Thinking about Gaming as a Gateway to Computing and IT Careers

In a time when women are increasingly prominent in fields such as medicine, law and business, why are there so few women scientists and engineers? The situation in Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology fields has prompted a variety of investigations into how we might best attract women and girls to more technical fields, especially computer science. Today, I was on a panel at the annual NCWIT conference (National Center for Women & Information Technology) with Mitch Resnick, of the MIT Media Lab and known for the innovative programming software program Scratch, and fellow panelists: Kevin Clark and Tobi Saulnier. The panel provoked an interesting discussion with the audience, and I want to continue my thoughts a bit further here.

Gaming was a gateway to my own entry into computing. My first experience with a computer was an Apple ][ owned by the neighborhood family for whom I babysat. I learned to wrangle very large floppy disks in the wee hours while their two children slept. I was more intrigued by making the machine speak than I was by any television program or phone call, and I was rewarded by games.

I believe the first game I finally got to work was a simple choose your own adventure called Zork, played on a monochrome green screen. I found the game mesmerizing and truly annoying, all at once. I typed in guess commands, as there was no game manual or friends to ask how to play. I received more syntax errors while trying to maneuver around the world than I had probably heard the word Amen in years of Catholic school.

Still, for some maniacal reason, I persisted, persisted, and eventually received my own dear Atari 2600 gaming console (that I have to this day). I already had a long history of playing card games and board games as a family ritual, filling every holiday and transforming family gatherings into game nights. But computer games were, for me, different. I did not play play often with friends; games weren’t opportunity for competition with peers. Digital gaming was not necessarily a social event for me.
It was a magical one.

Gaming and gender has received a good deal of interest from researchers, game makers, and players over the last decade. From the stereotypical images that some games utilize in their representation systems, to the uneven participation among gender groups in events such as competitive or tournament gaming, to the types of games that appeal to differnt demographics. Games take so many different forms, and as everyone knows, there is uneven appeal across games to various audiences. Some players enjoy open ended play systems like The Sims that allow for user generated content, creative play, and subversion. Others enjoy console-games turned casual-games, like the more meditative games Flower or Flow. Still others long for the social experience of Rock Band, Guitar Hero, or World of Warcraft. Indeed, there is a real diversity of participation within games, and with that, measures of success, fun, engagement, and orientation towards goals.

More research is needed to examine the wealth of ways that different people from different backgrounds engage with games. Which games are they playing, how are they playing, why are they playing, with whom are they playing? What does this mean in terms of gateways to computing? Not all games are likely as effective a gateway to computing for women and girls, and indeed, members of any marginalized group, as are others. In the last IDGA workplace survey (and I’ve heard rumors of a new survey in the works, which is exciting), only 11% of the entire game industry workforce is female, and far less are minorities.

Thus we have a paradox: How can gaming serve as a gateway to women if women’ aren’t making as many games? If women are not already flooding the game industry as confident, talented, interested creators, how do we expect them to be attracted to that pipeline, to the new crop of game design programs popping up at colleges and universities across the country?  Any Google search will clearly demonstrate the surplus number of new game design degree programs that have emerged across the country to attract new students. Unfortunately, few of these programs seem to examine the issue of gender and IT in a deep way in the curriculum. How do these programs explicitly deal with diversifying their teaching style, pedagogy, and examples, instead of only mirroring what exists out ‘in industry,’ thus replicating the already problematic situation?

What we can do
I’ve often been asked by those running K-12 after school programs how they can better enrich students’ knowledge and abilities to not reproduce “what’s out there.” Here are some tips to expand the conversation about gaming to be inclusive.

1) Discover and discuss the women who have already made games. Did you know that many of the most popular games in American history have been created by women? Anne Abbot created the hit 1843 game Mansion of Happiness, one of the first mass produced board games in the U.S. Lizzie Magie Philips, as part of a Tax protest movement, invented The Landlord’s Game (1906) to point out the political injustice of certain types of taxation; her game patents can be found in the publicly available US Patent office online, and her game later was taken by another inventor and sold to Parker Brothers as Monopoly, the best-selling board game of all time. Marsha Falco, a more recent inventor, created her now famous card game Set in her home with her child; since, she has invented the Quiddler, and Set Cubed card games. Leslie Scott is the inventor of Jenga! Dona Bailey was one of the creative pair who invented and programmed the smash Arcade game hit  Centipede. Kim Swift led the team that created the novel recent 3D computer game Portal, now published by Valve Software. Erin Robinson invented the award winning casual game Puzzle Bots. This list is not a complete list by any means — game makers Tracy Fullerton, Brenda Brathwaithe, Heather Kelley, and myself are among the many many women who make games — and lots of them. Get to know our games.

2) Help students brainstorm outside the games we’ve already seen. While Call of Duty is great, there are in fact many other types of games, each as legitimate as the other. About 13.7 million Black Ops copies have sold, making it the best selling game of all time in the US. But the Farmville community peaked at 80 million players, and remains at around 50 million active players. I’d say, that makes it a legitimate gaming experience, too. And let’s not forget the Holy Grail of Gaming, played upon every airplane in the sky:  Solitaire.

There are tools you can use to help “open the box” and creatively consider games from new perspectives. Utilizing tools such as the Grow a Game toolset, brainstorming sessions in game related courses can steer clear of simple first person shooter knockoffs that crop up in game design exercises.

Once students feel the tingling of their brains as they come up with ideas on the spot that are original, inventive and totally unique, teachers have a better shot of continuing that spirit of innovation.

3) Showcase diverse games. Exemplary festivals such as Indiecade, an independent games festival held in Los Angeles each year, and the Experimental Games Festival run by the IDGA showcase the innovative work of emerging game makers. From individual artists, small independent teams, to student groups, these games showcase what can happen in games with a lot of creative thinking, and have become among the most interesting emerging resources where instructors can find new games for students to see and play.

4) Help girls and young women make work. Afterschool programs still seem to be among the best places for learning to make games, outside the K-12 innovative curricula happening at places such as Quest to Learn. Tools like Scratch, Gamemaker, Game Salad, Gamestar Mechanic, and Alice have all been used with success to get students from idea to interactive digital experience. As Kevin Clark has noted in his work, having the teachers and mentors in such programs match the demographics of the students is key, especially when games are concerned.

5) Help girls and young women show their work. I’ve taught at the college level, and in various after school settings, for well over a decade, and have repeatedly had some of the best work from ‘the shy girl in the corner.’ Foster an inclusive environment where students practice showing their work as they go along, teaching good critique and listening skills. Sometimes, you need some deadlines to help structure production time. Get college women to gear up for student-only competitions, especially female friendly ones such as the Games 4 Girls competition out of Illinois.

6) Understand bias. Over the years much research has been conducted to determine the limiting factors of girls in STEM. One such limiting factor is that of implicit bias, also known as hidden bias, or the way in which our mental schema creates templates of understanding broad categories. Such schema are generally at an unconscious level, but are a predictor of people’s behavior. In the case of girls in science, the implicit biases of girls, their families, friends, and teachers may limit girls’ achievements. Such bias is essential to unpack because often, one thinks of ‘discrimination’ as bigoted individuals acting to cause someone harm. Implicit bias shifts this discourse to more of an environmental cause that is unconscious and pervasive. (There are effective tests online for implicit bias assessment, called Implicit Association Tests.)

Researchers have also found that women taking a math exam who were told that the test had “shown gender differences in the past” scored lower than other women with equivalent math backgrounds. Stereotypes abound in society, and research has shown them to be debilitating. A Stereotype threat is the anxiety or concern in a situation where a person has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their demographic group. According to Johns et al, teaching interventions play a definitive role in ‘inoculating women’ against the consequences of stereotype threat. The research indicates that subtly shifting female students’ focus onto their strengths, rather than potential weaknesses, can work against the effect.

7) Recognize games’ transformative power. Games are rule based systems that, in and of themselves, teach procedural thinking, problem solving, working within constraints, and the values of fairness, competition, cooperation, and more — whether digital or analog. Since the earliest games found by archaeologists date back to 6000 B.C., games have long been our partner in the human adventure. Games and other media are created by those who live in culture and who are surrounded by their own cultural imaginary; games are a cultural medium, carrying embedded beliefs within their representation systems and structures, whether the designers intend them or not. Designers must therefore take some responsibility for this, being directly inclusive in their design process.

Games are systems that teach us about culture; game designers render a palpable world, and render it marvelous. We can hold games high as a robust gateway for women, girls, and computing, but we must do so consciously, offering a possibility space of the imagination for a diverse, vibrant group.