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Cassell Discusses Traditional Sex Roles in Computer Games

By Susan Buchman

On Monday, 25 members of the MIT and Cambridge communities took advantage of the relaxed pace of Independent Activities Period to attend a reading of works from the female perspective.

Entitled "From Barbie to Mortal Combat and Other Works," the event was presented by the MIT Women's Forum "to bring us into 1999 with the spirit of women."

The first speaker of the program was Professor Justine Cassell, an assistant professor in Media Arts and Sciences.

Cassell read three excerpts from the book From Barbie to Mortal Combat: Gender and Computer Games, which she co-edited with Professor of Literature Henry Jenkins. The book analyzes the assumptions and gender stereotypes that are used in the design and marketing of computer games.

Cassell began by reading from a chapter which describes a skit on "Saturday Night Live" called "Chess for Girls." The mock commercial begins with a girl who says "Chess is no fun!" The skit then describes chess for girls, featuring doll-like pieces and showing the girl brushing the hair of the queens.

Cassell was interested in learning why although the premise behind such a skit seems ridiculous, gender-targeting in computer games is perfectly acceptable.

"Why is chess for girls absurd while computer games for women is okay?" asked Cassell.

The motivation from the book came from Cassell's experiences interviewing MIT students for an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program position. The difference between the attitudes of the male and female students "led me to wonder what it is about technology that excludes being a girl."

The ideal computer game would be one which, rather than enforcing traditional gender roles, allows "children to use computers to try out identities."

To illustrate the role that feminism has played in the development of computer technology, Cassell told the audience that user-friendly interfaces were developed by "two staunch feminists" who wanted to transfer power over the technological experience from the software designer to the user.

After Cassell finished reading, the floor was opened up to the audience. Five women read original works and Elena Ruehr, a composer and lecturer in the Music department, explained the motivations behind one of her pieces.

Women's Forum expands focus

The reading was the first program with a focus on the arts that the MIT Women's Forum has ever organized.

"Justine Cassell has gotten quite a lot of press with her book and we seized that as an opportunity to hold a unique IAP event," said Kathleen Sullivan, senior secretary at the Sloan School of Management and a member of the steering committee of the forum.

The forum formed 27 years ago to address the concerns of the female support staff at MIT. Over the years, the focus of the groups changed to include faculty and students.

"Our aim, ultimately, is to draw women from faculty, students, and support staff," Sullivan said.