Social-Good Gaming Will Only Reach Its Potential When Women Do Too

March 30, 2015

Mariam Adil

Gaming isn’t just for entertainment anymore. It can make us smarter. It can make us safer. It can make us better citizens of the world.

“Can” is the operative word here. For over a decade, video games have been hailed as tools for strengthening human rights, increasing sustainability, and creating behavioral change for social impact. Yet the truth is that in 2015, gaming is better known for causing controversy and antagonism than for creating positive change.

So with all of the urgent global challenges ahead of us, how can we finally reap the potential of the video game industry?

Making it more gender inclusive is a pretty good place to start.

To be clear, it’s not that women are more inclined to care more about solving global challenges than men are. But more inclusion means more ideas to mine, more successes to scale up, and, just as important, more failures to help us move the industry forward.

In the $21 billion gaming industry, women represent less than a quarter of the workforce – and is it any wonder? Wherever you stand on Gamergate – the movement that has raised questions about the intersection between gaming culture and misogyny – the fact is that its associated vitriol and harassment have deterred perfectly capable women from considering a career in game development. Combine this with the popular image of gaming as the domain of male nerds, and women get the hint that they aren’t welcome even as casual contributors.

The disparity that this creates isn’t just bad for gender equality. It’s bad for gaming itself. An industry doesn’t reach its full potential by stifling its already limited talent pool.

Worse, the gap is bad for social innovation. From addressing climate change to alleviating poverty, video games should be the next frontier, as illustrated by efforts such as Games for Change. Actually getting there will take as many minds as possible.

I don’t share the morbid belief that social-good gaming is over – but if we can’t overcome the gender divide in this industry, we’ll be losing an important opportunity.

This is one of the reasons I decided to throw my hat in the ring and launch a social gaming project myself, GRID – Gaming Revolution for International Development, which aims to impact international development by allowing players to simulate the effects of new policies being considered and to understand the tradeoffs involved in the decision-making process. Our first game, Randomania, (made with support from the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund of the World Bank) has been played by more than 300 policy makers. It may be nerdy, but it was also overdue, considering such an innovation hadn’t existed before in global development. Someone had to create it. And that someone happened to be a woman.

However, the journey hasn’t been an easy one. As a Pakistani, Muslim woman at the helm of a tech venture, I have faced my fair share of skeptics, critics, and plain old sexists. From “The only game you should make is a cooking game” to “You are delusional if you think you can change the gaming landscape,” I have heard comments that would never be leveled at a man.

Many would have been discouraged by such experiences, and understandably so. But I wouldn’t be swayed – in fact, it only inspired me to develop my next game, one that will help other women and minorities who face prejudice in their lives. Stereowiped is a social game that engages people in confronting and overcoming racial, gender, and ethnic stereotypes through a memory-tile play structure, and we’ve recently created a prototype.

Fortunately, change is in the air. With initiatives such as No Ceilings, which has made a data-based case for gender equality, and Intel recently announcing its plan to double the number of women in gaming, the video game industry may very well be at, or near, a tipping point.  Addressing gender inclusion in the gaming world will take time and effort, but with role models like Jane Mcgonigal – who created the game SuperBetter to help her and others recover from concussion – I hope to serve as one example of what is possible when we diversify the field.

I hope to show that when gaming becomes more inclusive, our industry can do so much more to advance social progress. And we’ll see more women like the University of Miami’s Sevika Singh, who is creating a game that educates some of Miami’s most vulnerable residents on emergency preparedness and disaster relief.

But improving inclusion will take a critical mass. That’s why I am calling on women of the millennial generation, no matter your major or background, to consider gaming as a viable endeavor for inspiring change. By claiming our space, women can help gaming reach its potential to improve lives, remove walls, and shape social innovation in the 21st century.

Mariam Adil is Team Lead at social game maker GRID. She is also an economist (consultant) with the Africa Education Global Practice at the World Bank. Mariam launched GRID as a commitment through the Clinton Global Initiative University, and it has since been recognized in the UN PEACEapp competition.