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SXSW 2009: Gaming as a Gateway Drug: Getting Girls Interested in Technology

Kevin Kelly

The "Gaming as a Gateway Drug: Getting Girls into Technology" panel at SXSW proved to be extremely interesting, and sparked quite a debate on Twitter during the talk. The panelists focused both on the increasing number of girls getting their game on and the ones that eventually become employed within the gaming industry.

Ostensibly, they want to use gaming to get girls interested in the STEM career tracks, which are usually boy heavy: science, technology, engineering, and math. The panel was moderated by Dee Kapila of Girlstart, a non-profit organization aimed at getting girls interested in those fields. Kapila and the rest of the panel brought up some interesting points, and you can check out the highlights after the break.

Sheri Graner Ray of Sony Online Entertainment pointed out that while some in the industry like to throw around the claim that 40% of all gamers are women, it's actually a misleading number created from bad math: "Let's talk about these numbers. The online casual games market, yes that's a 70% female market. But the traditional industry is still less than 20% women." She went on to explain that 12% of women gamers are playing games like Gears of War 2. "The big AAA titles are where the money is. That's where the jobs are, that's where the money is, not in casual games."

She also explained that girls tend to approach games differently than boys do, saying that girls are imitative, but boys are exploratory. "If you give an arcade token to a 14 year old boy ... he goes up to the first machine he sees and throws the token in and goes 'HOW DOES THIS WORK?!!?' [imitates banging on all the controls]. But what does his 14-year-old sister do? She watches the machine. Then she moves to the next machine and watches that. Then she moves to the next machine and watches that. And so on."

(Authors note: I'd have to interject at this point that I didn't learn most games that way. When I was growing up in the day and age of the arcade, I'd watch the older teenagers play the games I liked the most, until I understood the basics of what they were trying to do. Only then would I commit my precious quarter into the slot. Is that different from how most gamers learned? Although, in all honesty, these days when I bring a new console title home, I do tend to ignore the tutorials, skip the manual altogether, and then just bang the buttons and shove the sticks around until I figure it out. Times they are a changin'.)

Cindy Royal, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University said, "There are differences in the way they relate to technology. Girls in my classes will say, 'The computer hates me.' Or they'll raise their hand because they're afraid they'll break it. I think that women just lack confidence in general when taking a computer class." Hence, the perceived notion that gaming could serve as a gateway drug to get these same girls interested in technology. "They may trick out their MySpace page, but they don't realize that's basic HTML coding."

Megan Gaiser, president and CEO of Her Interactive (publisher of the popular Nancy Drew game titles) gave a brief genesis of her company, explaining that publishers initially didn't want to market or develop games for women. "Since they wouldn't let us in the front door, we went around to the back door and starting learning how to sell directly on Amazon." They began turning a profit in 2002 after hiring a retail consultant and moving towards self-publishing, thus earning Nancy Drew the title of "The UnBarbie of Computer Games."

Gaiser pointed out, "Creativity is the great equalizer," and spoke about welcoming more women into the games industry. "It takes the balance of both genders to create unique and diversified content." Graner Ray agreed, stating that traditionally developers have treated games for girls by attempting to paint them into a corner. "They'll say, 'Here's the Sims. That's what you get,' or, 'Here's Barbie.' Barbie is perfect for its particular demographic, but we need to treat the female market like we do any other market. We need to go in and target it appropriately. The female demographic is a demographic ... it's not a genre."

The lone male on the panel, Joe Sanchez of the Educators Coop, said, "What I like about virtual worlds is that women are able to start building right away. You get to see things being created piece by piece. When you code a website, you don't see it until the very end and the site goes up. With a virtual world you get to see it under construction." He talked about a fashion show that female users created in one of the virtual worlds. At first he cringed at the idea, but it ended up being a sort of evolution of the female in games, ranging from the "Save me!" Princesses to Lara Croft and her ginormous boobs, to the muscular women in Mortal Kombat, and eventually to normal women in normal clothes, like capris, track suits, and t-shirts.

So ... what does it all mean? It's clearly been a male-dominated industry, and as a result most games have been developed strictly from a male point of view with male characters, and that's kept girls away. That's slowly been changing over the years, and will likely accelerate as more women enter the field. Heck, we don't even have any female writers here at Joystiq, so we need to open our own doors and diversify. Lest we incur the wrath of Graner Ray.

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