Monday, November 07, 2005

Games for Girls

This notice came into my inbox last week.
ChicTech, an outreach program of the University of Illinois Department of Computer Science, extends an open invitation for college women to participate in the second annual Games for Girls Programming Competition (G4G).

G4G was conceived in response to research indicating that boys enjoy a relatively greater degree of confidence with computers because they spend more time as children playing computer games. The research suggests that this difference in confidence contributes to the gender imbalance seen in the field of Computer Science.

So the gender imbalance in CS is due to the fact that girls don't play enough computer games. Guess that makes me a bad father for limiting the amount of time my daughters spend on the computer.

I do see at least one of my daughters more confident talking anonymously in a virtual world than in her real classroom. So suppose we had some virtual classrooms where students were represented by avatars (cartoon characters) and nobody knew the mapping from real students to avatar. Then the women (and the men) might be more willing to participate if they felt they had no risk from speaking up. But is this the environment we really want to teach in?


  1. Sir, we are a group of scientists at ICTP in Trieste just reading your excellent blog as an example of a productive use of this medium. Keep up the good work!

  2. My initial reaction was just as skeptical as yours, Lance, but look closer. The girls actually DEVELOP games for G4G, they don't just play them.

    No one is claiming that lack of experience with computer games is the sole cause of gender imbalance in computer science. But games are an excellent motivating application for getting people involved in (even theoretical) computing. (Fill in the blank: The Unique _____ Conjecture.) People have been playing games for as long as there have been people.

  3. I guess I'm the only one who finds the experience of working 16 hours a day for two weeks straight to prove some big theorem very similar to staying up all night to beat a video game? Same sense of excitement, adrenaline rush, inability to concentrate on anything else.

    The same qualities respected in a mathematician are frowned upon in a video-gaming youth.

  4. At first I thought the idea was silly, particularly given that IM (and other things I'm not even hip enough to know) are used by both young boys and girls. Being more social in nature, perhaps girls will even outpace boys in sheer computer use.

    Anyway, I thought all of this and then realized that it was my appreciation of video games that really got me to learn C in high school.

    I had done Logo and BASIC from 2nd grade to 6th grade, around the same time I was playing Nintendo, but it wasn't until I started to make games in C that I knew anything deep about programming. In Logo, I figured out recursion as a way of looping long before I knew what the word recursion was, but it wasn't until mastering pointers that all of the necessary indirect and abstract thinking skills were there. It was only after two years of doing C that I appreciated compilers and programming languages far more than games.

    Of course, these days, games are so violent and seriously lacking in originality it's worth pulling kids away from them. The GameCube seems to understand violence isn't necessary. As for the PlayStation and XBox: shame on you.

  5. Computer games partly motivated me to study programming, but it was pure mathematics that made me enter computer science. I don't believe that modern games are motivators of deep understanding of any kind.

    Retro games are different, where part of the play is learning the movement rules of the computer-controlled enemies, and where each game is a manifestation of simple algorithms that are unique to that game. Contrast this e.g. to modern First Person Shooters where more or less the same game engine is reused with different image and map data, and the play involves "learning" on a purely motorical level.

    But even retro games motivate up to a point and dampen progress henceforward, a point which I believe is lower than what will make you get yourself a PhD.

  6. What is this fascination with non-violence? People dislike violent games because they're scared of violence, not because they're scared of those games inducing violence in their children/friends/coworkers.

    People are so much more comfortable with cartoon acts of alien-killing as opposed to the killing of other humans. That's an extremely xenocist philosophy--borne of the same roots as other prejudice. It's okay to kill them because they're not like me.

    A more valid criticism would be that video games these days are too focused on graphics/special effects, and not enough on actual gameplay--the same criticism you would levee against the film industry.

    But it's such a bizarre self-delusion to ignore the fact that violence is a fun, enjoyable, significant part of the human experience. Ever smack a pinata? Battle for a rebound in basketball? Have passionate sex with your wife? Maintain a rabid level of intensity for 24 hours before the STOC submission deadline?

    Ignoring your baser instincts is just about the best way to avoid controlling them when you have to.

  7. .
    interesting that in a discussion about encouraging women to study CS, one post "..Have passionate sex with your wife?.." assumes so absent-mindly that the readers are males.

    And I haven't said anything yet about having passionate sex with someone else's wife, with a girlfriend, or, mon dieu, with a boyfriend.

  8. "But it's such a bizarre self-delusion to ignore the fact that violence is a fun, enjoyable, significant part of the human experience."

    Glad to know that at least some one shares my opinion. I really have a lot of trouble explaining to my friends that humans are born violent - history is evidence enough. Let's face it - we enjoy violence - be it war against aliens or against another country or any other kind; and we really don't care, at all, until some one close gets hurt. It's just a question of how much we can prevent ourselves from committing the same, mostly due to fear of law, just like we try to refrain from cholestrol, for fear of death. It's very closely related to our sense of power - given an opportunity who wouldn't want to be the emperor of the whole world?

  9. Wow! I never though so before, but it seems like those people who said that it will be hard for children to distinguish make-believe from reality may have had a point. At least, several posters on this blog have made the same mistake.

    The first definition of violence in �Physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing: crimes of violence.�

    The only thing violent about a video game is how hard some people press the buttons. The rest is make believe and is in fact not violence, but a fictional portrayal of violent acts. Shooting a make believe alien is not violent, although, you could argue that killing a bug is. I would much rather kill a person in a video game than squash a spider in real life.

    I think that embracing violence is a perverse (i.e. not normal) human appetite. Clearly there are cases of it. But let�s be frank: having sex in any �normal� way is not violence. You are not abusing the person; it is born out of consent and love. Nor is staying up late working on a conference submission violent in any way whatsoever. Things are often intense without being violent. Going for a rebound in basketball is rarely a violent act (and someone will probably get a penalty if it is). While I�ll concede that smacking a pi�ata is a violent act, it is certainly not something that I live for. And in this case, it is the abuse of an object which was constructed for the specific purpose of being abused.

    People who have been to war know what violence is. From the few that I have talked to, most wish they wish they could forget the horrors of the violence in which they participated. They have not embraced it. More over, being safely in the past, it they are no longer in danger by it.

    Violence is not fun, enjoyable, nor a significant part of my human experience (except for the soldiers in lands far away fighting for my freedom). The vast majority of violent episodes in my life, I now regret (the rest concern pi�atas).

    People like intensity and competition which are present in a �good� video game (defined by men, at least). This is probably why guys are more attracted to the average video game then girls. Portrayals of violence often serve as an easy way to insert these two elements into a game. However, many have become tired of the hackneyed implementation of this easy solution and look toward something else. I believe this is why some of the commentators like non-violent games more than violent ones. Furthermore, it seems like these other directions are much more promising for attracting women to video games (for whatever end).

    One can see IM as a kind of videogame. You can make �friends� on it, etc. For me, it is a pretty trashy and boring game (except to use as a communication tool), but others like it a lot. Point being, not all games need to be built around these two elements; furthermore, this is because not all humans like intensity and competition�much less violence.

  10. This post has been bothering me all morning. "I can't go off on this individual," I thought to myself. "This isn't usenet. This is a blog written by a specific individual dedicated to a particular topic; some decorum is to be expected, out of respect to Mr. Fortnow." I decided that I would eat breakfast and attempt to cool off somewhat.

    Cheerios did not sate my appetite, however. How could I forget the unmistakeable scent of blood in the water?

    How could I let well alone an individual who would state, in all seriousness, that sports penalties imply an aversion to violence, rather than a restriction of such tendencies? Who would speak of this idea of "normal" sex, during which doves flutter to safetied pistols? Who would imply that the beating of pinatas is prevalent not because of any tendency towards violence within the population that abuses them, but because our Lord and Savior in His wisdom has designed the lowly pinata to be smacked thusly and yet inscrutably allows it to proliferate in an environment free of natural competitors?

    Like kudzu my fury grew, and I know now that I failed to shut the window quickly enough to keep it out. I do not care about violence in video games. I do not care about video games at all. If I had my way, everyone would go straight into the river in order to short out their iPods and PSPs before drowning. You would surely be the first of that throng in my imagination, for saying that IMs are "a kind of video game" because you can "make 'friends'", for hyperbolically contrasting our love of fast cars, loose women, and flesh wounds with the indignities of war, for the license given to the execution of such in proximate sentences.

    If you have a point, it is somewhat muddled by the shrieking howl of your mangled, bloody argument.

  11. SWIFT Magazine, a satire magazine that I used to write for, has a fun article on this topic. You can see it at or by clicking my name at the top of this listing.

  12. As a woman in cs, I think a different factor plays a large role: Society expects women to behave differently than men. In particular, being good at computers makes a boy intelligent and cool, but makes a girl weird. Especially, other girls will generally frown upon such interests. I believe that for small kids such factors are important.

    Therefore, I think its not enough to get girls to play more computer games, unless it becomes an accepted activity.