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Women in Games and THE Panel at Free Play Australia

A follow up to the Free Play discussion on gender from a female developers perspective.

[I was in two minds about this article, on one hand I think it needs to be written - on the other the games feeds have been so full of the gender issue lately that I am loathe to bring it up again. That being said, the comments that were made at Free Play that had me almost launching out of my chair and breaking skulls has not yet been tackled, so here it is.]

I want to point out here that I loved the Australian game development conference Free-Play, I left the festival on Saturday inspired and raring to go. Interesting new technologies and techniques spinning around in my head accompanied by my wallet full of business cards and my cards scattered throughout the festival. I was inspired with a love for what I do and the passion to get on with it.

Then THE Panel happened! (You can download the audio of THE Panel here) THE Panel was called the 'Words we use' focused on game journalism and criticism. I was really excited to look at the cultural-social paradigms that game journalism enforce and build, then how we can go about shifting that by thinking more about the words we use and how we use them, it wasn't exactly how it turned out...

Now I don't particularly like the gender discussion, not because I don't think it is important but because I would rather be working to do something rather than just talk about it. In the words of Gandhi, I prefer to be the change I want to see in the world.

The Context

To put it in context I went to a college (ACT, year 11 & 12) that had trimesters. I had finished all the requirements for my university entrance one trimester early and decided to have a semester where I enrolled in what I wanted to study. I chose computer science and programming, I loved it and believed I had found my calling.

Out of my five classes four of my grades were in the top 10 and all of them were in the top 20. I felt I had found my love and decided to study it at university at the ripe old age of 17. I turned up at the university open day ready to throw away all my thoughts of archaeology and law for my love of computers. Only to be blatantly told by the Computer Science representative that I wouldn't like it, people like me would be much happier over in arts.

My geeky self conscious 17 year old self was devastated, I thought I had found what my dream career but maybe I had been wrong. Over the next four years I studied Archaeology, Forensic Archaeology, Comparative Religions, Drama, Cultural Studies and Creative Writing, none of these things peaked my passion the same way that programming had. I enjoyed them but the burning desire to do more was not there.

So in 2008 threw it all away and came back to computers. I was still unsure if I would be accepted so I enrolled in a Game Design degree that had a strong programming arm instead of a straight programming degree, and let me tell you I have never looked back. 

I have spend the last 4 years studying programming as well as my artist and design courses. I have spent the majority of them lobbying for changes to the degree structure, so there will be a smoother learning curve for artists and designers learning programming (making it the same as the computer science degree).

I have been promoting the study of programming to my games students and providing mentoring and moral support for those that take up the challenge, most of them women. I have worked incredibly hard to be at the top of everything I do…To be the best programmer, designer-artist possible and in doing so blaze the path clear for others to follow.

The Issue

Now that you have the context.The section of THE Panel's discussion that got me seeing red is quoted below. The question was in relation to women's engagement with the critical culture in games, the quote can be found at time stamp 46:52 (I put the full quote here as not be criticised of taking it out of context):

"I mean part of it is definitely, you've got to remember where games has come from, its come from a technological background. And so the way that we reviewed games particularly over the last, you know, five to ten years has always been from this almost technological stand point where, you know, particularly if you take a situation like a Crysis or something, where it was always about the technology, the engine, what it could do, the mechanical aspects of what was going on. And we constantly rated games on their graphics their sound, as if, you know, these tweaks to almost like an automobile, as, you know, it became hotter and hotter, and you know, became more and more a technical experience. And what hopefully we're seeing now is a move from talking about games in reviews from a mechanical point of view to actually an emotional and intellectual and, you know, almost psychological and spiritual point of view and that's, you know, part of hopefully what Jump Button is also pushing forward is that ability to talk about games from that level. And I think as we do that we open up the dialogue, we move away from that idea of it being a very masculine view point in terms of how to dissect a game..."

At this point I started to say something very inappropriate and very loud before clamping my hand over my mouth. This assumption that women don't like or shouldn't be in or can't participate in technical discourse drives me up the wall! In this case it was implied in a preferential way, women don't engage because this focus on the technological is a very masculine view point.

I believe that it is in fact these statements and the cultural assumptions they represent that bring about the gender imbalance both in games criticism and development. They highlight a deeper issue within Australian society, the assumption from child hood that women don't like technology. I grew up in an odd family, I will be the first to admit it my mother was a high-level policy writer for the government and my dad ran his own business (Wild Wood Wind and Solar) while looking after us kids.

I grew up on nursery rhymes that were gender neutral and my kids books had princesses saving princes (Go Paper bag princesses!). Even given all of that at the age of eight when I asked santa for electronics and Lego robotics kits to go with my dolls people looked at me very strangely.

I now teach programming and in my classes none of the women studying programming are from the 'average' anglo-australian background they are all a different ethnic or cultural back grounds, some Asian and some from the Middle East.

The more I look around me the more I am convinced that the huge disparity in western cultures between women and men in technical fields is more to do with some form of cultural bias than anything else. It is the little things we do within our culture that brings about this bigger issue, how many times have you decided to do a bonding activity with your daughter/niece/sister which has nothing to do with anything technical, because they won't be interested?

How many times have you strayed away from talking about the technical side of something you are doing to a woman because they wont be interested/wont understand/it is too difficult to explain? If you need to work on your daughter's/niece's/sister's car does she work with you? Does your son/nephew/brother? It is these little things that end up making such a big difference, how do you know your daughter/niece/sister doesn't like that technical activity? Have you even tried to see if they would like it?

I used to have a blast making Lego robotic wheeled thrones for my dolls, as well as doll trebuchets. Just because a task is technical doesn't mean women can't appropriate it to their own interests, especially when fuelled by the imagination of a child. The reverse is also true I know many men who would have liked to be nurses and teachers, but the Australian social-cultural barriers to a man taking up these 'female' careers are massive.

The Solution

Ok I had to have 'The Solution' as a heading here largely because it fits so well with the others but seriously there is not just one solution. First thing is to think about all those little things you do and little assumptions you have about women and technology.

Give your daughter/niece/sister opportunities to engage with technology some may like it some may not, but they will never know if they are not given the opportunity to try. Ask yourself, do you make assumptions about a person's preference for a technical field because of their gender? Do you use their gender as an excuse not to explain what you do and how you do it in layman’s terms? Have you even bothered to ask what their area of expertise is?

Most of the time people simply assume because I dress in an interesting way, have funky hair and am a woman that I am an artists (I will admit I take a little sick and twisted joy out of correcting them). That for me is the first step, be the change you want to see in this world.

In addition I am for always for a hands on approach. Get the charismatic technical women who have a love for what they do out there talking to primary school, high school and college students. Get them out there talking about the awesome stuff, the challenges and their background.

Don't hide the fact that there are guys that still assume that your technical IQ decreases relative to your cup size. Show them these men are not the majority and there are ways to handle them. Get these technical leaders into the courses like, design, multimedia, digital art and show the students the power of adding a technical aspect to what the they already love and enjoy. Most of all have teachers that can speak different social-cultural languages e.g. who can speak to artists, designers just as well as programmers.

There are so many things that can be done on a real down to earth level, change the way we think and get more women involved. For me talking about it is simply that, talk, I want to do. I finish my studies in 6 weeks and graduate in December. I have spent the last 4 years promoting women, artists and designers in programming trying to burn a path for others to follow.

I believe that I have left the degree a little more welcoming and prepared to deal with programmers from diverse backgrounds. I will graduate having taught almost a whole years worth of programmers and I believe that I have shown them that women can be dedicated and skilled programmers. I move on now to the next stage of my life filled with a passion for what I do and the hope that later down the track I can inspire others with my love. To show them that women have the choice to be just as competent and just as in love with technology and programming as the men.


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