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Mom, get off the Playstation!

“The rule in our house is, ‘Mom gets to play the game first.’ If I don’t like the content, it gets tossed,” says former video game programmer Maralee Barge Poulsen ’99.

 

On the screen, the leather-clad heroine swings a sword above her head in triumph. The camera zooms in; her hair blows in the breeze. Closer, and victory twinkles in her blue eyes. Closer 85 closer ... No! The camera goes straight through her head. Let’s try that again ....

Fresh out of Bryn Mawr, Maralee Barge Poulsen ’99 was hired by Saffire Corporation to program “Xena Warrior Princess: Talisman of Fate,” for the Nintendo 64. Saffire was due to ship the game in only three months, so Poulsen got a crash course on working out bugs and programming cameras to follow the movements of characters. Luckily, late nights studying at Bryn Mawr for her independent major in computer science prepared her for the workload. By that point she also had participated in two summer internships to become familiar

with game implementation, artificial intelligence and graphics.

After “Xena Warrior Princess,” Poulsen programmed another fighting game, “Barbarians,” plus “Jeremy McGrath SuperCross World.” She also worked on two games that never shipped to stores: a boxing game and a PC adventure game based on LEGO’s Bionicle toy series.

“It’s amazing how few games actually hit the market, even after so much work goes into them,” Poulsen says. Management changes, disagreements over content, or the prediction that a game won’t be marketable can all be factors in a game’s demise. “Oftentimes a game starts out with a neat budget, a clear design, and a specific timeline, then simply rolls out of control when it goes into real production,” she says.

In all, Poulsen spent three years working as a video game programmer—two years with Saffire and one with Acclaim Entertainment. Crunch time—the few months just before a game is due to ship to stores—demands 60- to 100-hour weeks during which programmers look for and fix problems in the game. During non-crunch time, Poulsen’s regular work week was spent designing or implementing a required game system. “Programmers sit very close together so they can communicate,” she notes. “I spent about half my day talking systems or problems with other programmers.”

“People in the industry want to put a formula on
a game so that they can say, ‘this is a woman’s
game; lots of women will buy this’.”

Poulsen knows firsthand how tough such a career can be on families. She is now raising her son full time and doubts she will be able to re-enter the field due to fast-changing technology and time demands.

However, she feels she has the edge over other parents when it comes to their kids’ game playing. “The rule in our house is, ‘Mom gets to play the game first.’ If I don’t like the content, it gets tossed. And I think I’ll get a lot of satisfaction out of hearing, ‘No, we can’t use the Playstation right now. My mom’s playing it.’ ”

Women and girls comprise a huge untapped market, but most game publishers “are simply at a loss for what type of games women want to play,” Poulsen says. “The few successes they’ve found—Tetris, The Sims—seemed to blindside them. They understood that they had hit on something, but not what that was, or how to duplicate it.”

Tetris, which calls itself the world’s most popular game, consists of cascading geometric puzzle shapes. In The Sims, players create simulated worlds involving characters with fluctuating needs, such as hunger, tiredness and social contact. They job-hunt, date, buy furniture, go on vacations, throw parties, and watch TV.

Poulsen guesses that the emotional interaction in The Sims appeals to women—players influence and develop the lives of their characters. “But the fact that it is one of the best selling video games ever, and that women play it in equal parts to men, is something no one in the industry really expected,” she says. “People in the industry want to put a formula on a game so that they can say, ‘This is a woman’s game. Lots of women will buy this.’ Strangely, so many other entertainment industries have been able to pinpoint a female market very clearly: magazines, books, movies, and so on. But video games are still stumbling around in the dark, amazed whenever they crash into a game that women also seem to like.”

The game industry is of course male-dominated, with some women holding positions as artists but very few as designers, programmers, or management. “At Acclaim, I used to introduce myself to new recruits as, ‘Hello, I’m the token female programmer,’ ” Poulsen says. “Most women who work in the industry can’t be used as a focus group to determine what kinds of games women in general like to play. They join the industry already liking the games on the market and as such aren’t likely to change what comes out.”A0Creating games that appeal to women will be mostly hit or miss until women start infiltrating the industry at both the designer and management levels. “I would definitely encourage Mawrters to get in on the act,” she says.

But that encouragement comes with a caveat Poulsen feels is relevant to any woman wanting to pursue the field: the sexualization of women in video games. “You can end up being complicit in perpetuating that problem,” she says. She ultimately left the game industry because of Acclaim’s biking game, “BMX XXX.” “I couldn’t work for a company whose idea of a great game is to reward players with full-motion video of women strippers,” she says.

However, she defends her colleagues, claiming that programmers, designers and artists work toward the very best possible product. “They want quality, not bouncing breasts,” she says. “Most of the time, we didn’t get to make games that we ourselves would play. And that’s unfortunate, because game makers are almost always fanatic game players, and if given the time and the money usually come through with something fantastic.”

For now, Poulsen plans to take the A+ exam for computer technicians so she can be self-employed doing repairs and upgrades. She is also working on her writing of science fiction and fantasy.

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