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Girls Creating Games: Challenging Existing Assumptions about Game Content

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Author: Denner, Jill
In a reinforcing cycle, few females create games, and fewer girls than boys play games. According to the Interactive Digital Software Association’s 2003 survey, 72% of all video game players are male. This is unfortunate, as early game playing not only fosters specific cognitive and motor skills (Subrahmanyam, Kraut, Greenfield, & Gross, 2000), it is also a gateway to shaping the future of technology. How can we better attract, engage, and sustain the interests of girls in gaming? One strategy is to increase the range of games available (Jenson and de Castell, 2002). In this paper, we aim to increase our understanding of what girls like about games and gaming by describing 35 games created by middle school students. The most popular console games on the market today have distinct qualities. They provide spaces for players to take initiative, are competitive, and give players the opportunity to save the world or have personal triumphs. The most popular games typically have larger-than-life settings, and the goal is to win, rather than to experience new cultures or relationships. Success comes from eliminating competitors, not making friends. Games allow players to become successful football players in the NFL, professional skateboarders, and to test their bravery as soldiers fighting an invisible enemy or in a one-on-one duel. What would games look like if they were designed by girls? Kafai (1995) found that elementary school boys designed games with violent feedback, where players "get" something (i.e. win), whereas girls were more likely to describe activities. Others have suggested that females prefer games that are not competitive, have a narrative and characters they can relate to, little meaningless violence, have puzzles, rich audio and images, and have different ways to win (Children Now, 2001; Gorriz & Medina, 2000; Laurel, 1999; Rubin et al., 1997). In her book on gender-inclusive game design, Ray (2003) argues that we need more games that do not have a zero-sum outcome where conflicts are resolved by one person winning and everyone else losing. The games that are most popular with girls and women have positive female characters, allow them to explore relationships and roles, and take place in realistic worlds, such as the Sims and 102 Dalmatians (Children Now, 2001). In this paper, we describe 35 games created by ninety 10-13 year old girls in the U.S. The girls were participants in an after school program where they obtained the skills and resources to design and program their own games using Macromedia’s Flash MX software. They created "choose your own adventure" games, in which the player must choose a path at key points in a story. Two researchers reviewed the games and identified nine coding categories, building on the research of Kafai (1995). The following is a summary of our findings. Note that a game can be coded into multiple categories. Percent of games that have: Players confronting fears: 97% A realistic world: 74% Opportunities to win and lose: 71% Social issues: 54% Allow player to choose the character’s sex: 51% Events that challenge social taboos: 34% Teach a lesson: 31% Female characters: 26% Opportunities for personal triumph: 20% Violent feedback: 14% The findings suggest that many features of the girls’ games were very different than the most popular games on the market. Few used violence to provide feedback to the player, and only one game had an opportunity for the player to die. One fifth included opportunities for personal triumph, such as saving the world or other people. Most games took place in a realistic (as opposed to a fantasy) world. Over half the games focused on social issues that are on the minds of preteen girls, such as babysitting, boys, the school dance, and difficult principals. One third of the games had scenes that challenge social taboos, such as throwing a pie in someone’s face, peeing one’s pants, bathroom scenes, and talking back to a teacher. The data suggest that the most prominent theme in girls’ games was the way they expressed and worked through fears in their stories. This included getting eaten by a shark or Bigfoot, being grounded, getting detention, being gagged and blind folded by an evil scientist. Some fears occurred in realistic settings, such as "The Bad Babysitter" where the child gets lost and a fire occurs, and "Getting Lost," which includes being chased by a bear. Many of the games addressed fears of social exclusion and judgment resulting from peer pressure to skip school ("The New Brighton Singer"), sneaking out of the house, or listening to certain kinds of music ("Music Mania"). Other fears were grounded in fantasy, such as "A Horrifying Alienistic Experience," where aliens invade the school, and "Ski Trip or Disaster," in which Bigfoot appears. Our research suggests that when given the opportunity, girls design games that challenge the current thematic trends in the gaming industry. The girls have shown us new ways to make games, and new ways to play. The games address the issues and problems that affect girls’ lives and what they think about. We can use this information to engage girls in game playing. In our presentation, we will show scenes from some games, and discuss the implications of these findings for understanding the intersection of gender and computer gaming. We will use our research to demonstrate the ways that game production can be a site of resisting and transforming traditional gender stereotypes. Consistent with previous research, the games suggest that girls want opportunities to experiment with different notions of femininity (Brunner, Bennett, & Honey, 1999) and experiment with fears, as well as different identities in realistic rather than fantasy settings (Jenkins, 1999). Our findings suggest a clear opportunity to use games to transform gender stereotypes and transform the face of technology. Our presentation will also address whether it is even possible to design gender-neutral games that appeal to both males and females. Finally, we suggest that in order to engage and sustain females’ interest in technology, the gaming industry needs to create software to "highlight the human, social, and cultural dimensions and applications of computers rather than the technical advances, the speed of the machines or the entrepreneurial culture surrounding them" (AAUW 2000, page 10). References American Association of University Women (2000). Tech savvy: Educating girls in the new computer age. Washington DC: AAUW Educational Foundation. Children Now (2001). Fair play: Violence, gender and race in video games. Oakland, CA. Gorriz, C.M. & Medina, C. (2000). Engaging girls with computers through software games. Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery, 43, 42-49. Jenkins, H. (1999). "Complete freedom of movement": Video games as gendered play spaces. In J. Cassell & H. Jenkins (Eds.) From Barbie to mortal kombat: Gender and computer games. (pp. 262-297). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Jenson, J. & de Castell, S. (2002). Serious play: Challenges of educational game design. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Kafai, Y. (1995). Minds in play: Computer game design as a context for children’s learning. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. Laurel, B. (1999). An interview with Brenda Laurel. In J. Cassell & H. Jenkins (Eds.) From Barbie to mortal kombat: Gender and computer games. (pp. 118-135). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Ray, S. G. (2003). Gender inclusive game design: Expanding the market. Hingham, MA: Charles River Media, Inc. Rubin, A., Murray, M., O’Neil, K., & Ashley, J. (1997). What kind of educational computer games would girls like? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Subrahmanyam, K., Kraut, R. E., Greenfield, P. M., & Gross, E. F. (2000). The impact of home computer use on children’s activities and development. In R. E. Behrman (Ed.), The Future of Children: Children and Computer Technology, 10(2), 123-144.
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