15 April 2009

Play Games to Work Smarter: Why It is More Critical than Ever that Women Play and Develop Games

This article originally appeared as part of GameDev.Net's coverage of GDC 2009.

by Sande Chen

In this panel put together by the IGDA Women in Games SIG, academics and business leaders came together to discuss the importance of video game literacy for women in the upcoming years. In addition, the leadership skills involved in playing some video games can help women succeed in their jobs.

"Cyber-socialization is different from socialization," said Diane Pozefsky, a research professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With businesses increasingly using distributed teams of people who have never met face-to-face, women who want to succeed in business will need to understand the subtleties of communication between avatars versus body language.

Moreover, the skills involved in running a remote team are the same ones needed to run a successful guild. As Phaedra Boinodiris, Serious Games Product Manager for IBM Software Group, revealed, IBM has been studying MMORPGs to see how they can be used in leadership and teamwork training. The military has even used fantasy raids in video games in its training.

Tracy Fullerton, Associate Professor of Interactive Media at the University of Southern California, agreed with this practice: "Games naturally help us to understand the forces that are at work in the leadership process. It allows us to rehearse bad and good strategies in leadership."

Online games can also teach women how to deal with environments dominated by males, something that may come in handy if they decide to work in game development.

But more and more, video game technology and video games are entering fields where women, rather than men, are the dominant population. These serious games, as they are called, will become part of the tools used in corporate culture, in the classroom, and in healthcare.

Noah Falstein, a serious games consultant, noted that at the most recent Games for Health conference, the audience there was much more balanced than at GDC. There was no gender or age bias since the teams and audiences for these games exhibit diversity.

That's an ideal the panelists hope can happen for regular game development, although they acknowledge that obstacles exist.

Fullerton observed that when young women come to her game design class, they often sit in the back and think that they don't belong. She has to convince them that they do in fact play games, even if the games they like are not Halo 3 but some Facebook app. These young women could not imagine themselves as game designers.

Falstein relayed a similar story: "I talked to a young woman on Monday and she said, 'I was a psychology major in college and I design games on my own, but I'm not sure if I would be a good game designer." The punchline was that the young woman was Erin Robinson, who two days later was one of the winners of the Game Design Challenge at GDC.

It's a familiar sentiment spoken by women, who have been beaten down by the prevailing judgment, that women aren't gamers and women shouldn't be in game design.

"The game industry has created a box around itself that says GET OUT," Fullerton said. "If you're not dedicated to hardcore games, then you're not a gamer." Instead, Fullerton felt that it was up to the industry to invite women into the fold. Research has shown that this could have a beneficial effect for games.

For instance, when boys and girls are asked to develop games, it's the girls' games that are enjoyed by everyone whereas only boys seemed to like the games they developed. Women developers tend to add more play patterns, enabling more people to enjoy the game.

Falstein remarked after telling the story of his daughter's playtime with Diablo 2: "Watching a bunch of 10-year-old girls play Diablo 2 was eye-opening. It was completely different from boys." The girls tended to play collaboratively whereas boys would compete for control of the avatar.

The panelists agreed that more mainstream games, such as Wii Sports, are a positive trend for the industry. If more women play games and more women develop games, then they can be part of this growing trend.

"Hopefully, we won't have stereotypical games that young male designers think little girls want, but about what people want," said Falstein.

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