Beyond 'Pink' Games: Industry and Academia Must Work Together To Engage Women Gamers and Developers

Exhibiting the work of controversial game developer Jason Rohrer at Wellesley's Davis Museum (currently open) might seem like an odd choice for the elite women's college. Rohrer, an independent game designer, writer, and designer, is known for original and often controversial games like Passage, which simulates a lifespan in five minutes, and The Castle Doctrine, a massive multiplayer game about home invasion, and self-defense. However, a close examination of Rohrer's work incites a conversation about gender and gaming that's sorely needed and that will--using Wellesley as just a starting point--extend the discussion to contemplate the changing role of women in gaming at a crucial juncture. (SXSW hosts a historic summit on online bullying today, March 12, in direct response to the aftermath of 'Gamergate' and in light of the popular festival's bungled approach to panels addressing women in gaming.) My own research, detailed below, paints a complicated picture of women and gaming at this moment and demands a radical re-evaluation of how we engage young women in this field.

Although the stereotypical picture of a gamer may be, like Rohrer, a nerdy young male, in fact, the number of women gamers and producers is on the rise. According to a survey by the gaming industry's top trade group, 44% of all gamers are women, while women age 18 or older represent a third of the entire game-playing population (33%). Despite representing an increasingly significant part of the videogames market, an industry expected to exceed $91 billion by the end of this year, women still play in a harsh playground, often facing harassment while battling over space, visibility, and inclusion in the industry's mainstream gaming culture--a problem that was simply brought to light by Gamergate. That problem is compounded by the fact that the creative and technological sides of the industry remain dominated by men. Only 22% of game developers identify as female.

As these figures suggest, there is an urgent need to support and foster a thriving community of women in gaming, and to do this we must first better understand their unique experiences, habits, and attitudes. What little research there is on women gamers often focuses on issues of representation, while gaming research is primarily done on mixed or male-dominated subject pools. The result: we know very little about women gamers as its own subject.

Uninformed in this way, we risk alienating half the population--not only to the detriment of the gaming market, but to the American economy and society as a whole. Consider, too, that it is through videogames that girls and young women today have some of their first encounters with technology. These early experiences then inform and even shape how young women view their own potential role within this field. If it were not for my own first experience playing Frogger on my brother's Atari computer, I may never have entered this field. And when later I first experienced the satisfaction of designing an elegant solution in code, I was energized by the thrill of creating something of my own and inspired to reject any limits, gender or otherwise. What other stories are waiting for us?

I, together with my colleagues Nicholas Knouf, Claudia Pederson, and Lauren Westendorf, decided to find out. We surveyed 315 game-playing students and alumnae of Wellesley College hoping to learn important lessons from studying the gaming experiences within this singular community where stereotypes about women and technology are perhaps less pervasive.

Our findings show that the experiences of women players are incredibly complex--from their habits, their perceptions of game development, and their experiences with other gamers of the same or different gender.

Participants spent on average five to 10 hours a week playing a large variety of games, from casual phone/tablet games to console-based First Person Shooter (FPS) and Role Playing Games (RPGs). This variety of games is contrary to the notion that women are naturally drawn to casual puzzles like Candy Crush and Bejeweled, or to "pink" child-like games.

But even though so many more women are playing all kinds of video games, only one out of five of our participants have considered a career in gaming, reflecting the reality that it's still tough for women and girls to envision themselves as part of this male-dominated profession. The participants that have considered entering the gaming field were more likely to know a female game developer through their social or professional network--a factor we should be paying close attention to if we want to attract more women into the field.

There is a real opportunity for industry and academia to come together to introduce and highlight the work of women game developers, while addressing the harassment and challenges they may face. For example, college courses in computing and programming should provide not only technical training but should take advantage of opportunities for collaboration across the humanities, social sciences, arts, and engineering. This can help students feel more able to tell their own stories, and they will pick up the tools to hone their unique design sensibilities. Further, the diversity of gaming interests and experiences among women suggests there's substantial value to offering students assignments that encompass a greater variety of game genres and cultures. Diversifying classroom materials and activities could help empower female students to engage critically with gaming, enabling them to take an active role in shaping the future of the industry--both as players and developers. On a parallel track, in game design, we clearly need to increase and diversify the representation of female characters while making the economy around them as equally rich and intriguing. These changes can improve the game experience and attract new players in the process.

At Wellesley, we've extended the conversation, invoked by Rohrer's exhibit, to examine the work and experiences of women who are game developers and critics, including a stirring panel discussion last month that brought industry and academia together on this critical topic. More than ever I hope a young woman here on campus, or any campus, is dreaming up her own game. It's her future, and really the future of gaming itself, that depends on how we embrace this moment of transition.

Orit Shaer is an Associate Professor of Computer Science and directs Wellesley College's Media Arts and Sciences program.