Gaming Futures: Perspectives of Women in Gaming and Play

Recently, Wellesley College was buzzing with video game events. The Davis Museum unveiled its exhibit The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer, making it the first art museum to host a solo retrospective of a video game artist. Events surrounding the opening of the exhibit included a talk by Jason Rohrer, a student demo session of video games, and a panel discussion about the perspectives of women in games and play.

Student Demos

Demo night attendee crowd      MuSme in action

During the demo session, Wellesley College students showed off video games they designed and developed. In Asiya Yakhina’s mobile social impact game White Gold, players work as a cotton-picker in Uzbekistan. The purpose of the game is to raise awareness about the practice of forced labor in the country, and to draw connections between the reality of cotton picking and the impact that it has on the people. Meanwhile, Whitney Fahnbulleh’s choice-based textual game Privilege simulates the effects of privilege in daily life by letting players take on the role of an underprivileged individual making innocent decisions, such as whether to go to the store to pick up snacks, with potentially life altering consequences. Breaking away from traditional platforms and focusing more on play itself, MuSme (above right) by Amal Tidjani, Priscilla Lee, and Eileen Cho is a musical suit that allows children to use a skin suite on their body as a keyboard to create music.

Gaming Futures Panel Discussion

To extend the discussion of video games beyond the exhibit, the HCI Lab, in collaboration with Professors Orit Shaer, Dave Olsen, and Nicholas Knouf, organized the event Gaming Futures: Perspectives of Women in Games and Play, a panel dedicated to highlighting the experiences of women in the fields of video game research and development. Panelists included:

  • Katherine Isbister, a full professor in the Department of Computational Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz and core faculty member in the Center for Games and Playable Media. Her research focuses on the emotion and social connection of gaming.
  • Soraya Murray, an assistant professor of film and digital media at University of California, Santa Cruz. She is an interdisciplinary scholar who focuses on contemporary visual culture, with particular interest in contemporary art, cultural studies, and games.
  • Rayla Heide ‘10, a scriptwriter at Riot Games. She began her career at Celestial Tiger Entertainment Limited, where she was pitched original concepts for scripted TV shows and features, and tackled the enterprise’s production and marketing.
  • Cassie Hoef ’15, a technical program manager at Microsoft. She works with graphics developers on AAA games to deliver quality, performant games.
  • Claudia Pederson, an assistant professor of art history in new media and technology at Wichita State University. She studies modern and contemporary art, with a focus on technology, media theory, and social practice.
  • Anna Loparev ’10, a postdoctoral researcher at the Wellesley Human-Computer Interaction Lab. With experience in game design both in industry and academia, she centers her research on the intersection of collaboration, education, and play in next generation user interfaces.

The event attracted an audience from the broader Boston community. One of the major draws was the diversity of perspectives brought by the panelists. From academic halls to bustling board rooms, from scriptwriting to API development, from a recent college graduate to leaders in their field, from cultural to historical perspectives, each panelist presented a unique perspective that contributed to overall discussion in meaningful and impactful ways.


After all of the panelists shared insights into their work and emerging topics in the fields of game design and development, audience members were encouraged to ask questions, sparking dialog among panelists and attendees. One of the most in-depth conversations centered on the meaning of art and whether a game can be art. The role of money in game development and its effects on a game’s artistic nature came up several times. Other comments from panelists centered on the question of what we are actually asking when we question games as art, as well as the parallels of this discussion with similar ones raised during the rise of other media, such as photography.  The consensus seemed to be that games can in fact be art, but judging whether a game is art or not is a subjective matter.

Another focus was on the industry workplace environment and how women are treated and perceived. Experiences varied, but overall panelists felt respected by male co-workers, despite working in a male-dominated setting. When discussing perception in the wider gamer community, sentiments were more pessimistic. Panelists agreed that there is no denial (and unfortunately no easy fix) concerning prevalent sexism in the community. The only practical course of action may be to simply bear it and try to develop as many positive female role models as possible. As Professor Murray put it, simply “standing in front of a class and speaking competently about games is an act of activism.”

After the panel, many members of the audience shuffled toward the front to talk to Scholarly books about video gamespanelists one-on-one. Students were enthusiastic about the readings panelists had suggested and were eager to learn about how to enter the fields of video game design and development. Suggested readings included Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form by Anna Anthropy, Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders: Videogame Forms and Contexts by Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska, Values at Play in Digital Games by Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum, and Better Game Characters by Design: A Psychological Approach by Katherine Isbister.

While one panel will not necessarily fix the industry, it was successful in inspiring the audience to learn more about women in games and play and the issues they face. We hope that more women will join this space and set their own positive examples in the community, paving the way for a more welcoming and inclusive space.


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