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Girls Make Games Workshop Recap

December 08, 2015

By Becky Michelson


On a crisp, bright autumn Sunday in Boston, the Engagement Lab overflowed with experienced mentors eager to share their experiences in the game industry with young women excited to learn about design and how their careers unfolded.Girls Make Games, an event designed and facilitated by the Engagement Lab at Emerson College with co-sponsorship from the Department of Visual & Media Arts and the Office of Diversity & Inclusion at the college, sought to provide a mix of game design discussions, hands-on learning, and mentorship opportunities. This was our first event of this kind, so we also wanted to learn about the needs and interests of the audience to plan for future events. From the 25 attendees, we learned there is a strong desire in the student body to grow game development skills through workshops about things like the Unity platform and game writing. We also learned that both groups enthusiastically support relationship building between women leaders in the game industry and students.

The day began with introductions and a Grow-a-Game activity. Students shared their passions for animation, graphic design, computer science, and media studies as well as their favorite games of the moment. To open the program, Engagement Lab Project Manager Christina Wilson unpacked the science of play through a crash course on game systems, which include the magic circle, game mechanics, objectives, obstacles, and constructed values. After analyzing the actions, rules, and themes of Pac-Man, we talked through what an adaption of the game to address gentrification might look like. Participants rapidly brainstormed ideas, such as the Pac-Man ghosts representing the covered-over history of a neighborhood’s past or the cherry icons representing national franchises like, Starbucks or Whole Foods, moving into neighborhoods.

Then we broke out into small groups to play Grow a Game (available on the App Store) to practice designing mechanics, objectives, and themes.

With the rapid rounds, players had 3 minutes to combine various verbs, atmospheres, and challenges to produce game concepts. Group ideas included a game about cats in space where the challenge included to create a diverse team of players to support collectivism by assembling a team that celebrated everyone’s unique characteristics. Another game idea included playing as high school students who had to choose between short term points awarded for appealing to their peers versus staying true to their authentic desires for long-term game goals.

After the group settled in with lunch, the panelists shared their career paths, passions for the game industry, and current projects through a series of brief presentations. Kellian Adams, CEO of Green Door Labs kicked us off with a focus on how to help clients narrow down their goals with game projects. Kellian runs an organization that works with primarily libraries and museums to create transmedia storytelling experiences, adventures, and scavenger hunts for play and learning. Kellian has worked with organizations like the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Girl Scouts to design immersive and thoughtful educational experiences. Kellian urged the audience to help future clients get specific and goal-oriented with their objectives of game-based learning. “In the next ten years, you will hear this phrase A LOT,” Kellian warned that companies will say,

> “we want to work with new technologies to create out of the box learning experiences that inspire creative thinking!!!”

Kellian urged future game designers to allot enough to time to hammer out goals that are specific, actionable, and concise for future game projects.

Next, Emily Care Boss of Black & Green Games spoke to the group about her career with independent game publishing, the affordances of analog role-playing games, and game development communities. One of Emily’s latest projects brings to life John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost through live-action-role-playing. Emily’s advice to students: put yourself out there at conferences and meet-ups, playtest your games as much as possible, and take advantage of newer trends of crowdfunding for projects in development! You can view Emily’s presentation here.

Kyrie Caldwell’s presentation took a more personal tone as she dove into the her academic history which began with Religious Studies and moved into studying how gender is portrayed in games, especially among care-taking and emotional expression mechanics. Similar to Emily, Kyrie shared the importance of meeting people who are passionate about similar work as you.

Shyla Navarro and Linda Wilkins from Hasbro shed light on new marketing efforts for classic games like Twister, Monopoly, and Life. Did you know that Twister was recently inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame and there was a recentGuinness World record broken for the largest game of Twister of over 1,200 boards played? In explaining the research that takes place behind a marketing campaign, Shyla and Linda walked the audience through the aspects of finding consumer insights, emphasizing a tone that is well-received by the audience, and how to leverage digital channels to reach the target audience. They were able to show us the final commercial with the theme “Get Your Family Game On!” that resulted from the marketing research process.

With one epic slide Dawn Rivers, who is a cinematographer at Harmonix, spoke about her journey from Pixar to Harmonix with her own companyMechamagizmo as a stepping stone in between. Dawn echoed the sentiments of mingling with like-minded game enthusiasts and developers and experienced career growth from attending the infamous Game Developer’s Conference. Locally, Dawn runs the group Boston Post Mortem, which is a local game developer meet-up that has a robust job board and mailing list.

Finally, Sarah Zaidan, Assistant Profession at Emerson College and Faculty Fellow at the Engagement Lab, spoke about her path of blending an art background, love for video games, and academia. Sarah teaches video game design courses at Emerson and is developing a game called Ms. Meta celebrating contemporary female superhero’s. Sarah was recently interviewed for a podcast titled “Celebrating the Female Superhero through Digital Gaming” through MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program where you can learn more about her work.

In the Q&A asked follow-up questions to presentation content and we explored themes of gender inclusivity in the workplace. Linda Wilkins from Hasbro shared the value she finds in a Women’s Leadership series at her workplace, which creates learning and collaboration opportunities. Then Dawn and Emily both gave examples of specific efforts to foster inclusivity.

When making the game Alien Makeout Simulator, Dawn purposely did not assign gender pairings and let players decide for themselves. She emphasized how game designers have options to create room for gender fluidity. Emily shared information about Metatopia, a game design festival that aims to be inclusive and highlight games created by marginalized people. Stacey George, an illustrator by trade and Senior Brand Designer at Hasbro, spoke about a time when she stood up for the prominence of a female figure on toy packaging. She received pushback from the team that believed having female figures in the front and center “wouldn’t sell well”. She successfully argued for keeping the figures in the forefront and products went to market. The Q&A was short and sweet but participants were encouraged to stay after event to keep the conversations going.

The last portion of the event entailed three workshop tracks. Christina and Becky facilitated a game modification exercise as a deeper dive into exploring game mechanics. Two teams modified checkers and playtested each others’ versions.

In the Twine workshop, Engagement Lab game producer Jordan Pailthorpe led participants through the process of creating an interactive story.

Kellian introduced a tool she’s developed in her work with games called theEdventure Builder. The introductory session was a quick peak into the game-design process for location-based puzzle hunts. Participants had an opportunity to create challenges for a prototype game that would take place on the Emerson campus.

The week prior to the event, the student paper published an op-ed that described the day’s efforts to equalize the industry. They said,

> “From its corner of Emerson’s campus, the lab is amplifying female involvement in the gaming world, and showing how lady game creators inherently craft narratives and characters through a feminist lens, equalizing an industry that’s still under the patriarchy’s thumb.”

Though we didn’t defeat all of the patriarchy in our 3-hour workshop, we uncovered a passionate group of gamers and learners. Thank you to our sponsors, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion as well as the Department of Visual and Media Arts for providing our lunch from Anna’s Taqueria. Thank you to all the participants and talented panelists who brought their creativity, curiosity, and enthusiasm to participate. After discovering such as strong interest in this topic, we hope events like this will happen again. If you would like to learn more or participate in future events, please contact

Thank you to our wonderful panelists!

See all the bios here:

See the resources of local conferences, events, and learning opportunities shared at the workshop here:

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