#Gamergate—and what it means for gaming in education

Game designers, MIT, professors weigh in on what educators need to know about the controversy, and how it applies to classroom practice

gamergate-game-educationGames, but especially games for education, need to allow for gender equality and freedom of expression, say gaming experts—two critical game design components needed in the fight against Gamergate’s revelation of misogyny in the gaming industry.

Gamergate originally began as a hashtag in social media after an independent game developer’s ex-boyfriend made public allegations against her regarding a close relationship between the developer and a journalist in exchange for positive press, which was later proven false.

Since then, the controversy has escalated to reveal what many in the gaming industry say is a bias against women in gaming, evidenced not only by death and other malicious threats made against female game developers and female game players, but also by the male-heavy themes in many of today’s commercial games.

Considering that more classrooms and educators are now incorporating gaming into education, never has the controversy surrounding Gamergate and the bias toward women in gaming been more relevant in education, says gaming experts.

But to understand gaming’s standing in education, the gaming researchers and developers at MIT’s Education Arcade say that educators must first understand gaming in the context of an equal right’s movement.

For example, though bias against women is not exclusive to gaming, “digital gaming, like computer science and other STEM fields, is another one of those fields that have long been unwelcoming to women and other marginalized people for a variety of historical, social, economic, and accidental reasons,” said a spokesperson for the Arcade. “However, in terms of people playing games, we do not see that sort of numerical bias. Gaming is more openly diverse than it ever has been before.”

The problem is that the diversity in players doesn’t translate to diversity in representation within most commercial games.

According to Sherry Jones—a Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Game Studies instructor at the University of Colorado, Denver, as well as game studies facilitator for the Metagame Book Club at ISTE’s Games & Simulations Network—the reason most commercial games favor one gender [male] over another is because of the misogyny prevalent in the game design industry.

“Most games heavily favor the male experience because there’s this perception by game studios that most gamers are male and that this is what sells. Most game studios then hire all-male game designers,” she said. “That’s why you see all these independent game developers—who are mostly women—go outside of the AAA game studios, since there’s no pressure to conform to the solely-male experience.”

(Next page: Biggest mistake game developers make when it comes to designing for gender.)

According to Jones and Kae Novak, an instructional designer for online learning at Front Range Community College and chair of ISTE’s Special Interest Group for Virtual Environments, the solely-male experience in video games is often characterized by a male main character, by secondary female characters portrayed as victims in need of help, and by violence against women as part of game play [i.e. Grand Theft Auto].

“It’s also limiting because even if you include a girl as the main player, you’re still excluding transgendered players, or run the risk of stereotyping what a man or a woman looks like,” noted Novak.

“The biggest mistake that game developers make is to overly target one genre over another,” said Nicole Lazzaro, a psychology and computer programming graduate of Stanford University, president and founder of XEODesign, Inc., and one of Gamasutra’s ‘Top 20 Women Working in Video Games.’ “Games are played in mixed gender environments and so games lose half their audience if they only cater to one gender identity.

Lazzaro also said that commercial game design also tends to design “games for girls” and “games for boys.”

“Imagine that I put everything that players like about games on the table; then in one hand, I gather everything that boys (and only boys) like about games. In the other hand I gather everything that girls (and only girls) like about games. What many in the industry do next is look at what’s in one hand and design a game for boys and design a game for girls with what’s in the other hand.”

“But what are we forgetting?” she continued, “We’re forgetting everything that is still on the table. And it turns out that everything still on the table is what players like the most about games, which is what we call the ‘Four Keys to Fun’: novelty, challenge, friendship, and meaning. The moral of the story is games attract a larger audience if they appeal to both genders.”

Lazzoro added: “The story that I think risks getting over-told is the one that paints women as victims. There is a lot of focus on the mistreatment, but I’m focused on the next stage: What can we do to help? What do people need to hear to inspire them to build the better society? Of course, we need to take action against these violations of civil rights and in the case of online harassment some are hate crimes, but we also need to lead and model where things are going.”

Where things are going is good, she noted, by specifically listing women in the gaming industry who have achieved success: Julie Uhrman, founder and CEO for Ouya, the game console to compete with Sony and Microsoft; Jeri Ellsworth, a computer chip designer and co-founder of Technical Illusions who is creating Cast AR, a set of 3D gaming glasses; Kellee Santiago, co-founder and CEO for That Game Company; Kim Swift, who designed the game Portal, which combined with Portal 2’s sales have sold over 8 million units; and Megan Gaiser, former CEO of Her Interactive who created the Nancy Drew Mystery games and had to create her own channel to reach customers when the big game publishers turned her down—it sold over 9 million units.

“The media already fills young minds that they are the princesses that need to be saved,” she continued. “Well, wake up buttercup! Sure, the world ain’t perfect, but it is possible to have tremendous success as a woman in games.”

Despite incidents like Gamergate, Jones noted that the industry is changing, especially now, with education as one of the first markets to adopt gender-neutrality and freedom of expression in gaming.

“In fact, the ESA just released a 2014 stat which revealed that 48 percent of gamers are women, and the indie game scene is reacting to that, with many of these independent developers challenging conventional game design.”

According to MIT’s Education Arcade, “the key to fashioning the gaming world as a safe place for women and others is not necessarily censorship or making all games appeal to all potential players, but rather to create an ecosystem of games designed to appeal to players of different play styles, values, and backgrounds,” and nowhere is this ecosystem more important than education.

Tomorrow, Part 2: 10 steps educators should take in promoting diversity in gaming

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