International Women’s Day 2023

What do the women of Liquid Swords want to talk about?

It’s a Friday afternoon when we sit down with a few of the women of Liquid Swords. We eat candy and play a lightning-quick round of Two Truths and a Lie. Paulina, our HR Director, has clearly played this game before and cunningly convinces the group she loves spiders: that was the lie, she’s deadly afraid but we were hoodwinked all the same! The candy and game are just icebreakers. The real reason that we’ve gathered is to talk about the topics that the group thinks are important ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day. Welcome to our roundtable.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the gaming industry is male-dominated, the reality largely follows the perception. We begin with a discussion of what could remove the deeper, more invisible barriers that prevent women from joining the industry. Technical Designer, Antonia, points out that these barriers don’t only impact women but also other minority groups seeking to work in the industry – whether this is ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or any other protected characteristics, “A lot of people have a view on what game development entails and that isn’t accurate, we need to change this.”

Antonia, describes video games as “one of the biggest pillars in her life,” university was never her preferred option; instead, she followed the example of a friend and studied programming at FutureGames, Stockholm’s premiere game-development school. This education opened her eyes to the creative possibilities involved in programming, yet it also exposed how some of the barriers women face in the industry can start in the classroom – before they even begin work, “The mood in a room with 28 men and one woman is wildly different compared to one with a more even gender split.” Antonia believes, “Some of this comes down to conditioning. We live in a society where women are conditioned to be more passive, this makes it more difficult to speak up in a male-dominated environment, whether that be a classroom or a workplace.”

Alice, Programmer in the tech team, talks about her own educational experience and makes similar observations to Antonia. “I believe it’s not as bad as it used to be but there’s still a perception that programming ‘isn’t a woman’s job’. When I studied, it was also male-dominated, and at times this made me question if I had made the right choice.” (Antonia points out that a woman, Ada Lovelace, is attributed by many as the first-ever computer programmer.) Alice jests that her own entry into the industry was accidental, “I used to be a street artist but for obvious reasons, this doesn’t pay too well. I thought about the film industry, but there were so few opportunities. Gaming was my third option as I had some experience with coding from previous jobs. I actually prefer to make games rather than play them, particularly the art and music side of development.”

Thinking about what educational institutions could do to address these issues, Antonia suggests, “More female teachers. Looking back now, the ones I had were a huge source of inspiration to me. Until I had them, I didn’t realize how important positive role models were.” With the most years of industry experience in the group, Paulina adds that this can be a presentational issue too, “It can come down to how you design your website, for example. Is it welcoming and inclusive? Do the images include women? Is it designed in a way that instantly feels masculine and off-putting?”

Despite lingering problems like these, Paulina believes, “Things have definitely changed and they’ve got better too, but that doesn’t mean they’re ideal.” She joined the industry in 2008 and despite “never having played video games in her life”, she stayed for the people. “In games, everyone is ambitious and an expert in their field. From an HR perspective, the questions are interesting but they’ll keep you on your toes too. If you’re gonna say something concrete, you need to make sure you can back it up!” Paulina confesses that her experience is probably different from other women in the industry, “Working in HR, I don’t think I’ve been exposed to some of the negative situations and experiences of my peers. However, one of the biggest changes I’ve observed is that women are now staying in the industry. In my earlier days, one of our main challenges was how to keep women, especially after they took time out for parental leave.”

For Antonia, the struggle to get into the industry is one of the main barriers for those wanting to work in games, “It's still a lot of work, timing, and luck.” This can be an even greater barrier for women to overcome, they might not even try, or drop out when this obstacle feels impassable. Judit, self-titled Techno Producer, explains how she always wanted to work in games, but laughs that growing up in Hungary, “There were two studios, literally!” and it never felt like a realistic option for her. The increase in remote working during the pandemic helped her overcome this barrier, and she found the industry to be very different from her initial perception.

“I studied Psychology and went into IT and software development, which led me to CGI and VFX. That was a tough, unforgiving industry; all about deadlines and deliverables.” Judit tells us how she thought the game industry would be the same, “But I was wrong, my time at Liquid Swords, and Avalanche before that, showed me that game studios care much more about people, their time, and the workplace environment.” CFO Ebba, also agrees that her perception didn’t quite match up with the reality, “I have siblings that are really into gaming, and they tried to get me into it in the past. It wasn’t until I worked here that I realized how creative game development is and how collaborative the processes are. This is my first role in games, and I’ve started to fall in love with the storytelling and the details.”

Positive testimonials create hope that the industry is improving, even if its external perception hasn’t quite caught up yet. Paulina believes in this improvement and talks about how the industry is maturing, “The average age in games has increased and many people, particularly men, who joined when they were much younger now have children of their own. I’ve seen how this can make people more intuitive, more aware of their actions, and more thoughtful of how it might feel to be a minority in the workplace. This is a big step forward.”

Speaking off the back of her years of experience Paulina would encourage anyone to join the industry, “There are so many opportunities and, for me, there are few negatives.” Maria, HR Business Partner, agrees and relishes being in an industry “where management actively tries to be the best employer it can,” not just to retain talent, but because of a genuine belief in healthy and positive work environments. Alice, Liquid Swords’ only Danish employee, jokes that her advice is to leave Denmark if you want to work in games. But she raises a good point, this is a specialized and niche industry and not everyone is lucky to be in Stockholm, an international hub for the industry. Relocation has to be a realistic option for many embarking on a career in games.

Antonia ends with a poignant observation that the industry can still be its own worst enemy, “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors when it comes to how studios communicate. Players see pushed release dates, missing features, and unfulfilled promises – never what’s really under the hood.” With this in mind, it’s perhaps no wonder the perception of studios as an employer can be equally as poor. “But my advice,” Antonia continues, “aside from the persistence and perseverance you’ll need, is not to let the perception stop you from applying and joining. I’ve had some really bad experiences with companies and some really good ones. My main takeaway is that it’s easier to stop a studio from going down the route of becoming toxic for women and other minority groups than it is to break that culture when it’s already ingrained in the organization.”

Progress might be slow, slower than we would like, but staying silent brings it to a complete stop. We didn’t set out with a fixed goal when we started munching candy and trying to tell our best lies this afternoon, but perhaps sharing experiences, being allies, and having a voice is where we’ve found ourselves. Our roundtable is just one, tiny incremental step toward change. But if all of us in the games industry keep talking and walking down this path, we can hopefully get closer to a place of inclusivity for all, regardless of who you are, who you love, or where you come from.