To win in IT, women have to get in the game

While stranded in an airport lounge recently, I noticed that many people coped with the mind-numbing boredom by playing video games.

I got to thinking about gaming and how ubiquitous it has become since the days of Atari and PacMan. I was inspired by Nolan Bushnell’s keynote address at my college graduation, yet even then I thought of games as a “guy thing.” But nearly half the people clicking away in that lounge were women. I started to wonder if women approach games differently. Do they play the same games as men? Do they design only women’s games?

Feedback from some technical women working in the gaming industry provided interesting insight.

According to market research firm DFC, the game industry will reach $47 billion in 2009. NPC Research reported that in November 2007, U.S. consumers spent a whopping $2.63 billion on games, consoles and accessories. That was an increase of 52 percent over the same month a year ago. Nearly 40 per cent of gamers in North America are women, and in Asia 69 to 70 per cent of handheld gamers are women. Significantly, while the number of women playing games is increasing, so is the number of women working in game design professions. Although still outnumbered by male colleagues, a growing number of women are entering the field and report finding a culture that is more relaxed and inclusive.

Meredith Gaffney, Assistant Producer on the popular NHL Hockey game for Electronic Arts (EA) in Vancouver, says that things have changed dramatically for women on the gaming scene since she got into the business seven years ago. “It was very different then. There weren’t many [women] on the production teams and the games were mostly male-dominated: sports, racing and war titles. Now, we’re slowly but surely adding more women and focusing on games that appeal to both sexes. This is a business that attracts young, creative people and provides a casual, collaborative atmosphere.”

Speaking at October’s Grace Hopper Conference, Robin Hunicke, who works on EA’s Madden games, agreed. “It’s also about problem solving and teamwork. In the gaming industry, I have a great deal of freedom in my work, I have input and my voice is heard.”

While many women are playing the same games as men, Gaffney adds that women tend to want a more emotional connection. “They want great story lines and strong characters, and games that are easy to pick up, play and master. But above all, they have to be fun — all games have got to have the WOW factor!”

Growth in gaming bodes well for the future. New generations of children, half of them female, are being exposed to electronic games early in life. Along the way, they are learning to embrace technology, to discard stereotypes and to become equitable partners in the design of future games — or technical innovations of any kind. That’s how we’ll truly change the game for technology, and for women.

Whitney is president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology.