The gaming industry is undergoing a revolution. What has previously been a male-dominated world is undergoing a shift in dynamic. As an industry that is bucking the pandemic trend and experiencing growth in interest and career ambition, a new world of exploration and creativity is harnessing opportunities – opportunities for women to enter a landscape they have previously been ostracised from.
A Global Web Index report on The World of Gaming at the end of 2020 revealed that the social gaming arena continues to be male-dominated, with a 63-37% split of users. Beyond the playing of games though, more damning insights of the gaming sector show that just 12 per cent of the gaming workforce is made up of women.
As the hurdles are broken down for women in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM), the good news is that women are dedicating their careers to removing barriers and blazing a trail for more diversity.
Saskia Munden, a Games Programme Leader at Newcastle College, is one such woman. Here, she lifts the lid on the changing landscape for women in gaming, from being the only girl on a computer science course at university to becoming a role model for young women in 2021. We’ll also explore how the education sector has a vital role to play in helping women reach their career goals.
Being the only girl in the class
In 2010, Saskia Munden enrolled for a computer science course at the University of Sunderland, where she was somewhat surprised to find other girls in her lectures. Within a month, she was the only girl remaining. It paints a bleak picture, but it is a reality that Saskia continues to battle for her students today.
She said: “At the start, there were a few girls, but within a month it was only me. It had to be the pressure and the general environment that there was a lack of females around which leads to the other girls leaving. I never really understood why that was because I have a few brothers and ultimately that shouldn’t be enough to push people away.”
A career in gaming hadn’t been the end goal for Saskia, but after working as an IT teacher in a secondary school, she returned to university to complete a master’s in Photography and Moving Image and took a job at Newcastle College.
“I never really did gaming as a child, and when I first told people what I was doing, everyone made fun of me because I didn’t actually play games,” Saskia said. “There was very much a train of thought that ‘I didn’t play games, and they weren’t my thing’, but when I explained that there is more to the gaming industry than people who like playing games, they started to understand.
“Many people who play games aren’t the best talkers; some can’t design, can’t draw, and can’t see a whole concept or storyline. They just don’t have the imagination for development. Then people started to see where I fit into the equation and were like, ‘Okay, that makes sense because of your creativity’.”
For women like Saskia, who has now been working at the college for three years and has established her position as a role model for her students, the gaming industry is not just about creating a game.
The college offers a Level 3 Games Design course for 16–18-year-olds as well as a higher education Games Technology course. As programme leader, Saskia is working on the disconnect in the educational sector, to let teenage girls know that it’s okay to like gaming, to want to do gaming, and that it doesn’t matter if you’re the only girl in the classroom.
In 2019, NCG the group of colleges that Newcastle College belongs to, awarded Saskia the Teacher of the Year accolade for her ‘true passion for her subject, its success, and her commitment to her learners.
She said: “The students have explained that they quite enjoy me teaching them concept art because I don’t just teach them about games that previously existed. We trade brand new concepts and things that don’t exist yet. The gaming industry is not just about creating a game, it’s about concepts of drawing, animation, and 3D. Some people are great at games but can’t do those other things.
“There are so many roles out there. From design to media studies, and even 3D modelling, there are so many things you can move around in.”
The battle for diversity
Shaping the future of the industry is a big task, and it’s one that Saskia knows comes with its challenges. More than 300 boys have taken on gaming courses at the college since she joined, with just four girls enrolling.
“In that first year, I had two girls in Year Two, but that course at the time was IT with a bit of games,” she added. “When we flipped to games design, there were no girls for the first year. That was intense, there were 60 lads and no girls.
“We started off with four girls and they left after two weeks. Last year, we started with two girls and it dropped to one. This year though we started with two and we’ve kept both of them. That has been a real success for us.”
Creating a safe space for girls taking on the course, Saskia said there is an air of letting the girls know they have a place on the course, and that their opinions are valid. Having been the only girl in the classroom herself, she knows the internal struggle her female students face.
She said: “In our department, we make sure to talk about women in the lessons. We do feedback and discussion and look at each other’s work all the time. We will put male and female opinions out there and we talk about how they are different, and how we can cohesively make them into one opinion so that we can make something from it.”
Changing the classroom dynamic
With the industry being predominantly male-centric, Saskia acknowledges that change is not going to happen overnight, but she has already spotted changes in the classroom and at open events the college holds through the year to engage with the next batch of prospective students.
She added: “We should be informing and teaching boys that having a girl alongside you in the classroom is very important. Not only does everyone think differently, but boys and girls think very differently, especially from my experience of creativity. If we have one girl in the classroom, we should jump on that because this is a great voice for us, we have a different audience that we can appeal to. Boys don’t know how to appeal to girls, but girls do.
“Too often there’s the opinion that ‘you’re a girl, you don’t play games.’ We have to ask the question of how the boys might create the games for girls and boys if you’re not willing to hear the girls’ side.
“We use our open evenings to push women to the front. I’ll be at the front, talking to the girls, but also talking to the boys. Some boys will even say, ‘Oh, my programme leader is a girl’. It’s not just getting the girls in, but we need to change the perception for boys to welcome and want more girls in the industry.
“At my first open day, one girl came in, but she didn’t join. We’re now seeing maybe 1 in 10 visiting being a girl now, but before it would have been like 1 in 100 showing interest. Our Higher Education programme for Levels 4, 5, and 6 have no girls. I’m about to bring through one now, and next year hopefully two, so we are getting there and moving in the right direction.”
Appreciating a meticulous approach
For women to really make strides into the gaming sector, Saskia says the environment needs to change, with men being encouraged to want women alongside them and respecting that their feedback and input is just as important.
There might only be one girl, Jess, on Saskia’s Level 3 Games Design course, but already she is having an impact on the classroom dynamic.
“Boys will come over to Jess and get insights from her because she is meticulous in her work. She goes through it with a fine-tooth comb. The boys ask her to look through things together. They approach her, rather than avoiding her because she’s the only girl in the room. 16-year-old boys are like that normally, but they want to work with Jess because she’s good at this.
“They see that they have different skillsets and it’s starting to be appreciated. Rather than looking at Jess as the only girl, we look at her being good at being meticulous, while some of the boys are good at testing. We look at the skillsets everyone brings, and we have discussions on them.”
A need for female leaders
With more girls generally taking an interest in STEM subjects across primary and secondary school, there’s definitely an impetus for change in the education sector. For Saskia though, it’s not only about opening doors for students to access courses, but also for putting people into positions to showcase those roles.
“A lot of schools that do IT and computing have Scratch and teaching games programming,” says Saskia, “but they are always taught by a man. We need to encourage more female teachers so it’s taught in a different way and will appeal to different genders.
“Men might have naturally been in that line of work, but women can do it too, and that should be encouraged. It’s not even about just bringing in female industry leaders to discuss the topics but education is needed from the top down. We are trying to be role models for women, but we have to think outside the box to inspire the younger generation.”
It’s clear that the gaming world is changing. A rising interest in gaming has been advanced through the pandemic as people find new ways of coping with lockdown restrictions. What might start as a way to cure the boredom could spark an interest in animation and a realm of creative possibilities. If this sounds like you, reach out to careers advisors and your local college and see what careers could be on the horizon in your future.