Inclusivity, diversity, expansion hot topics for women in gaming and gaming at UK

Clare Egan

Over the last few years, UK has seen an increase in student interest in gaming; as the industry itself expands and becomes more recognized as a legitimate career path, the College of Communications and Information has striven to meet the demand with new offerings.

On Thursday evening, the CI and its Committee on Diversity and Inclusion hosted a “Women in the Gaming Industry” panel in an effort to encourage women to join the male-dominated field. The panel was held on UK’s Twitch channel and currently has over 900 views on the gaming livestream platform.

“I felt it was important that women knew there are no limits and they shouldn’t let anything prevent them from doing what they are passionate about,” Nathan Stevens, panel organizer and Media Arts and Studies instructor, said of the event.

The panel was comprised of Rebecca Heineman, CEO of game development studio Olde Sküül; indie game developer Manuela Malasaña; Dr. Kishonna Gray, communications professor at University of Illinois-Chicago and author of “Intersectional Tech”; Lizzie Killian, founder of interactive entertainment PR firm Fiftycc; Dr. Shira Chess, entertainment and media studies professor at the University of Georgia and author of “Play Like a Feminist” and “Ready Player Two”; and Sienna Douglas, a UK student and streamer. Journalism major Gillian Stawiszynski served as the stream moderator.

“We were able to show viewers that no matter your talents and interests, if you are interested in video games, there is a place for you,” said Dr. Kyra Hunting, panel organizer and Media Arts and Studies professor.

“All of these women are powerful figures that have paved their own path into a male dominated industry. Knowing that all the[ir] jobs are possible and have been established will hopefully inspire a younger generation to travel down these paths or inspire them to create their own path,” Stevens said.

“I believe that the more we talk about the importance of video games to diverse audiences, the more we can see those conversations helping to effect change,” said Dr. Shira Chess. “Right now, we are at a moment where people are really beginning to see the potential for video games in terms of their value for building empathy, for teasing out identity, and for creating communities.”

Chess also emphasized the importance of welcoming gaming newcomers and helping them become involved within the community.

“The more non-gamers that play video games, the better they will become. Diversity is not only about who is playing, and who is making, but also about what we are playing and what we are making,” Chess said.

The panelists answered questions prepared by the event organizers and livestream viewers. The discussion covered a plethora of topics, including overcoming the stereotype that gaming isn’t “meant for girls” and how the industry itself can become more inclusive to female gaming professionals and feature more female characters.

“It often gets framed and constructed as spaces created by and for men. I think it’s really important that we bring women back into the conversation and always elevate the contributions of women, so folks know that we have been very central in [the] development of gaming,” Dr. Krishonna Gray said.

Manuela Malasaña said that changing the way that society views math, science and arithmetic is imperative to make the industry feel less exclusive.

“One of the biggest barriers to girls entering any of the sciences, is this perception that if they’re poor at arithmetic, they’re not capable of doing that kind of work. Which is really unfortunate, because nowadays, you know, we all carry a calculator in our pocket” Malasaña said.

The entire panel was in agreement that it is imperative that the gaming industry works together in both the AAA and indie levels to make the gaming community accessible, inclusive and diverse.

“We need to open the door for the opportunities for women and do our best to help encourage the next generations” Rebecca Heineman said.

One way to increase diversity and game participation is to extend the range beyond mainstreaming gaming.

“Indie games can appeal to completely different audiences, or traditional games can be modified to offer a wider variety of representation of characters” said Kakie Urch, associate professor in the School of Journalism and member of the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.

Malasaña said that the gaming community needs to uplift the development studios that already are producing inclusive and diverse games. Without awareness and promotion of indie games, it will be nearly impossible for them to compete with mainstream gaming publishers.

Gray said that oftentimes conversations about diversity and inclusion in academic gaming programs remain in the background.

“I want to highlight the things that UK is doing in particular, to ensure that these kinds of conversations are at the forefront. So often we see a lot of these programs that are doing things and they don’t think about marginalized folks. They don’t think about women and people of color,” Gray said.

CI has proposed a new Media Arts and Studies course taught by Dr. Hunting that will focus specifically on diversity within the gaming industry.

The MAS program has offered gaming-related courses since 2008, in areas like Video Game Design, Interactive Game Narratives and Storytelling and History of Video Games and the Industry. Dr. Erika Engstrom, director of the School of Journalism and Media, said that she is thrilled to be expanding gaming focused course offerings.

“It’s like the new frontier for addressing gender inequality and misogyny. The virtual world is reflective of the real world and there are a lot of ways that we can address real world problems through video games,” Engstrom said.

As student involvement in gaming increases in popularity, the academic value of gaming grows, which will result in a continuing expansion of new gaming courses offered at UK. Stevens said that the growth of the presence of gaming on campus is thrilling to watch.

“An inclusive community will start forming to make gaming on campus into something beautiful. The future is bright, and the present start is encouraging.”