Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Gaming the System

Although I'm down in Southern California finishing up the Virtualpolitik manuscript, I've been following the goings on of the GDC or Game Developers Conference in Northern California. For starters, I always like to read the Top Ten Research Findings in game studies, which are compiled each year by Jane McGonigal, Mia Consalvo, and Ian Bogost.

Bogost gave what sounded like a provocative keynote on "Where 'Love' Belongs: an Academic's Thoughts on Game Education," which I'm sorry I missed, because A) it seemed like it had some interesting reflections about the nature of interdisciplinarity and collaboration, and B) he slipped in a slide that mentioned Jacques Lacan, which I always like to see. (Check out this Bogost mention of the mirror stage in a game trade too!)

Bogost also reported on Steve Seabolt's talk about what's happening in The Sims division of Electronic Arts these days, which has a lot of political ramifications, if you understand the term "politics" to include gender politics and cultural politics and not just questions about who's regulating whom in Washington. The fact that The Sims would be expanding possible environmental storylines wasn't much news to anyone who's played the game and has seen how it privileges policies that promulgate environmental controls and public transportation, but Seabolt also said that the company had been busy with socially conscious work in real world environments. As part of a corporation that specializes in proprietary software and big-budge IP, it is surprising to hear that The Sims may be part of the One Laptop Per Child Initiative. Of course, research shows that access to games and social networking sites, which are often criticized in mainstream culture as nonproductive leisure uses of computing technologies, is key to digital literacy in the developing world as well. News on the homefront about computer education for girls from Seabolt was not so good, unfortunately. Although The Sims 2 is partnering with Alice, the non-profit project for teaching programming skills to young women, problems in gender representation in the computer science field still persist.

As someone who couldn't help but notice that I was the only female student in my game design class, I was thinking about gender gaps a lot last night. We had a "sub" filling in at the front of the classroom, since the instructor was at GDC, so the testosterone level in his absence was particularly high. Sitting next to two hardcore post-adolescent gamers who went on and on very loudly about "blood and semen" games and all the cool ways you could kill women in various scenarios, the urge to give my pimply subhuman classmates a lecture about hate speech was almost overwhelming. Instead, I just pretended that I was deaf until we got to the actual subject matter for the day, which was about sound design, where I could demonstrate some knowledge and hence amaze the gonad brothers. A few years earlier, my husband, who is a designer, had taken almost the same class with the same teacher, and he said that at the time about half of the students were women and that they produced some of the best projects. He described these women's games as often stereotypically of the flowers-and-bunnies kind but plugged them as imaginative and witty and fun to play and cleverly coded.

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