Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: An Interview with Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, and Jill Denner (Part One)

In 1997, Justine Cassell (then a Media Lab faculty, now at Northwestern) and I organized a conference, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, for the MIT Women’s Studies Program. It was one of the first academic conferences I’d ever organized, but I had no idea what a big deal it was going to be at the time. We brought together feminists from academia and industry to talk about the emergence of the short-lived girl game movement and in the process, we tried to explore what it would mean to expand the female market for games. A year later, Justine and I published a book based on the conference through the MIT Press, which has since become a standard in the Games Studies Field.

Now, history has repeated itself: Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun, seeking to understand what has changed over the past ten years, have organized a conference — at UCLA — and now a book for MIT Press, Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming, which was released late last year.

Justine and I were invited to speak at the opening of the conference and wrote an essay for the book exploring our own shifts in understanding the issues of gender and computer games since the conference. There, we express our pride — and mild discomfort — at seeing ourselves transformed from junior scholars to senior statesmen thanks to the publication of this new book. Frankly, I’m more flattered than anything else to see a new generation of feminist gamers, game designers, and game scholars take up this banner and release an important new body of research around the still very timely topic of women and the games industry.

The book opens with reflections from several other veterans of our original event, among them Brenda Laurel and Cronelia Brunner, and continues to have essays which talk about women’s experiences working in the games industry, the growth of casual games as a market which strongly attracts female interests, the gender implications of work in the space of serious and educational games, and interviews with female game designers and with the leader of UbiSoft’s Frag Dolls, a female gamer guild.

I couldn’t let the release of this important book go without a shout out on this blog, so I asked the editors if they would agree to an interview about the book and about what has or has not changed about gender and computer games over the past decade.

It’s been more than ten years since Justine Cassell and I published From Barbie to Mortal Kombat. What motivated you to want to update that book?

JILL: The first book had such a large impact on those of us trying to understand the role of gender in gaming and in technology more broadly. It was helpful to have a mix of academic and industry perspectives, as well as voices from different sides of the “pink” games debate. But as you know, in the last ten years, gaming has changed a lot–it has moved from the margins to the mainstream. It is one of the fastest growing industries in the US. and games are no longer simply a source of entertainment for the most tech savvy. In fact, games are driving innovation in health, business, education, and beyond. New types of gaming experiences have led to greater participation by females, and new research has revealed a greater understanding of what, how, and why females play. But even though women and girls are playing games in increasing numbers, the gaming industry is still run by men, and women seem to be the primary group expressing concern about this. Thus, we felt it was important to follow the model of the first book, with updates from the field.

YASMIN: We actually met a conference where we observed (and participated in) a very prominent event, called “the gender panel”, that can be found at nearly any conference featuring female presenters with a mostly female audience. We wondered why nothing had changed in the ten years since the first edition had come out. We knew the field and the business of gaming was booming and that more girls and women were playing games. We titled the book edition for a reason Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat to open up the gaming community to the fact that gender issues are not just about equality in numbers and not just about differences in interests. The contributions in the book provide a broader perspective of what we need and can pay attention to when we study and design games for rich experiences.

Many more women play games today than they did ten years ago. Indeed, recent data released by the Pew Center for the Internet and American Culture implies that the gender gap we were discussing has significantly narrowed. What factors have encouraged more girls and women to play games?

CARRIE: At almost every age category, males spend more time playing games than females do. The magnitude of the gaming gap increases as children become young adults. My own research with Jillian Winn found in college, males have more free time than females and that free time is available in larger blocks of time. Available free time is associated with time spent gaming.

This statement of the near universality of gaming masks large variation in how much and what kinds of games teens play. The Pew report also says that boys play significantly more than girls and notes many significant gender differences by game genre. Boys play for more time and they play more and more different genres of games than girls do. The study asked whether teens played each of 14 common game genres. Boys play more action, strategy, sports, adventure, first-person shooter, fighting, role-play, survival-horror, and multiplayer games. Girls play more puzzle games. There is no significant difference in amount of play of racing, rhythm, simulation or virtual worlds games.

But your question was, what factors encourage more girls and women to play. Hardware and software technology is vastly more capable. Just look at how much computers themselves have advanced in 10 years. In 1997 Apple promoted “the blazingly fast (240MHz) PowerBook 3400.” Today’s 2008 a MacBook Pro runs at 1066MHz. The game industry has also grown into a multibillion-dollar marketplace. Game companies are seeking larger and new markets, and games are targeting females, either as the primary market, or more often, as part of a larger audience.

Games are getting more interesting, visually rich, more sophisticated, more diverse, more targeted and more ubiquitous. Games are a cultural medium. They are experiences to share and discuss. They are beautiful and surprising, funny and exciting.

YASMIN: The landscape of gaming in terms of genres and platforms has broadened over the last ten years. It has become socially acceptable to play games because a first generation of video game players has grown up and continues to play – all numbers indicate that indeed the gamer population is aging. In the last few years, we have seen a significant shift in who we consider a gamer: with the appearance of Wii older generations are gaming to stay fit both physically and mentally. Today, when we talk about gaming, we include all kinds of games from console games to FPS, sports, casual games, MMORPGS, and even virtual worlds that can have game components. We no longer play games only in arcades or basements but we play games everywhere. So it shouldn’t come as such a big surprise that girls and women are playing games too.

Some claim that these shifts make gender a less urgent consideration in our understanding of games culture. Yet, you argue that “it is still critical to consider gender in order to understand and improve on the design, production, and play of games.” Why? What issues have proven the most difficult to resolve?

CARRIE: Since we turned in the BBMK manuscript (in August, 2006), I have been developing an online gateway to research about gender and gaming. So far we have identified 362 citations dating back to 1982, including academic journals, conference presentations, books and book chapters as well as industry reports and web articles. The number of articles about gender and gaming has nearly doubled every five years since 1982. In other words, the topic is receiving more attention than ever.

Part of the reason for the fuss is the nature of the medium. We don’t hear a lot about gender differences in movie going. Or books. Or web browsing. Or even toys, despite the extreme gender typing of a lot of toy advertising. I could offer excuses for each. Movies in the theater are a group activity, and Hollywood is better served by targeting as large an audience as possible. There are so many books and so many toys it is hard to worry about the overall category. Web sites tend to be functional and only a small subset target one or the other gender.

So why the continually increasing attention to gender and games? Electronic games emerged as a male medium, and typical game mechanics retain the original shooting, fighting, racing, and sports mechanics. The programmers who make electronic games are still overwhelmingly male. Somehow the medium still retains heavy traces of its origin. Lots of games still feel like they are more for boys than for girls, based on look and feel, story, and player actions. Perhaps if books had been invented by girls and only girls could write them. Might not books for boys still be a bit off target as the medium grows into its larger cultural market?

JILL: Several of the authors in our book talk about the fact that there are more similarities than differences in what, why, and how males and females play digital games. However, there seem to be great differences in how males and females experience the games they play. For example, in the chapters by Nick Yee and Holin Lin, we learn how the social context of gaming plays a significant role in a player’s experience, and it appears that gender role stereotypes and discrimination are common across many settings and culture. In addition, the chapter by Elisabeth Hayes describes how different types of gaming experiences have the potential to increase IT capacity, but games that are more likely to be played by girls have fewer of the IT fluency building opportunities (e.g., modding).

YASMIN: I think in research and public media we have by far a much easier time to talk about differences in gender than about the construction or performance of gender. The story that girls don’t play games in as large numbers as boys do or that they play different games is easily verifiable and accessible: who hasn’t seen the difference in toy preferences and play first hand in their own family? It’s much harder to sell the idea that gender is performed and thus more malleable. Theory and research-wise you have to be much more attuned to nuances and how they might play out in different situations.

Many critics of our original book assumed it would be primarily focused on the representations of women in games yet neither books spend much time dealing with games on this level. Why not?

CARRIE: Here too, a lot of the explanation goes back to the nature of the medium. Hollywood movies and TV shows are visual, linear and not interactive. Those media are all about representation. Games are so much more than representation. They involve player actions in the game, their interactions with other players, and sometimes customization of their avatar. And, as you ask in more detail later, what happens on the screen is only part of the game. The physical and social context and interpersonal dynamics with other players help define and shape the experience of playing a game.

The annoying aspects of the portrayal of women in games are not very different from all of the other mass media portrayals of women. It is not the most interesting aspect of gaming, and the portrayal emphasis on hypersexualized beautiful young bodies is so pervasive that the complaint is more about society than about games.

YASMIN: The focus on the representations of women in games and advertisements is often the most visible and thus most accessible entrance point into gender and games. I concur with Carrie that the representation in avatars is only one part of the complex equation of how gender comes into game play. But even these representations are culturally bound as for instance Mimi Ito’s book chapter on gender dynamics in the Japanese media mix illustrates. In Japanese games male player characters often have features such as big eyes that would be considered part of feminized designs in Western games.

You write, “Today, in 2007, there has been a noticeable shift from pink or purple games to a more complex approach to gender as situated, constructed, and flexible.” What would be some compelling examples of this more “complex approach” to gender and game design?

CARRIE: I think researchers studying and theorizing about gender and gaming are the ones who are approaching gender as situated, constructed, and flexible. Game designers are learning to think more broadly about player motivations. Nicole Lazzaro’s chapter, “Are Boy Games Even Necessary,” calls for moving away from demographic targeting, in which extreme preferences are targeted, in favor of more mainstream, designing for mainstream (male or female) players. My own work is moving to focus on player motivations and player types. Although some player types may turn out to be more prevalent among one gender, the emphasis is on the motivations sought, not the gender seeking those experiences.

JILL: The more complex approach can be found primarily in MMOs, or other types of games that allow players to create their own identity. Players can choose to take on distinctly feminine or masculine avatars, or an animal avatar that is not clearly male or female.

A Professor of Learning Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School

at Education, Yasmin Kafai leads research teams investigating learning opportunities in

virtual worlds, designing media-rich programming tools and communities together with

colleagues from MIT, USC and industry. In the early 90′s at the Media Lab she was one

of the first researchers to engage hundred of children as game designers in schools to

learn about programming, mathematics and science. While at UCLA, she launched virtual epidemics in Whyville.net, a massive online world with millions of players age 8-16, to help teens learn about infectious disease. She also studied how urban youth create media art, games, and graphics in Scratch, a visual programming language developed together with MIT colleagues. Her research has been published in several books, among them Minds in Play” (1995), Constructionism in Practice (1996 edited with Mitchel Resnick), and the upcoming The Computer Clubhouse: Constructionism and Creativity in Youth Communities (edited with Kylie Peppler and Robbin Chapman). She has studied in France, Germany and the United States and holds a doctorate from Harvard University.

Carrie Heeter is a professor of serious game design in the department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University. She is co-editor of Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives in Gender, Gaming, and Computing and creator of Investigaming.com, an online gateway to research about gender and gaming. Heeter’s innovative software designs have won more than 50 awards, including Discover Magazine‘s Software Innovation of the Year. She has directed software development for 32 projects. Her research looks at the experience and design of meaningful play. Current work includes design of learning and brain games which adapt to fit player mindset and motivation and persuasive games where the designer goal is to engender more informed decision-making on complex socio-scientific issues. Heeter also serves as creative director for MSU Virtual University Design and Technology. For the last 12 years she has lived in San Francisco and telecommuted to MSU.

Jill Denner is a Senior Research Associate at Education, Training, Research

Associates, a non-profit organization in California. She earned her Ph.D. in

Developmental Psychology in 1995 from Teachers College, Columbia University.

She studies gender equity in science, technology, engineering, and

mathematics, with a focus on Latinas, in partnership with youth, schools,

and community-based organizations. She edited the book Latina Girls: Voices

of Adolescent Strength in the US (2006, NYU Press) and is the founder of

Girls Creating Games where she conducts research on learning and technology

in the context of after school programs.

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