While the video games industry continues to grow and more women are playing games, the number of female developers is still low, and efforts to diversify the male-dominated industry have been the target of widely online harassment. What is going on? Why are women not attracted to a career as game developer? And why are female gamers or developers a target for online harassment?

Global video game market

The worldwide video game marketplace, which includes video game console hardware and software, online, mobile and PC games, will be worth more than $100 billion by 2017.

In 2014, the Entertainment Software Association reports that the average US gamer is found to be 35 years old. 74% of gamers in the US are 18 or older - with women over the age of 18 representing a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (33%) than boys aged 18 or younger (15%).

Games are still predominantly made by men, but the number of women in the video game industry is slowly on the rise. In 2015, an international survey among 3.000 professionals found that 75% of the workforce is male, compared to 22% female. In 2005, only 11,5% of survey respondents identified as female, which means that in less than 10 years the percentage of women involved in the game development industry has almost doubled.

However, when dividing job descriptions by gender, male workers heavily dominate most of the core content creation roles and women make up only 5% of the programming in the video game industry.

Explaining why these gaps in specific job categories between the sexes exist is beyond the scope of this article, but the extreme lack of female programmers can be linked to the struggle in general to attract women students into computer science and engineering education as career paths.

Sexism in the workforce

In spite of the growing equality in employment statistics, above survey findings show that equality in treatment is few and many women cite social discrimination in the workplace.

66.5% of the respondents said diversity in the industry was important, but when asked if there was equal treatment and opportunity for all manner of people, 48.8% said no.

When asked to comment on industry demographics and diversity in general, many women made comments like “We need more women in the industry, and in order to do so will need to eliminate ‘boys only’ practices such as ‘Booth Bimbos’.

Women also complain of the ‘boys club’ ethos, which includes inappropriate sexual or discriminatory jokes, belittlement of skills and ‘gamer cred’, T&A imagery throughout the office setting, assumptions that women are in administrative roles, comments about women’s appearance (including specific reference to their breasts), and explicit sexual harassment.

Above evidence shows that efforts to make the gaming industry an inclusive, fair place to work has fallen short, and that many female game developers feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in a place that should feel safe and encouraging. Blatant sexual harassment and marginalization on the workfloor may prompt female game developers to go independent and work as a freelance developer, or not enter the industry at all.

Online harassment of female developers

The discussion surrounding women in the video game industry has been heating up especially during 2014 with the intimidation of women who spoke out about equality in the video game industry, known as the “Gamergate controversy”.

Gamergate started when 27-year-old game developer Zoe Quinn began receiving anonymous hate mail from people who believed the game she created, Depression Quest, had received undue positive reviews in the games media because the topic of her game was too progressive and lacking the escapism of traditional themes of top video games (fighting, shooting, et cetera).

The online harassment escalated in August 2014 when Quinn’s ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni wrote a blog post insinuating she had entered a relationship with a journalist of a gaming website in exchange for positive coverage.

Gamergate supporters oppose what they view as the increasing influence of feminism and social justice ideologies on video game culture and argue this has resulted in a press which is overly feminist and alienating traditional gaming audiences. Observers have described Gamergate as a manifestation of a long-running culture war against efforts to diversify the traditionally male video gaming community, particularly targeting outspoken women.

With the 2014 annual survey by the Entertainment Software Association showing a nearly equal number of women playing video games (48%) compared to men, Gamergate is seen as a reaction to the shifting cultural identity of the "gamer". Concerns over the changes caused by this shift is what caused Gamergate, especially a fear that sexualized games aimed primarily at young men might eventually be replaced by desexualized games marketed to women or to gender-neutral audiences.

But in the end, the Gamergate issue proved to be an amplifier for the cause of diversity in gaming, forcing video game companies to look at their own practices and to recognize that women are a growth opportunity in the video game industry.