Posted by: SOE | April 28, 2010

Should Barbie Be A Game Designer?

Sometimes you sit down to write one thing, and end up with something quite different. I was planning to write a short blog about Barbie’s new career as a computer engineer, which was announced in February  by Mattel.  I was never a big Barbie fan as a child, probably because I was never really interested in dolls in general, and I’ve always had the vague impression her physical appearance isn’t very modern in terms of her representation of women.  So now with Barbie becoming a computer engineer, it could perhaps help show girls that careers in computing could be a good choice for them to consider.

However, in the course of reading up on Barbie, I learned that she has actually had quite a few jobs that are less usual for women – including astronaut, presidential candidate and others. So while she’s new to computer engineering, it’s not as groundbreaking as I initially thought it might be. Also during my reading, I came across this fascinating report from New Image for Computing (NIC), an organization attempting to improve the image of computing among high school students and encourage them towards studying computing at a post-secondary level.  The report, based on survey data gathered by the NIC in 2008, is a very interesting read overall, but I was particularly struck by some of the statistics about gender and race disparity.   While this particular survey is focused on “computer science” as a general area, I felt that the statistics were very likely to be similar for careers specifically in computer games, which suffer from very similar perception issues.

First, the most obvious difference: far more boys than girls perceive computer science as a good choice for them to study. While 46% of high school students said it was a good choice, that actually breaks down to 67% of boys and only 16% of girls: an enormous gender difference. The study also shows how girls are less likely to see how a career in computing could fulfill the things they are looking for in a career.

This leads fairly obviously to the idea that educating girls to better understand computing and how it could be a good career choice for them should lead to more girls choosing to study computing in post-secondary studies. Seems logical, right? I thought so anyway, until I noticed some of the racial statistics. The same report also found that 72-78% of African American or Hispanic boys thought that computing would be an excellent career choice for them, but only 64% of white boys did. Yet, the report notes that this ratio does not at all correspond to the ratios of these ethnic groups observed in post-secondary education, nor in the workforce in general. Unlike the girls, it’s clear that the African American and Hispanic boys don’t need to be convinced that a career in computing would suit them. But just like the girls, they do not end up studying computing related subjects and are not making it out into the workforce.

So, would educating girls to think computing was a good choice necessarily help? It might, but the boys’ ethnic statistics show it’s not necessarily guaranteed to help. Perhaps we would convince girls that computing would suit them as a career, and then still find that they’re not pursuing it, just as the African American and Hispanic portion of the boys are not. An interesting question might be to find out why this portion of the boys does not choose to study computing even though they think it would suit them, and to find out if the same reasons are affecting girls. Are there social or cultural standards inhibiting both groups? Is there some kind of exclusionary force within the computing industry making non-white and non-males feel unwelcome? Is there something else we’re missing?

It would be nice to think that a computer engineer Barbie will lead girls into computing, and that a similar tactic could also lead girls into computer game design. It would also be nice to think that just a little education and explanation to girls about what careers in these fields really mean to them could increase interest significantly. Unfortunately, it’s clear that the situation isn’t that simple at all, and we still have a long way to go before we can really figure out and begin to address all the factors that may be limiting the numbers of women entering computer science in general, and in computer game design specifically.

- Emily “Domino” Taylor

Posted by: SOE | April 2, 2010

April Fool’s Day Reflections

April Fool’s Day has come and gone, accompanied as usual by numerous spoofs, fake news releases and general confusion.  Massively summed up some of the better pranks within the MMO industry, in case you missed them, and there were many more.

The best of the April Fool’s jokes I saw were both amusing and thought-provoking.  Two excellent spoofs from The Border House and a fake ad from Blizzard’s Battle.net were both witty and also highlighted some of the topical issues relating to women in gaming that have come up this year.

How to Get Your Boyfriend to Play Video Games with You is a tongue-in-cheek role reversal of many similar articles on how to get your girlfriend to play video games.  While most are well-intentioned, most are also patronizing and overly simplistic.  Either way, it’s quite entertaining to imagine what this role reversal would be like, as the April Fool’s article outlines.

A Matter of Resources is another wry post from the Border House, poking fun at the recent article from Kotaku in which the producer of Bad Company 2 explains why “there’s no girls in our game”: it takes too much effort to build new skeletons and new animations.   In other words, not only were female characters not allowed to fight wars, they were in fact the first casualty.  I find these resource arguments to be highly dubious at best: not only would many women consider it preferable to use male walk and run animations instead of the butt-wiggling supermodel slink that too many games seem to use for female characters, but the notable omission of female military figures still occurs even in games that already do have female models (such as Champions Online).  So, the April Fool’s post was both extremely funny, and also a great way of turning the argument on its head to point out how ridiculous are both the logic and the claims of resource prioritization.

Finally, hats off to Blizzard for their Battle.net Matchmaking ad.  The actual Battle.net matchmaking system aims to match up players into well-balanced groups for experiencing game content; the April Fool’s version suggests that the matchmaking features of Battle.net actually extend much further.  This is not only funny, but the frustrated women in the video complaining that they can’t meet men who can pwn noobs up to their standards form a very positive contrast to the unfortunate reality of GameCrush, a recently launched site that offers to match male gamers up with female “playdates” for gaming and dirty talk.

Did you spot any other April Fool’s jokes that were relevant to women in gaming?  Please share the links if so!

By Emily “Domino” Taylor

Posted by: SOE | March 25, 2010

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

March 24th marks Ada Lovelace Day, a day on which bloggers are encouraged to highlight the achievements of women in science and technology. (If you’re not familiar with the name of Ada Lovelace, check out the Wikipedia entry, or this cute short movie.)

Augusta “Ada” King Lovelace was born in 1815, the daughter of the English poet Lord Byron, and worked with Charles Babbage documenting and analyzing his Analytical Engine. She had an impressive understanding of mathematics, causing Babbage to refer to her as “the enchantress of numbers”, and is considered by many to be the first computer programmer ever. She even predicted that computers might one day compose music and graphics – making her a real visionary, probably the first person to see the potential of computers beyond pure mathematical calculations. In 1852, she died very young of cancer at the age of 37. It’s sad to imagine what more she might have accomplished had she lived to a full old age, and how it might even have affected the path of other women in technology who would follow her.

Speaking of women in technology, I attended GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) in San Francisco last week for the first time. While there, I attended as many events as I could that were related to women in gaming. While the men still greatly outnumbered the women at GDC, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of women I did see. Possibly the most striking example was in a Women In Gaming round table discussion hosted by the IGDA (International Game Developers Association). Concerned women (and men) from the game industry gathered in a conference room to discuss why there are fewer women playing and designing games, and how best to change this. This year, several of the attendees who had attended similar panels at GDCs in the past commented on how the numbers of panel attendees has increased; in fact, this year the group barely managed to fit in the room we had been assigned. While I had obviously been expecting to see a reasonable number of women attending this discussion, I was very pleasantly surprised to see just how many enthusiastic women were keen to get involved. As one of the organizers said at the end of the meeting, “next year we’re not even going to fit in this room.” And that’s the best possible problem to have!

Sometimes it can be discouraging to look at the straight numbers of women in game design compared to women in the general population, and there’s still a way to go. Talking with industry veterans helps me realize that even though the numbers are still low, we have made huge improvements in the past few years and that’s really something to be excited about. Change doesn’t (and can’t) happen instantly, but it is happening. Let’s be sure we keep it moving!

- Emily “Domino” Taylor

Posted by: SOE | February 26, 2010

Thinking Pink? Please don’t.

Have you been reading The Border House?  I have.  It’s a relatively new blog with a wide range of contributors, with the goal of “bringing thoughtful analysis to gaming with a feminist viewpoint.”  It’s just over 2 months old now and I’ve already enjoyed many of their thought-provoking articles.

Last month, one in particular jumped out at me:  “Pink Stuff”, by Nanasuyl.  Although it’s certainly not the most concerning topic facing women in gaming, it’s definitely one that I notice a lot.  Quite simply, it’s the color pink.  As the author points out, it’s hard to go into a toy store or children’s clothing department without being bombarded by all things pink – at least, in the sections aimed at girls.  And it seems that the assumption behind it is that all females must like pink.  Want to make your product appeal to women?  Why, that’s easy!  Just make it pink!

It’s a mindset that irritates me deeply.  It irritates me for starters because I happen to rather dislike pink; you won’t find any pink objects in my house unless it’s a rare cooked steak, and I can only stand to wear pink clothing at all if it’s a violent, offensive hot pink.  But what irritates me the most is how it indicates such a superficial view of how to please women.  As Nanasuyl rightly points out in the Border House article: “It seems the marketing people think girls will want a videogame just because it’s pink. I guess it never crossed their minds girls could want a videogame because it’s fun.”

I think I see what they might be trying to do here – make potentially “threatening” seeming “male” type items more accessible and less threatening by painting them in stereotypical feminine colors – but I still feel it’s a superficial view of both our interests and our intelligence.  Even if I loved the color pink, I’m hardly going to be convinced that I like something I otherwise wouldn’t simply because it’s pink.  Making a few portable game console covers pink is not going to make the games more appealing to women, nor will it make the gaming community seem more welcoming.  I saw a pink colored machine gun at a shooting range in Las Vegas last year, and believe me, it was still plenty threatening and unappealing.

It also annoys me because the time, money and thought spent on making things pink is time, money, and thought that is not identifying the real problem or finding a real solution.  It’s slapping a quick band-aid (and not a very effective one) over something that needs a visit to the hospital and an operation and convincing yourself that you’ve done your part.

So if anyone out there is contemplating adding more pink to their in-game armor, box art, or UI, please do both of us a favor and don’t waste your time.  Instead, take a closer look at the real reasons that women aren’t playing your game – I guarantee it isn’t because of a lack of pink.  Fix those problems first, and only then you can worry about offering custom color choices.

And I’d like it in orange, if you please.  Not pink.

- Emily “Domino” Taylor

Posted by: SOE | February 1, 2010

The Grandmother Test

I spent Christmas in England this year.  I have family there, and also lived and studied there for several years, so I go back to visit when I can.  This visit was a sad one in some ways though, as my grandmother passed away in October and her absence was very noticeable.

My grandmother was an amazing woman and has been an example to me all my life.  She was a strong, independent woman who was also a loving wife, mother, and grandmother.  I lived with her for a few years in the late 90s while I finished my Masters of Science degree and started working in London.  Even though she was from a generation born long before the existence of the personal computer, at the age of 90 she declared she was tired of everybody being able to email everybody else and get all the news faster than her, so she went out and bought a computer and modem and set up an email account and got down to learning how to use it.  All her life she had been a copious letter-writer, and I think it bothered her very much that she was now receiving news weeks later than those of us with email.  In a fit of impatience very typical of her, she decided she was not going to put up with this and marched out to take care of the problem.

My job back then was in I.T. support, a field about which she knew very little, but she loved to hear me explain what I did at work and how I helped people.  She put my work skills to good use by having me write clear, concise, grandmother-friendly instructions on how to receive and write her emails on her new computer.  Some years later, when I started playing EverQuest and came back to visit her, she insisted that I explain all about the game, and how people in different countries could play together and make friends.  A challenging explanation to make clear to someone who has never played a computer game in her life, but I did my best.

Over the years as I continued my career in I.T., my tasks changed and so did the people I was helping, but any time I was called on to document any type of process, I always took care to phrase it as clearly and simply as my grandmother would demand.  Documentation was not considered clear or complete until it would pass the “grandmother test,” which is to say, would my grandmother be able to follow these instructions?  If no, then it needed rewriting.

These days I write less official documentation, but there is still plenty of opportunity to write instructions for people in the form of the quests we put in game and game content in general.  It is very hard for my generation to see what aspects of a game may confuse a new player, as we have been familiar with computers and computer games for years or even decades, and take certain conventions for granted.  What is a “hit point,” for example?  A health bar seems obvious to anybody who’s played any computer game, but ask anybody of my grandmother’s generation (or even my mother’s) and you’re unlikely to find many who can tell you what it is.  Yet I doubt that any game made this decade explains the concept, even if you dig deep down into the help files.  So I remind myself to ask now and then, would a completely new player understand where the quest is asking them to go?  Would they understand how to do this or that?  Would my grandmother?

I miss my grandmother very much and appreciate many of the lessons she taught me.  It’s nice to feel that she continues to teach me even now as I mentally run my game content through “the grandmother test.”  I’d love to see game play and UI designers taking the time to borrow an elderly or non-computer-savvy relative for a play test—I suspect that many games would be much improved for all their players as a result.

- Emily “Domino” Taylor

Posted by: SOE | December 16, 2009

Risk Taking in the Bike Lanes

I read an interesting article today in Scientific American about getting more bicycles on city streets: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=getting-more-bicyclists-on-the-road. The key point seemed to be that when it comes to cycling, women are on average much more risk-averse than men.   Women appear to consider safe bike infrastructure (as in off-street bike lanes and traffic calming measures) to be essential to the decision to bicycle rather than drive.  Thus, the article argues that a good measure of the “health” of a city’s bike infrastructure is to look at the number of women cyclists.  If the cyclists are mostly male, it probably still needs improvement.

It’s an interesting way of looking at things.  I know two people at SOE who regularly bike to work, and both of them live slightly further away than I do.  They’ve suggested to me on a couple of occasions that I should also, but so far I haven’t tried it.  Partly the logistics discourage me – I’m not sure where I’d put the bike, and there’s no gym near the office where I could take a shower and clean up if I arrive all hot and sweaty.  But the main discouragements are the complete lack of bike lanes, the crazy San Diego drivers and the fact I’d end up biking home in the dark.  Neither of these feels safe to me and it’s definitely a factor that bothers me, but apparently does not bother my male co-workers.

This may seem somewhat unrelated to games, but I wonder when I read articles like this whether the same risk aversion might apply to women when they play computer games.  Are women as a whole less likely to take risky chances in games?  Or does the risk-averse behavior not exist when it’s not a game?  Or a third possibility, perhaps when inside a safe game, women might be even MORE prone to taking risks, to compensate for the restraints we face in the real world?    And, taking that a step further, can we look at the behavior of women in games and use it as a measure of how the risk in the game is balanced (or not), the way city planners can use it to gauge the health of a bike infrastructure, or ecologists can use the local fish species populations to gauge the health of a river system?

I did a quick search for studies that might shed some light onto this question but I wasn’t able to turn up anything definitive.  In my own case, I think I tend to enjoy taking risks in game, and I’m probably more likely than the average person to go exploring in highly dangerous areas where I really shouldn’t be.  You wouldn’t catch me doing that in real life, but it’s quite liberating in a game like EverQuest II.  I can’t draw any broad conclusions based on just my own experience, though; I could be just a strange outlier in the data, not statistically significant.

Questions like this sometimes make me wish I had studied behavioral sociology or something similar instead of biology.  Online games raise so many fascinating questions about human behavior, and there is so much in this field that could still studied.

- Emily “Domino” Taylor

Posted by: SOE | November 25, 2009

Happy Birthday, EverQuest II!

Posted by: SOE | November 10, 2009

Q&A With Rebecca

This week, I took the opportunity to check in with Rebecca Gleason, this year’s winner of the G.I.R.L. scholarship.  Rebecca is currently in the middle of her studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and we touched base to see how it’s going.

Emily:  First of all, I hope you’re enjoying the program, although I understand it’s a lot of work!

Rebecca:  Thanks.  Yes, it is quite a lot of work!  But, it is very rewarding.

Emily:  Can you describe what your typical day is like these days?  Is it what you expected?

Rebecca:  I am trying to stay healthy and maintain a schedule, so I wake up early and go to the gym (otherwise I would be sitting all day).  Once I’ve showered and had breakfast, I get going on my homework.  There is so much ‘making’ to do in each course that I only really take small meal breaks during the day.  We are not only doing digital work, but also creating 3-D designs and hand drawings, so I have paper scraps and odd materials strewn about the place at all times.  My classes go from 6:30pm to 9:00pm every night and from 9:00am to 2:00pm on Saturdays.

Emily:  You mentioned that you’ve been too busy to even check your email most days.  What is it that’s keeping you the busiest at the moment?

Rebecca:  The volume of work we are asked to produce is astounding.  Right now, we are working on several different projects where we have to diverge and create a multitude of visual explorations that convey a specific mood.

Emily: In your essay submission to the G.I.R.L. scholarship program, you shared some thoughts about women and girls in gaming, and how their relationship with gaming is sometimes different from that of men and boys.  Since the readers of this blog didn’t have the opportunity to read your essay, can you describe what key points you felt were most important?

Rebecca:  I feel that many women and girls are perhaps more drawn to creative games rather than the “shoot ‘em up” ones. We aren’t as easily captivated by those, as they don’t allow for any real personal exploration.  I’m not saying there aren’t any women who enjoy those.  They are great escapes and a lot of fun, but in order to want to keep coming back, I feel we need a little more interaction and creative control.

Emily:  Before starting the scholarship you mentioned that you would love to work as an artist, but you also mentioned an interest in other areas of game design.  Now you’ve had an opportunity to delve deeper into some of the different areas of gaming, have your preferences changed at all?

Rebecca:  I have always wanted to do something with my artistic talents, but I also have so many ideas about all aspects of a game.  My program is Experience Design and so that can be translated in so many ways.  Not only can I contribute to different aspects of game design, but also perhaps the marketing and promotion of the games.

Emily:  Have there been any big surprises?  Anything that you weren’t expecting, and have only discovered during your studies so far?

Rebecca:  No huge surprises yet.  Though I have come to understand the importance of suspending judgment and allowing ideas to form and be documented without trying to make them perfect the first time.

Emily:  Game design can be a very challenging and demanding career.  Do you think there are any specific challenges that are specifically relevant to women in gaming, that perhaps don’t impact men so much?

Rebecca:  Perhaps just the lack of women in some areas of design and the perception that it is hard to break into the industry as a woman.

Emily:  How about the reverse?  Do you think there are any challenges that men face in game design, where perhaps women aren’t as affected?

Rebecca: There is a lot of competition in a field like this.  I think men probably feel that quite a bit.

Emily:  I’m curious, why game design?  Was there anything specific that developed your interest in game design?  Is there any particular reason you’re so passionate about it now?

Rebecca:   I have always loved the sci-fi/fantasy genre and my art has reflected this interest.  Game design seems to be a place where my ideas are realized.  I see game design as the perfect outlet for my creativity and for further exploration in ways games can be used.

Emily:  You’ve mentioned that Civilization is one of your all time favorite games.  I’ve spent many happy days playing it myself, as well as its sequels like Alpha Centauri.  Are there any other games that particularly stand out as favorites?

Rebecca:  I’ve always loved Zelda and some other older ones like Crystal Castles, and Impossible Mission.  I also really like games where I’m learning languages or other things I can use in the real world.

Emily:  Are there any women in your life that have been strong role models for you?  How do they feel about you pursuing a career in game design, if so?

Rebecca:  My mom was always a great role model.  She is a wonderful artist and has had a huge influence on my own creative path.  She is happy I am using my creativity because there was a time when I had ignored it.  She is excited to see what I will bring to the mix and where this path will lead me.

Emily:  You mentioned that in the future you’d love to be able to continue to help women enter the gaming industry.  Do you have any specific ideas in mind about how you’d like to see women in gaming encouraged?

Rebecca:  I think things have really opened up in the past few years as far as integrating a woman’s voice in the industry by marketing to them and creating games especially attractive to them.  This awareness is something I’d like to build on so that girls will know that there is space for them to play in this world too.  I haven’t been able to think too much yet on concrete ways of doing this, but I’m still exploring many ideas in general so I know it will come.

Emily:  Any last words of advice or warning you’d like to leave for future G.I.R.L. scholarship applicants?

Rebecca:  I guess I’d just like to say that it is important to keep working on your craft and learning about the world.  Real life experiences are what bring the most interest and vibrancy to the table when you are trying to create something.  Use this experience as a step towards your goals.  Even if you don’t win, what you learn by doing it is just as valuable.  Learn what it takes to be great at something and work toward it every day.

Posted by: SOE | November 6, 2009

A Touch of Hero Worship

I didn’t have a lot of heroes as a child.  There were various fictional characters that I wanted to emulate (at one point I was very cross that my parents hadn’t abandoned me as a baby in some African jungle to become Tarzan), but that’s not quite the same thing.  Through childhood and into adulthood, although there are many people I admire, there are very few that I would consider a “hero” to me.  So, I was quite surprised to discover I currently have a small case of hero worship.

If you work or play extensively in the game industry, chances are pretty darn good that by now you’ve seen the music video, “Do You Wanna Date My Avatar” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urNyg1ftMIU , or watched the web series “The Guild” http://www.watchtheguild.com/ .  The writer, the brains and the driving force behind these is a lady by the name of Felicia Day.  A few years ago she would have appeared to be yet another struggling actress, picking up small parts on this sitcom or that, good enough looking but not the typical sculpted-and-airbrushed beauty that’s really going to turn heads in Hollywood.  There must have been a thousand other young actresses in the same position, but what’s different about her?

First, she plays computer games; second, she admits it; and third, but far from least, she creates her own opportunities.  Since she had a lot of knowledge about MMO games, she made a sitcom pilot.  And when Hollywood wasn’t interested, she turned it into an online web series.  Found co-stars, found staff, worked entirely off fan donations until she found sponsors, and created a series that’s now followed by fans around the world.  Not only is she a good role model for anybody who’s not yet where they want to be in their career, but she’s also a fantastic representative of women in gaming.  To the old refrain of “girls don’t game” we can now say, look!  A woman MMO gamer who is attractive, successful and smart.  She’s far from the only one, but she’s certainly the highest profile one around right now, and by doing what she’s doing, she represents all of us.  And so, she’s my new hero.  Good for you, Felicia Day, for refusing to give up, for not accepting the judgment of Hollywood, and for finding a way to balance gaming, career, and femininity so that all three end up stronger.

- Emily “Domino” Taylor

Posted by: SOE | October 16, 2009

Adventures in Dungeons & Dragons

When I was maybe 10 or 12, my parents gave me a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook.  I don’t remember exactly when it was, and I’m not sure what prompted this gift as they had never played D&D themselves, but I’m guessing it was probably around the time that the Dungeons & Dragons animated series was on TV as I watched that every week.

While a D&D manual was a pretty awesome gift to give a young girl with an active imagination, unfortunately they couldn’t provide me with the other thing needed to enjoy D&D: a gaming group.  I spent ages reading the manual and my brother and I collected lots of dice and tried a few games, but two people (one being the GM) does not make for a very satisfying D&D experience.  We eventually gave up trying to play D&D on paper, and moved on to writing vaguely D&D themed text-based computer adventure games in BASIC (most of which I programmed to include cheat codes for me, and ways to imaginatively kill my brother).

I was fascinated by the idea of D&D and similar games, but unfortunately, they did not seem to be something that girls played back then.  My female friends had never heard of it and didn’t seem in the slightest bit interested in learning more.  My brother was a bit luckier – being both male, and a couple of years younger than me, he eventually found a group of friends in his teens that he could game with.  However, girls most definitely did not hang around with their baby brother’s all-boy gaming group either, and all the boys of my own age who might have been gaming were far too shy to talk to girls about it, let alone invite them to join.  So it wasn’t until university that I actually had the opportunity to play some tabletop role playing games with a real gaming group.  That didn’t last long after graduation, however, as I moved countries a few times and ended up working for a mainly marketing and publicity company whose employees (although wonderful people) tended to look at me like some kind of weird alien when I talked about things like roleplaying games or MMOs.  I played some Traveller (a space-based science fiction roleplaying game) for a few years via a remote client with assorted online acquaintances all around the world, but mostly satisfied my roleplaying interests by playing MMOs.

There is a happy ending though; since starting work at SOE, I’ve been blissfully surrounded by hundreds of gaming geeks who enjoy every type of game imaginable.  When asked what I did on the weekend, I can reply that I killed a dragon, and nobody will even blink; if anything, they’ll just enquire how, and which dragon.  I now have not one but two regular D&D games, and we’ve been trying out the latest edition of D&D.  Somewhere in the back of my parents closet, my original first edition D&D handbook is probably still languishing while I run around with a fourth edition rogue and a warlord.

I’m glad that I get to play now, but I do still regret that I didn’t have this much fun back when I first got my original player’s handbook.  I know that games like this are slowly becoming more main-stream, and I hope that nowadays there are enough girls who are interested in D&D that they can find friends to play with if they wish.  If that’s not the case yet, then hopefully we’ll get there soon!

- Emily “Domino” Taylor

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