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

Below is the second installment of my interview with York University's Jennifer Jenson, a designer who has been doing significant research on gender and children's play with video games. You can find more about the 3G summit she is participating in here and here, including information about sponsorship. You suggest that much research on gender and games seeks to identify static "preferences" while gender is being "performed" in specific contexts. Yet the search for preferences seems calculated to identify design principles which seek to mediate inequalities in production and access to games. How might the more performance or actor-centered approach you are advocating lead to design principles that might address these concerns?

The inequalities in production and access to games are much more complex than a pink-colored bandaid can hope to cover, so by understanding first and foremost that preferences are a moving target that games companies and others can't hope to tackle, then certain other structural inequities become illuminated.

First, that it is very common for girls and women to have access to games through their male partners and relations -- sisters play on their brothers' and fathers' xboxes, but rarely have primary access. So this means that they aren't necessarily making decisions about what to purchase, and when to purchase. I think here, Nintendo has been incredibly successful in reaching some of this audience in their Wii advertising, and in the games that have been developed, simply because they have directly addressed a family audience in their marketing and advertising. This of course is still not directly addressing girls -- and maybe that is just fine, but women don't always equate to family. When it is the case that everywhere one turns, the subject of address is a male gamer it makes sense to me at least on some level that women do not feel like they are part of the gamer audience, and to get a sense of how this still works, you need only open a game magazine. The first point would then be: in order to cultivate a gamer audience that is female, it would make sense to begin to actually address them---which isn't the same thing as addressing them as mothers or as the pink people, something that should go without saying, but still doesn't.

Second, while it has been pointed out a number of times over the years that the repertoire of available avatar choices if a player wants to play as something that is marked as a female character is not only far less, but also tends to be hyper-feminized, it remains the case that design choices are consistently being made to reinforce this. One easy 'fix' here seems to me: design games with choice, and choices driven by players' active production and play--ironic, satirical, smart and 'savvy' -- with character avatars.

And finally, it has been the case for nearly 30 years now that women have not chosen to enter computer science and engineering fields, that they have stayed away from programming courses and careers in computer-based industries, and the fact that so few women are a part of the games industry means that the above two issues persist. This inequity falls on the shoulders, I think, of educators and educational institutions who have (with a few exceptions) not been able to turn the tide of so few women participating in the kinds of secondary and higher education that might lead them to career paths as game designers, and here I don't mean by assuming that that inequality will be made up through the 'art production' side of things. We in education need to examine how it is we teach those subjects and who we encourage and at times actively discourage from those related areas, as well as actively promote programs of the kind that we are participating in like the 3G Summit, as at the very least, for a short period of time, it puts girls roles chances are they might not have experience before.

Should we be focused on redesigning the contexts where play takes place rather than redesigning the games themselves?

I like this question -- I think that redesigning the context of play certainly helps. In our work, we have talked about it as "unfettered, hands-on access" to, in this case, playing games. Once we do that, we find that girls play, much like the boys.

Is it possible to use game design in ways which encourages players to perform gender differently? What assumptions are we making about the relationship here between the impact of game design and the impact of social norms?

I think the main assumption in terms of social norms is that the only two available genders are male and female -- by not allowing for a range of 'other' choices, we are automatically black boxing gender -- reducing it to binary sex-based characteristics that in some very real sense do not allow for a lot of 'play'.

The question of how to design games differently to encourage players to perform gender differently is to open up choice, giving players more freedom of movement -- whether or not they choose that would be an interesting question, but allowing for greater choice will at the very least mean that there is more opportunity for that kind of play to happen.

Can you tell us more about your own work as a game designer? In what ways has the theoretical and ethnographic work you've done on gender and games informed the games you are making and vice-versa?

Luckily, the work I have done as a game designer has been, first and foremost, playfully engaging with a fabulous colleague and a team of amazing student programmers, artists, researchers, and play testers, and most of that has been focused on how best to design games that have some educational value, use and impact.

Over the years we have figured a lot out about what that means, and I won't go into that so much here, but I will say that one thing we have figured out is that designing games for education is not about trying to make games that "teach" them something, instead it is about making games that provide opportunities for play and engagement in ways that aren't possible through textbooks or even making a film.

For example, last year we completed a game whose (unlikely!) content is Baroque music, and when we have watched students at all age levels play with that game, we have seen active engagement with a form of music that none of them have ever listened to before or ever experienced. On leaving the game, what is so interesting is that we often find students humming the tunes that they had been playing with -- and that means what we were able to create is a rich experience of Baroque music that they probably never would have had, and just might be interested in finding out more.

How the work on gender and gameplay is inflected in this work is very much in attempting to design for player choice and agency but to interrupt the usual kinds of choices that might be available, for example, in an early game we designed on contagious disease, players customized their avatars with colour choices that did not include skin tones, and we worked very long and hard with artists to draw different kinds of avatars that were not hyper-masculinized or feminized.

You have argued that some progress might be made in these debates if we split apart concepts of sex and gender. Can you describe a bit more what this distinction might contribute to research in this area?

As you probably realize, this is a rather dodgy question, and rather than delve into that certainly perilous territory, from a PR perspective anyway, I'd just refer to people like Donna Haraway's still cutting edge analysis of the distinctions at stake here, and how and why they matter. If only people would read that work, they could surely figure out the rest of themselves. Instead, it seems that bad ideology continues to trump good analysis and the question keeps getting obscured.

As you note, male experience and preferences have been taken for granted in much of this research. What would we gain if more time was spent exploring the construction of/performance of masculinity in relation to games?

What we do not have to date is a careful exploration of masculinities at/in play in games, and I think what such a perspective might offer is nuance and identities that are masked by the blanket presumption that all men play games and they play them a certain way. This of course is not the case, but the fact is we do not have many accounts of boys and men's play, and it would be worth knowing something about the group of men who have played console games together since they were 10, and continue that play into adulthood, or about those who play xbox live sports games at certain times every weekend, or even about the young man labeled "addicted" to videogames -- what about their stories? And then again, what about the men who play bejewelled and not much more and love it?

Studying men/boys might also reveal the complexities of identities and play, and might also reflect something back on the subject positions of women and girls in those relations. One way of being able to cling to stereotypes about women is to not pay attention to men either, so the presumptions don't get challenged from the hegemonic side of things, and obviously won't get challenged from the subordinate one either.

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.