Equity & Diversity

Getting Girls Into Games

By Katie Ash — September 23, 2009 6 min read
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To increase the number of girls involved in digital game building and design, as well as to open the door to science, technology, math, and engineering careers—where females have historically lagged behind their male counterparts—researchers have begun to unpack just what aspects of gaming engage girls.

And they are beginning to figure out how programs that put girls in the driver’s seat of game creation influence their relationships with technology and other STEM subjects.

“Ten years ago, you had virtually an absence of women across the board [in the gaming community], and now the picture is a much more different shade,” says Yasmin B. Kafai, a professor at the Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education and a researcher of games and gender. “You do have these pockets of women who are very strong and active.”

Yet even though more women and girls are playing games, few are actually creating and designing them, says Jill Denner, a senior research associate for the Scotts Valley, Calif.-based ETR Associates, a nonprofit organization that aims to promote health and education in various communities.

“There are some more women and girls involved in creating games, but it’s a drop in the bucket. It’s still a field that’s dominated by men in terms of the professional gaming community,” she says. “At the K-12 level, when you run computer-game classes, it’s still the boys that see themselves as a good fit. The girls still continue to not see that as a domain in which they fit.”

To help bridge the gap between girls who play games and girls who build them, Denner heads the Girl Game Company, an after-school program at the 19,000-student Pajaro Valley Unified School District, south of San Francisco, where middle school girls gather twice a week to simulate a game company. The program is funded by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

“It’s built around the idea that they are a company, building games for clients, and the girls take different roles in the company,” everything from game designer and creator to human resources manager, Denner says.

Middle School Is Key

About a third of the students who enter the program have a strong interest in computer programming and game design and identify a computer-related career path for themselves, says Denner, while the others often enroll in the program for social reasons and are less likely to see themselves in a tech-related career.

“[Middle school] is a critical period for identity formation, so catching them while they’re making decisions about classes and careers, and who they are, is important, especially for catching people who aren’t going to naturally choose that path,” she says.

Carl Pennypacker, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley and the principal investigator for the Hands On University project, has created an after-school program called the Universe Quest Game that works with middle school-aged girls on game creation.

Girls in that project work together to do tasks within the game’s platform by building characters and inserting puzzles, all of which revolve around astronomy. The project has also teamed up with a group of students in Nairobi, Kenya, and through the Web-based voice application Skype girls from different parts of the world can work together, share their expertise, and show off the games they make.

“It’s a way for [the students] to be creative and have an end product that they can show and share with kids all around the world,” says Pennypacker. “The kids really love to create games. It’s a huge untapped resource.”

He hopes the program, made possible by a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, helps open the door for girls into science, math, and technology careers.

‘A Worthwhile Purpose’

One reason why girls have begun to have a larger presence in the gaming community is because the way that video and computer games are marketed and developed has shifted, experts say.

“What has changed really enormously is that both the people who make the game platforms and the people who produce the games for them are increasingly interested in both girls and women,” says Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. Originally, video games were marketed primarily to boys and men, but as their popularity has grown and the market has become more saturated, the video game industry has begun to expand its reach, says Klawe.

Klawe, who has conducted research on gender and gaming for more than a decade, says that although girls and boys both enjoy playing games, girls generally interact with games differently and are attracted to different aspects of gaming than boys are—although when referring to gender, there are always exceptions.

“One of the things we’ve found in our early study is that girls are more likely to do something with a computer game or video game if they think it has a worthwhile purpose,” she says.

Generally, girls also engage in game play for more social reasons than boys, says Klawe. “With girls, it’s much more a question of finding a game that’s fun to play with your friends.”

Another big difference between what appeals to females versus males is violence, says Carrie Heeter, a professor and a principal investigator for the Games, Entertainment, and Learning Lab at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

“Many of today’s genres [of video games] involve fighting, shooting, and attacking,” she says. “That is probably the biggest difference in content preferences, is that males are much more interested in games that include violence. In general, that’s more of a turnoff for females.”

Part of the reason it has taken longer to develop games that appeal to girls, says Cornelia Brunner, the deputy director of the Center for Children and Technology at the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center, is because female players enjoy games with lots of interaction between characters and their environment, which “requires a much more sophisticated technology, more sophisticated algorithms,” she says. “It’s only in recent years that the technology itself has made it possible for us to create those kinds of games.”

‘Context and Story’

Her Interactive Inc., a Bellevue, Wash.-based game-development company, has been making computer games for girls since 1993. Their most famous series is the Nancy Drew adventure games, says Amy McPoland, the vice president of marketing for the company.

“We try to make games for girls that are empowering and that cater to what girls are looking for,” she says. The Nancy Drew games, each of which is based loosely on the book series, are appealing, in large part, because the lead character becomes “an independent, strong role model for girls, which allows us to tell a great story,” says McPoland.

The company also has message boards set up for girls to share tips with one another, says McPoland, which is another feature of the game play that attracts girls.

Girls also tend to like strong story lines, says Karen Peterson, the executive director of the Lynwood, Wash.-based Puget Sound Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, a nonprofit organization that aims to increase diversity in STEM subjects.

“You really have to have context and story,” says Peterson. “For me, that’s the message that we need to get out there to people who are developing curriculum and games [for girls.]”

And although more games are being created with girls in mind, there is still progress to be made, says Peterson. “The gaming industry understands that they need to attract girls and women,” she says. “Games and the virtual world can be a really great hook for getting girls excited about STEM careers.”

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