When the pandemic put the world on pause and we retreated to our living rooms, video games gave us a horizon to head towards when in reality we had nowhere to go. But, as the most recent UK games industry census showed, the people who make those video game landscapes all tend to look alike: 70% of the game development workforce is male, and just 10% are BAME. This creates a sort of gaming Stepford – miles and miles of video game real estate where characters and stories are almost identical to the ones that came before, because the architects all look the same and want the same things.
The survey showed that 81% of people in the UK games industry are educated to at least undergraduate level, which is considerably higher than the 57% average for other creative industries. Meanwhile, 62% of those in British games studios grew up in households where the main earner worked in a professional or managerial role.
If most paths to the games industry lead through university, the school system that feeds our universities is vital – which has made lockdown a greater assault on the games industry than we realise.
In July 2020, the Sunday Times reported that state school pupils were being withdrawn from “soft subjects” such as art, music and technology, so they could instead cram for English, maths and science. Experts suggested that up to 40% of pupils might drop creative subjects, while private schools will continue to teach 10 GCSEs.
“I don’t want to be accused of cutting the arts, but we want kids to be successful,” said Dan Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation, one of the UK’s most successful academy chains. Moynihan was referring to the federation’s plans to cut the number of GCSEs taken by a minority of pupils at his academies. “I do not think they will be pleased to look back when they are 40 and see that, because of a bit of art or French or design and technology, they did not get the qualification in English or maths they needed to get a job,” he told the Sunday Times.
But what if that job needs qualifications in the arts? Environmental artists, linguistic localisation experts, actors, musicians, audio engineers – they all began their careers at 15, wondering which subject box they should put a little cross in. When that choice is taken away, a future is, too. “Soft subjects” are the steel spine that curves through game design – without them, the industry crumbles.
Games studios will still get a steady supply of qualified students who have studied these subjects, of course. It’s just that they’ll come from private schools, or state schools in leafy suburbs. The games industry census found that 12% of gaming’s current workforce, and 20% of its directors, attended independent or fee-paying schools. (The national average is 7%.) These wealthier schools encourage and invest in subjects such as design, while it is state-funded academies that suffer the sharpest cuts to the arts. The paucity of stories from former pupils from working-class and BAME backgrounds leaves a gaping hole in gaming’s narratives.
The recent debacle around predicted A-level results, and the damage it caused to students from poorer postcodes, is the latest evidence of how the funnel of talent is constricted. Ofqual’s decision to scrap standardisation downgrades was too late for some students who had already missed out on their first choice university, or even a university place entirely. Black women from working-class families are already underrepresented in games studios, so for those graduating from state schools in 2020, whose university place was shaken by the A-level furore, there’s a significant mountain to climb before entering the games workforce, and it would be understandable if they’re already exhausted.
It falls to studios, then, to bridge these gaps. Career talks in academies, workshops and work experience programmes have the power to reach through the system and invite young talent directly into games. Guildford-based studio Media Molecule regularly sends staff into schools and insists on 50/50 gender representation in their talks – sparking the imagination of those who might never have considered careers in games. Students who attend have gone on to internships at the studio, and even land full-time roles. Our education system should open doors for talent from all backgrounds – but if it’s shutting them for some, studios have the power to jam their foot in the gap.
Otherwise, as the pressure of the pandemic constricts the talent funnel further, our studios will become whiter and wealthier than they are already. Innovative ideas from diverse young people will be lost. Teenagers who rode out the pandemic adventuring through worlds where problems can be solved with careful application of the X button are facing a future where odds of their dream career are stacked against them. Thousands of doors to a new world, closed. They need to be held open.
• This article was amended on 10 February 2021. An earlier version failed to make clear that the quote attributed to Daniel Moynihan, the chief executive of the Harris Federation, referred to plans that would affect a minority of pupils at Harris academies. Also, this quote was originally part of a report in the Sunday Times, not the Times.