May 23, 2006

CU women win first prize in student computer-game design contest

If it seems that women don't like video games, perhaps it is because game designers don't often design with women in mind. A computer game-design team at Cornell is helping to change that.

An all-female team of Cornell students recently captured the university's first computer game-design prize when their interactive game "Green, Eggs, and Pan" took first place at the Games4Girls programming competition in Urbana, Ill.

"I'm all for women in game design," said Sally Huang, a senior in film and the project's manager and programmer.

"We're the first Cornell team to win a game-design competition," said a smiling Lisa Marie Allen, a junior in biological engineering. Allen helped provide art for the game.

The national all-female competition was designed to promote women in computer science. The Cornell team, organized under the Game Design Initiative at Cornell (GDIAC), beat out entries from game-design programs at the Universities of Bradley, Buffalo and California-Irvine, as well as Franklin and Ohio State universities. For first place, each Cornell team member received $1,000, and $1,000 will go to GDIAC to support future female game-design activities.

In addition to Allen and Huang, team members and their roles included: Dora Helen Fraeman, a junior with an independent major with a concentration in computer science, programmer; Brenda Chen, a junior in biological engineering, artist; and Pamela Chuang, a senior in electrical and computer engineering, musician.

Most of the team members have taken CIS 300, Introduction to Game Design, and went on to take independent study credit in game design. David Schwartz is a lecturer in computer science and director of GDIAC. Schwartz said other teams under GDIAC -- usually all or mostly male -- have fared well in other competitions, often reaching the finals. However, this is the program's first grand prize.

"What we have are some phenomenal female game designers here at Cornell," Schwartz said. "To win the contest shows Cornell has its foot in the door in terms of this new area in academia."

Contest prizewinners were announced at the Third Annual ChicTech Retreat held at the University of Illinois April 21-23. The ChicTech Retreat brings high school girls to the University of Illinois campus for a weekend of fun and learning.

Contestants -- teams of college women -- wrote computer games for middle school and high school girls. The games were evaluated by a panel of judges and by the high school girls at the retreat. The Cornell team was unable to attend the contest and instead submitted a video presentation along with their game.

In designing the game over this past winter, Huang said the team used a basic concept: "Girls are more social. Girls want to be in a more social environment. I think girls really need to fit in. For guys, it's not that important."

To support that concept, team members parlayed their diverse academic backgrounds and personal pursuits in music, art, programming and sports to create a game that requires players to work in tandem to win. The two-player game requires only one computer, with the keyboard and mouse used as separate controllers. The team used the GameMaker platform, the user-friendly game-designing software required by the Microsoft-sponsored contest.

The Mario-style "Green, Eggs, and Pan" -- available for download at http://g4g.sallyhuang.com -- was described by one retreat participant as the "the best game ever."

Since word started circulating about their victory, the team said they have heard everything from jeers to cheers from their male classmates. Now they hope their win will spark other girls' interest in game design just as they've heard how the team's victory has motivated some of the guys.

"Our professor says now the guys all want to win," said Chen.