Object Woman{}: Reflections on Scratch

I’ve been reflecting on Amanda Lange’s blogpost titled, “Why Can’t We Make Another Shadow of the Colossus?” and our use of Scratch this week. In her post, Lange refers to missteps in games wherein the design elements fail to reach the standard of excellence set by the famous PS2 game, Shadow of the Colossus (SotC). This week, maybe we experienced some of the difficulties designers face in making games from scratch (see what I did there?) that are contributing factors to her perceived problem in the videogame industry. I’ve noticed in my study of film and television, though, that the same kind of problem persists amongst directors who have hit-n-miss titles. Studios aren’t necessarily any better at consistently publishing “good” films either.

Aside: By “good” I am referring to stories that are universally revered, and they are not driven by sexist/racist/homophobic content— I’m thinking of movies like Star Wars (1977-1980), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Seven Samurai (1954), Toy Story (1995), Forest Gump (1994), Bicycle Thieves (1948). Can we say there are many videogames that are credited similarly?
Which games would you put on your list?

It seems that most everyone can recognize good art; few understand why art is good. It’s why the last 3 Star Wars films were so disappointing to many fans of the series; George Lucas didn’t demonstrate that he understand why his first three films were so celebrated when he revisited the project. I refer to this failing in my everyday life as “The Lucas Syndrome,” the inability to recognize why a story resonates with mass audiences.

Lange points out that some videogame designers seem to suffer from a similar ailment (although she provides no terminology for it). The difference between a film and a game, though, is obviously the agency of designers to mitigate what some players consider as missteps in game design. When game aesthetics are not responsive or dynamic, gameplay can suffer. I was thinking that maybe there’s a catchy name I can come up for this ailment, but then I realized that I was just talking about laziness.

Lange shouldn’t feel like the experiencing a game’s open world can only be designed one way. Why not give players the option to define how the game interacts with them? Obviously not all non-dynamic games are inherently “bad,” but that function does present an opportunity for designers to unnecessarily gender a player’s gameplay, something our class has talked about as problematic. Let’s assume—as a thought experiment—though, that not all programmers are lazy, gender policing fucknecks. Are their other obstacles in the way?

When I decided to make a game with Scratch, I initially found it difficult to augment the game with dynamic controls or options. This speaks to, perhaps, the problematic nature of binary programing—something inherent within computer science. Nathan Ensmenger wrote a few years ago about the ways in which different programming languages embodied different social, organizational, and professional agendas in the earlier days of computer programming.

Some of this was a reflection of  particular problem domains — FORTRAN was obviously designed for scientific applications, and COBOL for business use.  But more significantly, many languages were intended to discipline what was seen as a unreliable and recalcitrant labor force. 
(emphasis added)

I wonder if that still applies to computer languages used today?

What about other fields within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (S.T.E.M.)?I found this really great interview that a software company conducted with one of its female interns on her experience as a woman in the field. A representative of the company asked her, “Is there anything you’d recommend we do in our recruiting process to attract more women?”

As someone who was always encouraged by her father to go into engineering or computer science (but obviously never did), part of her answer resonated with me:

 I went to a talk at Johns Hopkins, hosted by our Women in CS group, by Hanna Wallach on gender imbalance among FLOSS developers. And she said that one of the things that happens is that women don’t even think they’re qualified for something because it’s advertised in competitive language. The language of competition not only doesn’t appeal to many women, it actually puts them off. Google advertises their Summer of Code with very competitive language. In 2006, GNOME received almost two hundred GSoC applicants – all male. When GNOME advertised an identical program for women, but emphasizing the opportunities for mentorship and learning, they received over a hundred highly qualified female applicants for the three spots they were able to fund. Honestly, when you hear the phrase “the world’s best developers,” you see a guy. And, for women, that can be alienating.

I think, though, that I’m going to look to Grace Harper for some amount of inspiration in making strides in my coding education. I mean, she didn’t know what she was doing when she got started with this business, either.

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3 Responses to Object Woman{}: Reflections on Scratch

  1. cstabile says:

    Hmm. I’ll argue about Star Wars and Forrest Gump with you later, but your post made me think of something I should have brought up in class, which is research about why girls don’t pursue studies in computer science in the same numbers as boys. There’s an interesting study — kind of old now — from University of Washington that has some suggestions about “ambient belonging” (http://www.washington.edu/news/2009/12/14/of-girls-and-geeks-environment-may-be-why-women-dont-like-computer-science/), a theory I believe could be applied to both education in CS and the experience many women have playing video games.

  2. mmartini2013 says:

    Blog Post Response #4

    While Toy Story, E.T., Star Wars, and Forrest Gump may not be driven by sexist/racist/homophobic content, all of the central protagonists are male (I left out the other movies you posed because I have yet to see them). Woody from Toy Story is in love with the very feminized Little Bo Beep, E.T.’s main female character is Elliot’s little sister, Luke rescues Princess Leia in Star Wars, and Jennie’s life is a mess in Forrest Gump. None of these principal female characters are portrayed in equal terms as the male protagonists so while these are all “good” films, they still proscribe to a stereotypical representation of the two genders.
    With this frame of mind, I think some games actually do a better job in terms of placing the focus on the game itself rather than the main male characters. For instance, Mario Kart is more about racing then the characters, although Princess Peach never seems to win.
    Why can’t women win in traditionally male dominated fields? Some, like Grace Hopper proves, do win, but women are still behind men when it comes to advanced degrees in STEM fields and as a female, this is incredibly frustrating. Psychology studies have shown that given two identical resumes that vary only by randomly assigned gender names, participants will always see the supposed male as being the better of the two (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/14/1211286109.full.pdf). What is most disturbing is that this gender bias was found in science faculty members in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper that was published just this past year. To be truly horrified however, look at the graph at the bottom of page 2 which visually depicts how females lag behind males in perceived competence, hire ability, and mentoring.
    Another possible contributing factor to the lack of STEM women is due to feelings of not belonging as C. mentioned above (Smith, Lewis, Hawthorne, & Hodges, 2012). The Smith et al. study found that when female graduates in STEM fields perceive that they are putting in more effort than their peers to succeed, it decreases feelings of belonging, which subsequently decreases motivation to keep with the program.*
    There are obviously both internal, like feelings of belonging, and external reasons, like gender biases, that serve as roadblocks to increasing the amount of women in male dominated fields, but I do believe it is getting better. Research like Smith et al. as well as the interview I. posted suggests that merely by changing how these fields are advertised can result in a big increase in world leading women scientists and that is a relatively inexpensive, simply fix.

    *As an aside: If anyone is interested in learning more about this, I highly suggest contacting Karyn Lewis who is a doctoral student in Dr. Sara Hodges lab here at the University of Oregon and in full disclosure I work in this lab which is how I learned about her study.

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