When Constance Steinkuehler started graduate school, she never imagined her career would center around video games. She had originally planned to focus on the cognitive aspects of online social interaction, and was conducting studies on groups in chat rooms who were assigned various problems to solve. Unfortunately, the project was less than successful. The group members put very little effort into completing their tasks, and their online conversations with one another were very awkward since they were all strangers.
Luckily, Constance happened to be in a reading group ran by researcher James Paul Gee. After hearing Constance's frustrations with her project, James encouraged her to study massively multiplayer online games, where the participants would be much more engaged. "I was utterly blown away by the sophistication of the cognitive and social activity happening," Constance said. She quickly changed departments, and James became her advisor.
Constance then joined a team of nine doctoral students, led by James. "It was a fierce crew of women examining all aspects and contexts for discourse using a variety of mixed methods," Constance said. "None of us were originally gamers, but soon, all of us picked up the controllers and never gave them back. It was thrilling to be part of something unknown and slightly risky!"
Taking a Chance
Not everyone was confident in Constance's decision to study video games. "My colleagues from my original department told me I was ruining my career," Constance revealed. "They thought video games were trivial, dangerous, and vaguely anti-intellectual."
But Constance knew that there was much more to video games and interactive media than her colleagues believed.
"The combination of computation, creative arts, and culture drew me to games," she explained. "Games are special because they give players first-person experiences, making them rich sources for understanding cognition and interaction. Games are evocative, intellectually challenging, and culturally influential. I love meeting a perfect stranger and finding a game we have in common — it brings us together."
Despite the warning of her colleagues, Constance knew this was the right path for her, and decided to pursue it anyways. "I took a chance," she stated. "I knew I would rather fail being true to myself than succeed being someone else."
Finding a Support System
Constance's risk-taking certainly paid off, as she eventually became the Senior Policy Analyst under the Obama administration, advising on games and digital media. She later decided to teach informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and to conduct further research on the intellectual and social aspects of multiplayer online video games.
"Stepping down from policy work as White House staff to return to academics was the biggest challenge in my career," Constance admitted. "After having to do work that required immediate impact on a national audience, I found it hard to go back and do work that would have a long-term impact on a classroom."
Fortunately, Constance found encouragement from her husband and colleague Kurt Squire, whom she credits as her biggest supporter. "We are really good at thinking through issues and phenomena together," she said. "Plus, he's very funny," she added. "We laugh a lot."
Having a support network is key when forging career path, which is why Constance believes events like the Grace Hopper Celebration are so beneficial for women in tech.
"The Grace Hopper Celebration builds our social networks, allowing us to support one another in ways that balance out the inequities that exist in technology disciplines," she explained. "I want to share not just strategies and solutions but opportunities as well."
@Constances will discuss women and games at #GHC18. Her session is Wednesday, September 26 at 1 p.m. Register for this session now.