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.


Skillful or Incompetent? How a Video Game Character’s Sexualization Affects Their Perceived Skill

One of my over-arching research interests involves how the appearance of video game characters effects the player-experience, as well as how identification with game characters effects self-perception on social-psychological dimensions.

Last fall, I started a pilot study (think of it as a trial or test-run) for an experiment where college-age, self-identified women played a video game where the character was either dressed in a sexualized or in a non-sexualized outfit. Essentially, the pilot’s main purpose was to confirm that my experimental conditions were reliable, or to put it another way, perceived as consistent when multiple people did the study. Because I was interested in exploring the effect of a game character’s appearance on self-perception, I wanted to be sure that people would consistently rate the sexualized character as, well, sexualized, and that the same character dressed in casual attire was perceived as non-sexualized. Thankfully, my pilot study confirmed this, and I was able to launch the full experiment in January.

While I did eventually finish the full experiment in April, I’ve yet to actually sit down and examine the results (but soon, after I finish analyzing my character design interview data!). However, I did find a somewhat unexpected – but nonetheless interesting – outcome from the pilot that sheds some insight on how a sexualized appearance of a game character influences their perceived skill.


The Pilot Study

For my experiment, forty-three undergraduates played the game Resident Evil: Revelations 2. All participants self-identified as female and the majority identified as White/Caucasian (81%). The average age of players was twenty years old. Everyone in the study played the Story Mode portion of the game for fifteen minutes. Following game play, participants filled out a questionnaire about the video game and the playable game characters, Claire and Moira.

As mentioned above, the pilot tested whether my conditions were reliable. Each participant was randomly assigned to either play as Claire and Moira in their sexualized or non-sexualized attire. Resident Evil: Revelations 2 was perfect for testing these two conditions because the story can be played with either characters’ default or bonus costumes (the player can switch between Claire and Moira in the story mode, as they both appear onscreen at the same time). For the purposes of my study, their default costumes were used for the non-sexualized condition. Claire’s bonus Rodeo costume and Moira’s bonus Urban Ninja costume were used for the sexualized condition.


Left to right, top to bottom: Moira (default/non-sexualized attire), Moira (bonus/sexualized attire); Claire (default/non-sexualized attire), Claire (bonus/sexualized attire).

After game play, everyone was asked a series of questions about the characters. I wanted to ensure that the characterizations were consistent despite the changes in attire. The only difference I hoped to find in the study was for differences in sexualization between the default and bonus attire conditions (which I did find). In addition to several questions about the characters’ attire, both characters were assessed based on six adjectives using a 7-point semantic differential scale. The characters were rated on the following: attractive/unattractive; strong/weak; aggressive/submissive; violent/passive; skillful/incompetent; good/evil.

No significant differences between the two portrayals were found in terms of Claire’s and Moira’s attractiveness, strength, aggression, violence, and moral character. However, significant differences were found for Claire’s skill, in which participants rated sexualized Claire as more incompetent  (i.e. less skillful; Mean = 2.70, Standard Deviation = 1.75) than non-sexualized Claire (M = 1.63, SD = 1.01). This outcome was not the case for Moira.

This difference may have emerged because Claire is the main playable character who is capable of attacking enemies with a gun whereas Moira can only attack enemies with a crowbar. As such, most participants played as Claire for the majority of the time. The difference in Claire’s rated skilled by attire suggests that players may have deemed her sexualized attire as impractical for fighting zombies. This may have influenced Claire’s perceived competency as questionable given the game’s context in which a lack of clothing seems like poor judgement.


Costume and Context Matter

Although I was not anticipating any differences in Claire’s skill between the sexualized and non-sexualized attire conditions, differences did indeed emerge. What does this tell us? I think it stands to reason that the sexualization of female game characters as an expression of empowerment will not always hold for specific contexts. Given that Resident Evil: Revelations 2 is an action-horror game where the main characters are kidnapped and imprisoned against their will, seeing Claire in a state of relative undress likely enhances her vulnerability in the situation which could have an effect on her perceived skilled, or ability to handle the circumstance.

Claire’s sexualization had the effect of diminishing her perceived competency. Given that players were fighting zombie-like enemies in a run-down facility, her attire may have conveyed a lack of sensible judgement on her part. Given the outcome, I think it demonstrates the importance of considering how sexualization of a game character is interpreted within the context of gameplay. When a game presents a situation where a character is vulnerable and fighting for their survival, as with Resident Evil: Revelations 2, a sexualized appearance may influence whether that character is deemed competent enough to handle the situation. This is especially important for game designers to consider when creating a character they want to portray as skilled and competent, despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them.

Obviously, it should go without saying that a different game and a different character may produce different results. Furthermore, participants in this study went into the game ‘blind’ and were unaware that the sexualized Rodeo attire is a bonus costume not intended as the default attire worn by Claire in the game’s story mode. Her default attire in the story is non-sexualized, and it is a player’s choice which costumes they want Claire and Moira to wear in the game. Understanding this context, as well as enabling a choice of costumes, could also lead to different results. Expect more nuanced findings once I do the data analysis for the full experiment, in a few months!

UX Playtesting Analysis: Tori


Several weeks ago – not long after I returned from my first Game Developer’s Conference – I realized something important: I’d like to apply my social scientific research skills and knowledge of media theories towards games user research. I’m fortunate enough to be in an interdisciplinary Media School where I’ve established a good rapport with many of the faculty members in the Game Design program as an Associate Instructor and the Lead Intern for Women in Game Design. After considering that I had certain skills that might be useful to the student game developers in the program, I pitched an idea to Professor of Practice Mike Sellers: his game design students in Workshop I, the first major game development course required for all students pursuing the B.S. in Game Design, could benefit from UX analysis and thorough playtesting feedback. So why not receive a little help from a Ph.D. student eager for more experience in conducting this kind of research?

Prof. Sellers agreed that I could offer useful insights and a collaboration was born!

The first student game project I’ve playtested is Tori, a meditative music exploration game in which players assume the role of a small bird collecting sounds from a stylized environment made up of several small islands. I recently sat down with Joseph Adams, a developer on Team Tori, for my first playtesting session with Tori where I offered some feedback on general usability, discussed below.

Gameplay and Feedback

Currently, the ‘bubbles’ which represent the aura of sounds for different objects in the environment are all colorized the same – a pale yellow color. These sounds can be collected by the player and dropped, in bubble form, to a new location. The collection and re-placement of sound-bubbles is an integral mechanic of the game’s progression system.


Collecting sound bubbles in Tori

I suggested that the different objects, and thus sounds, might be color-coded, so that when player’s drop these sound-bubbles in new locations, they might more readily recall which bubble represents the sound attributed to a rock, bell, lantern, or other unique objects in the world. A color-coding scheme might be integral further into development, as players will be tasked with dropping sounds in new locations in order to replicate a tune provided by a non-playable character, in order to unlock new islands to visit and explore. As is, the placement of bubbles that are all the same color, especially when the player is expected to imitate a tune using the collected sounds, could get a bit confusing. Currently, there is no feedback that identifies what object the sound-bubble represents once it has be removed from the object and placed elsewhere in the environment. Color-coding the sound-bubbles to be unique based on the object of origin could simplify the identification process.


Particle effect on wingtips to signify increased velocity

I also noted that additional audio-feedback might improve player experience. Currently, when players fly downward, the speed of flight increases. This interaction is paired with visual feedback of a particle effect trailing from the tip of the bird’s wings – a ‘speed trail,’ perhaps. It’s pretty and conveys the message, but might be paired with an accompanying sound effect, such as rushing wind, to match the visuals and reinforce the feedback.

This particle effect was misinterpreted by a player during a recent playtest. I took notes, along with student developer Joshua Smith, during a session with university students who played Tori for the first time. We invited the players to voice their thoughts as they played, and a participant misinterpreted the ‘speed trail’ as visual feedback to signify when the bird is carrying a sound bubble. Thus, playing an accompanying sound effect (e.g. rushing wind) might reinforce the visuals as the effect of speed during flight.

All in all, Tori is a simple and beautiful game that shows a lot of promise for its unique aesthetics and features. I look forward to conducting more playtests with new users and discovering new ways to enhance the project’s usability and player experience!

Follow Team Tori on Tumblr & Twitter for more updates. Many thanks to Prof. Mike Sellers and Team Tori for collaborating with this video game researcher.

Grad conference to address Finding Common Ground | via Indiana University Media School

The Media School at Indiana University graciously featured some of my research that I’ll be presenting at the school’s graduate student conference on April 7th. I’ll be presenting during the Video Game Studies panel from 9:30 to 10:20 a.m. in Franklin Hall 312 along with fellow graduate students Alex Mirowski (Informatics) and Ken Rosenberg (Media School).

The Media School wrote:

Jess Tompkins, a third-year doctoral student at the school, will present her video game research, which is a textual analysis of fan fiction based on the popular game Call of Duty, a first-person shooter game in which the players are soldiers at war.

The game, Tompkins explained, is extremely male oriented and depicts a very specific type of persona known as “military masculine.”

“Fan fiction is a pretty active subculture, and it negotiates ways that contrast the main stream ideas imposed in the game, particularly around gender,” she said. “Authors insert female characters or create romantic relationships between two current male characters to get their own enjoyment out of the games.”

Tompkins took about 40 pieces of Call of Duty fan fiction and, using social psychological theories, examined the stories and wrote an analysis. Her work is set to be published as a chapter in a new book, Call of Duty Essay Collection.

I would like to kindly correct some inaccuracies given that I was not provided a draft to copy-edit prior to this piece’s publication. The specific concept is “military masculinity” (not military masculine), and while my research, in general, applies social-psychological theories, this particular analysis was largely informed by Stuart Hall’s notion of encoding and decoding as applied to media production and audiences. 🙂

I look forward to sharing this project at the conference!

Source: Grad conference to address Finding Common Ground | Indiana University Media School

Re-post:‘Through the Gates,’ ep. 31: Jess Tompkins on women in gaming

Indiana University’s Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President featured me on a segment of their weekly podcast, ‘Through the Gates.’ You can give it a listen on SoundCloud. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Tompkins describes her life-long enjoyment of video games and the gender politics that manifest in the game design industry and gamer culture. She explains that, in her early years, the sexualization of women in games “seemed normal,” saying, “I was being exposed to sexualized women in advertising, in films, long before I saw sexualized women in games.”

-From ‘Through the Gates’ official blog.