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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Video Game Character Design Study Seeks Participants

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I’m looking to speak with game designers, developers, concept artists, etc. about character design for video games. Please don’t hesitate to contact me regarding any questions. All interviewees will remain anonymous.

Feel free to share the text via email and social media:

If you have worked on a video game development team you are invited to participate in a short interview that will investigate the process and decision-making behind character conceptualization and video game design. As you may be aware, video game content has been scrutinized by both the public and academics alike with little consideration of the industry’s perspective. This study seeks to understand the design process from the practical and economic considerations of the industry in order to balance out the academic research that has overlooked these factors.

The interviews will be conducted by Jessica Tompkins (Ph.D. student) and Dr. Nicole Martins of the Media School at Indiana University, Bloomington. Jessica and Nicole have previously conducted research on video games and Jess herself is an avid gamer. Participation involves a single interview via Skype or phone. All participants will be entered to win one $50 Amazon gift card, the odds of winning dependent on the total number of participants (about 1 in 20 or 1 in 25).

If you are at least 18 years old, have worked on character creation for games, and would like more information about participating, please contact: Jessica Tompkins at jetompki@indiana.edu or Nicole Martins at nicomart@indiana.edu.

Interviews will last approximately 1 hour to 1 hour and 30 minutes. Participants will remain anonymous in any papers or presentations that may emerge from this study.

Game Design & Game Studies: Building Bridges between the Industry and Academia

Research on games and game design lacks dialogue between those who make games and those who study games and game design as a profession. I’m hardly the first researcher to make this observation, I’m sure, and I’m certain a similar disconnect is present for researchers within other areas of media studies, such film production and criticism. Still, it’s a big challenge to overcome, and one hurdle I hope to see diminish with time, for the academics who study games and hope to instill some kind of positive change.

It’s easy to see where this weak relationship stems. Since the introduction of violent games such as Mortal Kombat and Doom in the early 1990s the medium has stirred an ongoing debate about graphic interactive content and potential negative effects on players, particularly youths. Unsurprisingly, many industry professionals harbor a general distrust towards academics given the breadth of media effects research which links violent and aggressive outcomes to video game players. Additionally, communication, media, and gender scholars have investigated the prominence of sexualized female characters in games and the potential detrimental effects associated with exposure to such stereotypes within interactive and virtual environments. Industry professionals may perceive such scrutiny on video game effects as attacks on creative work and on the medium as a whole. Yet, both academics and professionals, I think, could benefit from investing more trust and understanding in one another.

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Presentation on designing historical video games, International Communication Association 65th Annual Conference, San Juan, Puerto Rico (May 2015).

Academics, in conversation with game designers and producers, could be made aware of the variety of constraints and other factors which influence creation of game content. For instance, studios may have a financial incentive to continue production of stereotypes in games over time if such representations have proven financially successfully in the past. This may also place some accountability on game consumers and not just the studios who market and make games, which might even be a source of frustration to some creatives who want to diversify content yet are limited by financial pressures to conform with money-making formulas. Additionally, game developers might reflect upon such constraints from a more critical context in conversation with researchers who are concerned about game content and advocate for more variety in design.

Academic publications on video game content and effects often end with a generic ‘call to action’ – that designers should make content less violent and more diverse; that the Entertainment Software Association should create more nuanced and varied ratings to inform families of inappropriate content. Such statements have the best intentions for players and families but, in the echo chamber that is a paper’s “Recommendations and Conclusion” section, somewhat lack sincerity and genuine passion. Games research which makes suggestions in consideration of designers, developers, and the industry as a business might actually have more impact than research that lacks the perspectives of designers and creatives.

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An aca-gamer conducting serious research.

Why this post, why now? Because I’m currently attempting such a study and I’m running into a few road blocks. I’m seeking interviews with professionals in the game industry who have worked on character design and, while I’ve had several fantastic and articulate people reach out and speak with me so far, I’ll need to hear from more voices in order to have a more representative collection of insights for the complete study. I hope that such a study, as well as others, might strengthen the dialogue between game researchers and academics and improve the quality and scope of games for all.

Please feel free to share the below study information.

Video Game Character Design Study

If you have worked on a video game development team you are invited to participate in a short interview that will investigate the process and decision-making behind character conceptualization and video game design. As you may be aware, video game content has been scrutinized by both the public and academics alike with little consideration of the industry’s perspective. This study seeks to understand the design process from the practical and economic considerations of the industry in order to balance out the academic research that has overlooked these factors.

The interviews will be conducted by Jessica Tompkins (Ph.D. student) and Dr. Nicole Martins of the Media School at Indiana University, Bloomington. Jessica and Nicole have previously conducted research on video games and Jess herself is an avid gamer. Participation involves a single interview via Skype or phone. All participants will be entered to win one $50 Amazon gift card, the odds of winning dependent on the total number of participants (about 1 in 20 or 1 in 25).

If you are at least 18 years old, have worked on character creation for games, and would like more information about participating, please contact: Jessica Tompkins at jetompki@indiana.edu or Nicole Martins at nicomart@indiana.edu.

Interviews will last approximately 1 hour to 1 hour and 30 minutes. Participants will remain anonymous in any papers or presentations that may emerge from this study.

Male ‘Nudity’ Plays Against Logic in New Final Fantasy Game

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Mevius Final Fantasy’s hero gets a wardrobe change.

I normally don’t follow mobile gaming news – but this caught my attention. The latest promotional video for Mevius Final Fantasy (or Mobius, I’ve seen it translated as both) revealed a wardrobe change for the game’s protagonist, Wal. According to Rocket News 24, Mevius Final Fantasy producer Yoshinori Kitase explained that Wal’s new, more conservative attire was requested by fans of the series:

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Wal’s original… shirt-thing.

Kitase explains that they’ve since decided to slap a little more fabric over Wal’s hairless canvas of lean muscle mass. “After we released the screenshots in December, we looked at the various reactions we were getting online, and in the end, showing this much skin…”

“It’s kind of sexy…” offers Asuna, the sole female presenter, before adding “A little too sexy.”

Kitase says many people shared Asuna’s sentiment about the revealing peek the developers had given the public back in December. “For this game, we’re moving forward during development and letting it evolve while taking into consideration users’ opinions, so I asked the character designer to make a change.”

Kuja proudly displays what his momma gave him.

 

The image at the top shows the outcome. Essentially, fabric is now slapped over the rib-cage area of his torso and he no longer looks like he’s wearing an awkward apron… I can’t help but question this decision, though, when I consider other character’s clothing in the series. The Final Fantasy series has never shied from showcasing proactively dressed characters. Final Fantasy IX’s Kuja is sans cloth in the abdominal region and sports a cod piece, to boot. Even serious characters like XIII’s Lightning received the ‘cat girl’ treatment for one of her multitude of costumes in Lightning Returns. Clearly, Wal was not the first ‘flesh-baring’ character featured in the games.

What I wonder is where the criticism of Wal’s original costume was coming from… male or female fans? Kuja’s attire shows that revealing costumes for male characters in Final Fantasy is not without precedent – but, Kuja is FFIX’s villain. He is not the hero of the story and his identity is not assumed by or forced upon the player… a male player, perhaps? Needless to say, I don’t think that Wal’s costume would have received the same criticism if he was actually a she. After all, Square-Enix didn’t shy from this presentation:

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… but Wal is ‘too sexy?’

Interestingly, Mevius project leader Naoki Hamaguchi and managing producer Hiroki Okayama expressed a different opinion from Kitase. They expressed:

“But I want that naked outfit,” and “He looks like a model…You can see the body line of his lower back and hips… If enough people say they like those hiplines, then we might bring the original costume back.”

Personally, I’d wish they’d stuck to their guns. It’s not that playing a chiseled Wal entices me as a gamer – but I think if it’s the original vision that was conceived for the character, why deviate from it?

Source: “Too sexy!” New Final Fantasy’s hunky male lead has his revealing costume toned down

Rise of the Timed Exclusive: Why a Deal with Microsoft is Unfair for Tomb Raider Fans

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Photo: GameSpot

I think I get how the video game industry works: 1) Develop an amazing video game that’s widely available on all consoles and PC; 2) Ensure that said game builds a loyal player base; 3) Sell millions of copies; 4) Plan the inevitable sequel; 5) Secure a sequel deal with the publisher that offers the most $$$; 6) Agree to exclusively distribute the sequel on the publisher’s console; 7) Potentially alienate about half of the loyal player base; 8) … Profit!

The sequel to 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot may be one of the the worst examples of scummy backroom console exclusivity-deals. Several game journalism outlets have discussed that Rise of the Tomb Raider will release exclusively on Xbox 360 and Xbox One for an undisclosed period of time later this year. What I haven’t seen discussed is how this deal is simply unfair for Tomb Raider fans who play the games on PlayStation consoles and PC. In case any gamer needs reminding, the 1996 debut of Lara Croft arrived as a multi-platform release on DOS, PlayStation, and Saturn systems.

What irks me about this unfair deal is that it’s not supported by much logic. Sure, I’ve heard the news that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is also rumored to release later this year and that this last entry of Nathan Drake’s saga risks competing with the sequel to Lara’s re-imagining. Frankly? That’s bull. The genre of both of these games may be similar but they also have the same fan bases – Nathan’s fans are not going to not buy Lara’s game just because the titles are released in the same fiscal quarter. If anything, the original Tomb Raider series inspired Uncharted which in turn influenced the TR reboot; they practically advertise each other!

If my argument hasn’t convinced you yet – here’s the evidence that’s the real linchpin of this whole debacle. Tomb Raider sold far, far better on PlayStation systems than on Xbox consoles – and that includes the PS3 version as well as the ‘Definitive Edition’ on PS4. But don’t take my word for it; VGChartz.com has the numbers to prove it.

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The Xbox version of TR ranked 35th best-selling game of the year on the 2013 global video game sales chart: http://www.vgchartz.com/yearly/2013/Global/

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The PS3 version of TR ranked 21st best-selling game of the year on the 2013 global video game sales chart: http://www.vgchartz.com/yearly/2013/Global/

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The PS4 version of TR: Definitive Edition ranked 98th best-selling game of the year on the 2014 global video game sales chart: http://www.vgchartz.com/yearly/2014/Global/; the Xbox One version did not break the top 100 sales of 2014 global video game sales chart

I’m not “whining” about this particular timed exclusive deal just because I played the 2013 Tomb Raider on my PC. I’m thinking about all of the loyal Lara Croft fans who own PS3s, PS4s, and PCs who will have to wait longer than Xbox gamers to play the sequel. Personally? I won’t have the money – or time – to play the game when it launches Holiday Season 2015. Heck, I’ll be lucky if I have a chance to play it to completion by Holiday Season 2016. This little rant is for all the fans who are dying to play Rise but won’t be able to – not due to a shortage of money or time – but because they don’t own the right console.

The VGChartz.com sales data is the cold hard facts, ladies and gentlemen, why the timed exclusive release of Rise of the Tomb Raider on Xbox consoles is unfair to the most loyal and dedicated Lara Croft fans. PlayStation gamers were a huge reason why the Tomb Raider reboot was the massive success that it was – to give them the sloppy seconds is simply unfair and unjustified.

Wanted: Generically good-looking brunette male to rescue a damsel in distress.

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I recently consulted Google for images of Bioshock Infinite and this fan-made wallpaper appeared on the results page. You know, many female video game characters get a lot of beef for being attractive in very similar ways, but I suppose the same argument might be mounted against male protagonists if Uncharted’s Nathan Drake is similar-looking enough to be confused with Bioshock’s Booker DeWitt. Somehow, I don’t get the impression that this wallpaper is promoting crossover DLC or someone’s fanfiction…