Games designer Phoenix Perry on coding in a male dominated industry

8 March 2017

Phoenix Perry has a long list of occupations to her name. Currently a lecturer on Goldsmiths’ physical computing and games degree, Phoenix is also a computer science PhD researcher, games company owner, artist, programmer, game designer and activist. Throughout each of these differentiating practises there is a ongoing ethos: “to bring people together to raise awareness of our collective interconnectivity”.

As the founder of Code Liberation Foundation, which fittingly formed on International Women’s Day in 2013, Phoenix has created a network which teaches women how to program for free. Its outreach teaches women between the ages of 16-60.

Below, we speak to Phoenix about how she formed a career in games design, a creative area with a large gender divide.

What was your introduction to gaming?

I was introduced to games as a kid through my Atari and my roller skates. I never really had that one moment of realisation. I’m a creator and maker first, I am just building play experiences now. I’ve also made records, films, art galleries, degree programs, exhibitions, political actions, non-profits, poems and a really mean chilli.

I want women to be able to make games and digital art, and release them through independent platforms which make a cohesive kind of sense in a holistic way.

How did you pursue gaming as a career?

It’s been a winding path from dirty punk rock galleries to here. I have no goal except I want to survive doing the things I love day in and day out. To do that I leverage systems which are aligned to my interests for as long as possible while there is financial support. For a brief moment in the 90s, Silicon Valley was that world. Then it was interactive design, NYU School of Engineering and the NYC Williamsburg gallery scene. Finally it has come to academia and teaching here at Goldsmiths. I wonder where it will lead to next.

Do you feel that being a woman in a male-dominated industry has held you back?

On the one hand yes. I think it has meant the opportunities given to men have been not extended to me in the same way. These opportunities become experience which then stack up to lasting career stability.

And on the other hand no. Having so little attention for the level of output I create means I have been free to run amok, spreading my ideas into the world like a virus.

The amount of female programmers has decreased dramatically since the 90s. Why do you think this is?

I think there were never many of us to start with. We never had a 50/50 work force. That said, we were much closer once. The downward spike started in 1992, before I entered formally in 1995. As power and money became involved in software, women were systematically excluded by the same male-dominated cultural constructs I hint at above.

Before the 80s, programming was secretarial and esoteric. It was fine to let women do it as long as there was no real financial gain to be had in doing so. Engineers were the focus of the market. Women existed as second class programmers for the machines. The money was in making the devices themselves (The Computer Club, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs etc.)

However, as hardware began to peak with sales of the personal computer, software began to rise and that is when women began to be pushed out.

Once it was possible to make large amounts of money in software, women were no longer as welcome. They were excluded using the systematically codified soft systems of cultural exclusion I referenced above that I have seen at work during my career. This is referred to commonly as “bro culture”.

How did Code Liberation begin?

Code Liberation was founded on International Women’s Day in 2013 as an activist effort to make programming more accessible to women interested in creating games and creative work. Our aim is to reach women that have never considered entering into the field of computer science or who have left it because it is male dominated.

How do you find teaching at Goldsmiths? What’s the gender ratio within your classes?

It’s challenging to be in a male dominated environment. While we have many women on the website, the positions of power within the department are held by men. We have a male department head. Many women have lesser academic titles than their male peers. Athena Swan is out to address this and it looks like it will be possible to shift change forward in the future.

My classes are male-dominated in a rather extreme way, especially in my games classes. This year I have one woman out of a class of 40. My physical computing classes are better with a more standard gender divide similar to the industry. That said, they are still male dominated.

What would you like to see in the future of gaming and women’s roles within that?

I would like to see women treated with respect. I think change is happening. I am really proud of games. The field has shifted radically over the last few years and holds so much promise for the future. That said, there is long way to go with many of our players and much work to be done still, particularly regarding the rights of all people, not just CIS women.

_Phoenix Perry’s Bot Party will be shown at Now Play This, a festival of games and play at Somerset House, 7 – 9 April 2017._

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

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