Why is it that female enrollment in computer programming in universities peaked in 1985? Oh, you thought we had been making progress? Sorry to disappoint you, the American Association of University Women recently put out a report that has women getting about 20% of these degrees. What to do? What to do?

We have been trying to address this issue (and a few others) in Manitoba using a program called Girls in Gaming. Admittedly, we don’t focus entirely on programming. We use the gaming platform to try to introduce middle and high school girls to the variety of careers connected to the gaming industry: art, sound, story, design, program management and programming. An important aspect of the training has been an emphasis on developing a story narrative. Local, award-winning writer, Ryan FitzGerald has inspired many of the girls to take the writing part of developing games seriously.

Girls in Gaming began in 2007 with initiative from Norm Lee of MindSet, the Manitoba Network for Science and Technology (mindset.mb.ca) and me, a Winnipeg high school technology teacher. The idea of the program was to introduce girls to the idea that a career in technology (specifically gaming) was a real possibility for them. We wanted them to know that in the game industry there are lots of options, including programming, and that it is not an isolating career, but one that involves plenty of collaboration and interaction with others. We wanted to break the stereotypic notion that all you do is sit in your basement or cubicle and type in code all day.

To be honest I had a pre-conceived idea about gaming and it’s been abolished. I didn’t know there were so many things and people involved in creating a video game (programmers, writers, artists, etc.).

What we found was both rewarding and interesting. The girls were indeed interested in the idea that there are a variety of options in IT careers, and they were equally interested in meeting other girls like themselves. They were extremely pleased to discover other gamers, artists and storytellers. The initial comments posted to our blog have nothing to do with code techniques, language features, processor speed, or Mb or Gb. There are many about the social aspect of the sessions and the anticipation of reuniting the next time.

I really enjoyed meeting all the different presenters and meeting other students from different schools that share the same interest in gaming.

The good thing about GIG is meeting a whole bunch of people that have the same interest as you.

Lunch has got to be one of the best parts of the day; I get to talk with all my new friends (which is weird; I suck at meeting new people, usually).

The program has adapted over time. During the course of a year (we try to do at least four sessions a year with each group) we bring in a variety of professionals to speak to and work with the girls. We have had programs in Winnipeg and Carman in southern Manitoba, but more recently have brought our “road show” to Swan River in central-northern Manitoba.

Our game development community has been great. Not all of them are female, but they are all well received. In addition to the career info, we also have a programming segment in each session. We used to do this all from scratch using Flash, but now we work with both Game Maker and Flash. When we do the Flash coding, we now work from existing templates of simple but fun games. The girls then get to dig around and modify the code. Since the code is well commented and uses descriptive variable names (speed, width, numberOfBalls), the girls are able to quickly modify and test their games. If they mess it up completely, they simply reload the template and start again. They can see soon enough that programming is complicated, but that it is something within their reach.

I loved learning about the programming as nerdy as that sounds ha ha it was fun and i feel pretty smart.

so yeah wow my brain is pretty filled up with info today and it kinda hurts lol but i feel very smart right now and i like this feeling.

However, they get to modify more than the code. They also learn how to add their own drawings and animated characters, and then the games become really personalized and often you can’t recognize that it came from the template! There are a number of girls who are primarily interested in the art part of the games and while they appreciate the coding, they know that it is their art that creates that look and feel of the game, and they start to see their potential place in the industry.

My head started hurting from Robin’s programming stuff though… seriously… Programming is definitely not my niche haha ^_^ but I hope I can get better in the animating part! I think it’s really exciting!

This was my second time going to see Katie and I totally recommend it to everyone. She’s such a talented artist, its fantastic. I learned so much about using tablets, photoshop, and how someone like her works in the industry.

I never really realized how “big” of a thing story boarding, concept, themes, and all that played in the video game industry.

I think having both the artistic and programming side of Flash during the class was an excellent way to appeal to all the girls in the class.

We were invited to host a table at Flash In The Can in Toronto in 2009 and received many positive comments (“Wish this had been running when I was in high school”) and offers to teleconference with the girls from women with careers in the industry. We took two adults and two girls and it was an eye-opener for us as well. In May 2010, Eva Brown, one of the educators who has been there since the beginning, shared our work at the national conference of the Canadian Coalition of Women in Science and Technology and Trades. Again, our work was warmly received giving us further opportunities to help set up similar programs in other provinces.

The gaming industry is huge. Lots of different people doing different things. We should get to learn about every single field in it.

We have also had great connections with local education partners—especially Red River College. They are very generous with their facilities and we hold many sessions there so that girls see where they might pursue their goals. It works well for all concerned. The year end session has featured speakers from outside industry such as Ubisoft and Artificial Mind and Motion.

Should there be boys? That question always pops up. The girls generally agree that boys would tend to want to take over if they were a part of the group, but one girl said, “I believe that it would be really helpful if guys were included just as long as there’s a majority of girls.”

One of our former girls who is now in the industry says: “It gave me access to people in the industry and was a jumping point for my career. It got me interested in Red River College and I went from there.” While not all of our girls choose this as a career, it makes them aware of the possibility, and that they have a realistic choice.

Two blogs that you can explore for more info and ideas:



Reynold Redekopp
Reynold Redekopp, Ph.D, University of Manitoba, has taught at the junior high, high school and university levels for the past thirty years.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Jan/Feb 2011 issue.

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