“As a child, I would fight for my spot at the console with my brother,” entrepreneur Faryal Maryam Hussain told Passionfruit in an interview. Faryal is the founder and CEO of Oddsock, a female-led 2D game design studio based in Lahore, Pakistan.
Faryal said it was always her brother’s prerogative to pick and play games to wind down after school. She said she vividly remembers how their mom would never disturb her brother during game time, but Faryal would have to do chores.
“It was always me running around, pausing my game, and never him because he is a boy, ‘Let him enjoy his time,’” Faryal said.
Faryal’s memory is not unique. Multiple female gamers in Pakistan told Passionfruit they are often not taken as seriously as their male counterparts due to Pakistan’s culture being rooted in patriarchy, where male privilege dominates every aspect of a woman’s life. Pakistani women told Passionfruit playing indoor or outdoor games is often considered a waste of time for girls, as they could be using that time to learn life skills like chores. Meanwhile, they said boys are frequently allowed to spend hours at a time devoted to leisure.
Ayesha Samman, who goes by the alias Skeltra, is one of the handful of female professional gamers from Pakistan and said she believes she might be the only female gaming coach in the country. Ayesha is a professional Valorant player and leads the team Solaris. Born in a family of gamers, for her, it was a natural transition. But she, too, said gaming is a tough industry to break for women.
“As a Valorant coach, I found it hard to find opportunities at reputable organizations and high-ranked teams. I get overlooked for being a woman, mostly,” Ayesha said.
Ayesha’s Valorant team, Orangutan X, ranked 5th in the 3rd Open of the Champions Tour Game Changers Asia Pacific, which took place in April 2022. Yet, Ayesha said she finds it hard to handle the backlash. Ayesha also said how as a player, she often feels underestimated by others, even though she is leading and competing with a male team.
“Sometimes it is easy, other times you break down. I ignore them because you can not do much about it,” Ayesha said.
Rukhsar Arshad, a game enthusiast, told Passionfruit she believes things can change if more women join the world of gaming.
“The gaming lobbies can be super toxic and negative for a female player,” Rukhsar said.
There are various ways one can join the industry, and Pakistani women are steadily making their distinctive mark. Currently, Pakistan is competing to become a digital games exporter on a global scale. Pakistan’s projected revenue in the video games segment is said to reach $83.61 million of the $196.8 billion global revenue in 2022, according to Statista.
In addition, more than 8,000 professionals are associated with video game development in Pakistan in 300+ studios across the country, according to Dawn. However, a 2019 survey by information technology (IT) trade organization [email protected] found the IT sector of Pakistan accommodates only 14% of women as managers, employees, and contributors.
The onset of COVID gave Pakistan’s IT industry a boom. According to an Atlantic Council study, the sector emerged as the largest net services exporter in the country, with IT exports doubling from $1.19 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2019 to $2.62 billion in FY 2022. The pandemic also allowed many to work from the comfort of their homes, learn new skills, and enter the freelance sector—especially women.
“Many women got work-from-home opportunities (during COVID-19),” Khaya Ahmed, a freelance character writer, told Passionfruit.
Khaya said culturally, women are required to handle much more than just their careers, including balancing family and home life. She said the flexibility of the IT industry allows women to explore new avenues at their pace while allowing them to balance their other responsibilities. The gaming sector, Khaya said, is equally as flexible.
“Unlike other industries, people can easily work from home (with flexible hours) in the gaming sector. This is especially useful for women given our role in society,” Khaya said.
However, some sources like entrepreneur Faryal said the game development talent pool in Pakistan appears limited.
“The [available] talent is not being utilized to its full potential. … We usually have to teach people from scratch,” Faryal said. “We only take B-grade work because we cannot cater to A-grade clients at the moment,” she added, citing that her art director had to be hired in Japan as she couldn’t find the right fit in Pakistan.
A limited talent pool impacts more than revenue, it limits the chance for developers to showcase Pakistani culture on a global scale.
Character writer Khaya, for instance, said she makes sure she represents Pakistan in her characters. She said she accepts projects with the caveat that she will add Muslim and Pakistani characters with positive energy, as there aren’t enough of them. Khaya said she also added the immigrant experience as a part of the journey of her characters.
Faryal said she is working to develop characters and skins with Markhor (Pakistan’s national animal) and Pakistan’s northern dresses as the theme—which includes winter apparel like shawls, shalwar kameez, and colorful dresses designed for both male and female characters.
Sources told Passionfruit the ratio of women has increased in game development in Pakistan in the past decade but still needs additional support.
“Education and exposure have increased. People don’t care about the gender of the resource. They will hire the best candidate with or without experience,” Faryal said, adding she thinks the industry is welcoming more women. “I don’t think there is any discrimination.”
At OddSock, Faryal said she and her team make sure staff is trained regularly and provide exposure with internships to young talent. However, she said she believes game art is missing in the mainstream education system in Pakistan.
“Even the best art universities are not getting into the digital age,” Faryal said.
Khaya also said people from any field can be brought into the gaming world because it is open to trying new ways of working.
“The industry can be more proactive with workshops, seminars, conferences, and more to showcase the gaming world,” Khaya said. “IGDA [The International Game Developers Association of Pakistan] and other organizations are doing their best to connect fresh graduates to roles in the gaming industry.”
Samar Hasan, founder and CEO of Epiphany, stands at the forefront of a push toward education in the gaming industry. Samar said a particular arm of her company, Epiphany Games, nurtures talent in the gaming industry, showcases wonder-women of the gaming world, and advocates for gaming in emerging economies.
Samar said she believes there is immense competition within the industry because of the lack of human resources, adding, “People don’t want their resources meeting others or diversifying.”
To help with this, Samar said Epiphany conducts virtual conferences like the recent GameX, which had over 130 speakers, 40% of whom were women. Currently, Epiphany is also working on a women-only game jam. Samar also suggested that Pakistani studio owners should hire more women and train them better to help them find a place in the games industry.
“There are usually less women speakers because there are fewer women in general in the games industry,” Samar said. “As there are usually only men in these jams, we want to market these [events as being] especially for women, so that they can explore a career in games.”