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Exploring Gender Representation Issues In Computing by Writing Interactive Fiction

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2024 Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity (CoNECD)


Arlington, Virginia

Publication Date

February 25, 2024

Start Date

February 25, 2024

End Date

February 27, 2024

Conference Session

Track 6: Technical Session 5: Exploring Gender Representation Issues In Computing by Writing Interactive Fiction

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Sessions

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Paper Authors


John K. Estell Ohio Northern University Orcid 16x16

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An active member of ASEE for over 25 years, Dr. John K. Estell was elected in 2016 as a Fellow of ASEE in recognition of the breadth, richness, and quality of his contributions to the betterment of engineering education. Estell currently serves on the ASEE Board of Directors as the Vice President of Professional Interest Councils and as the Chair of Professional Interest Council III. He has held multiple ASEE leadership positions within the First-Year Programs (FPD) and Computers in Education (CoED) divisions, and with the Ad Hoc Committee on Interdivisional Cooperation, Interdivisional Town Hall Planning Committee, ASEE Active, and the Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Estell has received multiple ASEE Annual Conference Best Paper awards from the Computers in Education, First-Year Programs, and Design in Engineering Education Divisions. He has also been recognized by ASEE as the recipient of the 2005 Merl K. Miller Award and by the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) with the 2018 ASEE Best Card Award. Estell received the First-Year Programs Division’s Distinguished Service Award in 2019 and the Computers in Education Division's Service Award in 2022.

Estell currently serves as an ABET Commissioner and as a member of ABET’s Accreditation Council Training Committee. He was previously a Member-At-Large on the Computing Accreditation Commission Executive Committee and a Program Evaluator for both computer engineering and computer science. Estell is well-known for his significant contributions on streamlining student outcomes assessment processes and has been an invited presenter at the ABET Symposium on multiple occasions. He was named an ABET Fellow in 2021. Estell is also a founding member and current Vice President of The Pledge of the Computing Professional, an organization dedicated to the promotion of ethics in the computing professions.

Estell is Professor of Computer Engineering and Computer Science at Ohio Northern University, where he currently teaches first-year programming and user interface design courses, and serves on the college’s Capstone Design Committee. Much of his research involves design education pedagogy, including formative assessment of client-student interactions, modeling sources of engineering design constraints, and applying the entrepreneurial mindset to first-year programming projects through student engagement in educational software development. Estell earned his BS in Computer Science and Engineering degree from The University of Toledo and both his MS and PhD degrees in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Stephany Coffman-Wolph Ohio Northern University

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Dr. Stephany Coffman-Wolph is an Assistant Professor at Ohio Northern University in the Department of Electrical, Computer Engineering, and Computer Science (ECCS). Previously, she worked at The University of Texas at Austin and West Virginia University Institute of Technology (WVU Tech). She is actively involved in community outreach with a goal of increasing the number of women in STEM and creating effective methods for introducing young children to CS concepts and topics. Dr. Coffman-Wolph’s research interests include: Artificial Intelligence, Fuzzy Logic, Software Engineering, STEM Education, and Diversity and Inclusion within STEM.

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Gender representation has been and continues to be an issue within computing. In the realm of computer gaming, it spans the gamut from exclusion by being forced to play the role of a male protagonist, to a “surface equity” where women are present but their gender is not acknowledged, to where women are blatantly objectified in a hypersexualized manner. Even software that at first glance appears benign can have underlying issues. As an example, for nearly 50 years social studies classrooms across the United States have used The Oregon Trail computer game as an instructional tool. An early example of the Interactive Fiction genre, it teaches students about American Westward Expansion in an experiential manner by allowing them to outfit a wagon for a 2000-mile trek, manage food consumption, determine travel pace, etc. While many complaints have been made regarding its stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans, the game has also embraced the erasure of the female experience along the Trail through such means as a lack of gender selection for the avatar, addressing the player as a male, and presenting problem scenarios falling within the male domain. Given that women are stakeholders in educational software and are roughly half of the potential audience, it is essential they see themselves being positively represented.

The evidence-based practice reported here is based on the premise that creating an alternative version of The Oregon Trail game that presents a more realistic view of women’s contribution to American Westward Expansion could help combat some of the gender stereotypes experienced both specifically in that game and by extension in the genre. The computer science program at Ohio Northern University is addressing this issue through two initiatives. In both the spring 2022 and spring 2023 semesters, students enrolled in the second-semester introductory programming course were tasked with creating an alternative version of The Oregon Trail by writing it from the perspective of the women who undertook this dangerous journey. Implemented in Java using a graphical user interface, students were charged with combating the stereotypes found in the original game and instead provide positive representations. The second initiative was an Interactive Fiction course offered jointly by both the computer science and English programs during the spring 2023 semester. Following an in-depth introduction to the subject through Lillian Schlissel’s “Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey,” students were tasked with creating a work of historical fiction featuring a female protagonist. Implemented in the Inform 7 programming language using a text-based interface and where coding statements take the form of complete sentences, students had to consider character, narrative, dialogue, and differing perspective while crafting a publishable story relating in some way, shape, or form to documented female experiences along the Trail in the late 1840s or early 1850s.The goals of both initiatives are to build students’ storytelling abilities in software development, examine diversity issues within a familiar context, help develop greater social awareness, and appreciate the value gained from different perspectives.

Estell, J. K., & Coffman-Wolph, S. (2024, February), Exploring Gender Representation Issues In Computing by Writing Interactive Fiction Paper presented at 2024 Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity (CoNECD), Arlington, Virginia. 10.18260/1-2--45451

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