non-binary people directly what they wanted. “We did focus groups with non-binary players to understand what they wanted from game avatars. We found you have to let them do whatever they want with an avatar – whether it’s accessories or customizing size and shape, or adding prosthetic limbs if you’re disabled and want to show that.”
The non-binary players also suggested recording non-binary people dancing, as their dancing may differ from that of men or women. Jen says, “It’s not just the avatar’s appearance, but their actions. All these things help players authentically connect with their character.”
Leaders ensuring other leaders are respectful of women
Jen feels the behavior of men in the workplace can still impact some women who work in gaming, but those at the top can change that. “Many men in the industry have grown up behaving in a certain way. As I have status in the industry now, I can help the next generation by calling out actions in the moment, in a professional, respectful way.”
She thinks more accepting, nurturing workplaces will pay off for companies. “When I’m in a safe space, I can bring my authentic self to work each day. That means I can perform at my best, as can my coworkers. Representation from different groups can only make products better.”
The gaming sector is growing fast with the evolution of immersive virtual worlds. It’s an important future work sector.
Today, huge groups of diverse players collaborate in-game to make environments they want to be in and share – homes and social spaces, festivals and galleries, even governments and schools. This is called ‘world building’ – it’s opposite to the competitive, conflict-driven games of the last decades. There’s more space opening for women and non-binary makers and players, and other diverse communities. Finally, games and virtual worlds could be part of the solution for some real-world problems we face.