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How smarter schools can help break the game development boy's club

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Women within games development continue to be a rarity for the industry, even in the face of a growing number of female gamers — a collective that makes up nearly half of the entire game-buying public, according to the ESA.

And it's not for lack of trying, says MIT Game Lab research affiliate Zachary Hill.

The imbalance between female gamers and female game developers stems from a failure among educators to notice increased interest in gaming among women, says Hill. Today, he says, the current state of education systems around the world is discouraging women from entering into games development by ensuring, albeit unintentionally, only certain personality types thrive in the classroom setting.

The end of the boy's club

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This issue, says Hill, traces all of the way back to early education and forms the root of a problem that has overshadowed the industry since its inception. It's also something he's working to fix with the introduction of The Future Project, an effort to motivate high school students to take risks on the road to their eventual careers. Hill says schools today have failed to influence their students to pursue their dreams and the repercussions of that failure include an absence of women in games development.

"It's a pervasive failing of many education systems, certainly the mainstream systems in the United States, to ignore the transformative potential of inspiration, hope, and engagement across students of all types," Hill says of the modern-day classroom. "Huge swathes of students 'check out' the first time they're shown a formula. Because abstract, context-independent symbols are being hurled at them without any reason to excite curiosity over why such symbols are valuable, useful, fascinating, interesting and powerful."

A soul-sucking educational slog

The classroom issue is a long-standing one, built up over the years in U.S. academia. Traditional teaching practices just aren't equipped to support non-traditional types of learning behavior, Hill said. As a result, it's usually the case that only certain types of students will thrive.

"I think it's a teacher's responsibility in the classroom to be trained to address aggressions and microaggressions enacted by groups of men upon groups of women in classroom settings," he tells us. According to Hill, the current set up in classrooms encourages a style of discussion that rewards "certain gender-normative socialized behaviors" than others. In other words, more aggressive behavior will often drown out other types of discussion.

"In many cases, students are actually blamed for their inability to slog through heaps of boring, soul-sucking material, without any thought being given to the need to actually train the skills of perseverance, grit, and self-regulation just as you'd train any other skill," he said.

'It's a pervasive failing of many education systems...'

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Starbound community manager Molly Carroll entered the games industry without a formal degree. According to Carroll, her academic experience throughout high school was largely discouraging.

"I don't believe there's much encouraging women into gaming positions in general other than a love of games," she told us. "I remember being scoffed at by teachers and students alike for wanting to work in the games industry to the point where it just didn't seem like a genuine option anymore."

This is prevalent in games culture, says Hill. Until now, the idea of games development has been an issue of a generation gap between teachers and students, which itself led to a gap in media perception — "how teachers think of 'games' versus how students are likely to," says Hill.

"More women play games now than ever before, and more women play more types of games than ever before," Hill told us. "But women (for numerous different reasons) tend to disproportionately prefer constructive as opposed to destructive competition; collaborative and/or communicative game mechanics; and IPs with strong, multifaceted, multidimensional female characters.

'I don't believe there's much encouraging women into gaming positions in general other than a love of games.'

"Teachers aren't necessarily aware that these kinds of games exist, or are popular, or should be thought of as normative or potentially-normative," says Hill. "So the vocabulary of interaction you get in many game design curricula is the same fight-shoot-battle essentialism that's going to gravitate in its appeal towards men disproportionately. Too often, and with good intention, teachers will [select examples] that are far more likely to be intrinsically interesting to the average man compared to the average woman. But some basic thoughtfulness on the teacher's part can curb these habits substantially."

The education system continues to fail to address computer courses in a way that appeals across gender boundaries, with the approach to tech education often weighted to the interests of male students. "Care," says Hill, "should be taken to identify the elements of the tech sector that are likely to be intrinsically motivating to women."

For now this is largely only being addressed at an ad hoc level with companies starting their own programs first hand that focus on diversity. Electronic Arts has maintained a public policy of supporting the growth of minority figures in the industry through partnerships with minority professional organizations and technical women's groups such as the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, SHE++, the National Society for Black Engineers, The Anita Borg Institute and Women in Games-Jobs.

Riot Grrl

Elena-siegman-2Producer Elana Siegman, who has worked in the industry at Harmonix, Irrational Games and Treyarch, tells us that where traditional education systems failed her, grassroots Internet organizations helped cultivate a punk DIY ethos for women interested in entering this industry; Herself included.

"My interest in the game industry was sparked culturally," Siegman says. "As a teenaged girl I was personally confused about how to apply my particular talents and passions in a world where I didn't have any model for what success looked like beyond looking like what I saw on television and movies (i.e. "be really pretty, and everything will be fine!").

"Eventually I gravitated to creative endeavors where I had some encouragement to be trained (music and acting mainly), and then fell into technology by training myself how to make websites. I gravitated toward grass roots circles of female web development — I had been inspired by the riot grrl movement in high school, and found communities like webgrrls by accident. Through that, I met lots of geeks who were gamers in that realm, and eventually realized that the game industry was the perfect place for me. It never occurred to me to pursue a computer science degree or to learn about the technical aspects of art, I dove in and became self-taught, which was all the rage at the time!"

Siegman has worked in the online and tech industry since the late '90s. In 2005 she became lead guitarist for Boston-based punk rock group Tijuana Sweetheart before eventually providing vocals for the soundtrack of the Nazi Zombies game mode in Call of Duty: Black Ops.

"Ultimately I think I got very lucky to gain interest in the industry at a time when it was just reinventing itself. However, the current state of the industry reminds me a lot of that time — so I'm glad to see you asking about this because I think it's very relevant to think about now! I do sometimes wish that I had a better idea of the concepts of computer science, that a curriculum even existed for it.

"I had the mind for it, but consistently hit walls in my ability to move ahead as a software engineer, because I was learning in the context of paid work and didn't have the room to fail that one needs when trying to learn difficult concepts. Eventually I moved more into design and production — which is the right fit for me, so I can say that the lack of encouragement or understanding of where I wanted to go was ultimately not a total blockade for me. I wanted to be part of the games industry, and I luckily found it, although nobody pointed me there."

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Diversity at an ad hoc level

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"I believe both the education system and the tech industry system should be working to improve public representation of women when speaking to young women," MIT GameLab studio manager Rik Eberhardt told us. Eberhardt teaches project management courses at MIT and runs a number of annual game jams, job talks and conferences.

"Women in science and technology get great representation in media like PBS, but I can't remember the last time a technology representative from a company on a news program (either the morning programs like Today or on a specialty program) I watched was a woman," he says. "Far too often, the image of the tech industry insider is a white guy in a hoody."

"The women in my classes have likely already decided to enter the tech sector (they're attending a tech institute and are for the most part getting a science or engineering degree, largely in computer science or computational biology) but I don't think they have the ability to see other people like them succeed like the men get — men who have likely seen positive male representation in technology and science all their lives," says Eberhardt. According to Canadian game developer and Silicon Sisters co-founder Brenda Bailey Gerskovitch, universities across British Columbia are now working to bring more women to the foreground of typically male-dominated industries. As part of a new program, female engineers are now being invited to elementary schools around the province to speak to girls about careers in the tech industry.

"They are now at the stage where they have students attending [UBC] who first learned about engineering at one of those talks while in elementary school," says Gerskovitch.

Likewise, institutions like the Vancouver Film School are also working to encourage diversity in games development through a Women in Games scholarship and a game design program where women make up at least 30 percent of the student body, while the Centre for Digital Media offers Masters degrees in digital media with a ratio of roughly 50 percent women.

"I attribute this to the fact that they specifically recruit women into the program, and that they have an excellent staff, including highly accomplished women such as Dr. Kim Voll, who has a PhD in Computer Science," Gerskovitch continues. "If the leadership team and teaching talent include accomplished women, the students will see that."

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'I've not worked with a female creative director or lead designer yet, which is surprising given some of the projects I've worked on.'

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Tomb Raider and Mirror's Edge scriptwriter Rhianna Pratchett describes her personal experience in development, pointing to the glaring absence of women in leadership roles despite the growing number of female gamers.

"I certainly see more women around the various studios I work for, although it does tend to be guys who I work directly with," Pratchett tells us. "I've not worked with a female creative director or lead designer yet, which is surprising given some of the projects I've worked on."

Indie developer Mike Bithell tells us the lack of women in development "monumentally embarrassing" for the games industry.

"You look around studios, and they are a tiny minority, more so in older studios. It's weird how much this has informed the image in my head of what the entertainment industry is like," he explained. "My girlfriend works in animation, and her environments are usually 50/50. We should do better at this, and the excuses don't really hold much water.

"Education is definitely a part of it, maths and programming seem to lose girls' interest early on, and I'd argue a lot of that is the way they've been historically taught, and maybe even the social awkwardness of boys like me clogging up those classes. I can't imagine it's a particularly welcoming environment."

Women make up only 11 percent of the total of those pursuing a career in the games industry as of 2005.

Even with the growing interest in gaming among women, the number of women in the industry remains low. Only 17 percent of the 2,600 North American games industry professionals registered as attending the annual Games Developer Conference in this year's "State of the Industry" report were women. Likewise, the IGDA's most recent North American demographic study in 2005 confirms women make up only 11 percent of the total of those who pursue a profession in the games industry.

"Education will plant the seeds of interest better, earlier, if we can work out how to improve it for a female students," said Bithell. "Ultimately, I don't think there is an overnight solution, we just have to work hard to get more young girls fiddling with computers, and more women comfortable in the workplace."

"There really needs to be more education at a younger age about the varied opportunities there are in the industry, as young women often have no idea that games development is about more than just hard maths and science," Pratchett continued. "That's why I think initiatives like STEM and Little Miss Geek are so brilliant, because they inspire girls and open their eyes to new opportunities. That's just so important. I've seen girls get introduced to level design for the first time, and their faces light up. It's like they've stepped through the wardrobe and emerged in Narnia."

"I do think that young girls aren't encouraged towards computer science in the way that young guys are, although hopefully that will be changing soon. Ultimately, it's about women in the industry getting out there and talking to young girls about the opportunities out there. It does make a difference. If we want a more gender balanced industry then we need to make the effort and start sowing the seeds ourselves."