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Getting girls in the game

At second Women's Game Conference, video game executives discuss how to get women involved.

AUSTIN, Texas-?It's a common trope: Video games are for guys. And because of it, most folks think there aren't many women working in creative positions in the video game industry.

The truth, naturally, is more complex than conventional wisdom, but there's little question that the vast majority of game designers are men. In fact, , according to the International Game Developers Association.

For the most part, they're creating games meant for other guys. While the best-selling PC game of all time, "The Sims," appeals to both genders, the bulk of best-selling games--titles like "Halo 2," "Madden NFL" and "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" are honing in on a testosterone-charged, football-watching, shoot-'em-up crowd.

"Women bring a dynamic that's interesting and highly intelligent to all things creative, all things technological."
--Paula Fellbaum, director of human resources, THQ Studios

At the Women's Game Conference being held in conjunction with the Austin Game Conference here, hundreds of industry workers-?and would-be workers-?are talking about ways to close that massive gender gap.

"It's very hard to get respect," said Katelin Rosenburg, a student at the University of Advancing Technology, a private college in Arizona. "I'm the only girl in all my design classes. It's really hard to get respect from guys because they're like, 'Girls don't play games.' Guys play (games) with their buddies. They don't play with their girlfriends."

The good news for women game players is that at least 80 percent of the 200 or so at the conference here were women. But in the wider video game business, as most industry insiders know, numbers add up to almost the exact opposite.

Amanda Crispel, assistant program director for electronic game and interactive development at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., said that only 18 of the program's 100 students are women.

Of course, there has been no shortage of conversations about finding ways to get more women into the game industry. But it can be hard for such discussions to get attention, said Christopher Sherman, executive director of The Game Initiative, which organized the women's conference.

Attendees see the women's game conference playing a key role in overcoming some of the historical hurdles to gender diversity in the industry. The conference "can get game designers and game houses thinking about the psychology of women in gaming, and to (think about the) subtle differences (necessary) to make games more palatable to everyone," said Rebecca Whitehead, the dean of academic affairs at the University of Advancing Technology.

And that's important, because many believe more diversity can result in better games that sell more copies.

"Women bring a dynamic that's interesting and highly intelligent to all things creative, all things technological, and all things administrative and production-oriented," said Paula Fellbaum, director of human resources at international video game company THQ Studios. "Women...bring as much intelligence and as much production excellence as anyone else, and I think women must work really hard to get into the industry because it does provide balance."

But Fellbaum added that, traditionally, women in the video game industry tend to end up in administrative or art roles rather than development or design.

Illustrating the point, a recruiter in the room asked how many of the women in attendance were developers or programmers. No more than 10 raised their hands.

Still, Fellbaum said that as more emphasis is placed on luring women into the creative side of the video game work force, things will change for the better for everyone, particularly in an industry known for its punishing-?and some would say "macho"?-work hours.

"I think women have a greater expectation of balance," Fellbaum said. "Women have the expectation that they should be able to go home at the end of the day and turn their phones off. The BlackBerry isn't a ball and chain at the end of your ankle."

It's vital that working conditions in the industry are more palatable, said Sande Chen, a writer and consultant with the nonprofit group Girls in Games. A number of game makers, most notably Electronic Arts, have come under fire for the heavy workload placed on developers.

At this year's Game Developers Conference, Chen said, "young women said they were being recruited from a number of companies...When they looked at the hours (in the video game industry), they saw they could get better hours and conditions at Google. So they were going to go that way."

Regardless, there seemed to be general agreement that in reaching out to women, the video game industry must not appear to be creating jobs specifically for women. Rather, it is imperative that women be recruited for positions already dominated by men.

"I think the women I know in product development would be offended if they knew things were being tailored to them," said Jean Orrison, a senior partner at the Exclaim Recruiting Agency.

Sherman said he expects next year's Women's Game Conference to be unhooked from the Austin Game Conference. It will likely be held in either Seattle or San Francisco.

In any case, despite the optimism at the conference, there is undoubtedly still a sense that women have a long way to go before they're on equal footing in an industry which, rightly or wrongly, is often perceived as a boys' club.

"We have to work harder in the industry to get them to take us seriously," Rosenburg said. "And when you have a company with all guys, they don't teach sensitivity."