An industry in rapid growth

  • Globally, the computer game and videogame market had a turnover of US$ 65 billion in 2011, and the turnover in 2015 is predicted to reach US$ 82 billion.  
  • Females represent 47% of all computer and video gamers. Adult women represent a greater proportion of gamers (30%) than boys of 17 years and younger (18%). 
  • Of all the characters in computer and video games, 85% are male, and the computer games industry is regularly criticised for its stereotypical and sexist portrayal of women.
     

Palestinian Jenan Sawalmi wants to become a computer games developer and a vet, she confides to me with a coy smile. The fourteen-year-old girl, who is seated at a computer at the YAFA Cultural Center youth club at the Balata refugee camp, is just one of 50 girls who have spent their summer holidays learning how to create computer games. The girls have been learning through the Game Girl Workshop project, which has been developed by games designer Andrea Hasselager and sound designer Nevin Eronde.
The number of girls and women playing computer games has exploded over the past few years; in the USA, almost every other computer gamer is a woman. Yet when it comes to the actual production of games, men are massively overrepresented. Only around 11% of all games developers are women, and in the games themselves 85% of the characters are male.  

Prior to attending the workshop, Jenan Sawalmi was already an accomplished gamer (with a particular preference for hard-core action games), but the workshop has opened her eyes to the fact that a career in the field of IT is a realistic possibility. And this is precisely the objective Andrea Hasselager and Nevin Eronde had in mind.  
The number of girls and women playing computer games has exploded over the past few years; in the USA, almost every other computer gamer is a woman. Yet when it comes to the actual production of games, men are massively overrepresented. Only around 11% of all games developers are women, and in the games themselves 85% of the characters are male.  
At the 2010 Nordic Game Conference, held in Malmö, Sweden, a Jordanian business development analyst highlighted the Middle East as a computer games market experiencing rapid growth. His statement aroused the interest of Nevin Eronde and Andrea Hasselager. 
“As the industry is undergoing such massive development, we thought that it could be exiting to get the girls in the region involved from the start. We ourselves hail from a world where there are very few women in the computer games industry; typically, when entering into a male-dominated industry, you end up either copying the men to gain acceptance or being forced to go in your own direction. And going in our own direction is precisely what we’ve done”, explains Andrea Hasselager, who is currently working on a game about the menstrual cycle – not exactly a typical theme for a computer game.  

The women are coming…

“For so many years, computer gamers were primarily been men and boys. And as the industry typically attracts those who are already interested in games, there’s tended to be an overrepresentation of males,” explains Hanna Wirman PhD and Visiting Assistant Professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. For ten years, she has conducted studies of computer games and women, and she believes that the industry is changing.  

“In the computer games industry, there’s been a tradition of working at all hours of the day and night. And the fact that the women in these environments tend to be older than the men and have families makes things even harder for women. But the games industry is changing. The male games developers are getting older too, leading to better working hours. Nevertheless, there are still too few women role models in the industry, and women are not encouraged in the same way as men to make their career in IT”, explains Hanna Wirman. 
Morten Nielsen, who is head of Multimediaforeningen (the Danish trade association of the IT industry) and Nordic Marketing Director at EA Games, agrees with Hanna Wirman that the old gender role-model patterns are a remnant of the time when computer games were primarily targeted towards boys.  
“It’s only in the last few years that we’ve begun to see more and more women gamers, and I’m sure that in five to ten years we’ll see many more women in the field of computer game development”, he predicts.

Enthusiasm and a desire to tell

Andrea Hasselager and Nevin Eronde first tested out their Girl Game Workshop concept on ten eighth-grade girls from The Islamic Arab Private School (DIA) located in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro district. Here, the students learned to make small computer games over the course of a weekend, and the girls were enthusiastic about even the most difficult aspects of programming. 
The positive response from this spurred the two games enthusiasts to take the next leap, and in the spring of 2011 they went to Palestine. Here, they set up a collaboration with two youth organisations and Det Danske Hus (an initiative that facilitates dialogue and cultural exchanges between Danes and Palestinians). In order to evaluate the level of interest and English-language abilities, Andrea Hasselager and Nevin Eronde held a small-scale workshop with a group of girls in the small town of Anabta. They were positively surprised by the girls’ imagination and by how keen they were to tell about what they had done. Consequently, the following summer, Andrea Hasselager and Nevin Eronde returned to Palestine to hold three additional workshops.

Powerful impression

The first workshop was held in Ramallah. It was attended by ten Palestinian women, all of whom had either previously worked as programmers or studied computer technology at university. The idea here was to acquaint these women with the concept and get them to help teach – and translate – at the two following workshops, thereby creating a sense of ownership. The next two workshops were held for girls between the ages of 12 and 16 in the small town of Anabta and at the Balata refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus.

There was a huge difference between the two groups of girls attending the two workshops. The girls from Anabta came from fairly privileged backgrounds; many attended international schools, spoke good English and were good at taking responsibility. The girls in the refugee camp (where unemployment levels are high and where families live under tough conditions) had difficulty working independently, so the teachers had to split up the tasks into smaller chunks. 
The refugee camp girls’ difficulties in staying focused left a huge impression on Nevin Eronde. 
“There was no doubting the fact that the girls were exhibiting some of the symptoms of stress, but they had all grown up in close proximity to the conflict. Mahmoud Subuh, head of the youth centre, explained to us that many of the girls had not slept through an entire night for many years, due to things such as nightly raids on the camp”, he explains.

A loss for the labour market

The many restrictions imposed upon their women helpers was another aspect that the Danish teachers found difficult to relate to. 
“These were modern, urban women who were dressed in modern Western clothing, but even though some of them would soon be turning 30, they couldn’t leave home before they were married and they had to be home by 10 o’clock at night. However, they fully made the most of what little leeway they did have. It was astonishing to see just how hard they worked, for example with their studies. They were really conscientious and focused”, tells Andrea Hasselager.   

Game Girl Workshop

  • In total, four Game Girl workshops have been held, the first in the Danish municipality of Egedal, followed by Ramallah, Nablus and Anabta.
  • In addition to games designer Andrea Hasselager and sound designer Nevin Eronde (who developed the concept), graphic designer Julie Køie, programmer Linda Randazzo and journalist Anni Lyngskær also participated in the project.
  • The programs used in the training were primarily open-source programs, which can be downloaded free of charge from the Internet. This meant that the girls themselves could continue to work after the workshop without having to invest in expensive software.
  • Several of the Palestinian women who participated in the project as helpers are planning to arrange similar workshops by themselves.
  • Game Girl workshop is financed by Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke (a Danish aid organisation and member of ActionAid) with licens sponsorships from Yoyo Games and Propellerhead.

“The problem is that as soon as they marry and have children they quit their job and stay at home – and that’s a huge loss for the labour market”, adds Nevin Eronde. 
The two Danes had been expecting to run into such issues, but these turned out to be harder than anticipated as they became very close to the Palestinian women, for example, when one of their helpers broke down one day. This particular woman had become engaged to an American-Palestinian man and was to move to the US with him to be a stay-at-home housewife. But she had won a scholarship to study in the US – a scholarship that is awarded annually to the best student at the university. Her husband-to-be had managed to talk her into turning this down as he believed that it would make it more difficult for her to obtain a residence permit. In the end, she broke off her engagement, but by that time the scholarship had already been given to someone else. 
Fourteen-year-old Jenan Sawalmi has already decided that any future husband must be a man who accepts the fact that she will stay on in the labour market, even if she has children, she tells WoMen Dialogue.
The male interpreter sitting by her side looks impressed, commenting: 
“Arab women are getting stronger.” 

Demystifying programming

Andrea Hasselager and Nevin Eronde were particularly surprised by the fact that not one of the computer games developed in the workshops was about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even though this fills a large part of the girls’ daily lives. 
“The games developed by the girls at the Anabta workshop (WASIL –Center for Youth Development) and the Nablus workshop (YAFA Cultural Center) were very different to the games developed by the games created by the students at the private Nørrebro school. The Danish girls’ games were all about their own daily lives, Barbie dolls, and about being invited to the cinema by the cutest boy in the class. They were very individualistic – and very Danish. In contrast, the Palestinian girls’ games were not about themselves, but about a fisherman catching fish, a farmer protecting his crops from insects, and a hunter who saves a princess. All of the hero figures were men”, explains Andrea Hasselager. 
But which types of stories that the girls want to tell is irrelevant to the two Danish women. 
“For us, the essential element is the demystification of programming and technology. The girls have grown up in a society with a lot of media. We want to teach them about the logic behind the technology and provide them with the tools to enable them to tell their own stories”, declares Nevin Eronde. 
“It’s also an issue of taking control. If you’re successful and have control of even this smallest experience in your life, it can inspire you to take control of other things. One of the girls told us that she’d never experienced a feeling of success in her life before now. That was simply fantastic for us. Imagine that you have created your own game that you can take home and show your friends and family”, tells Andrea Hasselager. She believes that as an increasing number of girls begin gaming it is more important than ever for games to reflect a wider range of global perspectives than they currently do. And more women employed in the industry will help to achieve this. 

“(…)The Danish girls’ games were all about their own daily lives, Barbie dolls, and about being invited to the cinema by the cutest boy in the class. They were very individualistic – and very Danish. In contrast, the Palestinian girls’ games were not about themselves, but about a fisherman catching fish, a farmer protecting his crops from insects, and a hunter who saves a princess. All of the hero figures were men(…)” 

Greater variation

Hanna Wirman agrees. Her evaluation is that more women in the games industry will lead to an increased variety in the games produced. Individuals who do not have a typical gamer background tend to bring new and atypical ideas to the industry, she says.
“Those games that are targeted at women often represent men’s perceptions of what women want. Games about cooking, fitness and supermodels are very popular, but if there were more variation and equally strong marketing of other types of game, I’m sure that women would play them”, tells the researcher. 

Morten Nielsen, on the other hand, does not see the limited number of women in 

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the industry as a major problem. 
“We never develop anything without beforehand going out and asking our end-users what they want. More than 75% of those who play our Sims computer game, for example, are women. But it’s clear that there could be some areas where companies aren’t developing new products because there aren’t any women putting forward the ideas”, he says. 
When I am thanking Palestinian Jenan Sawalmi for allowing me to write about her, she says:
“It is I who should thank you because this interview has made me think about the workshop again and rekindled the feel of joy I had there.”