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M.I.A – Why Women Aren’t Animated About Games

M.I.A – Why Women Aren’t Animated About Games

It’s frequently highlighted that women are leaving the media industries in their droves. So what’s it like for that rarest of species, the female games animator?

Previously I’ve discussed the curious dissonance between the increasingly familiar imagery of the casual female and an industry that remains remorselessly male.

Considering the shift in how we consume games, and the rise in female gamers, why aren’t we seeing young women being attracted into the industry. Seemingly, despite being welcome to play games, they aren’t being welcomed to work on games.

The gender imbalance is a normal fact of working in games. A number of social and economic factors could be at play here. It’s true for instance that other high-tech laden media sectors like Interactive Media also suffer such an imbalance (5%) and that the increasing proportion of coding and programming roles within modern games companies (and proportionately less growth in art roles) doesn’t particularly favour women’s entry into the industry since less women study those subjects at school or college.

Women games animators are therefore doubly rare, being a dwindling section of an even smaller section in one of the most dynamic media sectors in the UK. Like some endangered species, they are worthy of study.

What do women animators within the games Industry say about gender? Althea Deane, a freelance animator for over 20 years and currently contracted as a character animator at Evolution (behind the famous Motorstorm series) states “Generally, people are just glad to see a woman in a sea of men, to be honest! However, it is quite a macho culture compared to the field of television in which I worked previously”.

“In our project, I’m the only women animator”, adds Alma Salinas from Sony’s London studios, “and at my last company too”. But she is also of the opinion that no roles need be male dominated; “I think any role can be female friendly” she says. “The video game industry offers equal pay and a great working environment, but somehow it always feel that the girls are on land owned by others”

Ellen Holland, a games animator for five years at Rare, one of Microsoft’s big studios says “sometimes guys don’t know how to relate to women initially so you need a bit of a tough skin and to be willing to give as good as you get, but there’s no discrimination here.”

After a while, most games personnel seem to have acclimatised to this situation, which in other media industries might raise more concern.

How do women games animators explain the apparent lack of female animation talent? To most, the animation department is less imbalanced than other areas of games development. “Someone said to me recently finding a female programmer was like finding a unicorn” quotes Rare’s Ellen Holland. Whilst SCEE’s Lisa Harmon, states “female animators are fairly rare but female game coders are even rarer” whereas Elisa Capretto exclaims “female games designers….I don’t think they even exist!”

“Not so many women are aware that games animation is an option when they are making their career choices, I certainly didn’t” says Rare’s Ellen Holland. “I attended three courses, and I must say I did notice that the more technical the course the less women there seemed to be in them”.

“There were about 25% women on my course at university and they were generally more interested in producing some kind of artistic output at the end of the course rather than making a career from it”, says SCEE’s Lisa Harmon.

A major factor seems to be technology and how it is taught. We tend to think of animation as craft, but the increasing levels of programming that are impinging on games animation could be one explanation. It’s long been thought that women tend to opt out of technical subjects when they choose university courses. However, the UKRC suggest women choose a wide range of technological subjects, but then don’t see the career path into jobs.

Maybe it’s a mistake to look for a single determining factor. Work patterns might also contribute. Skillset’s Women in the Creative Industries report found that representation is highest in sectors comprising larger employers in which more stable, permanent employment models are common, such as terrestrial television (48 percent), and it could be said that animation and games companies are relatively smaller, more volatile, and therefore not as attractive. However, there are many games and animation companies that have now been around for the best part of fifteen years or even longer – so instability isn’t the full story.

Julie Prescott, a PhD student from the University of Liverpool whose own survey of 450 women in games across the globe found 43 percent felt that long-hours culture was adversely affecting their health and well-being. 31 percent were unhappy with the work-life balance. 22 percent reported working between 46 and 55 hours a week, and 10 per cent more than 56 hours a week. 80 percent felt that their company had a long-hours culture.

So it may be the so-called “Crunch” work cycle in games production that marks it out particularly as an acute case, with ever evolving workflows and technology meaning it’s as hard as ever to predict deadlines, and the burden of extra hours is expected.

Animator Althea Deane, seems to agree; “the games industry needs to shake off its macho ‘work or die’ image. This will mean more careful planning of schedules and less assumption that it can work its employees over their required hours for weeks on end. It should also try to project a more fun, less aggressive image generally. We’re making games, not annexing Poland” says Deane.

Could it be that work patterns and culture combine with a creeping procedural approach to animation into a potent toxic mix, keeping women away? “The most significant difference between videogames and movies is the pipeline….in games you do not have the same freedom of interpretation as in TV and film” explains Sony’s Alma Salinas “The animator has to be able to perform functional animations, responding and exchanging with the technical team. The animator must also understand the limitations of the games engine they are working with. They have to enjoy the technical part of the job.”

The rise of the female gamer is a relatively recent phenomenon, and as such maybe not long enough to change attitudes, university choices and career destinations. “Maybe we should just wait for the new generation of gamer girls to grow up. I think it will take some more time” says Ubisoft’s Elisa Capretto.

This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in IMAGINE magazine.

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