Getting (More) Girls into (More) Games

by Sara M. Grimes, PhD
October 22, 2010

Guest post by Sara M. Grimes, PhD

Years ago, when the idea of “games for learning” was still a relatively new concept, a small but important movement emerged around issues of gender in gaming. Led by scholars, designers and members of the game community, the primary objective was to address a gaming gender gap that had formed in the 80s and early 90s. Then as now, boys were generally gaming more (and more often) than girls, male characters appeared far more often than female characters within games, and there were far fewer women than men in the game industry. The “Girls Games Movement” articulated a growing concern about the hidden yet systematic ways in which girls were being deterred from entering into technology design, as well as other IT and engineering professions.

 

By the mid-1990s, the movement had crystallized around a push for “female friendly” games and an emphasis on bringing more women into the industry. With some important exceptions (see also That Game Company, Tale of Tales and Her Interactive), both missions fell markedly short of expectations. Ambiguous, often highly presumptuous, ideas about what constitutes “female-friendly” gave birth to a new genre of “pink games” – games that rely on (and reproduce) stereotypes about girls’ likes and play preferences. Meanwhile, the mainstream game industry remains heavily male dominated.

While the issue of “girls and gaming” has resurfaced several times over the years, there has been a noticeable shift in approach. During the past decade, girls and women have continued to play digital games in greater and greater numbers. They have done this in various ways, from embracing mainstream games, to contributing to the massive success of gender-inclusive games like Mario Kart and Dance Dance Revolution, to sustaining a small but enduring “pink games” market. Much of the discussion has now shifted onto the importance of paying better attention to the games girls do play, and finding out more about how and why. The conversation has also broadened to include boys and men, through a more inclusive consideration of the issues that all players face when it comes to games and gender.

In other respects the gender gap first observed in the 1990s remains as wide as ever. Girls and women are more likely to play free, online and “casual” games, as opposed to the console, computer or subscription games considered as “core” within game culture. They are less likely to own, select or purchase their own game technologies. There is still a notable lack of women working as designers and programmers-a disparity found across the IT industries, where female participation has actually decreased since the 1980s.

These were some of the issues addressed at the 3G Summit: The Future of Girls, Games and Gender, held this past summer at Columbia College in Chicago. The event brought together 50 teenage girls from local schools with five leading female game designers and scholars (Mary Flanagan, Susan Ruiz, Jennifer Jensen, Erin Robinson and Tracy Fullerton) for four days of dialogue, design workshops and gaming (you can watch a video of the public forum here). A key theme of the event was breaking down barriers that keep girls out of game design, thereby disrupting the cycle of self-perpetuating status quo that has developed within mainstream game culture.

The 3G participants had some great ideas about how this might be done. Highlighting the immense flexibility of the growing independent games market, they encouraged girls and boys to start carving out their own niches, and not to be afraid of redefining and realizing their own visions of what a “game” can be. I think that this time, the call to action has come at a uniquely opportune moment. Not only are we now seeing entire schools built around game design (i.e. Katie Salen’s Quest to Learn), but entry into game creation has become more accessible (and fun) than ever. Just look at the recent outcrop of “user-generated content” tools found in games such as LittleBigPlanet and Kodu. Not to mention the emergence of easy to use design platforms like Scratch.

I’m hopeful that these tools will open up game design to girls and young women, as well as boys who might not otherwise feel drawn to (or even welcome in) design and programming. The focus that these games and tools place on creativity, fun and community-building (i.e. sharing your creations with other players) also provides an alternative entry point into STEM-one that enables kids to merge technical skill development with their own interests, creativity and storytelling practices. I can’t wait to see what games girls will produce when given the tools and encouragement to let their imaginations run wild. After all, kids are the consummate experts when it comes to finding new and innovative ways to play.

 

 

Additional reading:

From Barbie® to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games Edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins

Beyond Barbie® and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming Edited by Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner and Jennifer Y. Sun

The Ludica Group website

The She’s Got Game blog

IGDA’s Women in Games special interest group

And be sure to check out the Cooney Center’s National STEM Video Game Challenge!

 

Sara M. Grimes is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, where she teaches and researches in children’s media and literature, digital games and play. Sara’s current research explores the legal and cultural dimensions of children’s user-generated content, particularly in games such as LittleBigPlanet and Spore. You can read more about these projects on her research blog, Gamine Expedition.