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The Gender Games: Women in Game-Based Learning

Lee Banville, Editor at Games and Learning, sat down with Dr. Berger to discuss the role of women in game-based learning. In the past, gaming was predominantly male oriented in the sector of development, and most women had little interest in entering the overly male driven culture. In recent years, however, early childhood education and more specifically, game-based learning, has opened the door for women to make their imprint. Banville believes that in the not so distant future, women will play an equal role in both gaming jobs and game development.


Dr. Berger: Yes. Let’s take another shift and talk a little bit about a topic that’s interested me lately, and that is gender and technology, specifically gender in gaming. I saw some stories you had on Games and Learning with the founder of GRID and various stories about women that are entering into gaming as developers, founders of companies, etc.

Lee Banville: Correct.

DB: Are we doing a good job, from your perspective, in providing a landscape for women that says, one, you’re welcomed in, and two, you bring a different set of skills and talents that could flush out what we’re trying to do in 21st Century learning? Are we connecting not only education environments but earning professional environments as well? Are we doing a better job of this?

LB: Well, the short answer is no, (laugh), but let me give you the longer answer, too. Game-based learning is an area in which see a higher proportion of female developers than we see in the general gaming industry. There’re a couple of reasons for that. If you talk to a lot of people who go into game-based learning, it always resonates with me when I learn they just had kids. They are feeling, “Man, I’ve been making these games for years, and now, I want to make sure that they can help my kid and won’t ruin my child.” It’s because suddenly they have a child. It occurs with both male and female developers. Essentially, a lot of people who go into the game-based learning field are driven by a desire to create better products for their kids, and the mentality is, “if my kid wants something that’s better and educational but also engaging, probably other kids do too.” Sometimes that can be a problem because that represents the full extent of their business strategy. (laugh) There is a gravitational pull of people toward game-based learning around development who have a personal connection to it.

We see both male and female in that field, but we see a lot more female developers than we see in the greater developer field. There are a frighteningly small proportion of game developers that are women. The thing that’s been probably most promising, at least from my perspective, as the father of two daughters, is to see the degree to which there are efforts to inspire kids at the youngest age to not only play games but also make games. Girls Make Games is an effort; GRID is an effort. We see young boys and young girls excited about everything from character development to coding.

We see an investment that we won’t reap the benefits for another, decade, but I think we have shifted in that conversation. Now, computer science and coding are not the just the realm of nerdy boys in their basement, pounding out “Basic.” Coding is not the black box it used to be where only a handful of people knew how to do it. In fact, they have done a very good job turning the learning of coding into a game in a lot of places.

Even though it’s a much friendlier environment when young, we still have huge problems, in the industry itself. For example, The South by Southwest debacle. There was the issue of “You’re invited then not invited” problem and the subsequent blowback from both sides.

Hopefully, these types of conversations will seem incredibly antiquated a decade from now when we have a much higher percentage of the game-playing public; that is not overwhelmingly male. It’s a pretty even split between women and men across a lot of ages. It’s interesting that the market is gender-unequal, from the developer base. I think until we get past that, we’re probably in for continued conversations that feel like, it’s the 1950s and 1960s when it comes to gaming. I think we will get to the ‘70s and ‘80s soon. (laugh)

DB: Hopefully. As a father of a daughter as well, I agree with you. I hope it’s sooner rather than later. I think that there’s an argument to be made that if we can find a better way to integrate females into the field, there are benefits in education. The irony in education, is there are typically more female teachers.

LB: Right.

DB: There are fewer males in the field, and yet it just seems to be, boy, if we could just move the needle in one area, we could impact the experience in the classroom. We could affect what little kids dream of doing, and how they see technology. It might start out in gaming, but they might take those skills somewhere else, too. I think it’s far-reaching.

LB: Well, a lot of states are moving toward incorporating basic computer science as one of those skills that they need to teach, like chemistry or biology. I’m based in Montana, which is not exactly known as the progressive hub of technology or much of anything. But we have gubernatorial candidates this year that are pushing computer science education as one of their primary ways to evolve education in this state.

To me, it’s heartening, because Montana’s going to make all their kids learn computer science. It’s a long way from where we were a decade ago when computer science was called “teaching kids keyboarding.” That was the term.

DB: Yes.

LB: We’re moving beyond that, but it’s taken a long time. It hasn’t happened fast enough, but the fact that it is moving forward is encouraging.

Educators are very concerned about not screwing up education. You cannot mess up education because if you mess up education, you’re messing up a generation of kids. They’re very conservative, not in a political sense but in an evolutionary way, in adopting change. They do not want to blow it for these kids because they feel like that the bar is too high to risk a lot of things. It may inhibit creativity, but it does make sure that when change happens, it’s a tipping point. It just goes, and it doesn’t come back.

DB: We’ve bounced around some different hot topics and areas around gaming, which I think is compelling, and you brought up things that I have yet to hear which I think is fascinating for the audience. So, let’s take this approach as we close, Lee; if I were to bestow upon you the gaming czar title in DC, what would be some of the changes or platforms you would bring to the national conversation? You’ve got a lot of different things you could be addressing. You could approach it strictly from a learning proposition looking at curriculum and assessment. It could be the field itself. What would you be doing if you were the gaming czar?

LB: Oh, man. (laugh)

DB: You don’t want to move to DC, that’s what you’re telling me. (laugh)

LB: I moved away from DC. I used to live in DC, and I moved to Montana. I like it here. Let’s say I’m telecommuting; if I’m doing this. There are a couple of things I would focus on. I’m a little worried about creating a purely academic game publishing industry, which is kind of, where they’re headed. I think education could use a lot of different digital tools. Let’s get away from the word gaming for a second. We see companies like Google offering Google Docs or Google Drive in the classroom, and that’s super useful. I use that in my class every semester. You use Google to shell out and sort documents versus, other systems. It’s efficient; everybody gets it, and it’s fine.

There’s a lot of focus on developing digital tools like Google Docs. But let’s say you decided you wanted to use Minecraft to do something. And everyone’s says, “Oh, that’s great.” Well, I can do Minecraft, but the problem is, suddenly, we’ve got a room full of 30 kids, and you have to manage the “logging on” to Minecraft. You have to manage how all the students can participate. You’re going to have to manage, and you’re going to have to get some feedback unless it’s just, “go play Minecraft for 20 minutes and stop driving me crazy.” Is it being used to teach something? I’ve seen examples of where they’re using Minecraft to teach quantum mechanics, right? I mean, high-end stuff and if you wanted to assess that, then you would have to get 30 or so reports out of Minecraft to tell you what a kid learned. An example would be, each kid learned how to do X, Y, and Z but didn’t know how to do A and B, that, sort of thing.

So, you start to see that you need a bunch of different things. You need the game. You need the management of kids (i.e. logging in passwords, etc.). You have whatever kind of assessment element you will need. In a lot of ways, it’s three different jobs. There’s some IT, like managing of passwords, groups, organization, making sure everybody can log in, and everything will load onto the computers. But right now, the games are trying to do that, too. We have the assessment side where it’s like, okay, did they learn each of the objectives that you had set out in this lesson? Which is another thing that the client makes the game do, and then finally, it’s got to be a game, right? (laugh)

DB: Oh, yeah, the game, right? (laugh)

LB: It’s an unenviable position. There have been Glass Lab and some other experiments where they try to build a thing that would do all of it. But now I’m starting to see companies crop up like Clever is one that just does logins, they just do the password management. That’s their job, only, and that’s all it does. And it’s super functional but super useful.

We have companies emerging, and we have the assessment of the gaming people still out there. If I were the head of the Whitehouse, I would be focused on having a frank conversation with the school side, if indeed we are focused on getting these in schools. Are we going to use these instead of tests? Part of me is skeptical about that. I would love it to be true. I would love to see that, but maybe I lived in DC for too long. I’m skeptical that the government would stop testing and invest in something called a “game” to assess the learning of students.

I wonder if we can shift education that far actually to get them to view a game as an assessment tool; otherwise, what we’re doing is, we’re spending an enormous amount of time on the “big ask” which is, will you use a game as a test?

If we can’t make them, then maybe we should focus on creating games that will fit into a classroom, and that will engage students and will get them excited about learning X-subject and not worry so much about the giant “A,” assessment. I might be wrong, and I kind of hope I am wrong. I hope they wake up one day, and all the school supervisors around the country say, “Yeah, let’s get rid of these horrible tests that everyone hates, and create a much more dynamic learning environment that is gauged by a digital experience.” Boy, that sounds magical to me, like unicorns would be awesome, too, you know. (laugh)

DB: One (Unicorn) just road right behind you. (laugh)

LB: Right. It would be great, but I worry we’re looking at the long games, the big institutional, structural shift, that we’re missing enormous opportunities to invest in a really a good math game, for instance, that could engage kids. Maybe a smaller math game would help a student get ahead in Algebra in one year, for example.

Companies like Motion Math and others are doing great games, and they’re not getting into schools that well, and I feel that’s because they’re so focused on, “God, if we could just fix the testing system.” I would try to focus on coming up with the platforms that get solid, research-based games into the hands of teachers and see what happens. I think we might see a lot more success than banking on the big shift. That’s where I would focus. I’ve noticed an enormous focus on assessment, and I haven’t seen a huge payoff yet.

DB: Yeah, and I think you wouldn’t have a slow day in DC. You would be very, very busy.

Lee, I appreciate you bouncing around these different topics, and sharing the complexity. It’s as if the gaming industry doesn’t want to be thought of as just games anymore. There’s a lot of information and rigor that is going into development. I believe it speaks to an overarching change, in general, that is impacting us in so many ways.

Go to Games and Learning, and make sure to check out Lee, and all he’s doing.

LB: Yes, thanks.

Lee Banville is editor of Gamesandlearning.org and editorial director of the Games and Learning Publishing Council. He is also an Associate Professor of Journalism at The University of Montana. For 13 years he ran the online and digital operations of the PBS NewsHour, overseeing coverage of domestic and international stories.

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