With February ending, Black History Month is also coming to an end. But March brings us Women’s History Month! Like a broken record, I’ll say, representation matters. (The changing of these months, though, should remind us to keep intersectionality in mind as well.) This repeated mantra may feel a bit stale without a solution to the question: how can we get better representation in our games and media? One answer would be to diversify the creative forces. Today, I want to talk about some of the efforts to improve this deficiency.
According to a study from the Girl Scout Research Institute (with information from research by the Department of Education), only about 20% of computer science graduates are women. Compare this to the fact that women tend to earn about 60% of the overall bachelor’s degrees in general. This number intersects with the race gap as well: despite making up 12% of the U.S. population, Black people only make up around 6.4% of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) occupations. So, there is some discrepancy of what students are focusing on. Traditionally, we have seen that women tend to delve into arts and humanities, while men tend to head to STEM. One could try to hand-wave this as a matter of taste; “girls and minorities just don’t like science.”
I don’t think that’s the case; many people would agree. There are studies, such as the Girl Scouts’, that show that young girls and Black kids lose interest in STEM fields during middle school. This loss of interest is a direct result of our societal conditioning. We start telling certain demographics of children that they should pursue a different career, or that these subjects are too hard for them—such as the idea that white men are more capable for these fields, or maybe that they’d be better suited for something else. After all, if there aren’t that many engineers of color, or women coding, there must be a reason, right? At best, this is circular logic and doesn’t represent anything other than white, patriarchal standards. The same restricting standards come up in the video game sphere where there is the added complication of having narratives attached to the creations. How can we expect more faces in the gaming industry, notoriously one of the most toxic industries in tech, when they’re been driven away from pursuing a degree that would help them get the job?
Organizations like Code Liberation and Black Girls Code were created specifically to break these stereotypes. Code Liberation hosts all-women events (if you identify as a woman, you’re in!) to develop the skills and re-instill the confidence of women who are interested in coding video games. Often, these are people who were interested in programming when they were younger, but have fallen out of the field for various reasons. The leaders of Code Liberation point out that despite women comprising roughly 50% of gamers, only 4% of developers are women. The group works hard to be inclusive, something very important to fostering diversity in the industry. Black Girls Code has a similar aim, except, as the name implies, it’s for younger Black girls. Their vision is “to increase the number of women of color in the digital space by empowering girls of color ages seven to seventeen to become innovators in STEM fields, leaders in their communities, and builders of their own futures through exposure to computer science and technology.” While they don’t focus specifically on coding for video games, they are creating a larger set of girls to go into the STEM fields in general. These events get reasonably sized turnouts, proving that girls and women do in fact have an interest in coding and developing games.
A diverse mixture of backgrounds and people brings a diversity of ideas. For instance, we see so many video games that star interchangeable white, male protagonists and feature caricatured stereotypes of people of color, women, and women of color, of which the latter two are very often objectified. It’s no coincidence that the census of protagonists tends to more or less match the represented demographic of developers. I’d love to see more groups represented in our games, especially groups that I myself am not a part of. As an interactive medium, games can give us the chance to get a glimpse into someone else’s worldview; it would actually be nice to have more worldviews represented. I’m a firm believer that a talented development team should be able to create an experience with elements that may be foreign to them, while still remaining non-offensive, but this doesn’t always happen. A more diverse/culturally richer set of voices on teams would eliminate a lot of the obvious missteps companies tend to make.
Code Liberation and Black Girls Code are doing the work to foster an environment for these more diverse sets of development teams and developers. This is the real benefit of their work. Especially given the recent ease of accessibility to development tools, education to marginalized voices is giving them the boost they need to make their voices heard. A common trend holding people back from creating games and technology is the feeling that they can’t; these organizations are working to fix that. This opens us all up to more tech innovations, and gives the motivation to some of us to actually live their dream. One of the participants was quoted (on Code Liberation) saying “I am no longer afraid of coding! Thank you!” I can only hope that this feeling spreads and we get more diverse and unique games—the industry needs it now more than ever.