Gaming for Change

Game designer Tracy Fullerton is working to break the glass ceiling that exists in the male-dominated gaming industry.

Video gaming is no more a mere pastime; it’s now a thriving industry. Globally, it has been developing at a fast pace and is now worth billions of dollars. But this tremendous growth has not been equitable. Gaming is considered a “male domain,” including in terms of market audience, player base, in-game character representation and game designing. At a time when an entire generation is taking its cultural cues and influences from games, ensuring gender equity has become vital.

Against this backdrop, the work and achievements of Tracy Fullerton stand out.

Fullerton is a game designer, educator and author. She is a professor and the chair of the Interactive Media & Games Division of the University of Southern California’s (USC) School of Cinematic Arts. She is the director of the USC Games program, a collaboration between the university’s School of Cinematic Arts and the Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science.

Fullerton’s research center, the Game Innovation Lab, has produced several influential independent games, including “Cloud,” “flOw,” “Darfur is Dying” and “The Night Journey,” with video artist Bill Viola. She has also worked on “Walden, a game,” an exploratory narrative and open world simulation of the life of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau during his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond. It won the Game of the Year and the Most Significant Impact awards at the Games for Change Festival in New York in 2017.

Excerpts from an interview.


What early games or experiences inspired you to take on game designing as a career?
I was growing up just as the earliest home computer games and personal computers were coming out. So, I became interested in them early on. I had a Commodore VIC-20 and then a [Commodore] 64 with a tape drive, which allowed my siblings and I to program simple games. At the same time, I had a Kodak Super 8 camera with a stop motion feature that allowed us to create animations and special effects. As a kid, I was always making some kind of media. It was inevitable that I would gravitate toward digital media and games, given the creative play space I was allowed as a child.

Video game design is a relatively new academic field. How did the games program emerge at the University of Southern California?
I first began teaching game design at USC in 1999. At that time, there were only a couple of elective classes within the School of Cinematic Arts on games and interactive media. The idea of offering a degree in game design as an academic discipline, with rigorous theory combined with practical skills, was pretty unusual. As a graduate of the production division of the School of Cinematic Arts, I had a model of how you might design a program for games that had the same kind of integration between history, theory and professional, hands-on production skills for games. I was able to work with a number of other early professors at USC to design our games curriculum, so [the program] reflected this same multidisciplinary approach and struck a balance.

Gaming is sometimes thought of as a segment that is predominantly male. Has this trend changed during your career in the industry?
Actually, when I first started playing and making games, they were not thought of as being a predominantly male entertainment. Back in the early days of Atari and other arcade games, they were thought of as fun for everyone. I think, it wasn’t until we saw the domination of the industry by the genre of first-person shooters that this idea arose that games were just for boys or men.

Now, we’re seeing new voices emerging with the opportunity to make independent games available to so many people. The tools are so ubiquitous that the barrier to entry has become almost nonexistent. I take that as a positive sign. We’re going to see more and more games addressing those markets that got left out by the industry’s fascination with first-person shooters.

Do you feel there is a “glass ceiling” in the gaming industry? What challenges do you feel need to be addressed first in your field? 
I think, there is clearly an issue in our society overall, where woman are not hired into the same levels of responsibilities that men are, are not paid as well as men are, are not given the same level of access to press and publicity, and are generally not afforded the same opportunities overall. This is not specific to the game industry, but rather to our culture as a whole.

What has to change is that we need to want it to change and we need to actively work toward inclusion and opportunity for all at every level. It requires a will to have a better and more inclusive society in order for change to occur.

What advice would you give to young people interested in a career in gaming?
It’s a tremendous time for diverse voices entering the game industry, particularly, the independent game industry. There are tools and communities where you can find support and collaborators across so many different interests that it is really a renaissance of sorts.

Additionally, there are many academic programs where young people can learn important skills and develop their voices as creative leaders.

It’s never easy to get into the game industry, but there are good pathways now, which include academic work as well as independent work. These can give young designers and developers a way to distinguish themselves and find an entry point for their careers.


Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.