Artist, designer, and developer Phoenix Perry is devoted to breaking the code that keeps women and girls from getting into gaming. With a pioneering Brooklyn gallery fusing the digital and traditional arts, an upcoming game for PlayStation Mobile, and a new non-profit that funds programs and classes to encourage female involvement in the computer sciences, Perry is defining what it means to be a creative technologist in the digital age.
How have your personal experiences as an artist, designer, and developer shaped your views on women in computer science and gaming?
Starting from the early 90’s when I took my first programming classes, the gender bias in the sciences has been notable. It made being in the lab late nights extremely uncomfortable. Eventually, I left CS and switched to literature because the gender balance of the classes was far more even. Thankfully, I was given a job programming in the school library that kept me coding until I moved to California. Once there, things really changed. Women developers get far more respect on the west coast than in the south in my experience. I had a female boss in the engineering department at the first .com I worked for who sent me to Java classes at UC Berkeley.
What are some of the obstacles young girls face in entering the field of computer science at an early age?
Society’s biased to think that women should not be in the sciences. Often little girls get pushed to do things that are more stereotypically acceptable. Doing user testing for a math game, I was particularly struck with how badly the girls in the experiment did in comparison to their male counterparts. If you think of this problem like a virus, it has spread through every element of our culture.
However, I do believe Make magazine and AdaFruit are helping change the playing field. Maker culture and the Internet are allowing young girls who are technically inclined to have better access to education outside of the traditional classroom setting. Also, slowly, the ground is shifting. Women have a long and deep lineage in computer science and I see it doing nothing but growing with things like computational fashion, gaming and creative coding.
What is the Code Liberation Foundation and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
My main passions are interactivity and games. I am struck by how few women creators there are. Many women exist in that space as journalists, curators, producers and planners. Very few are developers. Game Developer magazine ran a survey that has some pretty heart-shattering implications: Of the 494 developers surveyed, only 22 were women and those 22 where paid significantly less than their male counter parts. That means roughly 4.4% of the game developers in the survey are female. The April issue of Game Developer originally published the data. They are the largest magazine for game development and my guess is that they pooled most of the larger studios. This is a billion dollar industry. How is this happening? As an indie gamer, I’ll tell you this one truth. No one will build your game. Indie developers form game companies and these game companies become larger studios. With few women in that role, you are going to end up with fewer studios owned by women, less stories and points of view represented in games and a relatively homogenous field of play.
Games do much more than most people suspect. Being well versed in the indie scene, I feel like I know a secret that’s about to become very public knowledge. Games and play are capable of conveying deep interactive experiences beyond the shooter genre – they can be fireplaces, introspective environments or operas controlled via umbrellas. The ludic experience extends well beyond that of the console. It is my prediction that we are on a building tidal wave of indie gaming set to change interactive history. Now is the time that women should and must begin making games. When Gamasutra uses the above data to say, “Production seems to be the most viable long-term career discipline for women,” I want to put my fist through something. That’s the equivalent of saying “Yo – you women, you over there, you are ok for producing games made by men but not for having your own voice and creating your own titles.” Only one thing will change this – more female developers and creators. I aim to contribute to creating positive change by reaching into very select communities and offering free game development classes directly to women, for women by women.
Although it’s an uphill battle, are there any significant inroads that women have made in the gaming world in the past decade, and, in your opinion, which do you consider most important?
This year was the watershed moment for the industry. At the GDC, the #1reasontobe panel was a panel about women in games. It was a tear-filled cathartic break for most. Also, the game of the year and the number one winner at the GDC was Journey. Journey was produced by Robin Hunicke. Hunicke is a computer scientist and general geek rock star who is changing the image of women in gaming. Journey tells the story of a fox creature in the desert in search of the meaning of life. There are no guns, no violence. It took 6 of the 11 gaming awards this year at the GDC. That’s a powerful message. The GDC or Game Developers Conference is the similar to the Oscars but for gaming.
How do you think the intersection between art and science has developed and transformed with the advent of new technologies over the past 20 years?
This is a huge question that’s almost impossible to answer. Since 1983 computers came to every home and the phone in your pocket has far more computing power than the computer used to land man on the moon. Art and science have been inextricably linked since their inception, particularly within the historical tradition of alchemy. In the last 20 years, the digital arts have proved to be a hot bed of innovation for technology. From video games to augmented reality, art has served to push and innovate in the digital space. Golan Levin does a really good job of documenting this tradition here. From Google Maps to Sony’s Eye, artists often innovated and designed these technologies years before they came onto the market. The arts are changing and the digital arts in particular have produced many of the creative ideas that fuel our modern world. The term creative technologist is now being bandied about to describe these hybrid creatives.
How do you help bridge the perceived chasm between art and science with your gallery and the exhibitions you curate?
For me there is no chasm between art and science. My art is created with technology. They are joined. The chasm exists between the digital arts and the traditional arts. For many years now, I’ve listened as people in that space have told me that I don’t make art because I do not work within an academy. Now the tide is turning. Frankly, it’s about time. Digital creators deserve to be able to make a living off of their work and for too long the art world has been all about the rich and catering to their community. Collectors drive that market and to me it has no merit. It’s just stock trading with a different face. Technology by its very nature is democratic and possesses a viral market driven complexity that will allow more people to create and share ideas. That’s a tremendous threat to a culture that was created by catering to rich royals painting portraits for prosperity. I say let it burn. Do you like an artist? Buy their work directly on the Internet. Fund their Kickstarter. Go around that system. It’s broken. My gallery exists simply as a space for ideas. We don’t make our money off artwork but by teaching technology skills to further enable creators.
Can you briefly describe a few shows you have either curated or exhibited in that support this?
Our upcoming show with Jeremy Bailey demonstrates this very thesis. He developed a Kickstarter campaign that rewarded backers with their very own augmented reality portrait created in the style of a wealthy patron. Kickstarter is now the largest funder of the arts in the United States, larger than even the NEA. In the history of art patronage, we’ve had the church, then the wealthy and the powerful, then the government, and now crowd-funding. Bailey playfully misinterprets the crowd-funding movement as an untapped opportunity to empower wealthy narcissists.
Also, a personal favorite was Morgan Packard: Dihedral Product. Sol LeWitt knew that artists of many diverse types use simple forms to their own ends. Musician and multimedia artist, Morgan Packard believes that simple rules, when allowed to unfold, create the splendor of the world. In Euclidean geometry the simplest non-curved flat shape is the triangle, and the simplest non-curved three-dimensional shape is four triangles connected by their edges—the tetrahedron. In this crowd-sourced artwork the public was invited to create tetrahedrons from recycled office paper and a few pieces of tape while musicians perform. Under Morgan’s direction the participants attached the vertices of the tetrahedrons to create a constantly expanding sculpture, filling the gallery with a geometric wonderland intersected by sonic vibrations.
What are your favorite games you’ve been involved in designing?
I think there will always be a place in my heart of the game prototype I made with Nick Fox-Gieg called Nightmare Kitty. Nightmare Kitty is a Kinect game we showed at Maker Faire in 2011 that won 2 editor’s choice awards. It’s the karmic tale of a mouse eaten by a cat set in the underworld. There’s only one rule. Avoid the evil kitty!
What games are you working on now?
I’m currently working on 2 big projects – Night Games and Crystallon. Crystallon (www.playcrystallon.com) will be out on PlayStation Mobile later this year. It’s a match three puzzle game based on pattern recognition. Night Games opens next month on June 22nd at the New York Hall of Science and is an interactive music game free for all including with a reactive dance floor, sensor enabled instruments, costumes and masks. As a total experience it emulates the sacred, ritualistic act of dancing around a fire.
Do you have any upcoming appearances, lectures, workshops?
I’m speaking on Thursday on Vice’s Motherboard’s panel called Liberating the Means of Creation. Also, I teach at NYU ITP, POLY and Game Center (Spring 2014) if you happen to be at NYU. You can track these on my website: phoenixperry.com
Finally, if you are an interested woman, the Code Liberation workshop starts in June at the NYU game center. You can sign up here.