No Consoles for Old Men: Ageism in the Game Industry
Last week I read that a game I had produced for Activision 10 years ago, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, had been picked by readers of Empire Magazine as one of the 100 best games of all time. This was just the most recent of good news this year about games I had produced. Earlier in the year, Ubisoft held a week-long campaign celebrating the 15th anniversary of Heroes of Might & Magic III, Disney released with much fanfare a “remastered” version of DuckTales, and the good folks at Extra Credits tweeted that I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, which Computer Gaming World had one listed as one of the 150 best games of all time, was still available for sale. All in all, I was feeling pretty good about my career as I celebrated my 35th year working in the game industry.
However, just a couple of hours after reading the good news about Bloodlines, I received an email from a major game studio rejecting me for a producer position I applied for. This was just one out of perhaps a hundred rejections I’ve received for game producer positions in the past five years.
Now, don’t feel sorry for me. I currently enjoy teaching game production in the evenings at The Los Angeles Film School, which I supplement with contract design and production work during the day. However, I am always interested in exploring new opportunities and certainly would give up my consulting work for the right challenge.
Yet that afternoon I was struck by irony of having several of my games considered being among the best of their time, and yet no game studio or publisher seemed willing even to give me a phone interview. So I decided to express my chagrin in a Facebook post.
To my surprise, I received almost 100 comments to that Facebook post from friends and colleagues. Obviously I had struck a nerve. About the only times I had received such a response to Facebook post was when I posted about the need for greater gender or sexual orientation diversity in the games industry. After reading the first few posts, I learned the exact nature of that raw nerve: someone suggested that the reason why I was having such problems finding a job despite my successful career was ageism.
Ageism. Discriminating against someone because of his or her age. This was not something I had seriously considered before. Despite being in my mid-fifties, I think of myself as young. After all, I still have pretty much the same interests, tastes and capabilities I had when I was in my twenties. Old people don’t play games or ride roller coasters for a full day or go to midnight premieres of fantasy films. Do they?
Apparently they do. Many of my friends who are in their forties and older, posted stories of the difficulties they were finding getting work because potential employers considered them to be too old to work in the game industry.
One friend, who had once been an executive at a major game company, told me the story of recently interviewing at another major game company. After several phone and in-person interviews, the company flew him and his wife to their location, put them up in an expensive hotel, and conducted a final interview. However, in that interview he was finally introduced to the person who would be his immediate supervisor, someone twenty years younger. The next day, he was told that he was no longer a candidate. He suspected the reason was that his would-be supervisor was put off by the idea of managing someone so much older than him.
Now, there could have been a number of possible reasons for him being rejected for a job – but when you are at a point in the hiring process where your spouse is brought along to help do house-hunting for a relocation, the cause must be something dramatic.
It’s very rare that I’m told the reason why I’ve been turned down as a job candidate, but I looked back at the times where I have been rejected to see if ageism is a possible explanation.
“You don’t fit in with our culture.”
When there is a group of like-minded people working in a company, they form their own culture. The culture may be fast-paced or slow-paced, professional or casual, family-like or cutthroat. It’s very hard to be successful in a company if you don’t fit in with that company’s culture.
Unfortunately, I was told that I didn’t fit in with a company’s culture after a single phone interview, in which I mostly discussed my lengthy career in the game industry. Was it because that most of the people working in this company was younger than me?
Possibly, although I never quite understood that thinking. At a company I worked at a couple of years ago, most of my co-workers were thirty years younger than me. I got along with them great – much better, actually, than the guy who was the same age as me and ran the company. Why? Because they were gamers. I’ve found that interests and values bonds people more closely than superficial things such as age and race.
However, my friend who believes that he lost that job opportunity because his would-be manager was so much younger than him thinks that the young manager was intimidated by my friend’s much vaster experience. The young manager, perhaps, was worried that a more experienced employee would make him look bad in comparison.
This, if true, is the sign of a poor manager. To my way of thinking, a manager seeks out people who have more or different experience to be on the team. A talented and successful team makes the manager look good – if that manager is wise enough to be a facilitator that listens and learns rather than a boss who is fearful.
“He seemed like he was burned out.”
I once interviewed for a job that I had no doubt I could do very well because I apparently came across as being “too arrogant” to the management. So, at another job interview, I decided to act a bit more humble. That turned out to work against me, because I got turned down for appearing to be “burned out”.
Now a lot of people get burned out in the industry. According to the most recent IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey, 15% of people who quit the game industry do so because they are burned out. However, I’m not one of them. I can’t imagine doing anything with my life other than making games. I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years, and if I’m lucky, I’ll be doing it for another 35 years.
I could make that argument to a potential employer, but what if I was wrong about why I came across as being “burned out” in that one interview. Although I’m fortunate enough to always have looked younger than my actual age, I have to admit that my eyelids are heavier than they used to be, and sometimes I look sleepy even when I’m at my most alert.
I can imagine some employers thinking that an older employee being slower or more prone to illness than a younger one. Well, I’ve always been a Type B personality: low-key and thoughtful. Luckily, I’m like the tortoise in The Tortoise And The Hare in that, for me, slow and steady always wins the race. As for the stamina required in crunch time, age doesn’t seem to have slowed me down. These days I’m usually up by six or seven am, do errands or contract work in the morning, head to school after lunch, teach until 11:30pm and am home by 12:30pm. How many young people can do that consistently?
Illness? I can well imagine that older people have more medical conditions than younger people (although I’m lucky enough that I only suffer from a yearly cold). But consider this! We older people don’t have young kids that we need to take to doctor’s appointment or stay home sick with.
“Only young people have innovative ideas.”
Someone posted this as a comment to my Facebook post, but I’m sure some employers believe this to be true. There is popular conception that people make their greatest achievements when they are in their twenties, and I have to admit, I was only twenty-one years old when I designed and programmed The Prisoner, which I consider to be my own greatest creative achievement. However, I can also tell you this: Will Wright at 54, Sid Meier at 60, and Shigeru Miyamoto at 61 all seem to be going strong.
Admittedly, not all of us are a Shigeru Miyamoto, but how many of us in game development really need to be? Most of us are responsible for implementing and supporting the innovations of the few people on the team who are responsible for the innovation. And to be honest, how many games published each year are truly innovative? Most good games, even most good AAA games, are more well crafted than innovative, and one hones their craft through experience. I certainly know far more about the craft of game design and production than I did when I was in my twenties.
The question is, can older workers adapt to innovation? The stereotype of older workers is that they are slow or reluctant to learn new ways of doing things. That might be true for the average person, but I would argue that those who are attracted to the game industry are inherently drawn to innovation. The game industry is very different now from when I started, and I’ve learned to embrace such innovations as agile development methodology, mobile gaming, downloadable content, free-to-play business models, and gamification.
“You can’t identify with our audience.”
I’ve not actually heard this one, but I know many think it. Rather than combat the fallacy that you need to be young to think young, allow me to point this out: According to data collected by the Entertainment Software Association, the percentage of people over 50 years old playing games is slightly higher than the percentage of people under 50 playing games. We ARE your audience.
“You’ll leave for a better job offer.”
When I had problems finding work as an executive producer, I tried applying for positions as an associate producer but with not much better results. One large company actually called me back to explain at length how they were reluctant to higher me for a lower-level producer position out of fear that once the economy picked up, I would leave for a higher paying position befitting my experience. Of course, I explained that money was not my only motivation for the jobs I take, and that if they hired me, perhaps I might prove myself valuable enough to them that they might be interested in some day promote me to a higher-level position. However, I could not assuage their fears.
Of course, this all is merely anecdotal evidence of ageism in the game industry. Still, the latest IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey shows that only one percent of people in the game industry are fifty years old or above. Is this just because the industry is growing in size and so younger people fill most of its ranks? Are older people dropping out of the game industry because they really have burned out or found a better lifestyle in industries? Or are older people having too difficult a time finding jobs with developers or publishers willing to hire them? Are many, like me, finding positions in education or tangential industries because they can’t get work making games?
The game industry press has published many articles about the industry’s need for greater diversity in gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. But few people are discussing potential ageism, despite it being a great concern, if responses to my Facebook post are any indication.
Therefore, I’ll be proposing a talk on the matter for next year’s Game Developers Conference. To prepare for that talk, I’d love to hear from you. Have you been denied jobs in the game industry because of your age? Have you been reluctant to hire people out of concerns about the problems that age brings?
Please post your comments below, or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to post or write anonymously, if you like.