Visit any computer gaming company and odds are the office looks like a boys’ club. Young men hunker down in front of their monitors, developing games that might feature cyber-Barbies like Lara Croft or, more likely, no female protagonists at all.

Ray Ray Shen, a senior in UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, visited an Orange County gaming company and counted just two women. “The chief game designers are mostly guys,” she says. For a young woman interested in developing computer games, that’s discouraging. At UCI, however, steps are being taken to get more girls in the game.

There are good reasons for this: Games have morphed into a multibillion dollar industry in the United States, and the software technology used to develop them has the potential to impact military, educational and other key institutions. In addition, UCI is located in a hub of the gaming industry. One of the major players, Blizzard Entertainment, maker of the top-selling “World of Warcraft,” has headquarters at University Research Park.

While few females are creating the games, many do play them. The massively popular game, “The Sims,” which allows players to direct ordinary characters instead of futuristic terminators, has a 60 percent female audience. Yet the success of “The Sims” in attracting female players is not an industrywide phenomenon. According to Electronic Arts, which distributes “The Sims,” among teenagers only 40 percent of girls play computer games compared to 90 percent of boys. When they reach high school, girls tend to lose interest, while boys continue to play, gaining modest programming skills and confidence with computers that makes them more likely to pursue computer science, according to Debra Richardson, dean of the Bren School. Some argue the violence in the games turns girls off, but others point to deeper social forces at work – the same forces that deter many girls from pursuing careers in math and science.

“Games reflect the broader culture,” says Walt Scacchi, senior scientist at UCI’s Institute for Software Research. “The educational experience, the history, the institutions are ultimately what need to change.”

Some view girls who play computer games as “geeky,” Richardson says, although women in the field don’t see themselves that way.

“Young women entering high school don’t want to be seen as geeks or nerds, and unfortunately computer science has the ‘nerdiest’ image of all. The image of someone sitting alone in front of a computer, gaming for four hours a day doesn’t help. In reality, computer science involves interacting with a vast variety of people, so we need to bring the diverse perspectives of the genders as well as various cultural experiences to the table.”

Strength in numbers

To bridge the gender gap, the university has two new gender-balanced endeavors. This fall, UCI launched an undergraduate degree concentration in Game Culture and Technology open to students majoring in information and computer sciences, informatics, and computer science – as well as studio art, where the percentage of female students is high. UCI also introduced a new three-quarter University Studies course, “Computer Games as Art, Culture and Technology,” aimed at attracting undecided freshmen – half of them women – who want to learn the aesthetic, cultural and technical dimensions of computer gaming.

“The game content and social surroundings make gaming less engaging to women as players and creators, but hopefully this new minor and course will help change that,” says Bill Tomlinson, assistant professor of informatics and drama, who is teaching the first quarter of the freshman games course.

Currently, only about 13 percent of college students in information and computer sciences are women. Increasing their ranks requires not only efforts at the university level but reaching students well before high school. Some, like Richardson, are doing just that through community outreach programs. Richardson is chair of the program committee of the Orange County chapter of Girls Inc., which encourages girls’ involvement in science, math and technology. The girls, ages 5 to 18, have toured UCI’s game lab on field trips. Richardson also serves as faculty adviser for Women in Information and Computer Sciences, a UCI student-run organization that encourages women to pursue degrees and careers in the field and holds outreach “road shows” at local elementary schools. In addition, the Bren School hosts the Ada Byron Research Center for Diversity in Computing and Information Technology. Directed by Richardson, the center studies and promotes diverse access to and participation in computer science and information technology-related fields.

Girl power

Some female students already in the game are striving to make the industry less intimidating for young women like themselves. Shen and three friends – Elizabeth Kim, Tammy Phan and Lucy Zheng – all seniors in computer science, developed a game for girls called “Eterative Tale” to inspire others.

“I’ve been told girls shouldn’t do computer science. It makes me mad. I want to break the stereotype,” Phan says. “We figured if we design a game for girls to play, other girls will be encouraged to create games.”

In their game, the heroine aspires to reach the highest rank of scholar while facing a raft of intellectual challenges instead of the usual droids or dragons. The game recently placed second in a national Games 4 Girls competition. The four plan to fine-tune the game in UCI’s “Computer Game Development” course, which gives students a chance to show their creations to local gaming companies. Like the heroine in their tale, they’re determined to overcome the challenges and succeed in a male-dominated field.

“We know it will be difficult,” Zheng says, “but we all want to go into gaming.”

Gaming Score Card

Gender of game developers:
     male  88.5%
female 11.5%

Gender of players:
     male 62%
female 38%

Average age of game player:
     33 years old

Players over age 50:

Source: Electronic Software Association