Women in Gaming: An Interview With Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch

If you’re a female gamer, there’s reason to celebrate. A recent study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association found that women constitute 40% of the total gamer population, and this number is sure to increase over time. Although there are numerous stereotypes regarding the typical female gamer, female gamers take interest in a wide variety of games ranging from the more “masculine” shooters to strategy games, casual games, and puzzles. If we were asked to profile a female gamer, we would say we could not, since her interests vary tremendously.

Unfortunately, the popularity of gaming among women does not seem to produce nearly enough female game developers to compete with men in the industry. This could be due to the fact that the percentage of women pursuing game design and development curriculum is considerably lower than that of men, or the fact that barriers to entry in this marketplace make it difficult.

Perhaps it’s because the game development industry is one that is extremely aggressive, and requires a level of work intensity that may not be ideal for a woman interested in game development who also considers raising a family at some point. Whatever the reasons may be, the fact is that there are simply far fewer women in game development than men, and we hope that this changes in the near future.

To address some of these concerns and curiosities, I had the pleasure of interviewing Silicon Sisters’ CEO, Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, who has provided some fascinating insight into some of the challenges she faced, her inspiration, goals, favorite games, and more. Silicon Sisters is a Vancouver-based game studio that is female founded and staffed. They recently released School 26, and you can read our review here.

Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch

STP: What inspired you to start your own gaming studio?

Brenda: In the game industry, there’s no escaping the fact that most studios are dominated by men. Having been in the industry for many years, Kirsten Forbes and I have both worked in those studios and we’ve both dreamed of working in a studio that had more women working in design and programming roles.

In 2010, we decided there was no time like the present! The gaming audience is growing to include more and more women, due to factors like the Wii, the iPhone, new trends in PC gaming, and social gaming catching on strongly with women. It makes sense to build games for this audience, and who better to do it than women who are passionate about games?

STP: Have there been any significant barriers or challenges you’ve had to overcome primarily because of your gender, and can you give some advice to other women who may face these issues in their own endeavors?

Brenda: One of the toughest challenges is working with funders. There is a decided bias against women-run tech start-ups, even though the stats show that starts-ups led by women have a higher degree of success. Silicon Valley is not as female-friendly as one might hope. Our hope is that once our games are successful, our product will help us break through this barrier. See the Forbes article on this topic here.

STP: Despite the overabundance of games out there, is there a particular genre or topic that you feel is often overlooked? If so, why do you feel it’s that way?

Brenda: I wouldn’t say it is a particular genre that is overlooked; I view it more that games that are designed from a particular view point aren’t out there. Game development is iterative; we tend to build on what has come before us. We are hoping to look away from that example and try to bring a fresh, female first perspective to gameplay. We are designing from the first line of code up for girls– not taking existing product and adapting it, or making it pink and sparkly so that it will attract girls.

STP: Could you please tell us a little more about Silicon Sisters? What’s your work environment like? When I visited the Gastown in Vancouver, I found it to be a lively, fun place. Does this enhance your work in any way?

Brenda: We love being in Gastown. It’s a funky old section of the city where all walks of life collide. There are trendsters like John Fluvog who lives and works in his flagship store, and there are folks from the East Side of Vancouver which has one of the highest poverty rates of any North American city. And everything in between. It’s vibrant but real, and there are lots of amazing bars and restaurants, as well as cool shopping. Our team loves it here.

Our work environment is a bit different from most studios because instead of being mostly guys with a few gals, we are mostly gals with a few guys. We aren’t trying to be a women-only studio, we will always hire the person who is best for the job, but we do look for people who are truly interested in making quality games for this market, and who can think like our market segment. So, that is either going to be someone from our market segment (women or girls) or someone who is empathetic and has good understanding of that segment (grew up with sisters or has daughters, for example).

STP: As a female gamer, what are the stereotypes you’ve had to overcome or disprove? What do you feel is at the core of these beliefs and what can be done to break these stereotypes?

Brenda: I think the typical stereotypes about gamers– all types of gamers– are being broken down across the board right now, and I’m grateful for that. The ESRB recently reported that a majority of parents surveyed stated that video games were a positive influence in their child’s life. That never used to be the case!

Society’s relationship to video games is in flux, as we expand and become a more diverse medium, that will continue to change. There are more women over 30 playing video games than there are boys under 18 in today’s market. Go figure!

STP: What is your favorite game for the iOS platform?

Brenda: I’ve always loved Flight Control, and even now still play it pretty regularly. I’m really into general aviation, so anything flight-related connects for me. I also really love Mirror’s Edge on iPad. I love the touchpad mechanics with that game. I love it way more than I did on console.

STP: What’s your favorite video game of all time, any platform? Why?

Brenda: No way, really? That is a brutal question. I’m really old, you know, so my catchment is all games ever made. I’ll go with my first really serious addiction. When I was 11 and used to go to this arcade in my small town on Vancouver Island. We’re going back to the 70′s here, and I spent all of my babysitting money playing Asteroids. In the 80′s it switched to Galaxian, and in the 90′s probably Tomb Raider on the Sega Saturn. Next decade, Okami on Wii or maybe Katamari. I also really loved Scribblenaughts, I thought that was genius.

STP: Can you tell us about another upcoming game of yours?

Brenda: In addition to School 26, we’re also working on a social game designed for women in their early 40s. We’ll have more to say about it soon!

School 26

STP: Do you feel that despite being targeted for women, your games are gender-neutral and can easily be enjoyed by all?

Brenda: Our games are aimed at a specific audience, there’s no avoiding that. This doesn’t mean that people outside the target demographic can’t enjoy it. It’s really no different than a shooter or any other game that’s designed with a typical male audience in mind– people outside the target audience will enjoy it, but the majority of players will be the ones the game was designed for.

For example, School 26 is a game with scenarios and mechanics that were deliberately designed to appeal to teen and tween girls. While we were working on the game, we had boys in the same age group playtest the game, and some of them enjoyed it a lot.

STP: What do you hope in achieving from the creation of games like School 26?

Brenda: With School 26 specifically, we hope to empower girls who don’t realize how important their skills in areas like communication, empathy, and problem solving can be, not only while they’re in school, but also later in life. More generally, we hope to create games that women will like to play, whether they consider themselves ‘gamers’ or not.

Silicon Sisters’ slogan is ‘Games for Us’ and that’s really what we’re making– the types of games that we want to play and don’t feel are truly represented in the industry right now.

STP: In what ways do you feel the female gaming community will change over the years?

Brenda: We think it will continue to grow, especially as devices like smartphones become more prevalent. The definition of gaming is changing. Most of today’s gamers are not hardcore video gamers playing hours upon hours of action games on consoles, but casual gamers who are playing in smaller bursts on their phones, their computers, their Facebook pages. The industry needs to keep up by adapting to these changes– by continuing to make games for the hardcore audience, sure, but also by creating games for the growing casual audience and some games that will appeal to both.