Yesterday marked the open beta release of Microsoft Studios’ much-buzzed Project Spark, a gaming platform that allows its users to build their own worlds, complete with custom characters and challenges. The platform has gained acclaim for its Valve-like approach to gaming: Once users build their own games, they can share them with friends, who can also contribute to the world-building.
But perhaps the most exciting aspect of Project Spark is its potential to change the future demographics of the gaming industry. It's simple — intuitive even — to design games and build worlds in Project Spark.
“Everything in Spark is designed as much as possible to ‘just work,’" Project Spark Senior Game Designer Kim McAuliffe notes.
That kind of accessibility opens the world of video game production to a more diverse group of potential game designers. With Project Spark, McAuliffe points out, “you don’t have to teach yourself how to program or sign up for a class where you may stand out uncomfortably as the only girl/woman or person of color.”
That's important in an industry dominated by men. Only 23 percent of today's computer programmers are women — a number that's even lower when it comes to gaming.
Project Spark also allows users to customize characters, altering their gender, skin color and eye color — a stark contrast to XBox One's infamous showing last year at E3, the industry's premiere trade show. The company failed to launch a single game with a female protagonist. The rest of the industry didn’t fare much better.
Creating customizable characters is an important aspect of Project Spark and its ability to connect with players, McAuliffe explains. “Seeing characters that represent ourselves makes us feel welcomed as players,” she says. And it's game players who eventually become game designers.
“All game developers start out as players at some point in their lives,” she adds.
There hasn't been much research specific to the role of gaming on users' confidence, but one Indiana University study found that exposure to television, which suffers from a similar representational bias, decreased self-esteem among white and black girls and black boys. Among white boys though, it caused a noticeable increase in confidence.
Project Spark’s potential to diversify demographics in the gaming industry is not lost on Microsoft. They are already teaming up with events like Youth Career Day, which gives teens the opportunity to visit Microsoft and learn about tech jobs, and DigiGirlz, a program that connects girls with female role models working in tech, in an effort to make game design more accessible.
In the hands of young minds, Project Spark has the potential to help the next generation build confidence, develop problem solving skills, expand their creativity and hopefully inspire future game designers of all genders and races.
Project Spark is for XBox One, XBox 260, and Windows 8. Sign up here to join beta testing: https://joinprojectspark.com/.