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Google’s Women Techmakers Scholars Program supports gender equality in the tech industry by providing scholarships to women studying computer science and gaming. Formerly known as the Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship Program, it furthers the vision of Dr. Anita Borg, who “devoted her adult life to revolutionizing the way we think about technology and dismantling barriers that keep women and minorities from entering computing and technology fields.”

Google has awarded Women Techmakers Scholarships for gaming to two scholars in the Department of Informatics. Ph.D. student Christie Abel and Ph.D. candidate Amanda Cullen will each receive $10,000 for the 2020-21 academic year, along with opportunities to connect with fellow scholars and Google mentors.

“I’m pretty new to studying games and never thought I would receive such a prestigious award,” says Abel, noting that her research is situated at the nexus of anthropology, human-computer interaction, design, game studies, and feminist and gender studies. She is researching identity formation in middle schoolers, “particularly how the interweaving of design, marketing and social media around games exclude girls from those spaces,” she says. “I also study the ways in which families play together and the ways this could mitigate some of the negative effects of stereotypes.” Using ethnographic methods, she aims to “inform design to mitigate toxicity and hate in gaming communities.”

Abel is currently focused on advancing to candidacy and finishing her Ph.D., but her ultimate goal is to “contribute to the design of games and gaming communities that promote messages of collaboration, understanding, hope and nonviolence.” She believes that interventions can have lasting impacts, which is why she’s working to better understand middle school and high school students. “If we can find ways to expand young people’s ways of thinking early on, we may have a chance to build a better future and foster positive communities around games.”

Cullen applied to be a Women Techmakers Scholar as soon as she noticed the scholarship specifically for gaming research. “It’s an incredible opportunity,” says Cullen, whose dissertation explores how working and playing in the context of video game livestreaming may be different for women. “My hope is that by understanding these differences, we can find more ways to mitigate or even prevent the spread of harmful behaviors online, develop tools and frameworks that support the contributions of women and others who are marginalized and minoritized online, and strengthen our understanding of the complexities of life online.” Through her work, she hopes to encourage others to consider how “new technologies and new practices online can be designed to protect and support human vulnerability and difference, and furthermore to raise awareness of when that doesn’t happen.”

Cullen also points out how the global pandemic has “highlighted the importance of social life online, and the degree to which we rely on information technology infrastructure and networks.” Platforms like Twitch, where Cullen is interning while finishing her dissertation, have experienced an increase in traffic as COVID-19 pushes people into self-isolation. “Livestreaming has become a crucial part of this infrastructure that is supporting sociality from a distance,” she says. “As livestreaming continues to grow in both utilization and importance, I anticipate we’ll see even more creative uses for this technology as well as more opportunities for self-expression, forming relationships and learning new skills.” She plans to pursue a career in which she can conduct research that “applies a critical perspective and qualitative methods to understanding the issues that complicate life online.”

Shani Murray