I've booked my flights, made hotel arrangements and am set to storm Scotland the second week in August for two of this year's UK-based games-related events: the Women in Games Conference and the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival. Today I'll give a glimpse into the inner-workings of the WiG, and you can expect some of the same for the EIEF in tomorrow's post. (In the interest of full disclosure, I'm involved with both of these conferences, but promise this is not an advertorial. The conferences are happening, they are part of the game culture scene and I'm covering what's going on.)

The Women in Games Conference is in its second year, holding the proud title of first conference of its kind in the world. Don't let the "W" word in the title put you off – this isn't going to be a bunch of rabid feminists gnashing their teeth about the male-dominated games industry (and the culture that surrounds it), nor will it be a bunch of booth babes sharing their harrowing experiences as scantily-clad games promo pin-ups under the strange gazes of camera-wielding punters and journos at the various industry trade events. Of course, the body of work that's going to be presented at this year's event will touch lightly on some of these issues, but the real questions that will be answered are how can the industry create a demand for computer games beyond the traditional demographic of males between the age of 14-24, and what role can women play in this seemingly-epic task. So for those men terrified of the "W" in WiG, don't worry about it: there will be plenty of stuff to discuss that's relevant to broader issues of inclusiveness across the IT industries.

I grabbed three of the speakers (two of whom are male) for their expectations of the event: Ernest Adams, games designer extraordinaire, co-founder of the IGDA and author, James Woudhuysen, futurologist and Professor of Forecasting and Innovation, and Melissa Federoff, User Research Engineer at Microsoft Game Studios. They each think that this conference has a very important role to play in challenging the current conceptions of computer gaming in contemporary culture.

"I think we have a chance with computer games to defeat both the social constructionist and biological accounts of sexual differences," explains Professor Woudhuysen. "The media and the Government are summing up all the wrong worries about computer games and women in computer games, from violence to employment, and I think we have a chance at the conference to clarify the theoretical issues and have a more fertile debate about the nature and the culture of computer games in general."

That debate is expected to span topics as varied as employee rights, game design techniques, IT consumption patterns, demographics, marketing and the role of women across the IT industries.

Adams is a veteran of the games industry serving terms at Electronic Arts and British legendary software company Bullfrog before diving into a freelance career. In the 1980's he spent seven years in software engineering and argues that other IT industries have an important lesson to learn from games: "So far as other IT industries are concerned my key advice would be, 'avoid our mistakes'. Pay your people a decent wage, give them decent work hours and some job security. Avoid business models that promote a boom-and-bust approach to things, which unfortunately is how the game industry tends to do it." Insight into the broader IT industry will be offered by Aphra Kerr, another keynote who's contribution to the Strategies of Inclusion: Gender and the Information Society paper explored companies who made games specifically for a female audience.

Federoff's background in Usability will supply the cornerstone for her talk, "Researching your Target Audience: How to Give the Player the Experience you Intend". Like most of the other keynotes, she'll be focussing the non-gaming "other" – both the men and women who currently don't identify themselves as gamers, and the reasons there's such a perceived difference between those who do and don't play. (Edit: Federoff comments, "This isn't exactly true. I won't be explaining the differences between those who play and those who don't play, but rather – how game companies can get information from the audience they want to reach (whoever that might be – male, female, expert, novice, etc.). My position is that designers often make the games they want to play, not the games that a large audience wants to play – which results in games that aren't enjoyed by very many people. This mistake can be made by any designer who mistakenly thinks that they can personally represent the opinions and desires of a broad group of people. A female designer can no more easily satisfy all potential female gamers than a male can satisfy all potential male gamers. Both hypothetical designers need to get information from the people they are targeting in order to ensure that the game is going to satisfy that population.") "From my personal experience playing and testing games, I would argue that consumers in general (male and female) demand a closer look by game developers. Many games are frustrating, aren't fun, and most games fail commercially and critically," she says. "Some people believe that simply hiring women into game development will make games better for women to play – and it may help, but more than likely it won't be enough. Male designers have been making games for other males, yet they still fail more often than not. The one sure way to know how your audience is going to respond to your game is to test them during development using reliable methods. I think that testing games with women participants will provide better results than just assuming that women can design for women. At the Women in Games conference, I'll be discussing ways that you can assess a game once you determine the audience you want to succeed with."

Adams agrees:"It is not enough just to get more women making games. Game developers have long tended to make games for themselves, and the problem is that they are an atypical audience. This will be true of women too," he explains. "The kinds of women who want to make videogames are rather different from the kinds of women whom I hope to attract as consumers. I'd like to reach out to female consumers who don't have any interest in making games, and just want to play them. That means thinking beyond the female developer to the female customer."

Woudhuysen will be expanding on the bigger picture theme with his talk, "Computer Games: Play and the Politics of Difference". His intention is to explode some of the currently-assumed ideas about women in contemporary society, what that means for IT, and what it says about culture in general: "What's unique is that feminine values are afforded to women, and are taken as a matter of course. I think that both women and men would be well-served by querying what feminine values actually are. Do women have them? Should men have them? Where do they come from? If computer games are arguably about violence, and computer games are socially afforded to men, masculine values are violent: is that what's being said here? The Women in Games conference could perform a service here by questioning this."

Other talks I'm particularly looking forward to are Terra Novans Constance Steinkeuhler's keynote "Gamer Chicks: How a Generation of Young Women Inhabit Virtual Worlds Online" and T.L. Taylor's panel "Thinking Past Pink: Critical Considerations of Women and Gaming", recruitment consultant MaryMargaret.com's sponsored panel session about getting into the games industry, Martin Kane's "Cultural Variations in Game Publishing" and Susan Wilson's "Designing for the Future". The Day 3 Student Form, including workshops, master classes and sessions on presenting yourself and tips on how to be successful in the games design competition Dare to Be Digital should be great too, as well as seeing the results of the marketing competition WiG ran with Channel 4's IDEASFactory and having a hearty discussion with professional PR and marketing professionals on the scope of broadening the face of computer games at the panel I'll be presenting.

I have to say that the team at the University of Abertay at Dundee have done a tremendous job putting the conference together, balancing enough industry with cultural criticism to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, from the bonny banks of Loch Lomond to the Congo.

Tickets are still available. The conference runs from 8-10 August. Frag Dolls may be there...



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