All photos by the author

Sex at a Four-Year Video Game College

What does the traditionally male-dominated nature of video gaming writ large bring to bear on dating at video game school?

Oct 23 2014, 12:00pm

All photos by the author

Andi Baker makes video games. She is one of the few young women studying programming at DigiPen, a private, four-year college offering bachelor's and master's degrees in, among other things, game programming and design.

DigiPen currently enrolls 1,200 students; 80 percent are male, 20 percent are female. The female students, numerically speaking, tend to be found in art and animation, and much less in programming, where the sex ratio skews even more male. Ask some students what DigiPen stands for, and they tell you: Digital Penis. 

I wanted to know, in light of discussions around gender and games having reached a fever pitch, what social life is like for the young people studying video games under these asymmetrical conditions. What, if anything, does the traditionally male-dominated nature of video gaming bring to bear on dating at video game school?

On a recent visit to the DigiPen campus in Redmond, Washington, some fifteen miles outside Seattle, I asked Andi, who enrolled here straight from high school and is currently working on a beat-em-up about kids who fight monsters in their dreams, if she feels like she's treated differently because of her sex.

"Every once in a while people are surprised when they meet a girl," she said. 'Oh, man, it's a girl! Weird!' And you're like, 'Hi, I'm a person.' It's usually freshmen, I guess. There are people who are really heavy on the gamer side of things who don't realize that girls like video games, too. They get over the shock that there's a girl here, and then they say, 'Oh, well, you must be an artist.'"

Andi said that there are women here who might get more attention than they want. "Girls get a lot of attention here. I wouldn't call it negative," she said. "It's not really good or bad, it's just different." But seeing as that attention comes from people "who are are kind of less outgoing," she went on, "it doesn't really go very far."

I ask Andi, whose boyfriend, David, is also in DigiPen's game programming track, what she meant by that. She said that many of the male DigiPen students have to work up considerable courage to speak with others, leaving the guys to not continue pursuing a girl if she doesn't want to speak to them. The men of Digipen "are all introverts." 

"Well, not all of them," she said. "There's Doug."

I wouldn't call it negative. It's not really good or bad, it's just different.

Doug Zwick took me upstairs to an area, called Tesla, filled with clusters of workstations. Students are constantly designing video games as part of their degree programs here, and they "hire" each other for various positions—programmer, artist, producer, and so forth—forming small teams to work on each game.

I watched Doug coding in Unity, the cross-platform game creation software suite. He told me the lion's share of his free time outside of classes is spent here until late into the night: code, pop Ritalin every few hours, skip lunch (but munch fistfuls of Goldfish crackers). Repeat. 

At 32, Doug is one of the older students at DigiPen. But his hair has started noticeably graying at the temples in the three years since he began attending courses here. The lack of time available to exercise, he noted, has recently caused the slight paunch currently pushing out the front of his Totoro t-shirt.

Doug and his teammates call themselves PK109, and their current project is a game involving pyrokinesis, the power to spark fires using the mind alone. Right now it just looks like a bunch of geometric shapes, and Doug said more than once that these are only placeholder graphics.

He edits some of the coding, and then shows me a capsule shape, which currently represents the player character raising the temperature of a nearby cube using only mind power. An onscreen meter shows the cube's temperature. When it reaches a certain temperature the cube bursts into flames. But then, suddenly, a duplicate of the capsule player appears in the air above the original and hangs there, stuck. That wasn't supposed to happen. 

"I'm still working on it," Doug admitted.

It's just another hurdle in "the cesspool," as he called it. "We spend all of our time here. These are all the people we interact with. So it's kind of a closed system in terms of our social interaction. All the time outside of your class work you spend developing your game."

Do DigiPen students ever have parties? I asked

Yes. But Doug, being  "old," said he's only been to one that could be called a "party." Still, it was a pretty typical college shindig. "There was beer pong, there was a guy DJing, there was dancing," he said. 

That particular party was even broken up by the police on account of too many students there under drinking age. But the upperclassmen also like to get together off campus, get sloshed on cheap beer, and play the games being developed by the freshmen, sometimes barking with laughter, sometimes impressed into silence. (Every freshman, I should add, thinks they have the most amazing idea for a game, like, ever.)

That said, there is fundamentally no opportunity for a social life outside of DigiPen. 

"People are here to learn," Alexandra Schecterson, president of the Diversity Club tells me. "People here are more obsessed with their work than anything."

Students are either studying, taking classes or working on their video game projects six days a week, generally starting by 10 AM at the latest, and leaving at 10 or as late as midnight, when bloodshot faculty throw all the deadbolts and kick everybody out until sunrise. And each year's progression appreciably thins out the student body.

The degree programs here are so intense that even clocking in an unexaggerated 12 hours daily on average the most recent statistics available indicate that less than half the students manage to graduate in four years, with only slightly over half graduating when you take into account those who add a fifth year to complete their studies. Compare this to neighboring University of Washington, where 78 percent of students graduate within five years.

The rest drop out along the way for various reasons; soul-corroding exhaustion, money trauma, or simply the disheartening realization that working in the video game industry means considerably reducing the amount of time you get to spend playing video games.

So the college continuum, at least in the American psyche as the boozy and lovesick years of Friday-night bacchanalias where one's guilt-free tally of sexual partners can increase hydralike, seemed to be placed in a lopsided petri dish at DigiPen. It's an insular environment that is gender inclusive, albeit gender skewed.

That's Andi at bottom right. Her boyfriend, David, is seated to her right.

Which brings us back to the social lives of full-time students of video games working under such an asymmetric male-female spread. 

Harassment of women does occur occasionally at DigiPen. Alexandra said she's had "a lot" of girlfriends who would tell guys they weren't interested in a romantic relationship only to have the guys redouble their unwanted courtship, an already uncomfortable circumstance made all the worse in the small, close-knit school. 

In one of the more egregious cases during her freshmen year, Alexandra told me, a male student "was expelled from school because he continued to harass and threaten this girl. So it got taken care of. If something like that does happen, there are resources for that to be taken care of." She also told me that this year, for the first time, DigiPen has rolled out an actual sexual assault policy.  

When I asked students Stephanie Barros and Nadia Carrim, both here directly from high school, if the social experience between men and women was different here at DigiPen than in high school, they both give emphatic 'Oh, yeahs' and laugh. 

"A lot of people aren't good at socializing here," Stephanie said, "but especially the guys." 

They elaborated that there are many guys here who can't read social cues such as bodily language, turning away to show you aren't interested, for example. 

"Sometimes it's funny..." said Nadia. 

"...but sometimes it can get creepy," Stephanie added.

And this inability to read body language is a recurring issue at DigiPen? I asked.

"Yes!" they said in unison, laughing again.

Nadia then explained that during her freshman year there was a student "who was obsessed with me and wouldn't leave me alone. I told him more than once to stop. He'd be like 'Okay!' but he'd keep doing it." 

"It got a bit stalkery," Stephanie said.

Still, they made it clear that these negative cases are definitely exceptions to the rule, despite the boys' club nature implied by the demographics. As faculty member Mark Ward of Student Affairs and Retention told me: "There is not an overarching current of [sexual harassment] here." 

It's a stark contrast to the interactions between the sexes in mainstream college life. Andi attributes the general lack of harassment to the same thing nearly every other woman I spoke with at DigiPen attributed it to: the school had a vast majority of men, but they weren't exactly what you would call alpha males. There were no real jocks, no frat boys. No punky, inchoate rockers forming bands.

So men vying for female attention only happens when there is an influx of new girls, and then partners are chosen and social life becomes static again. "Everyone here is still just a computer geek," Andi says.

everyone here is still just a computer geek.

DigiPen's Admissions Outreach Coordinator, Rachel Thompson, confirmed the essentially pacifist nature of the school. 

"There's not really any cliques or bullying like you see at other schools," she said. "Our students are different. More introverted. The interests here tend to be like the minority in a high school—where the more popular people are into sports and athletics, the less popular people generally tend to be into video games and stuff like that. That minority come[s] to our school, and are now in the majority. They feel more comfortable."

At one point, Doug introduced me to a Devin Jensen. He's a student in DigiPen's RTIS program, and said he's one of the guys who "rolled a natural 100" and found a girlfriend at DigiPen. He told me about the male perspective on the desperate rush for the new freshmen girls. 

It's a social cycle phenomenon that is "definitely noticed," Devin said. He referred me to  The DigiPen News Feed, a Facebook page that is actually an Onion-style parody made up of DigiPen in-jokes:

Once the freshmen women are paired up, he added, the long "DigiRelationships" go on and on. This creates a norm where most women—essentially all of them, to hear Devin tell it—are in relationships at any given time. The vast majority of men, then, have no option but to be single. 

"Everybody's come to terms with that," Devin said. "That's how it is." 

'Hunted to extinction' is the popular term.

Back at Doug's team area I spoke with another student, Izzy Abdus-Sabur who sat nearby. I ask him if the gender imbalance at the school has impacted his college years here at DigiPen.

"I'm not even going to sugar coat it," he said. "Yes."

Izzy said the gender imbalance creates negative perceptions both ways: The women are objectified, and all the men are cast as people who only see women as objects.

"It creates negative feedback for each party. Men then decide, 'Oh, I'm just not going to talk to any women at DigiPen at all because they all don't care. [They] are all just flippant.'" But flippancy, he said, is only "their reaction to being pursued so terribly."

For his part, Izzy has "sworn off attempting to have a relationship with any DigiPen women. There aren't a lot of them," he said. "'Hunted to extinction' is the popular term."

"That's a very scumbag way to look at it," Izzy said. "It's a terrible, objectifying kind of way to look at people in general. But not to condone it; it's kind of necessary. You do so much work that outside of DigiPen there's not going to be a whole lot of room for exploring extra situations of that side of life."

"I'm not like that anymore," Izzy said. "I'm not going to exempt myself. The few people came in the first month, and I was like 'Oh, man, new girls here. Cool!' But after awhile I was like, 'No, wait.' I knew some as friends and I realized it was a terrible environment to be in and a whole lot of them are being terribly pestered."

Team Buff Stuff.

The team adjacent to Doug's is called Team Buff Stuff, because they all lift weights together. They all have noticeably brawny arms. The only other physical-fitness activity perpetrated by students that I found was one that Doug himself had formed: The 9PM Lap, where students meet at that time each day and walk once around the outside of the DigiPen building.

I am eager to talk to Team Buff Stuff because they seem to be the closest thing the school has to jocks. But I immediately find that "jock" is a term they take exception to. Team Buff Stuff reiterated that the school kills relationships with the outside world, so that was not a viable option. You had to keep it in the school.

Andy Hill of Buff Stuff said that during your time at DigiPen as a heterosexual male, "You find [a relationship] that lasts a very long time or you don't find one at all."

In the meantime, your ass is to the grindstone, taking classes on programming and game theory while coding your own creations until the stroke of midnight.

"It's a very ascetic existence," Buff Stuff's Keith Tallon said.

There are people at this school whose inviolate faith in the creative potential of video games is so steadfast that they are willing to sacrifice love itself, for at least half a decade or so, to realize their holy aspirations. They are cloistered monastics, and DigiPen their secluded abbey. 

Before arriving at DigiPen, I would have thought that the men would be constantly and fiercely competing over the limited number of available women. But that wasn't entirely the case.

"That's freshman year," Andi said with a laugh. "The freshmen girls will come in and guys are like, 'Oh! New girls.' But then [the girls] meet all the guys and all end up with a boyfriend. And because everyone has similar interests a lot of the relationships work out really well and they stay together throughout the rest of school. It's really weird."