Can Columbia keep gaming’s sexism out of the classroom?

By Features Editor

Amanda Hamrick addressed the panel at the Nov. 12 Columbia College Assembly matter-of-factly. As student senator from the Interactive Arts & Media Department, she wanted to know what the college was doing to prepare female students in gaming for the gender discrimination they are likely to experience in the historically male-dominated industry.

The panel, which included Vice President of Student Success, Mark Kelly, and distinguished faculty from across the college, had no answer.

Many other women are in the same boat as Hamrick. Despite a growing female consumer base, the game development industry staunchly remains a boys’ club.

A 2014 survey by the Entertainment Software Association found that 48 percent of gamers identify as women and 52 percent identify as men. However, behind the scenes, surveys show that only 11 percent of game developers and 3 percent of game programmers are women.

Gamasutra Magazine’s 2014 salary survey found that, on average, women in the U.S. game industry are paid 86 cents for every dollar a man earns, which is better than the national workplace average of 77 cents but by no means fair. The wage gap varies by the different gaming specialties: Women in audio make 68 cents, artists make 73 cents and quality assurance analysts— game testers—make $1.04 for every dollar a man is paid.

The atmosphere in the IAM Department is markedly better than that of the industry at large, but students say it is not a safe haven from gender bias.

According to many students, female majors in programming, game art and game development are condescended to and patronized by their male peers and professors who are often unaware of their discouraging behavior. Until recently, female students had few opportunities to voice their grievances.

Professors in the IAM Department were taken aback by the complaints The Chronicle brought to their attention. Faculty members discussed the issue at length during a Nov. 19 meeting, according to Lauren Johnson, IAM lecturer and coordinator of the bachelor’s of arts program and web development minor. Johnson, a 2004 interactive media alumna, said she and other faculty members were disturbed by the revelation that women had raised issues about the classroom atmosphere.

“This is something that we’ve been discussing throughout the semester, particularly in light of the Gamergate controversy,” Johnson said, referring to the quarrel that has blown the entire issue into the headlines. “There is the ‘brogrammer’ culture, which is just kind of horrifying and sickening, and we work really hard to address that within our classrooms.”

The ongoing saga of Gamergate began in August. Indie-game developer Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend launched a smear campaign against her by exposing a relationship she had with a male gaming journalist, accusing her of dating him to promote her 2013 game “Depression Quest.” The journalist contested the accusation, saying he had not reviewed the game but merely acknowledged that the game existed.

Regardless of this admission, the Internet ran wild. A debate exploded on Twitter. Beginning as a discussion of journalistic ethics under #gamergate, it quickly devolved into a spate of sexist remarks from misogynist hardcore gamers, inspiring the ensuing media frenzy. Female gamers and game developers who spoke out were targeted, their personal information doxxed—or leaked—on websites such as 4chan and reddit, accompanied by long, graphic comments threatening murder and rape. Some outspoken feminist critics were forced to flee their homes.

These are extreme views that the majority of gamers do not hold or agree with. Male students within Columbia’s gaming program said it reflects poorly on the industry.

“Here, people hate the fact that it’s happening,” said Szymon Soltys, a senior game design major. “It’s not the game developers that are pushing these sexist thoughts. It’s really the people who play our games, and that’s a different demographic.”

Becca Hallstedt disagrees. The sophomore game art major said merely uttering the word “feminism” in the presence of classmates elicits a negative response.

“I do consider myself a feminist, but you can’t bring that up to people without them bringing up feminazis,” Hallstedt said. “Stuff like the hashtag #killallmen—it’s turned into something that people do not respond to well.”

Another problematic term is ‘sexism.’ It’s no secret that female characters in games are hyper-sexualized, and Hallstedt said that she hears her male peers making inappropriate comments about the characters on a regular basis, both in the lounge and in the classroom. She considers the behavior offensive, but male students often dismiss it.

“When I bring up sexism, I’ve been told not to call it that because that’s ‘a strong word,’” Hallstedt said.

The IAM Department has only two full-time female professors, and of the 358 enrolled students, only 93 are female, according to statistics from the Office of Institutional Effectiveness. In almost any classroom activity or outside collaboration, female students are the minority.

Junior Bridget Traverso is one of six female programming students at the college and wants to give her peers the support they need. She is in the process of starting Females Teach Programming, a club for female programmers, and aims to hold the Club’s first meeting next semester.

Traverso said the majority of her male peers are supportive but may be less sensitive to the problem than they realize.

She said she has observed that some of her female peers are reluctant to seek help from male professors. In her experience, when women ask for help, it is assumed that they are grossly ignorant, while male students are given a helping hand.

“If a male student was having issues or having a hard time, [a male professor] would be like, ‘Come here, let me show you what to do here,’” Traverso said. “If it was a woman having issues, generally it becomes like, ‘Let. Me. Explain. Everything. To you. Very. Slowly. So you can understand.’ It’s definitely not the same treatment, I would say.”

Traverso’s peers have been more explicit. Early in the fall semester, she participated in a 36-hour game jam—a hyper-speed production of a game in a finite amount of time—in conjunction with Columbia’s AlphaLabs, a space designed for learning. She had recently switched her major to programming and had limited experience using Unity, a program frequently employed to produce games. To be cooperative, she communicated this to one of the lead designers. He responded rudely, continually criticizing her work for the duration of the jam. She said it was a “horrible” experience.

“Even in that example, I was given the ‘easy’ project to do while my male peer, who also had never touched Unity and was about as far into his programming degree as I was, was given a much more complicated, math-based puzzle,” Traverso said.

Dan Hernbrott, a 2014 game audio alumnus, said female students received a lot of unwanted attention in that male students did not appreciate them for their work ethic or skill but for their “dateability.”

“Guys are only really interested in [these] girls romantically,” Hernbrott said. “It sucks that guys in the department have trouble treating women as just friends as opposed to thinking of them in other ways.”

Hallstedt said many of her friends in the department are judged by the way they dress, both by men and women. If a woman doesn’t fit the “gamer girl” or “techie” stereotype—glasses, antisocial, androgynous dress, etc.—she may not be taken seriously, Hallstedt said.

“If you dress like a fashion student, you’re treated like one,” she said. “It’s so sad to me that if you dress professionally in our department, people will act like you know nothing about video games.”

Programming coordinator Janell Baxter is a lifelong programmer who has worked at Columbia since 1998. Programming is a relatively new major at the college, and Baxter said she has made a concerted effort to reach out to the fem-tech community in Chicago hoping to hire more female programmers as adjunct faculty. However, she said there are simply too few women currently working in the industry to have a wide base of experienced female professionals who are willing to teach.

“I’ve gone and spoken at local development groups that are primarily women-based in hopes to get more interest in what we’re doing at Columbia,” she said.

Baxter said the problem is systemic and attracting more females to the industry is the only way to fix it. Columbia took the initiative by hosting 3G Summit: The Future of Girls, Gaming and Gender in 2010. The conference featured five female game designers: Mary Flanagan, author of “Critical Play: Radical Game Design;” Tracy Fullerton, a game designer who worked on “flOw;” Jennifer Jenson, a professor at York University; Susana Ruiz, an indie-game designer; and Erin Robinson, also an indie-game designer­. Each led a team of 10 high school-aged girls who brainstormed elevator pitches for games they wanted to create. Columbia’s Large Team Game Project, the capstone for graduating seniors, took on one of these pitches to develop the following year. Several others have become games as well.

Unfortunately, women in the department still feel the need to prove themselves to gain the respect of men in and out of the classroom. Johnson said she was often the only woman in the room when she began teaching as an adjunct in 2006. Her male students viewed her with skepticism, she said.

“They questioned my ability to teach because I was a woman, and I called that out and challenged it within the classroom because I’m a huge supporter of women in tech,” Johnson said. “I don’t really understand why this precedent has been set in place that women can’t do tech and women can’t do programming, that they’re better versed for design fields. That’s just bogus.”

Johnson said the gender imbalance in her classroom has more or less evened out. When she sees something that could be perceived as sexist­—however minor—she challenges it because it is not only an educational experience for students but also a duty of professors, she said.

“They don’t come here from high school knowing what misogyny is,” Johnson said. “They don’t look internally to realize and address that in themselves. What I’m going to do is empower the faculty that I coordinate to be really aware of the culture that they’re creating in the classroom and notice those minor things, whether that’s coming from other students or whether they’re doing it themselves and don’t even realize it.”

Colin McInerney, a senior game development major and design lead with Large Team, one of two capstone programs in Columbia’s IAM Department, said the largest problem is that students and teachers feel uncomfortable starting the conversation—when it starts, people “get uncomfortable very fast.”

McInerney said gamers in general, male and female, are united by a shared nerdiness, and all the experiences that came with it growing up.

“We’ve all received the brunt end of the bully stick and just kind of been ostracized to some degree or another,” McInerney said. “But it’s not something we have to live with every day any more. A lot of us got over being the nerdy kid and, at the very least, saw some sort of acceptance in that we hang out with other nerds—but that’s not something you get just by being a woman. Things don’t get better that fast.”

Many male students would be offended if they knew they were considered bullies because bullying was a difficult part of their childhood, McInerney said, adding that they’re too sure that they’re not part of the problem.

Alumnus Hernbrott said the department could take the opportunity to discuss sexism in the required “Game Culture” class, but he said he could not recall it even being mentioned when he attended the college.

Traverso said these cultural attitudes can extend into the classroom. Some women are unwilling to raise their hands or speak up in class for fear of receiving stronger criticism for saying the wrong thing.

“More often than not, the women in a programming class are the quiet ones,” Traverso said. “People I see outside of class with really vibrant personalities are really reserved, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the same vibrant people who are men are still vibrant in class. You have to have your chops—you have to earn it.”

Baxter officially supports Traverso’s effort to launch Females Teach Programming and said she plans to address the environmental issues in the department immediately.

Johnson said that it is impossible to fix the larger cultural problem outside of Columbia, but it is important to foster an egalitarian learning environment in school.

“We aren’t going to single-handedly change the culture of gaming and programming, but in our department we work to address those issues,” she said. “I see college as a place where, as educators, it’s up to us to call out the behavior and explain why it’s not acceptable behavior and then learn it.”