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Diversity in Video Game College Programs: Not as Awful as the Rest of Tech

Women represent a third of all students in American game development programs.

The gaming industry is still wrestling with its very public gender diversity problems. But here’s something: The college programs training the next generation of video game developers may be ahead of other tech fields.

About a third of all students in American game design programs are women, according to a recent survey conducted by an alliance of higher-ed gaming programs. The group did not survey non-gaming programs, but cited U.S. Department of Education statistics showing that about 18 percent of undergraduates in computer science and STEM programs are female.

The survey’s results were released in tandem with the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where gender and diversity are the focuses of several speeches and panels.

Gamergate supporters have been bombarding the #GDC2015 hashtag on Twitter all day with calls for “ethical reforms” in the gaming press — the subtext of which is almost always “boycott or fire this writer whose views I don’t like.” The company that runs GDC, UBM Tech, also owns Gamasutra, the news site where a crucial inflection point in Gamergate originated last year.

A GDC panel this morning directly addressed the role of education in advertising the diversity of the industry, as women from the game programs at NYU, USC, Northeastern and UC Santa Cruz outlined what mattered to them.

“You need to create a space that feels safe, that when a student is dealing with sexist micro-aggressions in daily life, they can come to you for help,” said Elyse Lemoine, an MFA student at NYU. “It’s one thing to listen, but it’s another thing to do something afterwards.”

Programs that aren’t already diverse, the panelists said, can discourage non-white, non-male and non-heterosexual students from applying.

“The program is mostly male because it’s mostly male,” said Julia Wlochowski, an undergraduate at Northeastern. “If you don’t see yourself represented, you don’t want to come.”

The panel’s moderator, NYU professor Clara Fernández-Vara, said her program encourages students to study all aspects of game design (not just coding), and consider artistic and independent career paths as well as jobs at mainstream game companies. However, she acknowledged that developers are only part of the equation: Also important are artists, marketers and the executives who green-light which games get made.

“We’re trying to break a vicious circle and get executives realizing if they also sell to women, there’s a bigger audience,” Fernández-Vara said. “There’s nothing to lose. Maybe they’re going to alienate a few people, but they might be a minority.”

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