Women in gaming: Leveling the playing field in the industry

  • The typical gamer looks very different today than just five years ago. The gaming fandom among women is taking hold in all the key markets worldwide, especially in Asia.
  • But these women aren’t just playing the games, they are getting involved in development through women-owned and -operated companies.
  • TheHomeGround Asia speaks to two such women who have gained foothold in this high-level development arena.
Syarah Mahmood and Mandy Wong, pictured above, are the women behind the games we know and love. (Photo credit: Ubisoft SG)
Syarah Mahmood and Mandy Wong, pictured above, are the women behind the games we know and love. (Photo credit: Ubisoft SG)

By simply looking at both Syarah Mahmood, 32, and Mandy Wong, 25, you would not be able to tell that they are both pretty powerful in the gaming world.

But both women are creators of different gaming worlds. 

Since 2017, Ms Syarah has been working on developing action-adventure video game Assassin’s Creed – first as a level artist in the original game and now the lead artist in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla DLC – Siege of Paris

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the 12th major installment of the popular action-role playing franchise, was released in 2020.

“I’ve always been interested in storytelling. Initially I was drawn to animation and worked for a few years in the animation sector creating background art. But my idea of storytelling has evolved and I think it was my need to seek new challenges that made me want to explore a different industry,” she says.

Playing Assassins Creed sealed the deal for her. 

“The game got me really interested in the worldbuilding and the immersion aspects of storytelling, and the medium was really fascinating to me as well. I had a great experience playing the game and wanted to recreate that incredible feeling I felt for other people,” she says. 

It is a similar story for Ms Wong, a user experience/user interface (UX/UI) designer. 

I’ve always enjoyed gaming, and the thought of creating games has always appealed to me. In university, my major comprised aspects of design and programming. Both fields of study were fascinating to me, and pursuing a career in UX/UI is a natural progression as I believe that it’s the intersection where art and technology meet,” she says.  

While Ms Wong did not think initially that she would be able to combine her love for gaming with her field of study, “when the Ubisoft graduate program for UX designer opened up, I knew immediately that it would be the right fit for me”, she says. 

“Playing like a girl” in a man’s world

Women gamers are on the rise around the world, making up half of the gaming world and women are not just playing the games — they are also getting involved in development through women-owned and -operated companies.

While games have generally been developed by men and for men, gaming executives are starting to change how they develop their games due to the larger and more diverse audiences they are attracting. They recognise that 44 per cent of their customers are women, so to keep the playing field fair, they need to change.

At Ubisoft Singapore, a huge part of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was created by local and foreign artists, programmers and designers, mostly men, but both Ms Wong and Ms Syarah say that things are “changing for the better”.

“In the past, this male-dominance may have caused women to opt for careers in other industries. But I believe that this is changing. At Ubisoft Singapore, I work with many talented women. ​​As inclusivity and gender diversity continue to gain momentum within the industry, I believe that more women will be encouraged to join in the near future.” says Ms Wong.

With more women developers creating games behind the scenes and women themselves joining up as players, a changing mindset towards women in the world of gaming is starting to emerge. Ms Wong and Ms Syarah say that from the start, their fields of study are dominated by men.

Ms Syarah says there was a fairly equal mix of men and women when she was getting her degree in animation in 2014 but the ratio changed during her design and programming degrees. ”There was a higher ratio of men to women,” she says.

Agreeing, Ms Wong, who majored in Information Engineering & Media in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) says engineering is typically a male-dominated field, so the course reflected the ratio accurately.  

“But in my office, the ratio of women to men varies according to roles. As a UX designer, I typically work with game designers, tech artists, programmers and UI artists in the office. Though many members of my team are men, I feel this is largely due to a lack of women applicants for these roles,” she adds.

Ms Wong feels fortunate that she has “always been treated with the same respect as any male employee”. But she adds that she has had her fair share of gender-discrimination outside of her current workplace. 

“An offer from another company came with a salary that was below the market rate. When I questioned the offer, I received comments that it was ‘already good enough for a girl’,” she says. Some people even commented that Ms Wong’s gender gave her an advantage in job opportunities. 

As for Ms Syarah, she says there was never any discrimination based on her gender, or the ‘bro-culture’. Still, she admits that this “bro-culture” generally present in the gaming industry, can make it “daunting” for women to join. 

But she believes that “with increasing awareness and representation of women in gaming and technology industries, things are changing to include more women in the gaming industry.”

Ms Syarah adds, “The current work I do constantly challenges me and I feel that I have much more to learn and grow in the industry. It’s fast-paced and the technology evolves all the time, so it’s pretty exciting!”

“For me, working in the industry is about crafting amazing experiences for the player. Making a great game, and the artistry behind that, drives me. It’s also about the team I work with that comes together to actually make the game happen despite the odds.”

Behind the scenes of creating games

Ms Syarah also worked on the art for Immortals: Fenyx Rising, which was released in 2020.

As a UI/UX designer, Ms Wong’s typical workday ranges from designing mock-ups with Adobe XD to collaborating with designers and programmers from both local and overseas studios, and pushing features into the build. “I also use After Effects and Blender to create high fidelity prototypes for previews,” she says.

For Ms Syarah, a typical day consists of sync-ups with the team, meetings and decision-making to tackle high level topics. 

“Then we do research. There is also work done in the game engine too. We then plan our work, playtest, and review the content we make for the game. As the lead artist, I also have one-to-one meetings with the people I manage.” she says, adding that there is plenty of collaboration and connection within the team “to tackle and problem solve topics”.  “It is the human element that I’m both interested in and challenged by,” she says. 

Ms Syarah believes that working from home has “redefined” her work as an artist. “I miss the office pantry talks, and the organic way of forming friendships in the office. Hopefully with a return to the office and flexible work hours, I will be able to see my team again!”

She says she is motivated by the passion that people employ to create beautiful and immersive game worlds. “Seeing the team grow and thrive despite all challenges to making amazing art and experiences for gamers makes me extremely proud. I feel excited when I see my colleagues’ care about their work,” she adds.

The future of the gaming industry is female 

With more women studying and completing their education in gaming, things are also adjusting in the corporate world as women pave the way for other women in the gaming industry.

“In the past, games were largely catered to men. As many people choose to pursue careers based on an interest in certain industries, it is natural that there is a higher volume of men who are interested in working on video games. However in recent years, we are seeing games with female representation. Consequently, more women gamers are entering the community, encouraging other women to join,” Ms Wong says.

Ms Syarah also believes that it is important for game companies to hire people from diverse experiences and backgrounds so they can bring their voices and knowledge into making games. “You never know where that new idea may spark from!”

“Regardless of gender, diversity is extremely important when it comes to creating a great game. Bringing together a diverse group of people to create a game means that new perspectives, new ideas, and new experiences are being incorporated into a game, making the end-result is a lot more impactful – and more enjoyable – for everyone,” adds Ms Wong.

Apart from time spent at work, both women also spend time outside of work improving their craft. They draw inspiration from other games, music, films, books, history and even from other people to bring new ideas into their work.

According to Ms Syarah, Ubisoft Singapore has tie-ups with local institutions and schools to do outreach and talk about careers in the gaming industry, to encourage more women to join the industry. She says that there are many different developer roles besides game design in which women can take part in. “There are sound engineers, game testers, UI/UX designers, story directors, and marketing personnel, among others,” she says.

In 2021, Ubisoft Singapore made a pledge to SG Women in Tech to improve the diversity, and specifically gender diversity within the gaming industry. Ubisoft Singapore also has special learning paths for women to help them ascend into management as quickly as possible, says Ms Wong.  Hence, she believes that “the gaming industry is moving in the right direction”. 

Ms Syarah also believes in a brighter future for women in the gaming industry. “I believe things have been changing; there are more women in leading roles today and concerted efforts by the industry to improve workplace culture and discrimination against women.” 

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