Programming Is Not Just a Man’s Game

Programming Is Not Just a Man’s Game

With the worldwide success of Niche – A Genetics Survival Game, game designer Philomena Schwab has proven that computer programming doesn’t have to be a man’s realm. Today she is a prefigurative role model, but interdisciplinary education programs and a societal change in thinking will hopefully soon make her the norm.

You’re one of 11 women on Forbes’s “30 under 30 Europe: Technology” list. Were you flooded with job offers?

Yes, there were offers, even from Silicon Valley, but hopefully not just because I’m a woman. I wouldn’t find that respectful. Personal abilities and achievements should be what matters. That’s the only way to earn the respect of co-workers. And it’s the only way that women will become the norm also in technology firms. Anyway, I didn’t take any of those job offers. After finishing my degree in game design at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), I founded my own company, Stray Fawn Studio. At the moment it’s important to me to be responsible for my own successes and failures. Aside from that, my company’s commitment to operating out of Zurich is aimed at strengthening the gaming industry in Switzerland.

What does “game design” mean exactly?

In a small team like ours, I do a lot of different jobs as a game designer. I program and create graphics needless to say, but I also think about the objective and the mechanics of the entire game and its individual levels. What motivates the gamer? How do I move the game character? What happens when I click there? What happens if I click here?

Interdisciplinarity helps to shed diffidence toward technology.

You work at the interface between art and technology. Did the one lead to the other?

I initially wanted to illustrate children’s books. Later, comics led me to computer games, which in my opinion offer more possibilities – animation with sound and interactivity – than almost any other medium can. I’m able to push the limits of those possibilities because I also began to grapple with the technological aspect. When I started my studies, I was still intimidated by it. I hadn’t the slightest idea of how a game works behind the screen. I could visualize how a children’s book comes into being. But a video game? And there were others in the same boat. The other women in my class – there were six of us out of a total of 15 students – also found themselves at a loss when it came to source codes. Three of us work today, though, as programmers, one even outside the gaming industry.

What explains your and your colleagues’ change of heart?

Many design academies make you choose between a creative or technical degree course right from the outset, so a typical gender role division takes place there. I, too, would have opted for the creative route under such a setup. Fortunately, ZHdK takes a different approach. Every student does both sides of the curriculum. And many a student ends up finding enjoyment in a field that initially hadn’t been on his or her radar, or that he or she originally wouldn’t have dared to try out. ZHdK’s interdisciplinary approach, by the way, is also the reason why women and men are represented pretty evenly across the Swiss-German gaming industry. Internationally, women make up 15% to 20% of the gaming industry’s headcount, so we have some catching up to do.

Niche – A Genetics Survival Game

Niche – A Genetics Survival Game is a strategy game that simulates the life cycle of a species. The goal is to survive. The player starts off with two randomly generated fox-like creatures that live on a randomly generated game board-like island. The player combats hunger, climatic changes, diseases, and predators by exploring the island and leveraging the laws of genetics. Before one generation of animals dies out, the next one must already be capable of survival and endowed as much as possible with better genes. Philomena Schwab began developing Niche when she was a student at the Zurich University of the Arts. The final version of Niche debuted for download on September 21, 2017. 

Women also make up only an average of 14.6% of the employee headcount in Switzerland’s IT sector (EU: 16.1%). What has to happen to get women more interested in programming?

The example set by ZHdK shows that interdisciplinarity can encourage young women to shed their diffidence toward technology. But alongside broad interdisciplinary education, it will also take unprejudiced discussions with parents, unbiased career counselors, and balanced media coverage to move our society away from thinking in career stereotypes.

What, in your opinion, are the benefits of educational offerings aimed specifically at women?

Such offerings have their justification as long as young women still face psychological barriers. A programming course for girls, for example, provides a protected environment in which no one need expose herself. In my industry, promotional programs like Women in Games are showing good results. But I’m confident that the next generation of women will be even less timid toward technology than mine was and that such gender-specific initiatives will soon no longer be necessary. The daughters of today’s women programmers, at any rate, will certainly never think that technology is not a field for women.

The game Niche is liked by both sexes.

Can games like Niche also inspire young women to take up programming?

Niche is a strategy game based on the laws of genetics. It’s basically about nurturing one’s species and safeguarding it from extinction. We therefore expected – not free from stereotyped thinking ourselves – that the game would particularly appeal to the female target group. In fact, though, Niche is equally liked by both sexes. We are also seeing that in the Let’s Play videos, where men and women commentate live on games while playing them. I do believe that games can arouse technical curiosity, in both sexes. It sometimes is only a small step from being fascinated with a game to wanting to create one yourself. And whoever has programmed one game already has a foot in the doorway to the IT industry.

Also, the era of teachers, parents, and politicians sweepingly demonizing video games is over.

Thank goodness. There are so many games out there today that have educational value. Teachers have begun to use the video game Minecraft to explain processes to their students. We ourselves are planning an educational version of Niche to license to schools for biology classes. Simulation and hands-on learning offer a huge advantage over chalk-and-talk teaching, in my opinion. US schools in particular have already recognized that.

Let's Play

The most-subscribed channel on YouTube is operated by the Swedish vlogger Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg. Never heard of him? He is better known by his alias PewDiePie. Still haven’t heard of him? That might be because the 57 million subscribers to his web videos are mainly computer game fans. Instead of playing themselves, they prefer to watch him do it.

The phenomenon is called Let’s Play and has since become an integral part of gaming culture. The sometimes very entertaining live commentaries by PewDiePie and other Let’s Play stars only partially explain their success. The videos also give their viewers some relaxation and take the place of gaming when viewers are too tired to play themselves. They also help viewers decide whether to buy a new game and stoke excitement for it. The videos are both free advertising and a feedback channel for the game producers like Philomena Schwab’s Stray Fawn Studio. The live commentaries by the Let’s Players and the online comments from viewers both deliver valuable suggestions that can be used to further develop a game.