A program at the University of California, Santa Cruz is paving the way for more women to start a career in the video game industry.
All of the men in Iman Fayek’s childhood were obsessed with video games. Her father played them. Her brother played them. The guys who worked at her father’s mom and pop computer shop played them. Inevitably, she played them, too.
Once, in the ninth grade, Fayek even wrote an essay about how she dreamed of becoming a game developer. However, that dream seemed unrealistic.
“I didn’t think I’d ever get there,” she said. “I didn’t think a career in game development was something I could actually pursue.”
That doubt disappeared in 2016 when Fayek enrolled in the Games and Playable Media master’s degree program at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), where she is learning the skills needed to become a full-time game developer.
The program, in partnership with Intel, is creating a welcoming space for female developers through access to the field’s best educators, and it’s helping women pave a career path as professional game developers.
Increasingly tech companies are keen on diversifying their workforce. One recent study showed that companies that employ females and minorities in important positions make more money, yielding a “diversity dividend.” Another study by MIT found that diverse workplaces operate more efficiently. The Games and Playable Media master’s program at UCSC aims to meet this growing need by training women who will shape the future of gaming and entertainment industries.
Putting Women First
By Fayek’s account, the UCSC campus is refreshingly open to women. She said finding a healthy mix of people of different genders and backgrounds made her feel welcomed.
“In the master’s program, we take a lot of care to ensure we have a really inclusive environment,” said Michael John, the program director.
The department reaches out to prospective female students using the Intel Fellowship, which awards selected students with full tuition. This year, the scholarship was awarded to Fayek and a fellow classmate.
“We believe it is important to create opportunities for diversity in the tech industry,” said Lee Machen, general manager of gaming and VR sales at Intel.
During his time at Intel, Machen has headed similar projects in support of female K-12 students and undergrads. The Intel fellowships also give female students the chance to rub shoulders with potential future employers at insider industry events like the Game Developers Conference.
“Providing students with access to industry professionals has made a huge difference in helping them feel like they belong in the games business,” Machen said.
The initiative showed results. Among Fayek’s 22 classmates, eight are female (or a healthy 38 percent, compared to the industry average of 23 percent). This is a huge leap from the previous year when only two women enrolled.
John attributes the upswing in female students to additional attention created by the Intel Fellowship, which shows the program is serious about supporting women applicants.
Another big attraction at UCSC’s program is the wealth of experienced faculty members. They have spent years in the mainstream game industry and are well aware of the challenges that await women there. The staff shares a unified vision of diversifying the game industry by providing their students with the tools for a successful career.
“I want to make a measurable change in the number of women and minorities participating in games,” said the game designer Robin Hunicke, who became an associate professor at UCSC after producing the indie hit Journey.
Like a sports agent negotiating for star athletes, John uses his connections in the industry to try to place every student who graduates in a job. Since his classes tend to be diverse, his efforts translate into a direct boost in the number of women making games.
Aside from the business incentives, the USCS staff point to the obvious creative benefits of a more diverse body of designers in the industry. The work coming out of the program demonstrates how people from different walks of life can bring new life to old conventions.
“The class we have this year is challenging traditional ideas, rather than taking everything for granted, which I believe is connected to having a more diverse class of students,” said John.
For her final project due at the end of the school year, Fayek and two of her classmates are breaking away from tried and true video game fare. Their game, Petals Adrift, features a singing flower that flies around on a butterfly, bringing the forest to life with color and sound.
When she graduates in August, Fayek plans to get a job at a major studio as a game developer and finally realize her childhood dream.