Belinda Van Sickle had been working in the video game industry for nine years when she headed up to San Francisco for the second Women in Games International conference back in 2006. She sat in a room with 100 people, most of whom were female, and realized that she didn't know anyone.
Van Sickle had spent years going to conferences, including large-scale ones like E3 in Los Angeles, and knew she would run into familiar faces. But after almost a decade in the industry, she didn't know many other women who worked in video games. "I realized that being a woman is an isolating thing in the game industry, especially on the developer side," she says. "Isolation is not a way to build a career."
Van Sickle, who began her career at Activision and had just started her own marketing company, GameDocs, began working with WIGI to build a community for women in the industry. She started out with a LinkedIn group, whose membership swelled in a matter of months. That led to successful mixers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Seattle and Sydney. Soon, they were doing events at E3. By 2008, the group had incorporated. Today, Van Sickle is the President and CEO of WIGI, a group that helps advance the careers of women in the games industry.
Every June, video game conference E3 takes over Los Angeles Convention Center, as it did this past week. It's a massive industry and media event spotlighting new games and innovative technologies from the biggest brands in the world. It's an industry and media event, so regular gamers typically can't get a badge. They'll have to watch the news pop up on game news sites or social media feeds.
On multiple exhibit hall floors, large booths pump out loud music as new games play on big screens. There are gaming competitions and other events at the booths. People stand in long lines to check out the new offerings from companies like Nintendo and hover over the innovative games at the IndieCade booth.
See also: Our gallery of E3: A Gamer's Paradise
As much visual stimulation as there is inside E3, one thing is obvious from the start. The crowd is overwhelmingly male. You'll notice this when you head over to a large, nearly empty ladies room in South Hall and when you're in a packed media room.
Last year, Entertainment Software Association, a group whose members include companies like Capcom, Disney Interactive Studios and Microsoft, reported that 45 percent of game players are female. You wouldn't guess that inside from walking around inside E3.
It's not that girls and women are just discovering video games. Certainly, many can remember childhoods spent at arcades or in front of a TV screen playing Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. with friends. Plenty of the women that at E3 have long histories in gaming. Voice actor Danielle McRae was six when her dad got her gaming. Now, she's portrayed characters in League of Legends, World of Warcraft and the cult hit fighting game Skullgirls. Pamela Horton, who Playboy has dubbed its "Gamer Next Door," was five when she first took to Super Nintendo. Sasha Palacio, an artist who worked on DuckTales: Remastered, grew up in a large family where the boys and girls played video games together. "We never saw anything as boys toys or girls toys," says Palacio. "My parents never raised us that way."
So if women and girls are playing games, why are there so few involved in the industry that makes them? "At least in my experience, I didn't realize that there was such a thing as having a career in games until fairly late in life," says Emily Taylor, a producer for EverQuest Next and Landmark. Taylor was working as an IT manager for Sony Pictures when someone introduced her to the game EverQuest. She was an immediate fan. When EverQuest 2 hit the scene, she was part of the beta testing and volunteered as a moderator for the forums.
Eventually, a position opened up at Sony Online Entertainment, who releases EverQuest, and Taylor relocated from Australia to San Diego for the job. As a producer, Taylor is in on the hiring process for lots of different roles on the game. "I'm, not always, but usually, disappointed that there aren't more women applicants," she says.
Taylor says that outreach is part of the solution. When she speaks at schools, she makes sure to stress that video games provide jobs for men and women. She's also involved in G.I.R.L. (Gamers in Real Life), a scholarship fund for women pursuing game development or design careers. It's a $10,000 scholarship that comes with a 10 week paid internship at SOE. This year's winner, Erin Loelius, is a CalArts student who will work on Landmark and EverQuest Next.
WIGI is starting outreach at even earlier age. For the past year, they've been working with Girls Scouts of Greater Los Angeles to develop a patch for girls interested in making games. It's based on a day-long program where scouts and their leaders work with Gamestar Mechanic to learn game design and make their own game. The program is expanding into other cities with the hope that it can go nationwide as a badge option.
Some of the problems go deeper than outreach, though. "A lot of people think that women don't play games or the kinds of games that they play don't count," says Van Sickle. This is something the CEO noticed from her own interest in games. Back when she started out at Activision, played AOL games daily. "Because they were't $60 console games or hardcore PC games, they were not considered to count as real games because they didn't put a lot of none into companies like major video game publishers," says Van Sickle. "I spent three hours a day playing them, but I wasn't a gamer."
Years later, Van Sickle still sees this as a problem. "The fact is that in 2014 the kind of games that a lot of women are interested in generate more income for the game industry, provide more jobs and pay more bills for game industry professionals than the hardcore video games do," she says. "They are making the game industry the number one entertainment industry in the world."
In the world of console and PC games, diversity of female characters is still an issue. This year, at E3, Ubisoft caused a stir with its lack of female characters in Assassin's Creed Unity. Even when games do have female characters, many feel that the miss the mark. Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women series of videos gives a lot of insight into this aspect.
Plenty are split on the portrayal of women in some games. Take the Mass Effect series as an example, Danielle McRae, mentions that the ability to make the character Shepard male or female led her to believe that people were getting serious about incorporating female characters into games. Heidi Kemps, a freelance writer who has spent 12 years covering the video game scene, disagrees. "You can play a lady character and you can romance the dudes or you can romance the ladies if you feel like it," she says, but "it still feels like the sexual relationship isn't so much a matter of the character's autonomy as it is kind of a reward, something you gawk at our work for."
In the gamer world, harassment and general sexism are still pervasive amongst players. Not everyone interviewed for this story experienced any of these negative aspects of game play. Some have, though. Horton, who handles multimedia game coverage for Playboy and was Miss October 2012, says that she has frequently had to defend her interest in games. "I've had multiple interviews where I had to answer trivia questions for them to believe that I was actually a gamer," she says.
Other gamers have hurled insults at her about her weight and looks. She's heard things along the lines of "Get back in the kitchen. Make me a sandwich." and "You don't belong here." For Horton, though, that's just a small part of gamer life. "Those bad experiences don't stick out because I've had such amazing experiences," she says.
A number of the women interviewed for this article have been to enough events to see the industry and the fan worlds change over a period of years. Their own careers have grown as the numbers of women in the community have increased. Several years ago, Jessica Chobot showed up for her first E3 and ended up being interviewed by G4 and IGN. That eventually led to a job at the latter video game news outlet. Now, she's the host for Nerdist News. She was an "honorary character" in Mass Effect 3 and wrote the horror video game Daylight for Zombie Studios. "It's not uncommon to see a woman walk the show floor anymore," says Chobot. "You don't automatically assume that she's somebody's girlfriend."
On the first day of E3, Kemps went to check out a Super Smash Bros. Invitation Tournament at the Nintendo booth. "I would say the crowd split was probably about 75 percent male and 25 percent ladies," says Kemps. "Honestly, that's not bad for what's seen as a typically male dominated fighting game tournament. It was very heartening to see."
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