Last week we brought you G4 University, which aims to get you into the video game industry in one career track or another. But, as most people know, that field is predominantly male. That hasn't escaped the attention of some people, including some who have deep pockets. Over the last month college students around the nation have shared stories about their summer internships with their classmates. Only one of those students was a recipient of the G.I.R.L. Scholarship.
Alicia Crawford won this year's Gamers In Real Life Scholarship, a program run by Sony Online Entertainment and dedicated to increasing the role of women in the video game industry. The scholarship includes $10,000 for tuition and a ten-week paid internship with Sony Online Entertainment. Crawford spent this summer in San Diego working on art assets for the MMO Free Realms.
"It's been quite a blessing," Crawford says. "It's given me the opportunity to work in the industry and get hands-on experience working with a team. I have a better understanding of the game design process as a whole."
During the internship Crawford worked alongside Free Realms' art team. "I did a lot of character and environment art, mostly on the 3D side," she says. "I created some props, and did a lot of character work, mostly texture variance on existing models. I got to design a bunch of interesting characters."
Crawford couldn't contain her excitement once her work appeared in-game and cemented her transition from player to game designer. "Once you learn your work is in a game, you sign in to your account and put the item on your character and show it off to other people you know. It's really fun," she says.
According to Michelle Sturdivant, SOE's director of global communications, the four-year old G.I.R.L. Scholarship exists to "encourage women to pursue a career in games. There are not as many women in games [as men], so this is one way that we felt we could help contribute and get girls involved in the gaming industry."
Crawford and Sturdivant both stress the importance of spreading awareness that careers in the gaming industry are possible for females. Crawford, a lifelong gamer, was in high school when she realized a career in the game industry was actually possible. As Sturdivant says, "A lot of times you're not aware of what options are available. That's why we came out with the G.I.R.L. Scholarship. It's about trying to get more young women involved and realize they can have careers and a voice in the game industry. The more we do that the more women will continue to get involved."
Applicants for the G.I.R.L. Scholarship submit two pieces of concept art and an essay about the role of women in the video game industry. Joe Shoopack, SOE's director of artistic development and a G.I.R.L. Scholarship judge, explains what they look for in an applicant.
"Art is a big factor. The particular task they had this year was to design an environment vignette and a character for either Everquest 2 or Free Realms," he says. "We look at the quality of the concept art and the inventiveness. With the essay we get a lot that are a laundry list of what's too male-centric or what the writer as a woman doesn't like about the industry. Alicia articulated specific action plans for how to address that, and for me that's a winning essay, when you actually put some thought and background [into solutions] instead of just listing issues."
In her essay Crawford discussed the sort of roles female characters tend to play in video games. "I focused on female characters and how more of them could potentially get more women to play games. How we can explore roles for females other than just the sidekick or damsel in distress type of characters, cultural roles like a mother or wife and what that would mean for her children or husband in the game."
Crawford thinks tapping into emotions and personal relationships would increase the number of females who play games, but realizes that might potentially drive away male players. "It would take a lot of thought and design effort to make an emotional game that appeals to more than just the female player base," she notes, but perhaps with "more preproduction time" designers could figure out how to make it work.
Shoopack explains how this sort of unisex appeal is both a strength of MMOs and one of SOE's goals. "With MMOs you get real player metrics about identity and can build systems with more cross-gender appeal," he says. "If you look at the history of game development and how businesses have approached broadening the marketplace, ten years ago they'd put a pink box with Mary Kate and Ashley on it or Barbie Horse Rescue and that was considered the female game market."
"With MMOs like we make at SOE there is such a wide variety of play style and we have a fairly high proportion of female players so it's a natural fit for us to identity those play styles that are appealing outside the typical male-centric game type. It's important to design for male and female sensibilities and cross-gender sensibilities that blur the lines in-between."
A more diverse industry isn't just good for MMOs like Free Realms or their players. By helping to expand the role of women within the game industry the G.I.R.L. Scholarship will hopefully broaden the language and perspective of video games. And in the case of one lucky winner each year, the scholarship can make a significant impact.
"I've gone from learning about developing games to being able to work in the industry," Crawford says. "When I go back to school I'll know where to focus my skills at. This experience will make me better fit to get a position in the game industry in the future. I have more knowledge about what I need to do and what I need to know to be a game artist. Also it's been a blast."
Freelancer Garrett Martin writes about video games, music, comics, and everything else he loved in middle school. Read his work and follow him on Twitter at @grmartin.