Sexism, Diversity, and the Video Game Industry: An Interview with IGDA’s Renee Gittins
The world of online gaming gets a bad rap for its toxic culture. Some game developers are working to change the culture from the inside out.
Renee Gittins, executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), has been a gamer her entire life. She started playing with her dad. "My introduction to video games began with three pretty hardcore first-person shooters: Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Duke Nukem 3D. Not exactly age appropriate." She was good. But she was also a girl.
"I remember the first time I tried an online shooter game. The moment I entered the chat, I was attacked and told to 'shut up, bitch.'"
First-person-shooter communities are notoriously toxic. As a result, she avoided shooter communities altogether. Gittins says toxicity in online gaming has pushed many women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks away from games.
But IGDA and the game development industry are turning that ship around: "It's all about supporting diverse development teams and starting communities that are inclusive and positive."
What Is Game Development?
According to Gittins, game development is the creation and support of video games and their communities. The industry is dynamic, fast-growing, and innovative. It employs a wide range of professionals with different disciplines and focuses.
Many people don't realize video games are a viable career path, says Gittins. "For example, I studied mechanical engineering and project management in college. I didn't know I could be a game developer until my senior year."
- Art concept and creation
- Technical art and programming
- Composing and sound engineering
- Animation and visual effects
- Writing and storytelling
Game development is a major engine for economic growth in the United States. According to The 2020 Economic Impact Report, the video game industry:
- Generates $90.3 billion in annual economic output.
- Supports nearly 430,000 U.S jobs.
- Creates highly-paid, family-sustaining incomes: Total compensation across video game industry workers is equivalent to $121,459 per worker.
Those numbers will only get more impressive as gamification continues to transform the way we do everything.
Neuroscientists are even prescribing games to improve cognitive control in older adults.
Games are big in education and politics, too. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor founded iCivics in 2009, which uses video games to educate Americans about their government. And in 2020, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez live-streamed herself playing a popular game on Twitch in a bid to activate young voters. It worked.
Diversity in the Industry
Online games were not always marketed to everyone. For decades, they targeted a young, male audience.
"I think that's a big issue," said Gittins, "because all kinds of people play games."
- There are more than 214 million video game players across the United States.
- 64% of US adults play video games.
- 41% of gamers are female.
- The average age of a video game player is 35-44 years old.
- There are approximately 46 million video game players with disabilities.
- Black teen gamers outnumber white teen gamers.
- 57% of gamers between the ages of 6 and 29 will be people of color in less than 10 years.
Gittins says the diversity of the game-playing audience has always increased at a higher rate than diversity within the game development industry itself. That's something the IGDA is trying to change.
According to a 2019 IGDA survey, only 24% of game developers identify as female. Only 7% identify as Hispanic or Latinx. Only 2% identify as Black.
The IGDA has over 100 local chapters around the world, and members have formed a number of special interest groups specifically to increase diversity, pursue social justice, and foster community within the industry.
Women in Games focuses on gender balance. IGDA Allies teaches developers to identify and respond to negative situations that affect marginalized groups. There are also groups working to connect developers with their Black, LGBTQ+, and Latinx peers.
According to Gittins, diversity on development teams is crucial for creating great games. "You need people who can sanity-check different elements," she said.
"You need someone to say, 'Hey! Maybe you should have noticed that all of the women in this game are tiny-waisted, big-busted, and scantily-clad. Maybe not all women want to play characters who look like that. Maybe the way we portray our characters could be planting toxic seeds in our community."
Fostering healthy communities wasn't much of a concern for early game developers, who were mostly white and male and just trying to make cool stuff. "Long-term impact wasn't really on the radar for a long time," said Gittins.
"Though to be fair, no one ever built a game thinking, 'Man, I really wanna start a toxic masculinity community that is going to cuss and bully each other all the time.' Toxic behavior causes less user retention, and no one actually wants that," said Gittins.
Today, developers are more aware of the harm that gender and racial bias in games can cause.
Diverse development teams are going to be even more cognizant of the seeds they are planting, says Gittins. And because they have a broader collection of lived experiences to draw from, they are also going to be better at building games that appeal to a wide audience.
"I want to see more of every kind of person working in games."
Interested in Game Dev?
"But you don't actually need a degree to get started," said Gittins. "You can come with a background in almost anything: writing, physics, history, engineering, music, tech. That's the beauty of this industry."
Meg Embry is a Colorado-based writer for TheBestSchools.org covering higher education. She is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States.
Header Image Credit: Headshot of Renee Gittins, IGDA Executive Director
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