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Several groups are working hard to disprove the notion that gamers, and developers, are all teenaged boys, writes Vito Pilieci.

Asia Winkelaar loves video games.

You name it, puzzle games, shooter games, Super Mario Bros. games — she just loves them all. It’s an affair that’s been going on as long as she can remember.

“I have a pretty extensive game collection, but I spend a lot of time playing World of Warcraft,” said Winkelaar. “We had the old Unix box computers in my kindergarten class with the trackballs built in and I was always on those playing computer games.”

The 25-year-old is one of a growing number of women playing games. She is also one of the few women pursuing a career as a video-game developer.

“I want a job that’s fun,” she said. “To me, there is no appeal in programming applications and stuff like that. But, if I can make a video game, even if it’s not successful, as long as someone plays it and they enjoy it, that makes me feel good.”

Winkelaar is a student in Algonquin College’s video-game design course, which teaches students how to make, produce and distribute video games over Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox Live network.

While her enthusiasm for her chosen career is off the charts, others of her gender don’t seem to share her point of view.

A 2005 demographic survey by the International Game Developers Association, found that only 11.5 per cent of those in the industry were female. Canadian statistics were not available. However, the international numbers mirrored almost identically the situation in Algonquin College’s massively popular video-game design program. Out of 100 students in the course this year, only 11 are female.

According to the co-ordinator of the school’s game development program, Tony Davidson, the numbers have increased this year. Things used to be much worse. In last year’s class there were only three women.

It’s not that the program itself isn’t popular. Since its creation in 2005, the three-year program has increased enrolment six-fold, from 40 to 240 students, and there are more than 300 on a waiting list. It just seems that, for the most part, women aren’t keen on the possibility of working in Canada’s game design industry.

“This year we have 11, which is a dramatic growth,” he said. “We have had difficulty getting women in. A lot of it has been in not letting females know that this is an area they should be looking into.”

It isn’t just the video-game design community that is lacking female involvement, other industries dealing in math and sciences have long complained about their inability to attract women. However, the lack of female participants in Canada’s game design community is something that is sending off alarm bells and the industry is set to respond.

“It’s something we have recognized as an issue and it’s something that we’re working on,” said Danielle Parr, executive director of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC), which lobbies on behalf of the video-game industry in Canada.

This week, ESAC is working with the Media Awareness Network, a not-for-profit group that aims to educate people about new technologies, to promote Media Literacy Week 2010. Events are being held at schools across the country to talk to women about a career in video games. A keynote panel will be held in Vancouver featuring high-ranking women from Canada’s gaming community.

The International Game Developers Association’s Women in Games group is also holding a two-day event ending today in San Francisco.

“I think more women are playing games than ever before. I think that’s something that will act as incentive for more women, over time, to go into the industry,” said Parr.

The number of women interested in playing games has jumped in recent years, now accounting for more than 38 per cent of all gamers in Canada. New gaming initiatives, including more “fun casual” games that don’t rely on heavy competition, and new platforms to play on, such as handheld devices, are helping to dispel past stereotypes about gamers being teenage boys.

Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, co-founder of Silicon Sisters Inc., a Vancouver game development firm run by women and focused on making titles specifically for women, believes new technologies hold the key to getting more females interested in video gaming.

“We are seeing the female market growing. The market is expanding because of the Wii and the iPhone and World of Warcaft,” said Gershkovitch. “It could expand more. At Silicon Sisters, we want to build high-quality games and games that really are from the first line of code up, designed for the female market. I think that means we need female designers.”

Gershkovitch says game designers can’t make games that appeal to women by tossing in female characters or making everything pink. Games need to be designed with women in mind. Studies have shown women prefer puzzle games, games that require social interaction and more casual titles.

Silicon Sisters, which employs around 18 people now but plans to have more than 30 within two years, is one of several new game development studios that have popped up across Canada.

The industry, which has starting wages of around $65,000 for programmers, is booming in Canada. The country is already the world’s third-largest producer of video games, narrowly trailing the U.S. and Japan.

The two largest video-game development studios in the world are in Vancouver and Montreal, employing thousands. Other smaller game-design studios, including several in Ottawa, are scattered across the country.

The global market for video games is worth more than $46.5 billion U.S. annually.

Ubisoft is in the process of setting up a $750-million game development studio in Toronto. The facility will employ 800 people.

Computer animation giant Pixar announced earlier this week that it has opened a new 20,000-square-foot facility in Vancouver. The studio, which is the company’s first outside Hollywood, will employ up to 100 people to work on the popular short animated features that Pixar shows prior to its full-length films.

Posted November 5, 2010