How to get the most out of your games degree – and help shift the demographics of the industry in the process

” It can be so easy to immerse yourself in academia and not realise what’s outside.”

Through her involvement with Code Liberation, a not for profit organisation that supports women, femme identifying, non-binary people into creative coding and games programming, Alice has thrown herself into what’s going on the games industry outside her course. She’s been part of a team delivering a coding project at the Victoria and Albert Museum, attended and presented at industry events and is helping to shift the demographics of the games industry.

What degree programme are you studying? Why this subject?

I’m in the computing department, on the Games programme. We develop skills in how to translate design into practical code. The thing about the computing department is that there’s a definite split between the programming side of things and the more design, artsy side of things. The Games degree kind of straddles that line, so we work with both sides of that. It’s an interesting mix of practical skills and delving into the world of design languages. I kind of enjoy that, I think it’s an interesting take on the subject and I’m really enjoying the direction its taking.

What are the most enjoyable / least enjoyable aspects of it?

The highlights, and it’s largely due to Phoenix (Perry, Code Liberation founder) and the community that she’s led me to become a part of, is this underground social scene. I’ve found like-minded people who think like me who understand my issues, pursue the same goals, projects and art that I want to pursue.

I would say that the other part that’s really been the highlight, is giving me the skills to express myself creatively.

A lot of people see computing as a very dry subject, as a very corporate subject, but that’s looking at the wrong end of it really. I see programming and coding as just another creative discipline, because the thing that you can do with it, the tools that are out there, it can be just as creative as picking up a paintbrush or recording a song. It’s given me that broad mindedness to see the subject in a different light and to see the creativity it can bestow upon people. I think programming is a wonderful way for people who don’t consider themselves creative to express that and it’s really, really special.

Tell me about Code Liberation? What is it and how did you become involved?

So Code Liberation first and foremost starts with Phoenix. She is the life and soul of that organisation. I first met Phoenix on one of my modules in my first year.

It was very noticeable that the class I was in was very heavily male dominated and I would say that it’s pretty typical of my degree programme in general. There are about 200 students across the three years and I want to say that there’s about four or five women including myself which is a horrible ratio when you think about it.

So she invited me out for coffee. She said she had a project she wanted to talk to me about. So we chatted for about an hour about my thoughts on the gender balance on the course and the wider world of games in general and then she told me about this not for profit she had launched in the States when she had been working at NYU. She basically said to me, “Alice do you want to help me to change things here, do you want to help me shift some demographics?” So, to a young impressionable, radical mind like my own, my brain lights up and my brain goes “yes, let’s fight the system.”

So Code Liberation at its core is the fight to get women, femme identifying, non-binary people into creative coding and games programming. That’s our ultimate goal, to increase the diversity of our discipline to increase the diversity of our community, in order to foster and develop new voices within that space. So we do that by holding workshops, events, seminars, and classes, to take women from all sorts of different backgrounds, whether that be different ethnic backgrounds, different class backgrounds, and different upbringings, whatever.

Intersectionality is really important to us, so taking people from all walks of life and showing them that whatever people around them say, whatever their communities say, if you want to pursue this as a career, you absolutely can.

All of our classes are free, all of our resources are free to access on our website. So the idea is this idea of openness and open access to our knowledge and really taking these folks and really pushing them to do what they want to do without any of the prejudice which comes with who they’ve been in the past, whatever that might have been.

What kind of projects have you been involved in?

We did a six week programme with the Victoria and Albert Museum. We had 65 applicants and we had to narrow it down to 16 and we did that on the basis of diversity from a number of categories. We had a whole team of people, ranking people’s engagement with their art communities or people’s relative disadvantages and we chose 16 individuals we thought would not only benefit from our programme, but would also produce something tangible from our programme.

So we tell them from the ground up how to build games, and we also taught them some practical computing skills with a platform called ARDUINO. All of the volunteer work, as part of our message, all of instructors are either women or non-binary people, and we try and push the message that not only can women be taught in these spaces, but women can teach and that’s such a key message. Over the course of six weeks, they built a game and a physical interface in groups of two or three and we had about ten games in the end that they built from scratch.

We gave them free reign to do exactly what they wanted to do, so we essentially provided them with community. We brought them in to talk to each other and hopefully they’ve kept in contact. That was the aim, to help them build this network of creatives that think like them, have the skillset that they do.

We had artists and musicians, designers, so if the musicians didn’t know how to design something, or if the designers needed music for their project they could collaborate and work on the same project together and bring together skills to teach each other something.

At the end, they got to show them off at an industry event called Parallel Worlds at the Victoria and Albert museum. We had a display exhibition.

So I helped run the software side of things, I was a teaching assistant in a couple of the other sessions and got to know some of the people. It feels good to be able to pass on some of the skills I’ve learned. It’s great to be able to give back.

What have you gained from your participation in Code Liberation?

Code Liberation is giving me a new sense of purpose. It’s all well meandering through university, getting a degree, learning skills and if you don’t learn something human along the way, you don’t learn a new perspective on what it means to be yourself, so I’d say, Code Liberation has helped me get a new perspective on myself, have a new perspective of the direction I want to take, after I leave university, and it’s really been beneficial to my outlook on the world.

The contrast that appears between Code Liberation and my classes can sometimes appear quite stark. So with Code Liberation I’ve been able to travel a little bit. I went out to Los Angeles in October to promote us at an event called Indicade which is an indie games festival held at the University of Southern California every October. That was a really amazing trip but it meant that I missed a week of classes and obviously I had the jet lag to deal with when I got back so obviously that did impact on my work.

It’s a start contrast between some of the drier classes I’m taking and being able to travel and meet people and it can be a difficult balance sometimes. It can be so easy to immerse yourself in academia and not realise what’s outside and then you go to a couple of events and think wow there are amazing people doing amazing things, why aren’t I doing that right now. But the truth of the matter is that I have to earn my degree and develop myself before I can go out.

I think it gives me a different perspective to what a lot of people on my programme have, so I’ve found this amazing supportive community of like-minded people. Their all pursing weird, creative wonderful things. There are a lot of people on my games programme, well we just want to go into the mainstream industry and work with big companies. And that’s all fine and dandy and if that works for you that’s fantastic. But there’s this underground scene of these weird, wonderful people making bizarre things and it sparks my interest in such a way that it’s kind of the direction I want to head in.

Who / what inspires your work?

I would say a big inspiration for my work and it goes along with my work for Code Liberation but also through my ties to the LGBTQ community is diversity and intersectionality. I really love exploring stuff to do with new outlooks on events in life.

Part of diversifying the industry is all about telling stories from new perspectives so I really like the idea that games as a creative medium are such a unique way of telling stories. Games have this interactive element where you step inside the shoes of someone else and experience life through their eyes. Even if it’s abstracted, you’re able to empathise with a whole other group of people in way that really haven’t been possible before and that’s what drives my progress forward.

I want to empower other people to be able to do that but also express my own experiences to other people that don’t understand me and express those to the wider world in ways that I can’t do myself.

Have you learned anything about yourself from your participation in Code Liberation?

I think what I’ve learned about myself is I do actually have a creative side to myself. It’s so easy to slip into the idea that because I can’t draw or sing or paint or compose or whatever, but I don’t have any way of expressing my creativity.

The first thing I’ve learned is games are absolutely worthy as an art form. They are absolutely an expressive medium, a creative medium that we can use in order to tell our stories.

The second thing is that I am actually pretty good at motivating people and pretty good as a public speaker. I consider myself as quite an introverted person generally speaking, but I found that I do actually have a skillset required to present in front of people or to teach people. I did my first public speaking for Code Liberation, I spoke in front of 400 people at an event in Nottingham in February which was pretty spectacular and I got some feedback from people.

That’s one of the things that Code Liberation has taught me, we all need to love ourselves a little bit more and appreciate the skills and development that we already have been through as people and learn to love that a little bit more. The world teaches people like me, and other people, that we can be trodden on and stepped on and stepped over but the opposite is true that we need to take a stand for ourselves and we need to empower ourselves and each other to give ourselves a voice and to express and its one of the key things Code Liberation has taught me.

What impact do you think you’ve made on Code Liberation?

I’ve added my own kind of energy. I think from a Queer narrative point of view, when we are talking about inclusivity, we bring Queer and Trans voices into the fold. That is extremely important to me as a Trans person that when we are talking about intersectionality and diversity that that is absolutely a subject that gets brought to the table and it gets a voice.

Not that it wouldn’t happen otherwise, but I think that if voices like mine weren’t at the table, a certain amount of nuance with relation to those subjects would go missing. So I think that’s what I bring. I bring my own perspective. I don’t pretend to speak for all Queer voices, but I think that I can at least bring those arguments to the table and give them a fair fight amongst the conversations.

What advice would you give to other students who are thinking of getting involved?

Do it. The amount of resources out there for people looking to get started with programming, creative coding, design, whatever aspects of computing you are interested in. There are so many free resources online, including our own. Watch some tutorials on YouTube, find a language or a community that speaks to you and pique’s your interest. Find an area of computing, because it’s such a diverse subject. So find an area you’re interested in, study it, pick up a language and just begin – start.

And if you’re interested in Code Liberation, go on our website, click the volunteer button if you think you’ve got the skillset in order to help us out or apply if you want to take part in one of our classes. Find any of us on social media, we’re more than happy to speak to people. Our whole message is openness and community driven. Without people applying or talking to us, we wouldn’t exist.

What’s next for you after Goldsmiths?

That’s something I’ve been thinking about in the last few months. Obviously I’ve got my third year coming up; there’s big question marks over what I might do next. I certainly plan to get involved with Code Liberation more next year. In terms of my HEAR, I really want to get accredited for that.

I think what’s next for me is finding a way to develop myself further. I don’t quite know what that looks like yet, whether that be a masters programme or an industry job or something in academia. I feel very much like the world is my oyster and that is a very powerful position to be in and it’s a position I haven’t felt like I’ve been in for a very long time, so being in control of my own destiny, that’s pretty exciting.

Volunteering for Code Liberation is a HEAR recognsied activity.

Find out more about Code Liberation

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