The Subtle Demon: The Games Industry’s Problem With Ageism

19% of gamers are over the age of 50. But only 1% of the men and women making those games are the same age. Is the games industry no country for old developers?

This article was originally published on May 15, 2015.

David Mullich tells the story.

A friend of his: an executive at a major video game company. In talks with another video game company for a similar role. Several interviews; both in-person and over the phone.

The job involves relocation. New job, new home, new city. Both the exec and his wife are flown on the company’s dime to help with house hunting. They are put up in an expensive hotel. Everything is paid for. As a formality, a final interview is conducted. The exec finally gets to meet his immediate supervisor: a man 20 years his junior.

The very next day: a phone call. David’s friend, the exec, is no longer a candidate for the job. Unceremoniously given the boot. Why? No reason is provided. At a guess? He suspects the supervisor felt uncomfortable managing someone 20 years older than him. He’ll never know for sure.

Back to David Mullich. David has found himself in similar situations. He’s 55 years old. Last year he celebrated his 35th year working in the games industry. His first project: a well-received adventure game based on the British television series The Prisoner. It was released in 1980. That is not a typo. David worked on Duck Tales. David worked on Dark Seed II. David worked on ‘I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream’.

David can’t find a job.

Here’s what David noticed: the older he got, the longer it took him to secure work. In the tumultuous world of game development lay-offs are common. Studios close, new ones open in their place. Usually it would take David a month or two to line up a new position. After he hit 40 it could take as long as 18 months.

At first he attributed these changes to a downturn in the games industry. Eventually he began to openly wonder: “is my age a factor?”

During one interview David tells a hiring manager that he can “easily” do the producer position he is applying for. He has many years of experience. This will be a breeze. David doesn’t get the job. Later he is told he came across as “arrogant”. He dials back the confidence in response for the next interview. Rejection. David is told he sounds “burned out”.

David Mullich turns 50. Hiring managers become a little less subtle. He is told he won’t fit into the “company culture”. During one interview David is informed he won’t get along with the rest of the team. Everyone is “young and energetic” the hiring manager says.

David gets desperate. He takes his resume and deliberately shortens it to hide his age. He can’t hide it for long. More rejections. He begins applying for junior level roles when he can’t secure senior positions. David is told he is overqualified. Employers are afraid he’ll leave for a higher paid position.

As of today David Mullich has given up.

“I received so many rejections,” explains David, “I eventually gave up looking for full-time work.”

Catching Up

Does the games industry have a problem with ageism?

According to an IGDA survey conducted in 2014 the answer to that question is ‘yes’. Ageism was cited as the second most common form of discrimination found in the games industry. Second only to sexism. Ahead of every other form of discrimination you can name. The games industry, according to some, is no country for old men. Or old women for that matter.

Research reflects what you might expect: a vast majority of game developers are white men, aged between 20 and 35 typically, and very few have children. As of 2014 men and women over 50 years old made up a paltry 1% of the game development population. The Urban Institute predicts that, by 2019, workers aged 50 or above will make up a staggering 35% of the general labour force.

Video games have a lot of catching up to do.

Over the past two months we’ve spoken to over a dozen game developers aged over 40. Some with children, some without. Some happy with their position, some who felt trapped, excluded and marginalised.

“I’ve never been discriminated against because of my age.”

“My 32 years of experience in the industry have opened up an incredible amount of doors.”

That’s Tony Albrecht. He’s been writing game engines for almost 20 years. Age has never been an issue for Tony. In most cases his age has been treated as an asset. Tony’s been around the block a few times (his words). He knows a mistake when he sees it, because he’s made those mistakes himself and learned from them. “There are a lot of smart kids out there,” he explains, “but what they generally lack is experience.” Larger studios are desperate for developers with experience, claims Tony.

Steve Fawkner is the founder of Infinite Interactive. He describes himself as the “Puzzle Quest guy”. He agrees.

“My 32 years of experience in the industry have opened up an incredible amount of doors.”

Older developers are an asset to any team explains Steve, and if you don’t get that then you’re not a good project manager. “For twice the price you get 10 times the output. Seriously.”

Does the games industry have a problem with ageism?

Everyone seems to have a different answer to that question.

The Constant Tug Of War

Tug of war photo via Shutterstock
“People that aren’t part of minority groups or marginalised groups don’t see the problem because they’re privileged.”

That’s Michelle. Michelle is the kind of recruiter David Mullich spent the better part of two decades trying to impress. She is the gatekeeper. In her words: “I identify the candidates that are worth talking to.” Michelle asks that we don’t reveal her surname or the video game publisher she works for. Suffice to say it’s big. You’ve heard of it. You’ve played its video games.

Michelle is in a unique situation. For a person like David Mullich she might be considered the ‘enemy’, the person holding him back, but Michelle is in a similar situation. By games industry standards she is old – in her 40s. She understands his predicament.

Does the video games industry have problem with ageism?

“In general yes,” says Michelle.

But it’s more complicated than that.

“There’s a constant tug of war going on,” explains Michelle.

That tug of war is between hiring the person that’s right for the job, and the person they can afford.

“Sometimes we take a junior because we don’t have a lot of money and we just need to throw a body at a problem,” she says. “Other times we need visionaries and that means paying through the nose, sacrificing other positions to get somebody who is actually worth it.”

Michelle says every situation is different, every project is different. She’s turned away vastly qualified people because she simply didn’t have the budget. She’s hired those same people because she did have the budget. It depends, she says. It depends on the position. It can depend on something as arbitrary as the time of year.

“It’s just a constant balancing act.”

Michelle is adamant: diversity should be a huge priority for anyone in recruitment. A fact she is constantly trying to impress upon hiring managers in her team.

“We’re thinking about that all the time,” she says. “Why do we need a woman on the engineering team? What is the value that person would bring?

“What benefits can we get from people with different sexual orientation, different ages, different genders. There are advantages across the board. You just have to figure out what you want to bring to your team.”

Back To School

Back to School photo via Shutterstock

Heidi McDonald has a lot of friends.

One: 51 years old, 30 years of development experience, worked on at least two well-known AAA franchises. A wealth of knowledge. Unemployed. Frequently told she is over-qualified for positions she applies for.

Another: 42. 25 years of tabletop gaming expertise. Expertise routinely ignored during the hiring process, even if that expertise is directly relevant to the games being created.

One more still: 50 years old. Well-known in games industry, years of experience in community management for major studios in the US. Currently working in a bar to make ends meet.

Amongst her friends, Heidi McDonald might be the exception: an older developer who feels secure and valued in her job, partly because of her age.

Heidi’s story is unique. Once upon a time she was a musician. Then she was a full-time mother, working part-time. But when Heidi’s third child was just about to head to kindergarten her husband became one of 5000 people made redundant by IBM during the Global Financial Crisis.

At aged 39 Heidi McDonald was required to work full-time again.

But how? Heidi had no degree and, despite being an award-winner in her field, struggled to find work, losing out to younger, less experienced workers with the relevant qualifications.

Heidi decided to go back to school.

Mid-way through her course: a seminar focused on creative career paths. At the seminar: a presentation on the games industry. Heidi, a lifelong gamer, was stunned.

“That talk changed my life.”

A female developer, from a local studio, discussed her job in the games industry.

“First, I was like, wait… that’s a job? Then I was like, wait, she’s a woman doing this job? And then, wait, there’s a video game company here? Mind blown. I just needed someone to show me, ‘this is available to you’.

But that’s just the beginning of Heidi’s story. As soon as the talk finished, she badgered the female presenter with a litany of questions.

Later, when Heidi asked her about internships, she answered in the affirmative. One successful internship later Heidi – at the age of 41 – was offered a full time job — her first in the games industry.

“I have since shipped five titles, two of which are award-winning.”

Learning To Adapt

Heidi walks into the office for the first time: a weird brand of chaos.

“It looked like everyone was goofing off,” she says.

People were watching movies at their desk, casually drifting off to get coffee, playing Magic: The Gathering. Sometimes, people would take naps. In the workplace.

How did these people ever get any work done, she wondered. And where the hell were the phones? No-one had a phone at their desk…

“I later realized that all the office conversations were happening over GChat, and people will stay at work 12 hours a day in order to put in their 8 hours.”

Forgetting everything she had ever known about traditional office work was the biggest challenge of Heidi’s transition into the games industry.

“The idea of work being task-based and not time-based was a big adjustment initially.”

“That was another key adjustment. You cannot rest on your laurels.”

Other challenges: learning how to operate the multiple different systems and programs used to make video games. Heidi was initially brought on as a writer with audio experience, but had to multi-task and acquire new skills. Rapidly.

“That was another key adjustment. You cannot rest on your laurels.”

Heidi now works extensively in Unity; she codes state machines in C-Sharp. She does features work, systems work, quest design: work she couldn’t have imagined doing when she entered the industry as a 41 year old woman with a limited skill set. Now at 45 she is comfortable in her ability to learn and relearn in an industry that is constantly in flux.

“There are days when I feel like I’m riding a Big Wheel in the Tour de France,” says Heidi, “but those days have gotten fewer in direct proportion to how much effort I expend keeping up on trends and tech. It’s thrilling and exciting.”

Heidi describes herself as the “zany aunt” of the office, handing out Kleenex and cough drops. She brings a layer of discipline and knowledge to the office that the team would otherwise miss: that ability to be an adult and do adult things. Heidi frequently finds herself helping younger co-workers do their taxes or look after themselves in general. Part of that give and take, Heidi believes, has to do with her willingness to learn and ask questions when she is having difficulties.

At 45 years old, Heidi has learned to adapt and be accepted in a work environment that initially felt foreign to her.

One Bad Apple

Bad Apple photo via Shutterstock

David Mullich is tired of the assumptions.

The assumption that he couldn’t fit into a modern studio environment; that he won’t work long hours, that he isn’t willing to learn new systems, new engines, new ways of working. The idea that he is set in his ways, that he thinks he knows better. That we won’t listen, that he is physically incapable of matching up to the rigours of game development.

As far as he’s concerned, that’s complete bullshit.

“I may be approaching sixty by the calendar, but I don’t feel much different from when I was thirty,” he says. I am just as productive as I ever was.”

All David wants is the kind of chance Heidi was given: the chance to prove he still belongs in that environment.

But convincing hiring managers that older workers are worth the risk can be difficult. Even Michelle, the recruiter, is willing to admit that hiring managers operate on a set of biases. It can be difficult to overcome those initial impressions and hire older developers.

“One bad apple tends to colour the whole group,” she admits.

The reality, Michelle claims: some older developers do find it difficult to adapt to a rapidly changing industry. Some older developers do think they know better. Some older developers do refuse to learn new techniques. Some developers are stuck in the past. All it takes is one bad experience to confirm the bias.

“I try not to get negative, but there are definitely some people who are jaded,” says Michelle.

“30 years have gone by and they’re still talking about how things used to be. You see that sometimes with the older developers and it can be limiting.”

A difficult truth: the games industry is competitive. When you have 10 younger, cheaper applicants who can do the job just as well as the older developer, that fact can be difficult to ignore, says Michelle.

Increasingly, the benefits of experience are being dramatically overlooked.

“In some studios having a lot of years in the industry can be seen as a detriment,” she admits. “It’s the idea, ‘oh you’ve been around for so long, you’re used to doing things the old way’.”

Michelle’s worry: she spends much of her time trying to be aware of these biases. Most other recruiters do not. That awareness — that ability to create a diverse workplace that benefits the studio and the end product – sometimes doesn’t exist.

Experience Trumps Gender

Ann Lemay says something interesting. She says, “I am finally at the age where my experience trumps my gender”.

Ann started her career at Ubisoft Montreal, trained alongside a group of new recruits who didn’t necessarily have much experience making games. She was trained, essentially, from the ground-up to create games the Ubisoft way. A handful of job changes later — including a stint outside of games — and Ann found herself at BioWare working as a game writer.

In the past, whenever there was a point of contention or a debate, Ann’s gender would always be brought into play. A common assumption: “you don’t know what the audience wants because you’re a woman”. This happened rarely, admits Ann, but if something was held against her it would be that fact: she was in the games industry and she wasn’t a straight white man.

During the last couple of years, says Ann, there’s been a shift. No-one talks about her gender anymore. They talk about her age.

More specifically: they talk about her experience. And they talk about it in positive terms.

“All in all,” says Ann, “being an older dev has been a good thing for me.”

Ann’s age has helped colleagues forget she is a woman.

BioWare is an interesting case study. In general, Ann believes, there is a move towards what she calls a “short-term mentality”. Hire young developers as cheap labour (“we don’t have to pay them as much, they’ll work for the passion“) ignore the important elements of development. Ignore experience, ingenuity and the fluidity of a stable team firing on all cylinders. Close the studio after it ships. Scatter those important resources to the wind. Start all over again.

BioWare works a little differently. Ann’s age wasn’t an issue during the hiring process and, recently, one Creative Director has taken to hiring certain developers because they are older, because of the life experience that comes with age. One hire: an older writer with an extensive background in theater.

“In her case, her age was valued,” explains Ann.

According to the Creative Director: hiring older applicants is often preferable. They react differently in tense situations. They tend to have a different approach to problem solving. They have a better understanding of appropriate interpersonal dealings in a professional setting.

And it all comes back to Michelle’s point: recruiters have to be aware of the strengths of different potential hires, and think constructively about what they can bring to the team.

“BioWare in general has a healthy amount of older devs,” says Ann.

The Subtle Demon

“Ageism is a subtle demon,” says Tracy. She’s in her 40s, an ex-writer on a popular MMO. Again, you’ve heard of it.

When studios hit hard times, older developers tend to be the first to go. At one point in her career, at a previous company, Tracy remembers a brutal series of lay-offs. The vast majority were aged 35 or above.

But ageism is everywhere. It’s embedded in games and the broader culture surrounding it. In the language: job advertisements that ‘weed out’ older applicants. Company websites featuring only the youngest workers. Statements: “we have a vibrant and active culture”. Deliberate or not, this language tends to alienate older developers.

Work benefits designed for the wants and needs of white men in their 20s: free gym memberships, laundry facilities, retirement funds set-up for developers straight out of college. The instability of the work: the speed at which studios open and close. The harsh truth: games development, as an industry, can often be hostile to people at a different life stage to the majority.
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“When you’re starting up a studio in the tech industry,” explains Michelle, “you tend to start with people who have their degrees and their MBAs and have some money in their pocket: those people tend to be young straight white males.

“And once you get that youth culture in play then it’s much harder to bring people from outside that culture.”

In other words, certain studios are hardwired from the ground up to alienate older, capable developers.

Is it affecting the video games we play? Is it holding back video games as a medium? According to Digital Australia 19% of gamers are 51 years old or above, but we’re still playing video games designed by young men in their 20s and early 30s. Is this a self-sustaining, self-fulfilling cycle: video games designed by young men, marketed towards young men, bought by young men.

“It’s a chicken and the egg thing,” says Michelle. “It wouldn’t surprise me if one led to the other but I have no idea which direction is which.”

Change is occurring. At a slow pace. Too slow for David Mullich, who can’t find work. Too slow for Michelle, who remains frustrated at the hiring policy of her peers. Too slow for Heidi McDonald who remains frustrated at the lack of opportunity for her talented friends.

“45 is a scary age to be looking for work in any industry, I just think it might be a little worse in this one,” says Heidi. “The phrase ‘you don’t fit into the culture’ seems like such a cop-out to me.

“These youngsters don’t have a monopoly on good ideas, on innovation, on passion, on energy. We’re just as bad-ass. We totally are.”


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