Game Researchers Encourage Next Generation of Female Game Designers and Computer Programmers

Amanda Ochsner is game.

Amanda Ochsner
Amanda Ochsner

A researcher at WID’s Games + Learning + Society (GLS) and Ph.D. candidate in the UW–Madison Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Ochsner is writing a dissertation about women and digital game design, and probing the reasons why so few women are game designers.

“I’m studying two things. The first is some online conversations that took place over the past few years about why women leave game design and choose not to pursue game design careers and also why women do explore game design careers,” she says.

To get at this, she is exploring online Twitter conversations and interviewing game designers to get an in-depth picture of a handful of female game developers. Based on what they say about their pathways and experiences, Ochsner will develop a framework for the design of classroom curricula or informal after-school learning clubs to better reach girls.

Ochsner got interested in games when she lived in San Francisco after college and was a website editor for a games press outlet, where she reviewed a lot of games that were made for and marketed toward adolescent girls.

Ochsner didn’t like what she saw.

“I felt these games weren’t very good,” she says. “They were formulaic, low-budget games where you would go through pretty mundane everyday tasks like doing chores and going to sports practice. There wasn’t too much in terms of being able to explore a real identity. I was disappointed and frustrated by those, so I started looking around at other things I might be able to do with games.”

Eventually, she discovered GLS and applied to graduate school after corresponding with center co-director Constance Steinkuhler.

Ochsner says that younger girls, for the most part, play games as much as boys do. But, she says, around the teenage years it becomes a little more normative for boys to play more, because it’s a part of normal adolescent boyhood to play games with other boys and to play competitively. Girls tend to engage more heavily in after-school activities and other social things that sometimes include games, but not always.

“Are there after-school spaces that we can design? Or are there ways we can redesign digital media and technology courses in high schools and undergraduate programs that support women better and help them?”

— Amanda Ochsner

In the past four years, Ochsner has been a project assistant at GLS. Last year, she worked with an after-school club in the New Glarus school district designed for students interested in computer programming and game design.

“When I started working with them about a year ago, it was mostly all boys. There were a couple of girls who would come only occasionally. The coordinator asked for my help in engaging girls better,” she says.

She did some focus group testing with those girls and with other schools across the country and discovered some research on electronic textiles, which use traditional crafting and sewing practices to incorporate computer or electronic components into the project. In a summer class, she experimented with having kids sew lights with a battery into a bookmark and also with sewing blinking light patterns or sound patterns into a stuffed animal.

In the after-school club, Ochsner designed the class and the curricula, working with the students to design their own games.

“We specifically reached out to girls saying programming and code is really fun and exciting — it’s not all of these stereotypes that you may have been led to believe,” she says. “Now, this fall, there are between 10 and 12 girls attending the club regularly. That’s a change from zero just one year ago.”

Photo courtesy of Amanda Ochsner

Previously, in another project assistantship at GLS, she worked collaboratively with Microsoft Research to design a community to engage middle school girls in coding and programming.

“Part of the focus group testing that we did was to figure out what are girls looking for in an online space when they’re learning to code. What might the aesthetics of the website be, and what types of interactions do we want to enable?”

She also worked on a project called Studio K, which uses the Microsoft Kodu visual programming language, an easy-to-use game-design tool, where students can jump in quickly make games. Some of Ochsner’s work involves running workshops with teachers to teach them how to implement Kodu in their classrooms, looking at different play patterns and how students approach using Kodu.

This year, Ochsner is the co-chair of the 11th GLS Conference, a three-day event which attracts more than 500 game researchers, educators and designers to discuss everything from curricula in classrooms to the design of educational games and the cultural interactions around mainstream entertainment games.

Ochsner hopes her dissertation research will open up a bigger conversation about how to support more young women in adolescence in game design and similar pathways, such as computer programming.

“Are there after-school spaces that we can design? Or are there ways we can redesign digital media and technology courses in high schools and undergraduate programs that support women better and help them?” Ochsner asks.

Her research focuses on how women struggle to find mentors and role models and why computer science curricula tend to focus on very technical things. She’s also curious to learn what’s more appealing to women in computer science: computer science or its applications?

Her research indicates that girls want to know: What can I do in the world as a result of having this skill set? What problems in my local community might I be able to tackle? How could I have an impact on the environment knowing this skill set?

Ochsner thinks small changes to the design of classroom environments or after-school spaces might make a difference and increase the numbers of girls who become game designers or computer programmers.

— Mary Sussman