She’s Got Game

Video Games play an invaluable role in childhood, but most games are made by, and for, guys. Cue the Silicon sisters

February 2, 2012

By Blaine Kyllo

Your daughter’s in dance and music, she does yoga three nights, and on weekends she plays soccer. But if you really want her to get ahead, get her playing video games. “You do your children a disservice, particularly your girls, if you don’t,” insists Kirsten Forbes, 50, a game designer who spent more than a decade at local software firm Radical Entertainment working on franchises like CSI and Crash Bandicoot. “In this day and age, every possible career option requires some degree of expertise with computers.” You can’t even be an artist without computational skills, Forbes notes, and if girls aren’t playing games when they’re young, “there’s no way they’re using software and programs to do anything more sophisticated than that” by the time they enter the job market.

Forbes and Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, 44, founded game developer Silicon Sisters in 2010. In the firm’s Gastown loft, Gershkovitch tempers Forbes’s zeal. “I’m not advocating for neglecting your parental duties and letting video games take over their world,” she says. (She has three children; Forbes has two.) But she too believes that video games play a crucial—and positive—role in childhood.

Video games are rapidly becoming the dominant form of entertainment. Popular titles rake in far more than even the hottest Hollywood films. (In 24 hours, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 sold 6.5 million copies in North America and the U.K., worth $400 million; by comparison, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,
the top-grossing movie of 2011, brought in $381 million domestically over the year.) In Canada, the sector earns an estimated $1.4 billion a year.

Three in five Canadians played a game in the past month; only one was female. Gershkovitch says that’s because video games are made for boys; after all, the men behind the games tend to make what they want to play. Even if a studio repackages a popular title for females (a marketing tactic Gershkovitch calls “pink it and shrink it”)—say, a first-person “shooter” game like Halo—the result has limited success, because most girls don’t like to play shooters.

When she and Forbes opened Silicon Sisters, they wanted to do something substantial. That meant questioning basic game assumptions—“coming back to the question of what tickles the female brain,” says Gershkovitch. After months of research, they compiled a bible of first principles: protagonists should be female, controls should be simple and intuitive, competition should be broadly conceived, and skills girls are naturally good at, like communication and negotiation, should be part of the play.

Their first game, School 26 (for iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, and Android), is designed for girls in their early teens. Players become Kate, a teenager embarrassed by her hippy parents, who needs to make friends at her new school. As characters communicate with Kate, players must choose which facial expression, which emotion, is appropriate. Forbes says the game is meant to leverage the social-engineering skills girls build in the schoolyard: “circulating, sorting out the social hierarchy, measuring themselves based on affiliations, organizing everything in terms of romantic pairings.” Whereas a first-person shooter is built on the need to move, aim, fire, and manage resources like health and ammunition, School 26 (so named because it’s the 26th school Kate has attended) is powered by empathy.

Jennifer Jenson, an associate professor at York University in Toronto, has been studying gaming among girls and boys for years. She’s concluded that not only do girls lack boys’ video game experience but many girls who do claim to play are actually just watching husbands, boyfriends, or brothers handle the controllers. If girls are going to match boys’ skills, Jenson says, they need unfettered access. A research project at the U of T concurs: girls don’t perform as well at rotating objects in space simply because, as young children, they took part in different activities. Playing first-person-shooter video games improves spatial abilities, which persist over time.

Game mastery has practical applications. Gershkovitch talks about a University of Alberta study that showed boys’ access to and use of video games affects career decisions, because the games and the consoles make them comfortable with software and hardware. Not having access to technology and not playing games, she suggests, are major reasons many girls don’t consider technology careers.

Gershkovitch believes that the video game industry needs to be making a diversity of games, and that requires a diversity of designers and programmers. Until now, it’s been mostly white males making games that they are good at and want to play—“which is awesome. They’ve done a great job,” she says. But there a lot of people who aren’t like them. “As games become more defining of culture, as they become a bigger slice of our entertainment,” says Gershkovitch, “there’s room for everybody to get involved.”

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