Silicon Sisters Interactive is the first female owned and run video game studio in Canada and they are about to release their second School 26 game.
It seemed like a great time to get some inside information about this passionate company so we asked COO and co-founder Kirsten Forbes some questions about the company and their direction.
How did you come to form the Silicon Sisters Interactive company?
Both co-founder Brenda Gershkovitch and I have been game developers for many years, so we knew each other professionally and had our respective eyes on each other for quite some time. There aren’t that many senior women making games so it’s easy to spot a kindred spirit. Then one day I phoned her up to bounce some ideas off her and she said ‘Wait a sec, why are you calling with game ideas, have you left Radical?’ And I said ‘Yeah!’ And she said ‘Finally!’
Brenda had been incubating the idea of Silicon Sisters for a while, and we’d both been itching to take all our development experience and pour it into the kinds of games that we, as women, really wanted to play, so it was a natural pairing.
Beyond that, a series of shifts in the industry have come about that make this exactly the right time to start Silicon Sisters. You can see the numbers being quoted all over the place – the increase in women playing on the web, the predominance of women in social gaming, women spending online, women buying virtual goods, an increase in women playing ‘extreme games’ (i.e. core console games), the proliferation of women on game-enabled smart phones, women and families playing on the Wii… the list goes on.
So not only our complementary skill sets, our passion for games, and our expertise, but also the current market conditions told us our time had come.
Where did the inspiration for the School 26 series of games come from?
We had a picture in our heads of a typical high school quad, with boys playing sports in the centre and the girls walking in groups around the periphery. The boys are improving their speed and strength; the girls (even though they don’t know it) are improving their social engineering skills. They’re solving problems, exchanging information, organizing pairings, just generally sorting out the social landscape.
The talk we’re talking in the schoolyard, at sleepovers, and at parties turns into the negotiating, mediating, collaborating and manipulating we do as adults. The ‘gossip’ we share with our girlfriends is our first awareness that information has currency. Our first taste of networking is the affiliations that ebb and flow throughout high school. Helping each other get what we want— whether it’s the guy, the invite, the marks, the trip—sets us up for getting what we want in the rest of our lives, in a world where we can never get it through brute force.
I think many women underestimate the competitive advantage they have in their soft skills, and girls need to hear that the social engineering they’re growing into is a valid and worthwhile practice. It’s a quantifiable skill and when used well, will benefit both their professional and personal lives.
Everything Silicon Sisters can do to prep girls for the world that lies ahead of them is a good thing. Girls need a wide variety of play experiences that reflect their diverse interests and that prepare them for their expanded roles in society. I think a game like School 26 legitimizes the usefulness of social skills and shows that one doesn’t come by them easily. They are a learned skill which takes years to master and which makes us better at whatever we do.
What do you bring to the world of gaming that we can’t get anywhere else?
The things that really matter in this industry are passion, experience and creativity: passion and understanding of your selected audience, vast experience in developing these very complex and sophisticated software projects, and the creativity to innovate and improve.
You can get those three things in lots of development studios, but at Silicon Sisters, you can get them all in one place, with one team that is very focused on the female demographic.
Is there a particular mission or goal you have for the company?
We want to bring the sorts of gameplay mechanics to women that they naturally gravitate towards and are wired to excel at—the kinds of things we’re good at in the real world—take those and translate them into games. It has long been said that games don’t generate emotions in the same way that movies do. Can a game make you cry, can a game make you laugh, can a game touch you deeply about a particular issue? I believe they can, and I also believe that games have the singular ability to make you leap out of your chair and shout ‘Yeah! I rock!” When’s the last time you did that during a movie? And that’s really the crux of it, to make games that give that sense of satisfaction and achievement we all crave.
How does it feel to be promoted and publicised as Canada’s first female owned and operated video game developer? Has it made getting the company off the ground more challenging?
Being a rare commodity in this industry has been wonderful for us. From the very first press release we issued announcing our company and our intentions, we’ve had an outpouring of people wishing us success.
I know there is a lot of talk about the male dominated industry and you would think that women are swimming upstream. But that has not been my personal experience, nor are we seeing that with Silicon Sisters. Scarcity has made us stand out.
For those who are a little techno-challenged, like me, can you explain what iOS is please?
OS means Operating System and the lowercase “i” denotes Apple. So iOS is the family of Apple devices that run their operating systems. We also just call them iDevices sometimes, and we mean iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch – all the iDevices.
It has just occurred to me that your games have been released for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch with PC and Mac versions forthcoming. This doesn’t include any of the traditional gaming consoles, is there a reason for that?
Over the history of the video game industry, say 30 to 35 years, there has never been a significant adoption of the traditional gaming consoles by women. By ‘not significant’ I mean 12% or 17% or 20%, at various times, for the percentage of console owners who are women. I think one reason for that is that the controllers are a barrier to entry.
When the Wii came out and it got rid of controllers with lots of buttons, more women did buy the console. It may not be a causal connection, but there is certainly a correlation—if a critical mass of women have not bothered to buy consoles and practice using controllers for the past 30 years, I can only assume that’s not going to change abruptly now.
But what we have seen recently is hordes of women gaming on their smart phones, on Facebook, and on other web portals. So it turns out that the shift in technology that allowed those different platforms to proliferate (technology such as digital downloads, broadband penetration, smart phones, etc.) has also created a demographic shift towards females. So that’s where we’re finding our audience right now.
The School 26 series seems to be a seamless combination of education and fun. What are you aiming to teach the target audience, it doesn’t seem to be traditional teaching?
We sit squarely in entertainment. Meaning our intention is foremost to make games that are fun and entertaining, and if they are educational as a byproduct, that’s cool, but not our goal. With School 26, the words and phrases we used on the dev team were always about providing girls a place to experiment with social engineering, to give them a place to rehearse and practice for the real world, and as much as we could, to provide a sandbox for them to explore responses and reactions.
But interestingly, we did get feedback from men and boys who really found School 26 a handy tool for figuring out what to say in awkward social situations. One 17-year-old boy in particular was over the moon at having found a game that could help him keep his foot out of his mouth at school!
The series is quite interactive and based on social skills, is this a game that is based on interacting socially over the internet or just with the characters in a single player game?
It’s a single player game right now. You can post your results on Facebook to get your friends involved.
What do you do in your downtime?
Downtime? I’m not familiar with this term.
Kidding! We play games, raise our families, play in the mountains and the ocean here in Vancouver, and tweet about it all.
What can we expect to see next from Silicon Sisters Interactive?
We figure there are lots of games that haven’t been made yet and that will provide different kinds of fun than the world has seen before. And those are the games Silicon Sisters intends to make.
And one final question before we say goodbye for now, what does being a woman mean to you?
There’s a quote I read once that has always stayed in my mind: “If one ‘is’ a woman, that is not all one is”. I love it because it speaks to the multi-faceted abilities of women. Throughout history I look to examples of women who were amazingly industrious without explicit power. Josephine Bonaparte is a shining example—to save lives and influence the future using only evening salons and brilliant social engineering. (There it is again. Social engineering. Its power is not to be underestimated, girls.)
And when we talk at Silicon Sisters about how our time has come in the video game industry, we mean that women are playing games in droves and we are also experienced in making those games, so the time is right. But more than that, I believe women are coming into their own in a much broader way. In Canada, anyway, more girls than boys are enrolling in university, more are graduating with higher marks, there’s a real shift in both education and the workplace toward women. Because industries are knowledge-based now, not based on brawn.
Young women seek me out all the time and ask how they can do it all, how can they have a successful career and raise a family at the same time, it seems so daunting and won’t one thing suffer for the sake of the other. And I tell them they can do it because that’s exactly what we’re built for. We’ve been working hard and raising families and keeping the proverbial ship afloat for thousands of years. It’s what we do. And frankly, we’re incredibly good at it.