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Why Women Aren’t Teaching Game Dev Courses

A quick tour of the most popular eLearning sites brings a curious discovery: there are virtually no women teaching any of the hundreds of game development or game design courses online (collectively referred to as “game dev courses” for this article).

There are more women teaching university game dev courses-online or in physical classrooms-but not very many. One associate producer at a AAA studio told us recently that the university she attended offered graduate-level courses in game development, but “I think 2 out of 12 of those instructors were woman, unfortunately. I remember wondering back then why there weren’t more.”

Jennifer Scheurle, currently the only female teacher at AIE (Academy of Interactive Entertainment) Sydney, has wondered the same thing. “We talk about this at times at work-not only from the perspective of female staff, but also female students.” The underlying problem, she believes, is that there just aren’t many women to choose from:

The amount of qualified female developers is so crushingly low that it makes sense that teaching staff is predominantly male. It’s a chicken and egg issue, and we don’t even get female students that can work their way up to become educators. We get 2-5 every year for the game design course out of… 50? And the problem is: They don’t even come to our open days. We lose them WAY earlier than that. Way, way earlier. When they are in high school, when they are mocked for playing Minecraft in 5th grade, when boys laugh at them because girls don’t play games. I have some very real stories about things like that.

The reason there aren’t more women teaching game dev courses at universities is clearly related to the larger problem of why there aren’t more women in the professional side of gaming overall. But while the low number of women making games certainly factors in to the low number of female game dev instructors at the university level, it doesn’t explain why almost none of the women who are already in game dev end up teaching courses online.

How eLearning is different

There is also interest from game developers and designers in taking courses online, as the eLearning market now generates billions of dollars annually and is growing rapidly. “I like to continuously learn new aspects of games development, whether that be learning a new engine or marketing our games” asserted one indie game developer. “Online courses often provide me with thorough ways of achieving this in my own time.”

eLearning courses have become popular in the last few years as technology has advanced enough to make it relatively easy to both offer and subscribe to courses.  “Though I would love to go back to college, I don’t have the time,” explained one associate producer respondent. “I’ve been considering online courses as an alternative for a long time now.”

A game designer and writer at an indie studio plans to take eLearning courses because “I’m a generalist at heart and want to learn more skills such as programming and using 3D tools like Unity. Online courses are more accessible to me than physical presence courses, and usually cheaper too.”

Not that eLearning courses are right for everyone, or every topic-some people prefer a physical classroom, or can’t find the right course online.  “At my level of knowledge and experience, it’s hard to find [eLearning] classes at a high enough level,” wrote an indie game designer and writer who owns her own studio. “It seems most classes are for beginning or intermediate developers.”

Unlike the many hoops you have to jump through to teach at a university, literally anyone can set up shop online to teach game dev courses (being good at it is another matter, of course). And the upside is there: Udemy, one of the largest eLearning sites, offers a 50/50 revenue split to instructors, and charges students around $29 per course on average; large eLearning site PluralSight charges students a $29/month subscription fee and offers a more complicated revenue share to authors (their word for instructors) based the share of overall views they generate in a given time period.

A few instructors can make a living from the revenue teaching eLearning courses provide, but for most, it’s a secondary job that provides supplementary income.

Given the financial incentive and the lower barriers to entry, you’d expect there to be more women teaching courses on the various aspects of game development or design. But of Udemy’s roughly 312 courses in the “Game Development” category, and 108 in their “Game Design category, I couldn’t find a single one taught by a woman (there’s probably one I’ve missed, but you get the point). There are a handful of female game dev/design instructors on PluralSight and Lynda.com, but fewer than 10. There are only one or two female game dev instructors on smaller eLearning sites like StackSkills and SkillShare.

Do women even want to teach?

To find out, we queried several women of different ethnicities, nationalities, and skill levels working in different stages of game development and design on whether they’d be interested in teaching a course in game development/design in the future. A few of the respondents were already teaching at universities-“keeps me up on my knowledge, and I enjoy teaching,” said one-but most were not.

And while some of the women who weren’t teaching simply aren’t interested in it, many are, as these responses indicate:

“I love sharing the gamemaking knowledge that I have, especially with others who have felt simultaneously terrified and overwhelmed by the prospect of getting into making games.”

“Because I am a game developer who is NOT a coder or an artist, I feel like my contributions are often overlooked or not considered ‘development.’ I would like to tackle that and help other indie devs realize the importance of handling the business end of developing games.”

“I’ve learned a lot over the years and I love giving talks or sharing my knowledge. I’ve assisted in a few game design initiation courses and would love to do more in that field.”

“I’ve had the pleasure of coming in as a guest teacher at Digipen (I teach writing and tabletop game design more often, since that’s my forte). I love teaching.”

“I’d love to teach. It’s very important to me to set an example for women who might be interested in getting into the game development field but don’t believe the opportunity is there. Their voices are desperately needed and I want the number of women in the industry to continue growing upward.”

So if the interest and upside is there, and the barrier to entry is low, why aren’t more women teaching game dev courses online? We asked female game devs about this, too, and the answers generally fell into one of four categories.

Non-Disclosure Agreements

For many women, their employment prohibits teaching. “I’d love to, but my employer doesn’t permit it per NDA,” explained one game designer. “Most AAA studios forbid it, from what I’ve heard. Too much fear of revealing trade secrets. I had a hard time getting approval to speak generally about game design to a high school class.”

Men are also subject to these restrictions, of course. But this may have a disproportionately negative impact on female game devs because their numbers are so much smaller, and some of the most experienced women in game dev and design are employed by large studios.

Lack of time

“No time,” one respondent answered simply, and this was a sentiment echoed by many. “The things that have held me back from teaching a course thus far are mostly a lack of free time and not being exactly sure how to get into it,” wrote another.

One respondent who has enjoyed mentoring others and talking to small classes over the years explained, “As an industry veteran, I now find my free time to be very precious and would much rather spend it with my loved ones than dedicate more of it to work. I still LOVE my job but also need to balance family and friends. Creating a whole class worth of content would take a lot of that time from me.”

It’s true that eLearning’s low barrier to entry doesn’t mean it’s easy or a fast path to success-creating a successful online course takes a lot of time and effort, especially upfront, with no guarantee of success. And once you’ve created a course, you also have to market it to some degree, even if just informally. The internet is a crowded marketplace and no matter how high-quality your product, it can take time for positive reviews to stack up to help your course stand out.

This is just as true for male instructors, however, and clearly many of them still make the time and investment. But in general, they have more time to do it-study after study demonstrates that American men have more leisure time than women (an average of 5 hours per week), and women still do most of the housework, cooking and parenting on top of their day job. In many other countries, the disparity is much worse.

When you layer this double-standard on top of the low number of women in game dev to begin with, it makes sense that an even smaller percent of the already small number of female game devs would end up teaching. More women in game dev literally don’t have the time compared to their male counterparts.

Lack of awareness

“To be honest I never really thought teaching was an option,” one respondent answered (before adding “also finding the time to commit would be tricky”).

“I’d love to be able to teach a course in narrative design and interactive fiction, as that is my focus of study and what I’m most interested in,” wrote another respondent. “I’m also aware that with the rise of more interactive fiction, narrative based games are a growing medium. In the past, I’ve been held back by lack of opportunity, though not by lack of ambition.”

Since eLearning courses are relatively new, many women and men may also have a misconception about them: that you have to be experienced in all or most facets of game design to qualify as an instructor. But in fact, most online game dev courses are extremely specific and require very narrow expertise-in a specific technique, for example, or a particular game engine or design program.

Some of Udemy’s top paid game dev courses currently include Become a Game Maker with GameMaker Studio (with over 11,000 students enrolled) and Pass the Unity Certified Developer Exam (1,400 students). Some of the more specific game dev/design courses in PluralSight’s game dev/design categories include Modeling for Photorealistic Interiors with CINEMA 4D, JavaScript Animation with GSAP, and Getting Started in the Dota 2 Workshop.

The latter helps you “Learn how to create a couple armor pieces for a character inside Dota 2 which could be sold on the Dota Store.” It doesn’t get much narrower than that.

In other words: while universities may require a mastery of many game-related topics, most eLearning courses do not. Of course, more experience in more game dev topics won’t hurt, and will almost always help, but it’s not a requirement.

Lack of confidence

“I don’t feel qualified” wrote one respondent, and a few others echoed that sentiment. And while it’s certainly true that many women and men in game dev aren’t (yet) qualified to teach, it’s also likely that many of them are-and just don’t realize or believe it.

In addition to the “imposter syndrome” that both men and women struggle with, there has long been a gap in how women perceive the value of their expertise compared to men, and that may account for some of the disparity between the number of male and female game dev instructors.

As an article in The Atlantic summarizes:

“In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality….Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.”

This isn’t to suggest that most of the male instructors are not well qualified to teach courses in game development and design, just that many women may underestimate their own qualifications to be instructors, as well. Especially when paired with a misconception I outlined above about the type of knowledge required to teach eLearning courses.

Too many women may also be giving away their expertise for free. “I love teaching and helping others however I can,” wrote one indie game dev, “That is why I live stream and create Youtube video content and tutorials about game dev and art.” There’s nothing wrong with giving back to others when you can/if you can afford it, of course, but it’s also true that women are more likely than men to undervalue their own expertise. As many articles and studies have addressed, women tend to give away their time and expertise, whereas men tend to charge for it.

Perhaps that’s a factor at play here, too, although as we’ve written about on this site before, there aren’t nearly enough women sharing their expertise on YouTube, either.

Moving forward

“I’d love to teach,” explained one respondent, because “it’s very important to me to set an example for women who might be interested in getting into the game development field but don’t believe the opportunity is there. Their voices are desperately needed and I want the number of women in the industry to continue growing upward.”

We can’t change NDAs or the amount of time required to launch and maintain a successful eLearning course, but we can help spread the word about eLearning courses we like, and encourage women who might be on the fence about their qualifications to be an instructor. If you send this article to a female game dev you admire and encourage her to consider it, for example, you’ll be helping to build her awareness, and giving her a vote of confidence. That just might make the difference.

Sarah Warn is the Editor-in-Chief of remeshed.com and an avid player of console and PC games of all kinds. She was previously the founder and EIC of AfterEllen.com, and online editorial director for MTV Networks. Follow Sarah on Twitter.
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Sarah Warn is the Editor-in-Chief of remeshed.com and an avid player of console and PC games of all kinds. She was previously the founder and EIC of AfterEllen.com, and online editorial director for MTV Networks. Follow Sarah on Twitter.

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