A Bright Tech Future Beckoning for Girls and Women

Felicity Foxx Herst, a dynamic young game designer with Silicon Sisters Interactive in Vancouver, describes herself as an “avid and passionate female gamer.” The daughter of a genomics researcher and a professional opera singer, Felicity grew up in a household devoted both to the arts and the sciences, so it’s perhaps no wonder that she gravitated ultimately toward a field that allows her to engage with her interests in both. What’s a bit different about Felicity is that, unlike many of her generation, she didn’t grow up glued to a video monitor or iPod screen. Not having her own computer as a child, she would duck into her father’s office to play computer games on his old Amstrad computer. There, at age 7, she even wrote her first computer program. Still and all, her focus as a student was mainly on the humanities side of the curriculum. In fact, as she says with a broad smile, she spent most of her time writing, reading and playing music in high school, hanging with “the artsy crowd and not the computer geeks.”

After graduating from high school, Felicity studied English literature at Simon Fraser University, where increasingly she became interested in the study of video games. As a writer and musician she’d gravitated toward theories of art and literature. At SFU she found that she could approach video games via literary theory in much the same way that films could be analyzed with the aid of film theory. Noting that video games are “an expression of human culture,” Felicity sees them as “a crucial part of cultural studies, or they should be, because they’re interesting and because they’re the intersection of art, music, programming, literature, and interactive narrative.”

Sensing a rich area for academic study, Felicity sought to “bend classes to my own ends” and write about video games rather than standard literary texts. At the same time, she was never far from programming. Near the end of her undergraduate studies she’d taken an administrative position with a local chapter of the Canadian Red Cross Society. There, as the youngest staffer on board, she was regularly called on to solve other staff members’ computing problems and found herself serving as “the de facto tech expert in the office.”

With graduation looming, she mulled whether she should undertake a master’s degree in English lit or creative writing or take the plunge and actually make games herself. Her father, a genomics researcher with ties to the UBC computer science department, recommended she consider the department’s BCS program. Initially Felicity doubted she could pursue such a degree, as math had never been a strong suit. She found herself perplexed and even a little annoyed by this self-perception, though, because in her heart she knew she could contribute to the world of gaming. A good friend in the industry had regularly invited her around to his office, and she’d fallen in love with the culture, the fact that it wasn’t a 9-5 environment, and that his colleagues were passionate about their work. Seeing her interest, he’d even suggested she come to work in his office. She knew that her English lit degree, while valuable, probably wouldn’t prepare her for anything more than administrative work. Knowing that “there was a bright future beckoning in technology,” Felicity thought, “if I work in games, I want to do something meaningful in the industry.”

With that in mind, she set about examining her beliefs in why she wasn’t good enough in math to pursue a CS degree. She’d always seen herself as a creative writer, but did that mean she couldn’t excel in something else? She wondered if she’d ever really tried to succeed in an area that intimidated her, as perhaps she felt intimidated by the culture surrounding CS. In the end, she decided both that the “BCS program was an avenue down which I could test my assumption that I could be good in math” and that “it wasn’t fair to myself not to apply.” Gathering her courage, she applied to the program and began in September 2006.

The transition, she says with a rueful smile, wasn’t altogether smooth. In the first semester she dropped two classes, one of which was calculus, which proved tough. (Later in the program she took calculus and did well in it.) Her initial suspicions that the program might be too much for her proved unfounded, however, as she saw that she could “get better at being a CS student” over time. It also helped that many of her classmates were in the same boat. “It was a very diverse group. Quite a few were from the arts. In my group there were two other English majors, some from psychology. There also were a significant number of women, roughly 40% of the class, which helped. I didn’t feel like some outlier weirdo!” she says with a laugh.

Initially taking “bridging module” courses (BCS requires 30 credits outside of CS), Felicity concentrated on her loves: interactive media, games, and critical studies in gender and sexuality. Starting with two CS and one bridging course, by the end of the program she was taking five CS courses and earning straight As, including one in algorithms, believed by many in the program as among the toughest of the required classes.

While a growing love of the coursework was part of the reason the program spoke to her, another was simply knowing what she wanted to be able to do on the other end. “I knew that games were my passion and they were the goal for my being in BCS.” She saw that others who didn’t have a goal struggled more in the program and some eventually dropped out or transferred to other departments. Having a goal meant figuring out how to engineer the best personal route through the program. As an example, programming at UBC is Java-oriented. Coming into the program Felicity had limited programming experience, having done some hobby programming in high school and creating some “crappy tile-based RPGs.” She knew that to do console game programming she would need C++, and so she taught herself the programming language.

Having such a strong goal aligned nicely with the BCS co-op program, in which students can commit to job placements for two terms. Deciding to aim for the top from the beginning, Felicity applied to Electronic Arts (EA) in Vancouver for her first co-op placement. She recounts the interview process with a good deal of amusement. “The first interview was by telephone with HR. It was a great interview and went really well. The second was an hour-long interview with a technical group. They asked me to solve equations over the phone. I’d been in BCS for just a year at that point. It was grueling. I decided that whenever they asked a question I would turn it back to them and engage them in a conversation about how a problem could get solved. When I hung up the phone I burst into tears, sure I wasn’t going to get this placement, but I was offered the job shortly after that. That was a real learning experience, and what I now believe is that if you have half of the skills or experience for an advertised job you should apply for it, because attitude is as important as skills in the long run.”

Felicity would ultimately do two co-op stints at EA. The first, a placement from September 2007 to June 2008, “was such a good experience,” she recounts, describing her work as an engineer for Madden NFL ‘09 (Wii and Playstation 3) and Grand Slam Tennis (Wii). There she worked as part of the game team, responsible for all issues surrounding the games’ technical development from pre-production through product shipment. In this placement she also wrote her first-ever game feature, one in which an indicator rendered underneath the player identifies when to pass the ball or avoid tackles.

In her second EA placement from June to August 2008, Felicity wrote an audio tool called Speech 3 Data Manager in C#. She also developed a Sentence Editor interface and classes that allowed for easy drag-and-drop sentence-stitching by an audio artist.

 During her first EA placement, Felicity won a scholarship from the company under their Star Program (now discontinued). Under the terms of the scholarship, Felicity agreed to work for the company for at least a year following her BCS graduation, so from April 2009 to October 2010, she worked as part of a game team designing and implementing EA Sports Active 2. Her team’s mandate was to generate a game that could be played on the Wii, Playstation 3, and the Xbox 360 Kinect. “The project was exciting but very difficult. It had a long production cycle and it was hard to manage. We had a great team and we worked very hard to solve a lot of complex problems. There were a lot of challenges, a lot of unknowns in working on a project for brand-new hardware.” Felicity felt up for those challenges, though, because her BCS coursework had given her such a useful skill set. “I felt a bit at unprepared during the first co-op because we hadn’t done much programming in school by that point in the program. But during the second program I had a better sense of what I wanted to do and I had developed more skills in that direction. By the time I worked for EA following graduation I had taken human-computer interaction (HCI), and this helped me develop the speech- and motion-control user interface for EA Sports Active.”

Shortly after Sports Active shipped, Felicity stumbled onto an intriguing professional possibility. She’d been following a professional discussion group on Twitter and through it learned of a small startup called Silicon Sisters Interactive, a Vancouver gaming company founded by two game industry vets from Deep Fried Entertainment and Radical Entertainment, also of Vancouver. As it happened, Silicon Sisters was looking for an iPhone developer. Despite the fact that she hadn’t considered looking for another job at that point, Felicity decided to apply in November 2010. By January 2011 she was on board at Silicon Sisters and she hasn’t looked back since.

Could there be a more perfect job for someone of her background and interests? At Silicon Sisters, Felicity is part of a team that develops video games for girls and women. There she’s helped produce the company’s first major game, School 26. Released in April 2011, School 26 is a game that follows a high-school aged girl, Kate, as she navigates the tricky social terrain of her 26th school. Her parents have told her that if she can manage to make and keep friends at this school, they’ll stop moving around and she can settle down. Modeled on research that suggests that girls are interested in games in which they can rehearse various social engineering skills, School 26 allows players to help Kate become more socially adept with her peers through a variety of channels: discerning social cues and responding appropriately, taking quizzes, and playing a card-matching game that illustrates the social dynamics in the school.

Felicity notes that “research shows that girls of a certain age like to practice for ‘real life,’ and this game allows for that practice by employing the use of empathy as a game mechanic. It helps girls engage in situations that are interesting to them. We tried to create a game about the issues that teens face in their real lives, drawing on research and our own experiences. That’s the incredibly cool thing about Silicon Sisters. We’re a very diverse group—65% of the team is female, the largest percentage of any gaming company I’m aware of—and we’re creating games for that part of the population that’s historically been left out of creative and design decisions.”

In the short-term, creating games of interest to girls and women may generate enthusiasm for game-playing among those whose interests typically may lie elsewhere. But in the longer term it may help contribute to a broader social effect. Felicity describes the result as an empowerment of those who haven’t yet participated fully in the computer revolution, noting that “the book Unlocking the Clubhouse by Jane Margolis and Alan Fisher talks about how just one half of the population currently ‘owns’ the space of computing.” Seeing that imbalance and seeking to redress it through creative projects is thus a way to bring the “bright tech future” for girls and women into the present. “The work we’re doing helps reclaim some of that space for the other half.”

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