UNITE Europe 2015: On Unity, Game culture and Girls in Games

On the 22nd of June I took the bus from Aarhus to Copenhagen, from where I boarded a plane to Amsterdam (!) for the Unite Europe 2015 conference. The conference ticket was one of the prizes that we won at the Shayla VR Game Jam. As a very recent convert to the gospel that is Unity, I was stoked that I already had an in to observe the inner workings of its vast and devout following.

I happened to be on the same flight as my team mate Kevin Broløs, who, from what I can understand is a master of the tool, as well as a master creator of software himself. I have a very soft spot for this Dane, as he very generously bought me a drink in Sweden where I felt very ashamed because I couldn’t afford to buy one for myself. Two weeks, and three cities later, my new friend and I were able to navigate the tricky public transport system together. Kevin, who was clearly very well connected in the city, was off to a boat party.

I, on the other hand, had less glamourous and more immediate plans: race my phone battery to the place when I was supposed to pick up keys. My friend Johan, had graciously agreed to loan me his apartment for the duration of the conference. This secured my ability to go to Amsterdam at all, because at this point my finances were in dire straits. I don’t think I’ve ever scribbled as many pages of budget as I did over these last weeks in all of the rest of my life, combined.

My first evening in Amsterdam was spent in his beautiful apartment (in Vrolik straat), eating oven pizza, and spending hours on the internet reading about the conference, and following links to related people and projects.

The next morning I made my way to Westergasfabriek where the event was to be held. And you couldn’t miss it if you tried – giant banners, hundreds of people, dozens of stalls, hosted in the slickest venue. I, once again, felt like I had walked into a dream. A giant tech community I previously had no knowledge of, and suddenly, I was in the vortex of the whirlpool.



The main hall of the conference was decked out in fancy treats and industry booths – I got to pet a pet robot (so cute!), experience the future of alternate reality game (ARG) head sets (far out!), witness a VR laparoscopic surgery simulator (the future!), and eat a multitude of fancy (and free) snacks. Running around the conference with Julie, I was just reminded how few women were at the conference to actually attend talks and not simply promote a product. Judged the amount of people wanting to take photos of us with their projects, “get the camera! girls are trying it!” or snag vox pops for their product. Julie had cutely exclaimed: “Why have a baby when I can get one of these?”, which she then had to (annoyingly) repeat a million times, for multiple takes with a camera in her face, so the makers of the robot could capture it on film for promotional purposes. (See guys? Girls like robots too!)

The conference was over two days, and I attended a couple of sessions that revolved around art, creativity and less technical more big-idea style talks that explored the future of the community (see a wrap-up of the keynote here). Unity spends a lot of time on community development. And based on their three key guiding principles: “1) democratize game development; 2) solve hard problems; and 3) help developers succeed” – its pretty easy to join their growing, cult-like, following.

My absolute favourite and on-point talk was presented by Nevin Erönde. Nevin works for Unity, but is also the co-founder of “game girl workshop” – a jam-style project that seeks to demystify code among young girls through game making. GGW was founded in 2010, and is all about educating more female game developers.

The core team exists of Nevin (audio designer) and Andrea Hasselager (game designer). According to Nevin, the idea started at the Nordic game conference, where her and Andrea, for the first time, noticed the emerging arabic markets for games. They weren’t as excited about what that would mean for existing gaming culture, instead planted the idea that this could be a good fresh opportunity to get more girls into games from the start. They were also interested in asking the question: “when you put a bunch of teenage girls into a room and you give them the tools to make games – what kind of games will they come up with?”

Nevin and Andrea then came up with a mission: “To teach and inspire girls to have fun with technology and to develop computer games built on their own stories. To give them a crash course in the different game development disciplines – games, graphics, audio and programming. To introduce these girls to available audio, graphics and coding software. To encourage the girls to brainstorm and come up with their own ideas about things that they experienced in their lives. And helping them to see how they could translate these ideas into computer games.”

Their first, 3-day workshop was held at the islamic school in Copenhagen. After these three days, their young collaborators had managed to develop two games – with start screens, multiple levels and replay options. Nevin says, “The girls work on their game prototype from 9am until 4pm every day. Which is very intense. What we do is a total crash course – with software, et cetera. The girls are not allowed to download or copy things from the internet. They can find inspiration…but they have to create all of the graphics and code themselves. So they don’t work with game templates, we encourage them to brainstorm and come up with their own ideas – which they can translate into game mechanics. We also don’t interfere with their game making decisions. That way, everything that these girls do in the games – are their own artistic decisions.”
What started as a hunch, propelled the team in their quest: they realized that this could be a big success. Nevin felt that their workshop had signalled an incredible turning point for some of the girls: some had realised that they had a talent – that this was something they could be excited about, and follow into a career. The school board was also very impressed with what they could accomplish in so few days – making games was a great model for learning about diverse and valuable skillsets.

Nevin and Andrea wanted to take the project even further. What if they did GGW in the Middle East? Nevin found connections through a Danish organization based in Palestine, who were already facilitating art and culture exchange programs, and was able to secure funding. So they packed their bags and travelled to the West Bank in Palestine – where they carried out several workshops in Anabta, Nablus and Balata (the largest refugee camp in the region). Once again the project was a success, and to the facilitators (which had expanded to include Linda Randazoo,a programmer, and Ene Esgaard, a Graphic designer) it also suddenly offered a great comparative case study – seeing how incredibly different the stories of the two groups of similarly-aged girls were, signalled the power of the medium to explore multiple original ideas and approaches by a next generation. And among a segment of people who have historically been excluded from the development process.

During her talk Nevin elaborated on the segregationist approach of these sessions – why are they particulary aiming for girls? She says their approach was inspired by Participatory Game Design theory: “So, if you take a specific group of people – what kind of narratives would they come up with? Will they come up with new game mechanics – or will they just copy something that they’ve played before? We are very biased by our gender – whether you’re a boy or a girl – you’re brought up with different cultural behaviours or constructions. I read somewhere about focus group interviews and user experience and it was recommended that when doing user research with a mixed target audience – you should split the groups into several interviews. The thing here is, that males tend to dominate the conversation and dialogue. So according to this research, if you want to get better research results – you need to do separated, and then mixed versions of the same experiment – only then can you even begin to show the whole picture of the topic that you’re researching. We tend to see the game girl workshop in very much the same way – one way to do this is to do game dev workshops for girls only. With female teachers that can also be role models for the girls. Where girls can collaborate, on their own terms and at their own pace. So what we do is we teach them technology instead of them feeling their participation ends at choosing games.”

I approached Nevin after the talk and spent some time chatting to her about the work. Now working full-time for Unity, Nevin hopes that they will soon be able to run more workshops, but admits that it’s really difficult to do so full time, at this stage. Reminding me again that these projects won’t be picked up if more people don’t start championing the cause. People like Nevin should be supported and cloned!

For most of the conference I hung around with my team and the new incredible friends that we met there – our club house was in a couple of sun loungers next to the canal. The sun was out for most of the weekend, and the Europeans (who are starved for sun), couldn’t waste the chance to grab a tan. At the end of the day, as Julie inspired me to think, these events are only as good as the amount of new contacts and friends you made while attending it. On Friday night, we took full advantage of this attitude, and (on Microsoft’s generous bar tab) made friends at the afterparty. And in the spirit of friendship, a wonderful developer called Ruud gave me a lift on the back of his bicycle to the bus stop.

For a full break down of keynote address – see Unity’s blog here (photo of Nevin and crowd hijacked from there).

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