Scitech  Balancing gender in the video game industry

I grew up playing Goldeneye and Super Mario Brothers, and, as a result, gained a small modicum of video gaming skills. Though I enjoyed gaming, I was reluctant to admit to it, since I knew it was not a typically female activity. The rarity of women who play, or who will admit to playing, video games, is just one reminder of the male domination of the video game industry.

The video game industry is comprised of people from many different fields, such as design, music, and marketing. About a third of these people come from Computer Science programs, the graduates of which are primarily male. Addressing this skewed gender distribution is the subject of a joint research project between the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education and its Department of Computing Science. Their research involved introducing boys, who had more experience with video games, and girls, who had less, to ScriptEase, a game design program. Their findings showed that girls and boys showed equal interest in the program, despite differences in initial experience.

According to one of the paper’s researchers, Duane Szafron, a Computing Science professor at the University of Alberta, it is important to have more women in the field. He believes that a greater balance between genders is necessary in universities because, “it is important for students to be educated in an environment that is similar to the one in which they will spend their lives. … The education they experience should be in a context in which they interact with as many women as men. This idea also suggests that other kinds of diversity should be present in the university [setting] to match the diversity of the Canadian community with regards to race, religion, et cetera,” he added in an email to The Daily.

“Anytime someone is in a minority population there is a danger that they will be treated differently by the majority and feel that they don’t belong. I believe this is currently the case for women in Computing Science programs. It is too easy for them to feel that they don’t belong and so too many leave the program for the wrong reasons. In some ways, the minority is self-perpetuating,” wrote Szafron.

Judy Truong, project manager in the Technology Group at Ubisoft, a French video and computer game company with a development studio in Montreal, explains that any female engineer, not just in those in the video game industry, will face male dominated environments. However, she explained that what drew her to the industry was that “the video game industry is so up-and-coming; there’s design, marketing, and computer science aspects; there’s just a lot of possibilities.”

Szafron’s research also confirms that for many women, the lure of video games is not the enjoyment derived from playing the games, but rather the design and creation aspects of the industry. However, according to Truong, “many women don’t know about the industry unless they have been exposed to video games, which is not as common for women.” For Truong, who is an occasional gamer, video games were not something foreign nor unfamiliar. But even with this prior exposure, she was still surprised by the breadth of the industry. For many women, it seems that this lack of information deters those who would, if made aware of the different disciplines involved, be interested in the design of these games.

Szafron and Truong agree that the best way to increase the number of women in computer science is through a change in curriculum. Currently, high school Computer Science curricula are much less developed than those of other sciences, such as physics, biology and chemistry, and vary widely from school to school. Additionally, many universities do not allow Computer Science to be used for entrance credits. This means that Computer Sci-ence is an afterthought for many students in high school, resulting in misconceptions about the discipline. According to Szafron, “most students do not actually know what the discipline is about. Many high school students equate Computer Science with either using a computer to social network, find information on the internet, or write papers. They are not introduced to Computer Science as a discipline in which a wide variety of problems can be solved by applying computational methods, and in which creativity is required to build artefacts that can be used to entertain, educate and assist. The few high-school students who think about Computer Science as a problem solving discipline usually think that computers can only solve “math problems” and that the solutions do not involve any creativity.”

However, Szafron believes that these problems can be solved by implementing “a course that centres around game design, where students work in project groups to create a game. They learn Computer Science and programming concepts while they are working on it, but they have a concrete creative goal and they can discuss the artefact that they are working on throughout the term.”  A second approach, he says, would be to introduce a series of science problems based in the real world and have student solve them computationally. “For example, computationally identifying protein sequences that are involved in some metabolic pathway that is associated with a disease.” Truong agrees with these suggestions, saying that introducing more three dimensional design and Computer Science-specific courses would be beneficial for all streams of engineering.

Perhaps the day will soon come when girls in video games won’t only bring to mind those of the animated variety.