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

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