Indian Woman Game Developer Gets Global Acclaim

Poornima Seetharaman talks about bias and a lack of information in the Indian gaming sector.

Poornima Seetharaman has become the first Indian game developer to be inducted into the Women in Games Hall of Fame. The awards were opened for global entries for the first time this year.

Seetharaman, who is a lead game designer at Zynga, started off her career as a programmer at a mobile game development firm, where she started experimenting with game design. A gaming fiend ever since she got her first personal computer, Seetharaman’s win makes her a poster girl for all those women who aim to get into game development and design.

“I remember opening the Dungeons & Dragons manuals and being lost in their beauty; that is when I decided that game design is my thing,” said Seetharaman.

Statistics show that the increase in the number of women in the gaming industry is mostly restricted to those who play video games recreationally or take up tournaments occasionally. In fact, a recent KPMG report shows that of those who take up game development and design in India, 83 percent are men and only 17 percent are women.

Men have also been in the field for longer, which makes it difficult for women to find representation and motivation to take up gaming and design as a career. Women also prefer to stay anonymous in online gaming rooms due to sexual harassment incidents faced by female gamers in the gaming communities.

“My struggles have been similar to what most women face. When you reveal that you are a girl, you are bullied, mocked, or called names, ” says Seetharaman. “This is one of the reasons why most women gamers don’t reveal themselves, especially in multiplayer games.”

Seetharaman believes that apart from bias, lack of information is a big factor when it comes to the gender imbalance in the game designing and developing field. Ignorance about it as a viable career path also prevents women from venturing into it.

“We are led to believe that everyone in the gaming industry has to be a hardcore gamer,” said Seetharaman. “It’s not true. Some disciplines need you to have first-hand understanding, but not all. We automatically restrict ourselves from exploring this field because of misinformation.”

Gender bias in gaming is a global phenomenon. According to Higher Education Statistics Agency data for the UK for the year 2018-19, 88 percent of students in video game development courses were male.

Poornima Seetharaman is a lead game designer at Zynga. (Courtesy of Poornima Seetharaman)

Seetharaman, however, is optimistic that, like software development, interest in game development will also increase amongst women gradually. She says that many people in India view gaming as a hobby because there they believe that finding a job or a steady paying stint in it is difficult.

Seetharaman urges young girls in the industry to let their voices be heard regardless of the type of video games or game design they are interested in.

“Whether it’s Candy Crush or DotA2 or Call of Duty, let no one tell you that you are not a gamer. Join gaming forums, participate in game jams, reach out to developers in your community.”

However, mindsets are hard to change.

Delsey Hayer, a 23-year-old video game enthusiast from Chandigarh, recently completed her masters in management. While she has participated in various gaming tournaments at the national level, she hasn’t considered making gaming into a career option because she believes women aren’t taken seriously in the industry and it would be hard for her to find a steady job.

“It is hard to convince people that gaming is a serious discipline and, also, there aren’t enough job opportunities that would guarantee me a steady income if I take this up,” said Hayer. “With more women penetrating the industry I am hopeful that things will change for the better”.

Zerah Angela Gonsalves

Zerah Angela Gonsalves is the head of talent acquisition at Nodwin Gaming Esports. She is also a gaming analyst who has been in the industry for over a decade.

“If you are a video gamer, you have to prove that you are good at the game that you play; respect is hard to earn,” says Gonsalves.

Gonsalves has been in the gaming industry for a long time, which has given her an opportunity to showcase her skills and earn respect in the male-dominated gaming community. Due to her place in the industry, she has not experienced any harassment online or offline, but she knows women who face such issues.

“A lot of awareness regarding these incidents needs to be created,” she said.

She says that video gaming in general is an uncommon career choice. She believes that much like how software design took time to penetrate as a career choice for women, so will gaming. Better prospects of making money and permanent placements can push up the numbers of women joining the industry, she says.

The portrayal of women in video games is another problem that adds to the gender bias in the gaming industry. Since it has been a male-dominated sector, questions related to the passive or sexual portrayal of women, haven’t been raised enough. Famous video games like Grand Theft Auto have had a great run over the last 23 years since its first release but its portrayal of women remains biased.

“Find communities and game rooms where you are respected, it is difficult but once you find the right people, you get mentors and motivation to improve your skills,” says Hayer.

(Edited by Uttaran Das Gupta and Gaurab Dasgupta)