Five Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Community for Women and Allies in a University Game Design Program

My Backstory

When I enrolled in my first game design class as a Master’s student at the University of South Carolina in 2013, I was one of only two women in a class of about twenty. The other young woman and I sat in the same place every day, sharing a table at the front of the room. It was great having someone like me to chat with every day, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit awkward or singled out some days because everyone else keep their distance.

After graduating with my Master’s degree, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Media Arts and Sciences at Indiana University (IU). I shifted by research focus from educational game design to understanding the social-psychological effects of games on players, as well as the socio-cultural underpinnings of the historic gender gap in the video game industry workforce. My first semester, I was graduate assistant for a course on the video game industry – unsurprisingly, only a couple female-identifying students stick out in my memory. Women in game design programs at public universities are still very much minorities.

In the fall of 2015, I was asked to apply for a position at IU’s Center of Excellence for Women in Technology (CEWiT) as the lead intern for a new special interest group (SIG) – Women in Game Design. At the time, CEWiT was starting up SIGs centered on various technological fields (e.g., coding, web design, social media) with the purpose of empowering women in technology. CEWiT was particularly interested in supporting game design, given the male-dominated status of IU’s program.


Me with game design instructors Will Emigh (left) and Mike Sellers (right), after winning CEWiT’s Outstanding Student Leadership Award in 2016. Photo courtesy of CEWiT.

As a gamer and a woman researching games and the industry gender gap, I felt personally dedicated to the cause. The 2017-2018 academic year marks my third year as the lead intern for the Game Design SIG.

The Strategy Guide

The basic premise of the Game Design SIG is to plan and host workshops and social events that are relevant and of interest to women pursuing game design. In this post, I’m going to highlight five strategies that I have developed over the years in cultivating an inclusive community for women and allies in IU’s game design program, and how I believe these strategies have made an impact. In this pursuit, I hope this blog post will be helpful for other students or faculty hoping to spearhead their own initiatives to empower and promote women in game development programs.

Let Women See Their Peers in Leadership Positions

 While knowledge and the ability to teach are two important factors in selecting someone who can lead or assist with a workshop on game dev software and other skills, it’s also important to consider someone that female participants can look up to as a role model. For the game design SIG events, I strive to feature skilled and knowledgeable women who are eager to share what they know with others. By featuring female leaders as workshop instructors on topics such as video game art and game engines, the SIG provides role models for female students learning these subjects. This may have a particular impact in programs where the faculty are men or are mostly men, as it breaks the status quo.

The same principle applies when finding guest speakers. At IU, I’m fortunate to have ties with alumna such as Hasbro’s Jenna Hoffstein and Telltale’s Mary Kenney who have graciously talked to our students via video conference calls on their areas of expertise. The women in game development community is extremely supportive, and I have been able to secure guest speakers unaffiliated with IU simply by reaching out via Twitter or email.


Me (left) instructing a level design workshop at CEWiT’s annual conference. Photo courtesy of CEWiT.

Collaborate with Existing Game Design and Gaming Communities on Campus for Social Events

 Social events are hugely important because they allow students across different years of the college experience to get to know one another in a low-stakes setting. This is especially true for women game dev students, several of whom at IU have expressed to me the struggles of ‘fitting in’ with their peers in male-dominated classes. Over the years, I’ve learned that social events (usually centered on gaming and informal meetups) have proven most successful when other game dev and gaming student organizations are also directly invited to our own group’s game nights. In the past, I have tried to implement “pop up” events such as a Pokémon Go meet up, yet such events usually struggled to bring in a large crowd. For any social gathering, not everyone is always comfortable showing up alone if they have the impression that they will largely be among strangers – even if the strangers are other like-minded people.


A group of students dressed in costume for Game Design SIG’s Halloween Game Night. Photo courtesy of CEWiT photographer Erin Sky Powell.

By inviting other student organizations focusing on game design and gaming, the SIG has been able to host lively game nights that bring in a number of diverse students face-to-face in a friendly setting. I’ve found that students are more open to attending social events when they can arrive to the event with a group of their friends, usually from the invited organizations. While folks may attend with a group of existing friends, our community grows when they socialize with acquaintances and new faces after arriving.

Advancing Women-Identifying Students is Half the Battle

 A main focus of the Game Design SIG initiative is to empower women interested in game development. But exclusively targeting women-identifying individuals – who are already a small percentage of game design programs like the one at IU – risks missing out on opportunities to advance other individuals who could benefit from involvement in the SIG.

Initially, my perspective on creating events for the SIG centered on asking myself, “what events will appeal to women interested in game dev?” but over the years, my perspective on creating events has shifted to be more holistic, appealing to the broadest possible range of students in game dev. In addition to the above, I also ask myself, “what types of programming are needed to fill potential gaps in student knowledge – both academically and socially?” Asking myself this question, I have found, serves the needs of many women students in IU’s game design program, and also the needs of many other students who may be new and unfamiliar with the game design curriculum. In adopting this strategy, the SIG has offered accessible workshops that appeal to students of all kinds, contributing to a healthy growth in student engagement and participation.

“Feminize” the Traditionally Masculine Space of Game Dev

 Related to my previous strategy, I not only seek to create programming that female-identifying students, in particular, might benefit from, but also strive to create events that “feminize” the traditionally masculine space of game development. For instance, the game design program at IU can only cover so much ground in what it teaches to students, and the formal education tends to stick to game design principles, group collaboration on projects, and other expertly taught practical lessons.

Yet something typically not taught in the classrooms are issues related to work-life balance, stress management, intragroup conflict, and team communication – essentially, the many “soft skills” relevant to being a successful person and game developer. By partnering with our university’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and reaching out to expert guest speakers on such topics, the SIG has been able to offer events featuring a feminine-sensibility which benefit many of our students who may need assistance in these areas. Additionally, if we want to see more open discussions about crunch and improving quality of life in the industry, we need to inform students about these issues early in their careers.

Be an Active Ambassador for Women in Game Dev and Tech

 The most crucial strategy for anyone seeking to spearhead and lead a similar initiative at their own university is simple: never stop being an ambassador and support system for women in game dev and tech. The game design program at IU is still relatively new, and each year I’ve always been able to notice the handful of new women entering the program. As such, I’ve made it my goal to introduce myself to those new faces, tell them about the Game Design SIG and how they can get involved, and share the overall mission of CEWiT with them.


A fun way of implementing this strategy is hosting a Friday social we call “Game Gab,” which succeeds in getting people of all genders and ages interacting with one another beyond the classroom.

It takes a good deal of effort to always be on the lookout for opportunities to reach out, but it’s made a big difference for our community’s growth and student participation. Sometimes, all it takes is one student to make an impact. At last year’s Global Game Jam at IU, I helped a young woman bring her game to life – she did all the art, and I did the programming in Unity using Fungus. She was so ecstatic seeing her artwork come to life in a game, that she decided to major in game design and now works for me as an intern in the Game Design SIG.

Unfortunately, not all college’s and university’s hoping to implement a similar initiative will have the support of a campus-wide organization like CEWiT. And I’ve also been fortunate that the faculty in IU’s game design program are incredibly supportive in spreading awareness, providing feedback, and helping to promote the SIG events. This kind of partnership is essential, and I expect many faculty and staff would assist in such an endeavor for their own university’s game design programs. A good place to start is to look within your own program or department for people who can help champion the cause.


Children, Call of Duty, and Lack of Parental Involvement

After reading Jonathan Holmes’ (via blog post in which he thoroughly analyzed why the Call of Duty franchise appeals so strongly to the younger demographic (children under the age of 12), I had to acknowledge that I agreed with many of Mr. Holmes’ points. The series is effectively “cool” among 6 to 12 year olds due to the addictive simplicity and competitive nature of the game play, which is only strengthen by it’s incredible flash, flare, and good ol’ fashioned American military whoop ass mentality (which in particular caters to young boys who may idolize family members in the army/military, GI Joe, or the military lifestyle in general).

What I found somewhat lacking in the article, however, was a discussion on whether or not this is a problem. Should we (gamers, the general public, parents with young children, etc.) be concerned over the fact that young children have access to Call of Duty and become engrossed, obsessed, and enthralled by these titles?

I for one, to a degree, think so. Not only does Call of Duty glorify combat to the degree that a child may not understand, but any addiction for young children is not healthy, especially when parents notice and try to remove the source. The result is often defiance, anger, and an explosion of “I hate yous!” I would like to state that I do not find Call of Duty offensive and that I am actually something of a fan of the series myself, but I do believe overexposure to a child could be detrimental and have negative consequences as mentioned above.

My First Hand Experience
I worked at a local GameStop this past holiday season, and of course, I sold a TON of copies of Call of Duty: Black Ops (also, worked the midnight release, which was just plain INSANE). At my particular GameStop, we always carded anyone who looked under 30 for ID since my boss didn’t want to receive any negative consequences for selling an M rated game to a minor (it’s the law, apparently). And if anyone purchased an M rated title we always had to make certain that the consumer was aware of that just to be certain that they were okay with the rating, just in case they were actually purchasing the game for a minor.

During the month of November, I lost count of the number of mothers who came into the store to pick up Black Ops. With their young son standing quietly at their side, grinning ear to ear, I would always give them my spiel before they made their transactions final: “Just so that you’re aware, this game is rated M for mature for containing blood and gore, violence, and strong language.” Most of these moms would shake off the sentence before I even completed it. “Yes, yes, I’m aware– but my son really wants it,” they would interrupt with an air of submission, as if they had no other choice but to purchase the game. Handing the game over often resulted in the child smiling or exclaiming “yes!” with intense excitement and a sense of thrill. This scenario repeated itself on an almost daily basis for several weeks after the game’s release. Closer to Christmas most “moms” would pick up games for presents, shopping solo, though always responding in a similar manner.

I’m not going to say that this is solely a “mom” or parent problem, but it certainly plays a substantial part as to how Call of Duty became so popular among children in the first place: providing accessibility.

I know a boy, about 7 years old, that I had babysat regularly from the age of 2 to 5. Periodically I still go to this boy’s baseball games or babysit him and his older sister on occasion. At the age of 7, he’s already turned into something of an avid gamer. I may have had a bit on influence on him, I gave my old PS1 to him and his sister when he was about 4, but only handed over age-appropriate titles along with it, including Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. A year or so later his mom bought him a PS2 and loads of games, exposing him to games various genres and ratings. Presently, the family owns a Wii and 360 with Kinect as well. The last time I went to babysit him about a couple months ago, his mom was expressing how she was concerned about some of his gaming habits. She told me explicitly that he wasn’t allowed to play a game called, you guessed it, Call of Duty, and was concerned about how “mean” he could get when she tried to take certain games away from him. That night, I wasn’t just babysitting him, but two of his friends. I walked over to find all three of them huddled around the Wii playing none other then CoD World at War. “Umm… ma’am, you do know that they’re playing Call of Duty right now, right?” The mother gasped exasperatedly, “That’s Call of Duty?”

Needless to say, I was somewhat dumbfounded by her ignorance. If you don’t want your son playing a particular game, shouldn’t you be more informed about it? In order to alleviate this issue, I would like to share some possible solutions to the lack of communication facing parents and their children who play games such as Call of Duty.

Be Informed
Parents/guardians/supervisors should take the time to become informed about WHAT their children are playing. Take the time to watch trailers and gameplay footage on youtube. Each parent raises their children differently and has different standards for what is and what is not acceptable for their children. Some find Call of Duty offensive, while others say “it’s just a game!” In either case, just be aware of what your child is playing, and if you choose not to let them own a copy, explain your reasons rationally and calmly. Parents often try to dumb things down for their children, but the reality is, you can talk to them like adults.

Be A Part Of Their Hobby
If you think your child is mature enough to play a CoD title, get involved with them. Take turns swapping the controller every half-hour or so, and play along. Observe their gaming habits first hand. If you find that you’re not happy with how your child responds to the game (bad language or violent reactions to killing or being killed), find a solution to curbing these responses. Explain how getting mad does not bring about any actual solution, and that they’re able to get the bad guys “next time.”

It Is Just A Game
While a child’s actions in a game like Call of Duty may not reflect behavior in the real world, make sure that your child understands the implications of taking another person’s life. Explain to them that in real war, people actually die. They are no “saves” or “check points.” Once you’ve been shot, you don’t come back. It’s grim to contemplate, but any child should not take the idea lightly. It may seem silly and parents might think this is a “no brainer,” but there’s no reason why the concept should not be reiterated. There have been too many cases in the news where a child has shot either a parent or friend either by mistake or out of anger and were labeled as active gamers. Call of Duty is a game, but killing certainly is not. In war, it’s either kill or be killed, but Call of Duty “glamorizes” the military life style and almost romanticizes modern warfare. Explain to them that real war is far more grim, brutal, and just plain terrifying. If anything, a child playing Call of Duty should be imbued with a sense of respect for those who do sacrifice their lives in real life to keep the world a safer place.

Strike A Balance
If you find your child might be using Call of Duty to unleash pent up anger or frustrations, turn that energy into something your child can benefit from. Encourage them to take up a martial art, or turn their love for military shooters into a hobby that allows them to enjoy the outdoors, burn calories, and feed their need to compete: take them to play paint ball or airsoft. While not the most cheapest of hobbies, both will satisfy your child’s interest but do so in a manner that encourages team work and camaraderie.

Call of Duty is not going anywhere anytime soon. It’s a blockbuster behemoth of a franchise that practically over saturates the market and gains exposure to every consumer through online, TV, and in-store advertising. The current generation is essentially growing up on this franchise, and I was only just made aware of how popular the series was among minors until I worked as a GameStop employee firsthand. I will openly admit that I do not believe that games or Call of Duty in and of itself is necessarily bad, evil, or corrupting anyone, even children. I do believe, however, the over-exposure and lack of balance between gaming and other activities is where issues (bad behavior, lack of interest in school, increased tantrums e.g. “but I wanna play more!”) stem from.

Hopefully, the above advice will encourage parents to be more involved with child gamers in general and enervate some of the negative behavior and feelings associated with children playing Call of Duty games.