Girls, Gaming, and Gender: An Interview with Game Designer and Researcher Jennifer Jenson (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Mindy Faber, the co-organizer of The 3G Summit: The Future of Girls, Gaming and Gender which she described to me as "a visionary 4-day initiative that brings 50 urban teenage girls together with five leading women game designers and scholars for intensive dialogue, inquiry, game-play, and mentorship. It is organized by Open Youth Networks, Interactive Arts and Media and The Institute for Study of Women and Gender in Arts and Media at Columbia College." The designers involved with the event look like a who's who of women who have been doing cutting edge thinking about gender and games and who have also been demonstrating the potentials for developing alternative models of game and play (including two associated with the University of Southern California):

  • Mary Flanagan (artist and scholar, author of Critical Play)
  • Tracy Fullerton (game designer, educator and writer; Cloud; "flOW; "The Night Journey"
  • Jennifer Jenson (scholar of gender and technology, York University)
  • Susana Ruiz (independent game designer Darfur is Dying and Finding Zoe)
  • Erin Robinson, Indie Game Designer PuzzleBots and Nanobots
  • As Faber explained:

    Because the five women use such different approaches to game design, there is no uniform curriculum or pedagogy. Each of the five teams, consisting of ten girls, one near peer and another woman game facilitator will undoubtedly produce some surprising and intriguing game concepts that are likely to challenge many assumptions we have about what girls like to play. Important to the process is that we do not impose on the girls what types of games they should make or on what platform. Rather we want to remove obstacles that say "you can't do this "or "only this is a real game" and release their imaginations.

    I am proud to have made an early contribution to the research in this area through From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, which I co-edited with Justine Cassell, now at Northwestern University. More recently, the MIT Press has published a follow up book, Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming. I interviewed the editors of that book, Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, and Jill Denner here on the blog when it was first published. The shift from "games" in the original collection to "gaming" in the follow up volume says a lot about the shift from a focus on games as programs to the focus on the process and contexts through which play takes place in and around games.

    It was exciting for me to see this project, not only exploring these questions, but applying our emerging understanding of gender and games to help make a difference for a group of young women. There is still such a burning need for women in the games industry and in computer science more generally.

    I had a chance to interview York University's Jennifer Jenson, one of the designers participating in the 3G Summit, both about the event and her perspective on gender and games. Both on her own and through her collaborations with Suzanne de Castell, Jenson has been doing some of the most theoretically sophisticated and conceptually advanced research in this space -- especially through introducing perspectives from performance theory to challenge some of the first generation of researchers' and the industry's assumptions about how gender impacted children's play with computer and video games. The interview will appear in this post and a follow-up piece later this week.

    Tell us about this forthcoming workshop which you and other female/feminist designers are conducting. What do you hope to achieve? What kinds of researchers do you hope to work with?

    One of the primary goals of the workshop is to put the tools for game design development and production in the hands of girls, with near peer and other structured support in an effort to encourage them to see themselves potentially in those roles in future. It continues to be the case that the numbers of women in the games industry compared to men is shockingly low (somewhere around 10%) with most of those positions being in human resources. Not only are women under-represented in the games industry, but they are also underrepresented, and have been for nearly 25 years in fields like computer science and engineering. So a workshop like 3G Summit is an invaluable opportunity for girls at this age to begin to imagine that they might want to do something like this in the future.

    Is the goal of this boot camp to impact games research, game design, or both?

    My understanding of the boot camp is that it is meant to both impact game design and game research. And as an educator and someone who has worked with girls and women to support their enjoying the pleasures as well as the uses of new technologies since my PhD work, which is now getting on to be nearly 2 decades, and it has also meant, I hope, to impact on the girls themselves. In fact, for me, that would be the number one goal! On the first point, it is a high concentration of girls working with 5 mentors and other near peer mentors to construct games that are meaningful to them, and that can't help but make ripples in terms of game design. I am thinking of it in terms of having a mini-incubator of concentrated talent and raw enthusiasm that can't help but produce very interesting results. In terms of a research agenda, I think this will contribute to growing body of work that examines young people's production of digital games, which has been around for quite a while now -- many have been working for example, for sometime now with kids and game production, work that started to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990's, which saw very early on the positive critical thinking and learning skills that could be developed when young people see their roles as producers, not just consumers of games. In this changed landscape of production, of as you have written, a 'participatory culture' in which individual consumers can take up productive roles in the creation of media, including games, it is critical that girls see themselves in these roles, and especially in relation and in this case, girls seeing themselves as producers of games. And as people who can make a real difference in the kinds of games being made -- which really do need some new inputs, new value bases, and new ideas to get beyond the persistently profit-driven design choices that commercial game companies (no surprise, of course) have made and continue to make. Games can do a LOT more, and do it a lot better than what we have so far seen, not just for girls, but for everyone.

    As you've noted, researchers have been examining gender and games since at least the early 1980s. What has shifted over this time in terms of actual women's relationship to games and how have these shifts been reflected in the research being produced?

    With this question I'd like to start with the fact that most often when people write, think, and do research on "gender and games" what they are really talking about is girls/women and games -- what we don't have so much to date is a notion of how things might have shifted for boys/men. Recently, Lawrence Katz, a labor economist, speculated that one reason the crime rate in the U.S. might have so significantly dropped, despite the economic recession was that video games had been keeping "the young and idle" busy, and I think that is a provocative starting point for a current study of players in this case, primarily male, as women commit violent crimes at rates much lower than men. The reason why I began here is that much of 'gender and gameplay' research has indeed focused on women and girls and gameplay, and we know a bit more about their play and how things have changed over the last 30 years. We know, for example, that at least in terms of self-reporting more women and girls are playing games than they once did in the past -- the Entertainment Software Review Board, for example. Of course we also know that the kinds of games being played by women, how frequently and how long they play for matters enormously, yet the ESRB and other studies seem disinclined to pay much attention to this -- what we call "raising gender only in order to dismiss it as a problem".

    In your writing, you suggest that much current work on gender and games falls into a series of "gender traps," which replicate hegemonic assumptions about gender rather than critique them. What are some of these "gender traps" and what advice would you offer to researchers who want to think around them?

    Hmmm..., I'd say again these two things: Trap #1 Gender = Sex further means just women/girls and Trap #2 raising the 'issue' of gender simply in order to dismiss it as any kind of serious challenge or problem.

    You have challenged the common claim that girls do not like competition and prefer cooperation within their game play. On what grounds?

    On the BASIS of 6 years of grounded, video-based ethnographic fieldwork with games in which we have observed girls and boys and their gameplay over at least a year, and sometimes two or three years on a weekly basis. In that work, we have seen girls perform and enact what can only be called "competition" -- and this ranges from friendly barbs like "you're going to die" to much more aggressive enactments, including bumping of controllers to throw another gamer off course, active 'trash talking', intense pleasure demonstrated when someone wins, and so on. When we compare these kinds of play to the play of boys from the same community and the same place, we see the same kinds of competition. The important thing here to note is that all too often in studies of girls playing games, past research has not systematically looked at the difference between novice and expert play. This has resulted in mistaking "facts about how girls play" with facts about how novices play. In our work (I work quite closely with Suzanne de Castell at Simon Fraser University) we have been able to show that once we 'level up' the girls and they become more expert their play looks very much like the boys: engaged, competitive, and mainly just having fun.

    Dr. Jennifer Jenson is Associate Professor of Pedagogy and Technology in the Faculty of Education, York University, Toronto, Canada. She has published on gender, technology and digital games and games and education, among other topics. She also, with a team of folks, including Suzanne de Castell, designs games for education -- recent titles include: Contagion, Tafelmusik: The Quest for Arundo Donax, and Epidemic: Self Care for Crisis. In addition to a strong penchant for Victorian fiction, her favorite game at the moment is Wario Ware DIY.