The Strong Museum opened its Women in Games exhibit today as part of its National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. And to celebrate the untold stories of women in video games, the Strong held a unique gathering of the women who made “herstory” in video games.
Some of the pioneering women in games came to the 200-person opening event and talked about their inspirations in making games. The honored speakers included Megan Gaiser, Bonnie Ross, Jen MacClean, Dona Bailey, Brenda Laurel, Susan Jaekel, Sheri Graner Ray, Victoria Van Voorhis, and Amy Hennig.
The exhibit will be open until the spring and it celebrates the contributions of women to video games. A number of the honorees talked about what inspired them, including Megan Gaiser, former CEO of Her Interactive, the maker of the Nancy Drew series of video games for girls.
“While the many systems designed with only half the population in mind are ripe for redesign, it’s really not possible to create an inclusive reality on top of such a toxic one,” Gaiser said in her talk. “It must be reimagined. Imagine a game industry where men and women feel safe enough to bring their entire selves to truly collaborate.”
Gaiser added, “We are the technology we’ve been waiting for. We upgrade computers when they’re not operating at their maximum capacity. Why wouldn’t we upgrade our own, human operating system.”
Shannon Symonds, curator for electronic games at the National Museum of Play, said in an interview with GamesBeat that work on the exhibit started two years ago with a collection of physical artifacts, such as the papers of Caryl Shaw and Roberta Williams.
“We realized as we did this that so many of the women had not met each other or seen each other in years,” Symonds said. “We thought it would be great to do an event that inspired the next generation of game developers.”
The exhibit includes a focus on game designers and programmers, including Carol Shaw’s Polo and River Raid and Roberta Williams’ King’s Quest and Phantasmagoria. Museum visitors can play a round of Centipede, co-designed by Dona Bailey.
It also focuses on iconic female game characters, from Lara Croft to Ms. Pac-Man. The exhibit chronicles female-led companies, like Her Interactive. It also honors the Rockett video game series created by Purple Moon, founded by Brenda Laurel. And the exhibit highlights women behind the Halo franchise at 343 Industries, including Bonnie Ross and Kiki Wolfkill.
At the event, Laurel said she did research on why girls dropped out of science, math, and technology learning in their tween years. She founded Purple Moon to make games that targeted girls with games that were designed from the start to focus on their interests.
“Part of the strategic goal was ‘what would it take to get girls to put their hands on a computer in 1992,'” Laurel said. “We also began to look at a second strategic girl of how to make these girls feel better about themselves.”
She noted that Barbie was a favorite for girls, but she was aspirational, a perfect role model of a traditional hegemonic culture. Laurel wanted to create a character that recognized girls “as they were, wholly good, perfect, beautiful.” That was how Rockett was born. Laurel’s daughters provided voices for some of the characters in the games. The games helped girls navigate through emotional decisions of everyday life. For the first game, 25 percent of the gamers were boys “who wanted to figure out how girls worked,” Laurel said.
Laurel said that “love and hope” were her inspirations still.
Hennig, 54, said she has found herself “casting about for inspiration myself.” In a time of uncertainty, she said was looking for her own frontier to blaze and chart her next course. She tracked her original inspiration to 1977, when she was 12, and she was inspired by films like Star Wars, the Atari 2600 game console, and the board game Dungeons & Dragons. Such inspirations were “burned into my retinas,” she said. She liked how the console helped her become an active collaborator with the creator, and she saw how D&D helped players create worlds and characters in a collaborative, improvisational experience.
“What was it about these things that had such profound effect on me and so many others,” she said. “First, they broke and changed the rules. They broke all conventions about what we could make, who could make it, and how we could do it.”
She added, “They evoked a sense of possibility that not only could the rules be broken, but we could break them, and tell our own stories in our own way. These were all incredibly empowering experiences. The world is a blank canvas.”
Entertainment didn’t have to be passive. These 1977 inspirations embraced the unknown and improvisation. They combined nostalgia and something radically new, paying homage to things that inspired them while breaking new ground, Hennig said. These things informed Hennig’s work for 30 years, consciously and subconsciously.
“These are the guiding principles that still apply,” she said.
On writing and art, the exhibit has scripts written by women, including Amy Hennig for Soul Reaver and Uncharted, and Rhianna Pratchett for Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider (2013). The art work includes creations by Mari Shimazaki for Bayonetta, Ayami Kojima for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Rieko Kodama for Sonic the Hedgehog and Phantasy Star.
For audio, the exhibit honors music from songs created by composer Yoko Shimomura for Kingdom Hearts and Street Fighter II; sheet music created by Shiho Fuji for Splatoon; and the work of actresses including Jennifer Hale in Mass Effect, Jennifer Taylor in Halo, and Ellen McLain in Portal.
It also recognizes board games designed by women, including Elizabeth Magie’s The Landlord Game, a predecessor to Monopoly, Eleanor Abbott’s Candy Land, and Leslie Scott’s Jenga.
Jen MacLean, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, said her inspirations were her two daughters. MacLean started as a game tester in the industry, and she loved how she got to choose who she could be in video games.
“This realization didn’t dawn on me until I started playing games with my daughters,” she said.
The girls always chose to play as a girl, if they could, to be champions, save the world, and make a difference.
“Fast forward, we have amazing heroines in games,” like Lara Craft, Senua, and Aloy, said MacLean. “Where we are today is not where we could be, or should be. We have so very far to go.”
She brought up, “where are the Latina heroines. Where are the Asian heroines. Where are the black heroines?” She also mentioned the missing heroes for transgender, lesbian and gay, and other types of people who aren’t often recognized as heroes.
Women in Games is produced by The Strong’s International Center for the History of Electronic Games. The exhibit will close in the spring, but it will be part of the new Strong expansion, when work on that is complete, starting around 2022.
As for the event, Symonds said, “The women themselves were ecstatic. They would like another event.”