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.