Want to know how to get young women into tech? Make a game of it.
Meet Verena Pschorn, a Northland tech enthusiast who has created “a nerdy breathing space for girls” and is using gaming to try to close the gender gap in the tech industry.
On a Tuesday in early August, Verena Pschorn flies to Wellington for the NZ Game Developers Association Conference, where 600 people who live for making games gather. Pschorn volunteers for six days, finds out about the latest game developments, audio and 3D design, then flies back to Whangarei on the Sunday night. The day after, Pschorn gathers a group of 10-16-year-old girls and delivers a lesson in cryptography along with a talk about working in the gaming industry.
They listen intently and as soon as they’re dispatched to create substitution cyphers, the girls crack up with delighted laughter as they create their own Enigma machines.
Fun is all part of it – in fact, Pschorn devotes a significant percentage of her life to having fun.
Hailing from Germany, gaming (both the tabletop variety and software) is a core part of Verena Pschorn’s life. Pschorn worked for years on a sci-fi role playing game called NOVA for which she wrote adventures, as well as designing LARP and games for The Dragon Legion, an international organisation which fosters youth who come together from different countries and learn from each other in a cultural exchange over tabletop games.
Here in New Zealand, Pschorn is also a Dungeon Master – meaning she narrates games of Dungeons & Dragons on Friday nights in Whangarei. Working by day as an outreach coordinator for Volunteering Northland, Pschorn is also a translator and editor for Games Workshop and Warhammer 40,000, which she’s proud to say gives her “nerdy intel” and the privilege of reading books and series before they are released.
At tech/science/computing youth centre Questionable Research Labs, Pschorn guides cohorts of women to learn about any tech project they want to develop. Those who don’t come with their own idea go through lessons game-ified by Pschorn, from building bridges to building mini robots, experimenting with gravity, bridge building, engineering/architecture, coding, photography, and model-building – and of course, all kids’ favourite: making slime.
Learners get their hands on miniatures and meeples, game platforms Unity and Minecraft Education Edition, and electronics such as open-source electronics platform Arduino. Frequently, weekend-long challenges stretch the learners to new levels of aptitude, particularly KiwiJam, a weekend of game-making, which Pschorn says is “showing them that you can start and finish something, even if it’s just a small game.” Eventually, the kids can transition to the Tākaro Taitokerau game developers group Northern Game Makers.
The relationship between gaming and tech is sometimes direct and sometimes indirect. Most important is being able to think out-of-the-box, Pschorn says.
“We give the kids tools and guidelines and let the kids figure it out and facilitate it instead of top-down teaching.”
As for the male-free groups, Pschorn says the purpose is to create a safe space where girls can “Learn without the societal norms often around us which deny them the same access to technology or dictate that girls have to be more quiet or take the second place.”
Work is underway to increase the number of visits from tech role models, one of the most notable recently having been Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom of SpaceBase Ltd.
“It’s a space where the girls can be as nerdy as they want and have time to explore all the nerdy things they want without somebody telling them something else is more important,” Pschorn says. “This is a breathing space for them and it shows the girls that tech is for everyone.”
Zap Chess: A great terrible experiment
Ara Bartlett will likely be one of tomorrow’s female tech innovators. The 15-year-old attends classes on Mondays, Tuesday and Thursdays, one of several people who attend QRL who are otherwise homeschooled.
Bartlett began attending in 2016 at the age of 9. Over the past six years Bartlett has covered everything from experimenting with hokey pokey to growing plants in mini biodomes, to the 48 Hour Film competition, creating a VR game at KiwiJam, supercharging an e-scooter, plus studying Photoshop, 3D printing and modelling.
“Thursday we’re motorising a couch,” Bartlett adds. “My friend, it was his idea. We’ll connect it with a pallet on wheels with motors.”
Bartlett recently took part in the Terrible Ideas Hackathon. Her team created ‘Zap Chess’, in which the user receives electrocution if they hesitate over a move for more than a few seconds (watch the video – it’s shockingly good.)
“I feel like I’m so much more invested in this than any other after-school event,” Bartlett says. “I’ve met so many people by coming here.”
New tutor teaching young women how to code
Whangarei mother, tutor and web developer Julie Jones has just begun helping run Monday groups for girls. Jones has been bringing her kids for lessons at QRL for three years, chipping in with tutoring, and will now tutor more regularly alongside Pschorn – Minecraft Java coding, to begin with, as well as some Python.
“Learning programming teaches you skills useful in life: perseverance, problem-solving, cooperation with others, creative thinking. That’s really useful in all areas of life, not just coding. But learning coding sets you up for an interesting, rewarding career.”
“So much of IT is male-dominated. I think it could be really valuable for the girls to have a female role model and know they can make a career out of IT,” Jones says.