Girls Press Start On Video Game Design Careers

By Aaron Aupperlee The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Three teen girls from the Pittsburgh area are wading into video game design, an industry often dominated by men. The girls formed EDGE, an acronym for Explore, Design, Grow and Empower, which acts like the girls' startup company for game development. The teens study game design theory and develop board and video games. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Kaylee Nicotero easily completed the first level of a video game she played on her laptop.

And she should -- the ninth-grader at Holy Family Academy in Emsworth helped design it.

Kaylee and three classmates, Mah'Kya McCowan, Amber Hogan and Emilie Nagel, spent the school year wading into video game design, an industry often dominated by men and hostile to women -- a fact not lost on the four.

"We wanted to show that in video games, females can do what males can do," Kaylee said.

The girls -- Kaylee, 15, and Emilie, 15, both of McKees Rocks; and Mah'Kya, 15, and Amber, 14, both of the North Side -- meet once a week. They formed EDGE, an acronym for Explore, Design, Grow and Empower, which acts like the girls' startup company for game development.

The teenagers studied game design theory, developed board and video games and worked through the ups and downs, conflicts and collaborations that startups go through. Their classmates work in companies and nonprofits throughout the city as part of the school's work study program.

The girls on Tuesday will host for their classmates the Video Game High School Festival, an open house to showcase their games and work throughout the year.

"We have started from almost scratch to where we are now, and it was a lot of work," Emilie said.

Drew Davidson, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, said high school is not too early to start teaching the fundamentals of game design. He has worked with girls at Holy Family Academy, and his students work with several schools across Western Pennsylvania.

"Starting down at that age is really exciting," Davidson said. "Young girls are really talented and seem to like it, but somewhere between tweens and teens, their interest dies off."

Davidson said one of his students had an internship in which a supervisor remarked about how surprised he was that she could do math.

It's a contentious topic as the industry's growth explodes. It is expected to hit $100 billion by 2018. More men, 59 percent, play video games than women, according to a 2015 report by the Entertainment Software Association, but more adult women, 31 percent, play video games than boys.

The "Gamergate" controversy, a vicious and violent online assault that includes death threats on women in gaming, exposed a culture plaguing the industry in which many people, presumably men, detest the notion of women being involved in video games at all.

A survey last year by the International Game Development Association found that 57 percent of people in the industry reported sexism among gamers as contributing to a negative perception of the industry. That figure jumps to 72 percent among female and transgender designers and developers.

The association last year set a goal of doubling the number of women working in the industry by 2025. Intel allocated $300 million to better diversify its workforce last year.

At CMU's Entertainment Technology Center, men outnumber women 55 percent to 45 percent, Davidson said. The Los Angeles Times in January reported that women outnumbered men in the University of Southern California's graduate video game design program, and the numbers were even at the undergraduate level.

"Both genders are playing games, so you want people who understand you to design those games," said Melanie Harke, an advanced game designer at Schell Games in Station Square.

The wide-open design floor at Schell Games, where CEO and CMU professor James Schell walks around juggling and developers hide from the sun's glare under umbrellas popping up between the desks and computers, is about 20 percent women, Harke said.

The company is open about sexism, whether intentional or unintentional, in the industry, Harke said. It talks about discrimination, wage gaps and the way computer programmers and game designers are portrayed on television as almost always male.

Harke designed games as a child on early computers. She made websites in the 1990s devoted to Sailor Moon, a Japanese animated series. She went to CMU in the early 2000s and studied computer science. Her classes had a mix of men and women. She never thought she was an anomaly and still doesn't.

But some women feel like they don't belong in the industry, Harke said. She wants the girls at Holy Family Academy to ignore that.

"Keep at it," she said. "No one should be telling them that they shouldn't be there because they already are."

The girls plan to grow EDGE next year, opening it up to the new ninth-graders, both girls and boys.

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