A screenshot of Flower for the Playstation 3, produced by Kellee Santiago.
A new program to support women wanting to make their first video game will be starting up in Toronto next month. The Difference Engine Initiative was started as a joint effort by indie game collective Hand Eye Society, Ryerson University, and the Toronto International Film Festival to draw more people from under-represented groups in the video game industry into the community—and will initially focus on women. Over six weeks, attendees will hear from professional game creators, learn basic game design, and be guided towards completing a first project, says coordinator Mare Sheppard. “No programming experience is needed,” she adds. “If you’ve completed a project in a creative medium, you’re equipped to get this stuff done.”
While some may doubt their ability to create something substantive, in fact many popular games have been made by smaller teams. Sheppard herself is testament to this, as one half of Metanet Software, a Toronto-based game studio best known for N+, a critically and commercially successful platform game. (Full disclosure: Sheppard has also spoken at Gamercamp, a festival I co-founded.) “A lot of the people in small indie game studios got started by working on games in their spare time while working a full-time job—on the weekends, evenings, and even a little bit at work,” explains Sheppard. “There is low overhead and little barrier to getting together, but you can still make what you want. It’s great to be able to get started, so you can accomplish something.”
Sheppard wants to dispel the notion that game making is for an exclusive group of people. “There’s this idea that just a small subset of people can make games—you have to be a programmer, you have to know lots of math, you have to be all these things that most people aren’t—so part of the idea for the Difference Engine Initiative was deconstructing that and showing that you don’t have to be all those things to make games,” she says.
Metanet Software co-founder and Difference Engine Initiative coordinator Mare Sheppard. Photo by Mark Rabo.
Tools such as Game Maker, Scratch, and Game Salad have made game creation easier. Such tools were used in the Artsy Games Incubator, a predecessor to the Difference Engine Initiative, to positive effect. “Lots of interesting concepts came out of it and people got involved who normally wouldn’t have got involved,” recalls Sheppard. Bringing in fresh perspectives should be an important goal for the industry. “We really feel like there aren’t enough viewpoints being shown or extrapolated on in games,” she says, “More artists and more diverse ways of seeing games would be a benefit to the games industry in general.”
One benefit diversity can bring to the video game industry, hopes Sheppard, is a less reductive view of gender in games. Men are often the target for first-person shooters and action games, but games for women tend to be “niche market games, like cooking games, fashion design games, puzzle games, and casual games,” notes Sheppard. The issue isn’t that such games exist, but that they serve as a blanket statement for a specific audience. “It’s insulting that that’s all we can be expected to like as women,” says Sheppard, “It’s kind of silly, considering games should really be appropriate for everyone. I don’t understand how people can categorize any group’s interest in such a specific way but then never allow for anything outside of that. There’s so much surprise that women like first-person shooters or men like cooking games. It’s absurd.”
Part of the reason video games are so narrowly focused in terms of gender stems from the demographics within the industry, which in North America has been dominated by straight, white males. At industry events, Sheppard says she is often assumed to be working on the marketing or art for a game, while her male Metanet co-founder is taken to be responsible for all the programming. “It’s very frustrating. As a woman who happens to be a game developer, I feel that at every conference and every event it is completely male-dominated, by a specific set of males,” says Sheppard. “There are so many under-represented groups—it’s time to deal with that and to change that.”
A screenshot from N+ for the PlayStation Portable, developed by Metanet Software.
Sheppard does see a slowly turning tide with regard to gender. “There are so many women who are starting to be interested in making games and there are awesome role models in games now that are starting to become more well-known, like Erin Robinson, Kellee Santiago, Heather Kelley, and Robin Hunicke.” She hopes, with the Difference Engine Initiative, to learn more about why women haven’t traditionally made games and how the sessions can faciliate some changes. “We’re looking for a diverse group of women,” she says, “It’ll be a learning experience for everyone. It’ll be exciting to see what they make.”
Future editions of the Difference Engine Initiative will explore other under-represented groups in games. “What about age? What about race? What about all these other groups that you don’t see in game development?” asks Sheppard. “More diversity means better games, a better environment for game developers and game designers, and ultimately leads to the viewpoints of more people being represented in games and more games being made for different kinds of people. I think it’ll make our industry a lot cooler.”