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Games Machines Play

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FRONTIERS Profile: Justine Cassell 4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

What's it like being a woman in science? Do women do science differently than men do?

I'm not sure I believe in a fundamental difference in perspectives between men and women. But there is one thing that I believe, and that is to be a woman in science, you've already broken through stereotypes and breaking through stereotypes, is exactly what allows you to make discoveries in the world of science. When people tell you that the world is flat, you have to not take that for granted to be a good scientist. When people tell you that girls are not scientists, you have to not believe that to be a good scientist. So in some sense, women may be better designed to make groundbreaking scientists because they've already had practice in breaking new ground. I have a harder time believing that there's something intrinsic. It's so hard to dissociate what's culture from what's biology.

To be a woman in science, you've already broken through stereotypes, and breaking through stereotypes is exactly what allows you to make discoveries in the world of science.

I'm fascinated by women in science. I think partly because I'm fascinated by the frontiers between fields. You find a lot of women at those frontiers— for sometimes pretty interesting historical reasons. There's a woman whom I admire very much in linguistics, Barbara Partee. When she was in college, she was told that she might as well specialize in math and Russian. After all, she was never going to have to support a family, so she could play around. Of course, math and Russian in the days of Sputnik turned out to be an extremely important intersection and she became a wonderful linguist who paved the way for many others.

How did you become involved in designing video games?

The topics that interest me have always concerned how we think, the culture that we're brought up in, and language. Storytelling is different in different cultures. It has to do with the language we use and how we see the world. At Penn State, Lynn Liben had been doing some research on gender stereotypes. She asked me the interesting question of whether French children have different stereotypes of what they can grow up to be because their language has grammatical gender. I did a study with French-speaking children looking at how they used grammatical gender.

Then I came to the Media Lab in 1995, and a young woman came to talk to me, and she said, "I have a good computer science background because I wasn't brought up like a real girl".

Photo of REA Showing an Apartment.

REA shows an apartment to an interested prospective buyer. Their interaction depends upon cameras and microphones which allow REA to see and hear her clients.

I was just blown away by this. What she had done was maintain the stereotype of "girl" and established herself as an exception. In order to maintain her self-image, she had to strip away "girl" in order to keep "geek," basically. So I put out an ad for undergraduates to come work with me on gender and technology. I got these amazing replies from young women who said, "Please let me work for you. I've been waiting for this my whole life. I have so much to say to you."

From there, because my job here is to build, I started thinking how I could build technologies that participated in constructing a self that included both being a builder and being a girl. Out of that was born this research paradigm in "underdetermined design." The technology is built enough that kids can play with it, but not so much that it determines the kind of play that they can do. In constructing the technology, a kid can make it fit into his or her own play patterns.

Often, designers start out with strong stereotypes--girls like this, boys like this. In talking about that with one of my colleagues over in comparative media studies who's a popular culture critic, we realized that we were at the dawn of this new era in computer design for boys and girls. The Girls' Game Movement. He and I collaborated in editing this book, called "From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games." We ended up writing a very long chapter that reviewed everything that was out there and what is going on.
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4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

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