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Girls got game: Professor helps close computer science gender gap

May 23, 2010

Why do so few women pursue careers in computer science? In 2007, only 18.6 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees went to women, according to the National Science Foundation. In the work force, women make up just 26 percent of computer scientists, compared to 41 percent of life scientists.

Betty Hayes studies the gender gap in science and technology fields. She believes she knows one important reason why computer science is so skewed towards men.

“One of the most common motivating experiences cited by boys entering computer science was playing computer games,” said Hayes, an ASU English professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “There is a lot of incidental learning that happens in games. You need a new graphics card to play the latest game, so you have to learn to install it, for instance.”

Girls do play computer games, but they tend to play different types of games than boys. When Hayes studied what kinds of games girls played, she found that most of them chose what are known as “casual” games, such as Solitaire, Tetris and Bejeweled.

“These are games that are easy to learn, that you can pick up and play and then stop easily," she said. "They are not easy to master, but you can learn them quickly."

Unfortunately, casual games lack a critical capability that may give boys a leg up – modding. Modding allows users to modify or create part of the game. For example, players can create new maps or scenarios that others can use. The process of modding helps gamers develop advanced computing skills.

Serious gamers and modders also form communities that provide informal learning and a peer network. It’s like the old boys’ network, only the venue is games rather than golf courses.

“Even today, the game industry is dominated by men," Hayes said. "It’s had a male bias from the start. A number of people have critiqued the content of games and noticed bias. For example, there is a lot of shooting, and female characters tend to be scantily dressed. And gamers are associated with computer science – the perception is caught up in that.”

The mod squad

Like any serious gamer, Hayes set out on a quest. She wanted to find games that girls liked that also had modding potential, and then form gaming groups.

“We wanted to make gaming socially OK, and give girls the peer network boys have,” she said.

When Hayes began her research, most of the games created with girls in mind were very stereotypical, such as Barbie Fashion Design. She worried that her quest might prove futile. But there was one game that proved wildly successful to her cause.

“Almost all of the girls we interviewed played the 'Sims,'” she said. “I’d never really taken the Sims seriously as a game. I tried it, but I was unimpressed by the lack of goals. But it actually was pretty hard.”

The Sims is a life simulation game, almost like a computerized dollhouse. Players create characters, give them personalities, build them houses, find them jobs, entertain them, feed them, and even make them sleep and bathe. Characters interact and sometimes even fall in love, get married and have children.

Keeping your character alive and happy is almost as difficult as it is in real life, as Hayes discovered.

“I built a home and in about 15 seconds it was burning down and the Grim Reaper was visiting me!” she said.

In 2002, the Sims became the best-selling PC game in history. Perhaps even more impressive is that about half the game’s players are female.

More importantly for Hayes, there was a huge modding community around the Sims. “The girls we interviewed, however, weren’t entering the modding communities. We wanted to engage them more.”

Hayes tells the story of one participant, Jewel. “She wasn’t very successful in school, not highly engaged in lots of activities. She didn’t have very many goals professionally. She had some interest in becoming a fashion designer, but didn’t know how to go about it.”

But Jewel took to the Sims – and modding – in a huge way. She spent a lot of time learning to make objects in the game and uploading them to communities.

“People praised her for it,” Hayes said. “She started to think of herself as good with computers. She decided to take some programming classes. The girls in the group turned to her for help, and she became a leader in the group. Her father noticed what she was doing and bought her a new computer. It was a great example of what potential this could have for some kids.”

When she started her project, Hayes worked at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When she came to ASU, she connected with Kimberly Scott, a fellow education professor who runs the CompuGirls program. CompuGirls recruits adolescent girls from underserved school districts to enroll in summer and after-school classes on digital media, games and virtual worlds. The girls work on social justice projects using new media and new technologies.

Designing women

Hayes has just completed a book on her research and experiences, co-written with James Gee, also a professor at ASU. The book, "Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning," debuted earlier this year.

The book includes Hayes’ experiences working with girls, but also features interviews with adult women – ranging from their 20s to their 60s – who became featured content creators.

“Some had no computing background at all," Hayes said. "People who would never take a formal computer science or graphic design course became fluent in graphic design through designing for the Sims."

She is exploring the relationship between in-game experiences and real-world skills. She works with girls to move on from the Sims to Second Life, a 3-D virtual world where people can socialize, hold meetings and discussions, teach classes, and showcase their creations such as buildings, objects, art and clothing.

“We bought an island in Teen Second Life," Hayes said. "You can create stuff and sell it. Jewel moved in there, too. One adult woman joined the Sims Mafia and later joined Second Life with her mafia family. She learned geometry through the Sims building tools – a subject she’d never learned well in school. It also changed her professional trajectory. She is now studying e-learning.”

Hayes is looking to learn more from online communities, which she views as valuable models for intentionally designed learning communities.

“People are learning a heck of a lot outside of formal education,” she said.

Hayes said that when she started her research, she assumed that girls and women weren’t doing interesting things with games.

“I found out they’re doing fabulous things,” she said. “They are still overlooked by scholars, however. They’re doing different things than boys – not the high-tech modding we place a premium on. But they are modding and building communities.”

She adds that you can’t always judge what women will enjoy by what they are currently playing. Many women and girls avoid certain games because they seem socially unacceptable, or because they don’t know much about the subject matter.

“Women will at first choose games that are familiar to them, to what they’ve been exposed to. So they might not choose World War II games if they don’t know much about World War II,” she said.

She uses herself as an example, saying she didn't grow up with games. As a scholar studying games, however, she needed to experience them firsthand.

“I started with Dungeon Seige, a role-playing game," she said. "What I started to realize is that even though there’s a lot of fighting, it’s strategic. It’s problem-solving, and I enjoyed that. Fighting is window-dressing for the under-game mechanics. That was the first game I played all the way through.”

She said that she has seen many examples of women getting into gaming through the encouragement of a boyfriend or spouse. Then the boyfriend or spouse stops playing, but the woman is still hooked.

She adds that the tendency to stereotype women also leads people to stereotype men, which is equally ineffective.

“Lots of games are designed for teenaged boys, who can play games for 10 hours at a time," she said. "But lots of adult men can’t do that. So men’s preferences are really diverse, too.”

Over the course of Hayes’ research, games have opened up more to women. And products such as the Wii are radically transforming the demographics of gameplay by bringing gaming to people who would never have pursued traditional computer games. Hayes suspects that the increase in games on cell phones and PDAs will change the gaming landscape as well.

One thing is certain: Hayes will have plenty to study for years to come.