Serious Games Summit and Microsoft – but do the pompoms match the outfits?

Since I’m currently in Vancouver, and it’s a game development hub, I want to help spread the word on this, to women who are game developers. I’m hoping it might convince some talented female game developers to cross over to the other side!

I bet there are a number of game developers who would love to go to work each day knowing they’ll be working on projects that try to make the world a better place in some way. I believe there are a lot of people in a lot of industries who would give anything to be able to go to work each day feeling that.

‘Serious games’ have been getting more print/text/airtime, and they seem to be launching with greater frequency (Newsweek, New York Times, Globe and Mail). According to Serious Games Initiative, serious games are where electronic gaming meets education, training, health, or public policy. Wikipedia lists a steadily-growing number of companies in the serious gaming biz. There’s an annual conference called Games for Health (coming up in about a month). There’s even a group called Games for Change (G4C) that ‘provides support, visibility and shared resources to organizations and individuals using digital games for social change’.

Though biggies like Electronic Arts say they’re not jumping on that poverty wagon, industry development still seems to be marching ahead. In October, it’ll be the Serious Games Summit. There’s some irony (and Daily Show segment potential) that anything with that title is happening in Washington DC, but I’ll just slide over that and move on.

‘Serious games’ means the user or player is usually motivated to participate not by hedonism/escapism, but by wanting to learn something. This could be learning about issues like water, bioterrorism, defence, international conflict resolution, understanding divorce, for simulation exercises for emergency situations, or (how dull, is this serious?) to learn how to manage a Wal-Mart SuperCenter, just to name a handful. Interesting humanitarian projects include one produced for the UN’s World Food Program. Alternately, serious games may be used as by social marketers as a tool for behaviour change (to do with health, for example).

As fast as the industry develops, education institutes are gasping along trying to keep up with training. Vancouver has a handful of training programs now, but is planning toward being a hub for game development training.

This tip is for women developers who are also students (or female students who are also developers).

Microsoft External Research and Programs (ER&P) wants to sponsor ten female students majoring in computer science with a concentration in serious game development and research. The ten will meet with an ‘industry luminary’ (I read that as ‘who we haven’t booked yet, must get on that’…!), and ‘will be able to attend more than sixty sessions, lectures, and roundtable discussions at the Summit’.

It doesn’t speak so highly of Microsoft, though, that they will not fund these 10 women to travel to DC and to stay there. This seems a small price to pay (accommodation and flights for 10?) for the cash-strapped company, if they really are looking to make advancement possible for talented women. For hand-to-mouth students, let alone women who we know earn less on the dollar, let alone any who may have child expenses to boot, those costs may well be prohibitive.

What Microsoft is offering is 10 x conference admissions, and 1 x as-yet-unbooked ‘luminary’ who will, well, illuminate. That’s not a tremendous overhead loss for them.

What does Microsoft get out of it? They’ve decided that they’ll call the ten women Microsoft Female Academic All-Stars of the 2006 Serious Games Summit D.C. (do the pompoms match the outfits?) Press releases stress how the company is ‘committed to fostering the growth of women game developers in this emerging space and developing career paths for those with keen interests’. They say that their goal ‘is to gain knowledge on how Microsoft Research External Research and Programs (ER&P) can attract more women into the critical fields necessary to move computer science, and fields such as serious game development, forward’.

To me, for their expense, they’re getting a terrific return in terms of the PR value of associating the Microsoft name with creating possibilities for women. I think the dollar value of that is worth more than 10 flights and 10 hotel rooms. I think not offering that, but promoting themselves with this ‘team’, leaves an icky aftertaste.

They also get some free research out of the deal, as ‘All-Stars will be required to submit a post-event paper detailing their experiences and key learnings from the Summit’.

That being said, if there’s any way women can apply, I think you should go. The deadline is September 27th, and you do have to do a few things to apply (incl. ‘brief essay about your interest in serious game development, the research you have conducted in this sector, or your insights on the importance of women game developers – 300 words maximum ‘).Application address is Academic_All_Stars@cmp.com (CMP Game Group = producers of the conference).

It may be that the All Stars name and the sponsorship for some women were the brainchild of CMP Game Group (rather than Microsoft) who then managed to get the entries funded. Nonetheless, the Microsoft name is attached to this, and they benefit. I don’t want to knock the initiative, I think noticing the absence of women in the profession and wanting to address it is significant. I just think Microsoft should have thought through the funding for it, (vs. positive PR benefits for them, vs. possible negative PR of not providing full funding) a bit more.

A footnote, change in tone, and complete 180 on topic:

I discovered, while checking dictionary.com on my cheerleader-related spellings, that the enthusiastic sideline half-time gymnasts hold pompoms. Pom-poms, however, are automatic antiaircraft cannons [Origin: 1895–1900; imit.]. That could lead to some surprising miscommunication scenarios (in either environment, on the battlefield or on the football sideline) resulting from the obedient actions of puzzled underlings, no?

One comment

  1. Hi there,

    I’ve actually written extensively about gender and games, and the use of Serious Games for Peacebuilding, Conflict Transformation and Social Change. My blog, ICT4Peace, has links to many of these posts, but some of the most pertinent to your excellent post above are:

    http://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2006/08/26/second-life-for-humanitarian-aid-and-peacebuilding/
    http://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2006/07/14/social-change-and-digital-games/
    http://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2006/06/13/serious-games-and-peacebuilding/
    http://ict4peace.wordpress.com/2006/05/16/technologies-of-play-video-games-and-gender/

    Best,

    Sanjana Hattotuwa
    Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Alternatives
    Head, ICT for Peacebuilding, InfoShare
    Mobile: +94 773 022827
    Web: http://sanjanah.googlepages.com | http://ict4peace.wordpress.com
    IM: yajitha@hotmail.com
    Skype: yajitha

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