When you hear the word “gamer,” do you think of a skinny teenage boy glued to his game console on a Friday night? Think again. Over the past two decades, many long-held perceptions about video games have come crashing down. For one, nearly half of the 155 million Americans who play games—some 46 percent—are female, according to the Entertainment Software Association.
Yet a look under the hood at the companies developing these games reveals the workforce to be overwhelmingly male.
“In the industry you can see [game development] teams of 35 people with one woman. You also see very little ethnic diversity,” says Laird Malamed, a faculty adviser for students in USC’s advanced games class. Chief operating officer of Oculus VR, Malamed previously was head of development at Activision Blizzard, the gaming giant behind blockbusters like Call of Duty and Guitar Hero.
As female-centered support groups and efforts to recruit women grow across the game industry, social media chatter on the reasons behind the shortage of women has raged (2012’s #1reasonwhy Twitter dialog drew thousands of women—and men—to the debate). Having women in the field matters, in part, because they help shape the point of view and narrative of the games.
But one answer may be simple: Start more young women on the game development path early. USC has taken that mission seriously, drawing diverse students to its game design program.
“We’ve worked very hard to build a community around our program that’s really open and welcoming,” says Tracy Fullerton, who holds the Electronics Arts Endowed Chair of Interactive Entertainment at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “It has been that way since the beginning, and because of this the program has even attracted students who might not have been in the industry otherwise.”
Fullerton leads the school’s Interactive Media & Games Division, which has seen the number of female students grow year after year. She also serves as director of USC Games, USC’s nationally top-ranked university-wide game design program.
The Interactive Media & Games Division’s incoming undergraduate and graduate classes this fall have about as many women as men, and Fullerton is a firm believer that once these talented and diverse students enter the industry, they’ll become changemakers like Erin Reynolds ’06, MFA ’12.
A graduate of USC Roski School of Art and Design, Reynolds worked as a game developer for several years before returning to get her master’s degree from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. After graduating, she founded Flying Mollusk, a studio where she’s developing Nevermind, a multilevel game that began as her MFA thesis. A biofeedback horror game, Nevermind uses sensors to measure players’ fear and stress while they play, becoming more difficult as players become more scared. The full version is scheduled for release this autumn.
Reynolds collaborates with a team of designers and developers—many of whom she met at USC. She’s the only woman on the team, but she says that has posed no barriers, and the field is widening.
“I think we’re in a very exciting time because making games is so accessible to so many people,” Reynolds says. “I’m very encouraged about the direction of diversity in gaming in general.”
Chanel Summers, a pioneering video game producer and an adjunct professor in the Interactive Media & Games Division, believes in inspiring young women before college. She teaches a condensed version of her “Audio Expression” class to girls in Washington state, not far from Microsoft headquarters.
“Most of my students are still in high school, but one has gone on to study video games at Drexel University,” says Summers, who was a sound engineer for the original Xbox console. “She is absolutely consumed with being a sound designer for digital media, and I have every confidence that she will be amazing.”
Studies have shown that the earlier girls are introduced to technology fields, the more likely they are to pursue tech majors in college—a direct pipeline to the game industry.
Summers is quick to point out that people who are passionate about game design are eager to welcome all innovators.
“I am asked often about [my job as a female sound engineer] but hardly ever by people inside the industry,” Summers says. “Certainly, there is a natural curiosity when people learn what I do, but I never get tired of encouraging more women into game development as an extremely rewarding career opportunity.”