By Richard Burnett Orlando Sentinel.
With computer clicks and keystrokes, Carmela DeNero can put the spiral into a Peyton Manning pass, the speed into Adrian Peterson's touchdown run and the roar into a stadium crowd.
An associate producer with EA Sports' Maitland studio, she is working on the mobile version of the popular "Madden NFL" video game. She's one of just a few women in game development at the Maitland operation -- a role she says she has navigated carefully but successfully.
"There are definitely a lot more men here, but that never feels odd or intimidating," DeNero said. "There are some tremendously talented women here, scattered about the studio. It's easy to get to know all of them because it's a pretty small club."
DeNero, 26, is part of a growing minority of women in the video-game industry: tech professionals who have turned their love of gaming into a career. They grew up on lighthearted games such as "Super Mario Bros." and role-playing games such as "The Sims."
They were unfazed by the "boys' world" dominated by so-called shooter games, which have been criticized for portraying violence against women.
But although more women have cracked video gaming's predominantly male work force, the business still has a gender gap, particularly with higher-paying engineering jobs, experts say.
Women make up the fastest-growing consumer segment of the $15 billion-a-year business and the fastest-growing niche in its work force, doubling during the past five years, according to industry estimates. But women still hold only 22 percent of the jobs, the International Game Developers Association reported.
To keep the momentum going, game developers say, they have to recruit more women who can bring a female viewpoint to games and ensure that games showcase, not exploit, female characters.
It would help, for example, to have more characters like Lara Croft, the adventurer in the popular "Tomb Raider" game, said Alice Hayden, a lifelong gamer and small-business defense contractor who uses gaming technology in her firm.
"You see Lara Croft as strong, agile, confident, fearlessly overcoming physical threats," said Hayden, 38, president of H2 IT Solutions Inc. in Orlando. "Playing it, you feel empowered, not oppressed. And that's the idea. It encourages women rather than discouraging them."
Central Florida has one of the country's largest clusters of gaming companies, large and small, including industry giant EA Sports of Maitland, maker of the "Madden NFL" and "Tiger Woods PGA Golf" games. Sports-game development remains heavily male, industry officials said.
Andrew Tosh, president of GameSim Technologies Inc. in Orlando and a former engineer for EA Sports in Maitland, said he "would like to think the gender gap is narrowing. But it is still difficult to find women to fill our engineering jobs. The résumés are almost always predominantly male."
Only 8.5 percent of UCF's computer-science and engineering graduates were women in 2013, down from 35 percent in 1992. Nationally, 18 percent of computer-science graduates were female in 2010, compared with 30 percent about 20 years ago, according to a recent National Science Foundation study.
Meanwhile, according to UCF, women have gravitated to science degrees in programs such as psychology (82 percent female), biology (62 percent) and microbiology (55 percent).
Still, in UCF's relatively new digital-media program, which targets the video-game-industry work force, women accounted for 30 percent of the 2013 graduates. Much of the curriculum focuses on the artistic side of video-game development, though it also involves software skills.
Winter Park's Full Sail University, which also offers degrees in digital media and game design, said female enrollment has doubled to more than 20 percent during the past decade.
Since 1994, it has sent more than 1,400 female graduates into the work force. Many have landed jobs with EA and other gaming companies, the university said.
Many of the recent gains women have made in the industry appear to have come in artistic work such as character rendering, scene creation and story development, company officials said.
"Certainly we're more evenly distributed genderwise on the art side of the house," said Tosh, the founder of GameSim. "We do have a number of female engineers on staff, and they are high performers for us. We'd love to have a more diverse work environment on that side, but in terms of recruitment, it can be very difficult."
The gap has led to a troubling disparity in earnings potential, critics say. Game engineers may earn as much as $70,000 a year fresh out of college, while game artists -- the profession that attracts more women -- may earn $15,000 to $20,000 less, according to the Center for Women and Information Technology.
Advocates for women say the disparity has its roots in attitudes and stereotypes long embedded in society and education.
"In many cases, we have not encouraged our girls to study math and science or pursue the technical areas, because for some reason we think they can't do it," said Pamela McCauley Bush, a national speaker on women's issues and professor of industrial engineering at UCF. "And nothing could be further from the truth."
The industry's biggest player -- Electronic Arts Inc. -- says it has worked hard to hire more women and improve diversity.
In California, for example, EA now has many female developers who work on "The Sims," the top-selling PC video game in history. It would not give specific figures, citing competitive concerns.
EA has seen "positive traction and growth" of women in the work force, the company's top diversity executive, Andre Chambers, wrote in an email. "But we want to continue to accelerate our efforts because there is more that can be done."
For game makers, it is clearly a good business decision, said Ben Noel, executive director of UCF's digital-media program, known as the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy.
"It is definitely not just a male-driven industry any longer," he said. "There are still some areas -- the shooter games and sports games -- that are male-driven. But the rest of the video-game world is pretty much equal, genderwise. And when the market opens up that way, you're going to see more women in game development. And you're going to see companies making changes."