I moved to Wisconsin three years ago to start a game and interactive media design program. The last year and a half have been extremely busy, as I have written grants, designed curricula and spread the word through various media and the PlayExpo (www.playexpo.org). The Growth Agenda Proposal, which includes the program, has been approved by the regents of the State of Wisconsin and is now waiting for approval from the governor and the legislature.
I believe that the success of the proposal is related to the fact that it explicitly discusses the need for increasing the number of females and minority populations in the pool of students that we wish to attract and educate. Our success in doing so is demonstrated by the kinds of projects that students choose to take on and produce.
The Keep Johnny out of Juvie Jail game, for example, that was developed last semester by the advanced class, was led by a woman. This summer our team of 3 females and one male, funded by an Undergraduate Research grant, produced a game to introduce Wisconsin High School students to local frogs (“I am Lonely” – the Solitary Frog’s Lament (http://facstaff.uww.edu/newFrogs/).
As female students see other females creating good work (and hopefully winning prizes for it in competitive events like the PlayExpo), I have high hopes that we will see more and stronger female enrollments and that this in turn will strengthen our GAIM (Games And Interactive Media) program.
This semester I have eight females enrolled in my Game Development: Theory and Practice course. In the eight years that I have been teaching this course, I have never had more than three. Even fewer of these were women who enjoyed playing games. Some of them had enrolled because their boyfriends were in the class or because it was the only one they could fit into their schedule. This semester the roster is completely different. So what has changed?
In the summer of 2010, I presented a paper at the Women in Games conference in Dundee, Scotland. During my presentation I pointed out that when I started teaching basic programming in my classes, females frequently dropped out. I made the point that female students seemed to opt out of technologically challenging classes and that this was a major problem in terms of increasing the diversity of my classes. The reaction from some members of the audience was quite aggressive. They thought I was ignoring societal pressures on females in this situation and actively discouraging them. Luckily T.L. Taylor stood up and calmed the waters. She suggested that I try modifying my teaching strategy so that I continued to teach difficult content, but deliver it in a way that was less likely to scare off female students.
So I did. When I start my interactive media design classes now, I state that the class will be difficult, but that if they are willing to do the work, I will provide all the help that they need to succeed. I encourage students to work together so that they can help each other when they get stuck and I set up online storage so that they can easily share files and get help directly over the Internet before an assignment is due. Perhaps the most important thing I did in my Flash classes is to create handouts where I walk students step by step through the complexities of object oriented programming and Actionscript 2.0. It is very time consuming to prepare these, but it pays off in student understanding.
The male students utilize these structures just as much as the females do. In response to these changes, student retention has shifted dramatically. My hands-on design classes are now almost 50/50 male/female and female students are staying with the program. Some of my best advanced students are now female.
The mentoring that has to be done to sustain this is very different across genders. The males tend to be much more sure of themselves (even if they don’t have a strong skill set) and willing to take risks: like accepting a project for a client who wants much more than they can deliver. They often just jump in and are willing to learn what is necessary to achieve the desired outcome. Sometimes they fail, and learn through this process as well. Many female students, conversely, constantly denigrate their own abilities and question whether or not they can accomplish what they would like to do. It is difficult to convince them to join group projects or take on difficult tasks because they are certain in advance that they will fail, and they fear failure.
In all my classes I talk about the importance of play in teaching players how to be aggressive and confident in their abilities. Play teaches us that we can get better at anything if we are willing to put the time and effort into practicing it over and over again. Play also trains us for failure. We lose at play much more often than we win. This teaches us how to lose gracefully, marshal our forces, and try again. Another way I work on building confidence in design classes is by holding group critiques for almost every assignment. Learning to critique others and accept negative critiques of our own work is part and parcel of understanding and accepting failure. It is also learning how to use failure as a way of improving and moving forward.
We also show and play games in these classes and critique them with as much seriousness as film, literature and painting are critiqued in other classes. Very often the women in the class have never played games that are very well known and very culturally significant. By taking games and other interactive media seriously in introductory classes, we are more likely to interest and retain women in the advanced ones. This semester four of the women in the Game Development class have taken the hands-on design courses. I don’t think this is a coincidence.