Two articles and a news brief in the most recent issue of Communications of the ACM have prompted us once
again to address our concerns regarding the relationship of gender and multimedia. During the fall semester of 1999,
one of the authors taught a seminar on the theoretical foundations of multimedia. He wanted to begin by immediately
establishing that multimedia is created and used in a social context. Therefore, before the seminar began, a letter
was sent to each participant with an assignment to visit a local computer store and perform an inventory of the
computer games. They were to report how many of the games they felt were directed toward boys, how many toward girls,
how many toward men, how many toward women, and how many were gender neutral. They also had to explain how they had
done their categorizations. There were 23 students who reviewed an average of about 135 games each.
Because they visited different stores, students may have reviewed some of the same games, and because they used their own criteria, two students may have classified the same game differently. Nevertheless, the results of this informal, unscientific survey were striking, but not surprising.
We averaged the findings of the 23 seminar participants and found that more than 71% of the 3,100 games were oriented toward either boys or men, while 22% were gender-neutral, but only about 6% were designed primarily for girls or women.
Joanna Badagliacco, in "Gender and Race Differences in Computing Attitudes and Experience" (Social Science Computer Review, Spring 1990), found significant gender and race differences in both attitude toward and experience with computers when she studied 2,840 college students. Among students who had never enrolled in a computer-related course, males had an average of about 0.4 more years of computer experience than females. Among those who had ever or were currently enrolled in a computer-related course, males had more than 1.1 more years of computer experience. Using semantic differential scales, she observed attitudinal differences between male and female students: the males had significantly more positive attitudes toward computers. A number of other authors before and since have reported other gender differences.
Today, the use of computers by women is increasing at a rapid pace. For example, Robert Fox, in "News Track" (Communications of the ACM, January 2000), noted that a survey by Women.com found that 73% of the women they polled reported having used the Web when searching for products or services. Two other surveys found that women soon will be the largest group of online spenders. Nevertheless, Cecilia M. Gorriz and Claudia Medina, in "Engaging Girls with Computers through Software Games" (Communications of the ACM, January 2000), provide significant evidence of the same gender gap in computer games that our students found informally. They argue that a large potential market is being severely under served by the current crop of games.
However, Gorriz and Medina go much farther in their argument. They suggest that the significant under-representation of women among computer science students and current graduates may be a direct result of the early experiences that girls have with computer games. As Badagliacco argued earlier, based upon the limited gender roles available to most girls, Gorriz and Medina posit that, if more games were developed that were appropriate for girls, more girls would develop positive attitudes toward computers and would learn to enjoy them more. Of course, games are not children's only exposure to computers. They see adults using computers in a wide range of activities. Also, computer-based instructional materials are playing an ever-increasing role in K-12 education and considerable attention should be paid to how these materials affect girl's attitudes toward computers, too.
To help define appropriate games, Gorriz and Medina cite studies performed by the software company Purple Moon (recently bought by Mattel) that identified a number of characteristics that girls find desirable in their play patterns. Most of these patterns suggest rich multimedia environments with collaboration (not competition), nonclosure and exploration, puzzle-solving skills, and complex social interactions. How, then, can we see to it that such games (and instructional materials) are developed?
In addition to convincing software game companies of the need and market for computer games for girls, multimedia developers must be educated in a relevant manner. They must understand the characteristics of the intended audience and write appropriately. They must employ sensitive, artistic techniques to produce interesting, challenging software. In their discussion of their vision of the education of multimedia professionals, Ruben Gonzalez, Greg Cranitch and Jun Jo, in "Academic Directions of Multimedia Education" (Communications of the ACM, January 2000), comment that "multimedia is about creating artificial environments that implement rich, interactive, multimodal information spaces, arising through a fusion of computer hardware, software, and multimodal data."
Educating professionals to create such multimedia requires innovative post-secondary curricula. It also implies that the students should be sensitive to the characteristics of the intended audience and capable of recognizing suitable and unsuitable productions. Perhaps, it also implies that more of the students - and, therefore, eventually of the multimedia developers - should be women. It is a "chicken and egg" problem. How can we get more games suitable for girls, so that we can attract more young women to learn to become multimedia developers, so that we can develop more games suitable for girls, so that. . .?
The clear solution lies in providing a broad education for all multimedia developers, men and women. The curriculum must go far beyond simply imparting technical and tools-based skills. It must include a considerable emphasis not just on the technology of multimedia, but on the humans who will be using the multimedia. Whether this emphasis comes from the traditional fields of Sociology, Education, Psychology, Communication, or others, or whether it is included in Computer Science courses such as Human-Computer Interfacing or the like, is not important. What is important is that the new multimedia developers graduate with the experience and sensitivity required to create appropriate productions.
Robert S. Tannenbaum is director of Academic Computing Services at the University of Kentucky. Joanna M. Badagliacco is associate professor of Sociology at the University of Kentucky.