Play It, Sister

Even girls like to blow things up real good--in videogames, that is

Like many college students, when 23-year-old Susan Arnold heads to a party with her sorority sisters, she goes straight for the boys. But instead of coming armed with a mini-skirt, ridiculously high heels and a fetching shade of lip gloss, Arnold ends up capturing the attention of the opposite sex with her badass videogaming skills. Forget the booze and the dancing and the occasional keg stand or four. It's all about the game.

"I'll see a bunch of guys gaming," says Arnold, who will frequently find a group of dudes at any given party gathered around a television with their eyes glued to a screen full of animated characters blowing each other up. Then, she says, she'll ask, "'Where's my controller?' And they're like, 'What's going on here?'"

And then, Arnold says, she'll beat them. It's not just a high-tech way of saying, "Call me later." Arnold just plain loves playing videogames, and as a girl gamer, she's in the minority, but she's also part of a group of women looking to change the masculine face of the gaming industry, both as a student at SMU's pioneering graduate program in game design, the Guildhall, and as a participant in last Saturday's Women In Games International conference held at the school. But even some of the conference's own panelists and attendees have questioned the need for all the gender-centric hoopla. Statistics and industry professionals say women are catching up to men quickly in both game play and game development.

Amy Brady, right, says she and fellow pro gamer Morgan Romine get paid to kick "guys' asses" at game conventions.
Amy Brady, right, says she and fellow pro gamer Morgan Romine get paid to kick "guys' asses" at game conventions.

The WIGI seminar called attention to the growing number of women interested in all aspects of video and computer gaming, from playing the games to promoting, producing and developing them. About 100 attendees spent the day at SMU's Plano campus in discussions that focused mainly on breaking into game development regardless of gender. But when it comes to getting women behind the scenes of game production, some believe the problem isn't in getting women in the door, but telling them they can knock on it.

Dr. Peter Raad, executive director of the Guildhall, says the problem is rooted in the origins of the gaming industry. It's something that he says became apparent when the Guildhall started taking applicants three years ago. Working closely with local game developers, Raad and his colleagues had set out to develop the first graduate program in the United States that would produce workplace-ready developers who could give game companies exactly what they needed. The thing that struck the Guildhall group in working with local gaming outfits, Raad says, was that there weren't many women already in development.

"It wasn't necessarily because they weren't interested in doing it," he says, "but because, frankly, the gaming industry had grown up in a kind of a self-selected group." At Saturday's WIGI seminar, that much was certainly evident in the frequent use of the term "network." Panelists told wannabe game developers to start networking with professionals as soon as possible. Need a job? Find someone in your network. Looking for résumé tips? Hit the network. Raad says this is how the industry has always operated: "You got in by knowing somebody."

For a long time, "knowing somebody" meant that you were a guy who knew guys in the field. But dissent on this point comes even from Raad's own crew at the Guildhall, where one faculty member questions whether women are really at a disadvantage in the gaming industry.

"The need for a women's-only gaming conference [like WIGI's seminar] is minor, in my experience," says Elizabeth Stringer, an adjunct professor at the Guildhall who's been working as a game producer since she graduated from college. As a favor to a headhunter, she worked as a gofer at a game development company right out of school and ended up supervising the production of games like Zork, Total Annihilation and the big-selling kids' series Backyard Sports. Stringer says she's never been "treated any differently." In fact, she says, she's "found it the exact opposite." Because of the deadline-oriented, fast-paced nature of the industry, it can be more about who can get the job done than what they're packing below the waist.

While statistically men are still in the game-playing majority, studies show the paradigm is quickly shifting. According to the Entertainment Software Association, which analyzes market data for the computer and videogaming industry, 43 percent of videogamers are female, catching up to the 55 percent of male videogamers. In certain age groups, women even outnumber men.

The closing gap between male and female gamers is due in large part to the availability of games that allow social interaction within the game and online, where users can connect to other players.

"[Women] are very enamored of games like The Sims," says Raad, of the wildly popular game where users create their own social environments with virtual families, homes and cities. "It has...more of the long-term experience." Card games, word games and puzzle games found on sites like Yahoo.com and Pogo.com also appeal to women who aren't drawn in by first-person shooters like Halo and the sex and violence of games like Grand Theft Auto. Of course, some girls are into that kind of thing. Take the Ubisoft company's "Frag Dolls," for example.

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