Growing Up As a Girl Gamer

The final post in our International Women’s Week series comes from Ashlyn Sparrow of Ci3’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab.

As a kid, my favorite color was blue and I had an intense aversion to dresses, as they were too “windy”.  My toy chest consisted of action figures, Barbies, Legos (that glow in the dark!) and an Easy Bake Oven. However, the best toy was my police car. With its flashing red and blue lights, the car was constantly on the look out for Barbie who had a mild case of kleptomania. How else was she getting all those clothes?


Ken: “This is the last time I’m bailing you out, B.”

My dad built computers.  I would always watch him and eventually we started building them together.  Ever since, I’ve always enjoyed technology.  I remember my eleventh birthday; he bought me a PlayStation and three games: Tomb Raiders, Spice World and Final Fantasy VIII (FFVIII). The latter sounded cooler, so I connected the PlayStation to my TV and inserted disc one; the opening cut scene changed my life, forever. The graphics were beautiful; the music was amazing; I had never seen anything like it. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I ran to the living room where my parents were watching TV and I said in a loud voice, “Mommy, Daddy, I know what I want to do when I grow up. I want to create video games!”

Thus, began my journey into video games, nerd culture…and gender roles!

As you have probably gathered, I was pretty gender neutral.  Growing up, I never heard “Girls don’t build computers or girls don’t play with Legos”. I was just a nerdy little kid who constantly shared her excitement about video games, “pokemans” and other things my parents didn’t understand.  So you can imagine my surprise when all the boys in my class would say:

“You play games? But you’re…a girl.”

“Girls don’t play games.”

“Girls aren’t good at games.”

I was utterly confused. Especially since I was living proof that girls play games and are, in fact, good at them. Interestingly enough, this was around Christmas time and my school had a large party. We could watch movies, or even play video games.  Of course I brought in my PlayStation and commenced to dominate in Tekken, SoulCalibur, and Dead or Alive for the entire day. These boys never bothered me again. But at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling a little weird.

Was it wrong for me to play video games?  Was it wrong for me to hate romance? Was it wrong for to study martial arts?


What does my gender have to do with my interests and hobbies?

Not a damn thing.   

Why can’t I be a warrior and a princess?

Sounds epic.

Girls play games.  Girls program computers. Girls write epic sci-fi fantasies. Girls can do whatever interests them.  

And guess what?

Boys like pink. Boys bake cookies.  Boys wear make up. Boys can do whatever interests them.

Gender roles are nothing more than a societal construct of to put people in boxes. There is absolutely nothing wrong with breaking out of the norm; don’t be embarrassed, embrace it. Never let anyone dictate who you are and what you like based on your gender.  Do what makes you happy and live life to the fullest!

Ashlyn with storm trooper

Ashlyn Sparrow is a Learning Design Specialist at Ci3’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab. Follow her on Twitter and check out her Tumblr at

Behind the Screen: A Female Game Developer’s First Job

In honor of International Women’s Week, the Ci3/Section blog is spotlighting the stories of our staff and constituents. Today, game designer Amanda Dittami recollects her strange and first professional experience in the game industry. 

Ages ago I worked at game development studio for a short period of time. Thinking back, I realize this instant lasted for about 3 weeks. During this eternity it felt more like 1,814,400 grueling seconds. The following is an arrangement of nonsense, quadruple entendres (divided by four) and recollection of what eventually led to the demise of me working there. Out of respect I will not include proper nouns. In and of itself I will use most other word forms.


After I got the call I felt a surge of excitement that gravitationally pulled me to the floor. This uncoordinated motion was followed by Kool & the Gang, courtesy of two friends. I had just got my first job in the game industry.

amanda1Although measly, I was glad to have any position and felt an energy that I can only (scientifically) describe as “adrenaliney”. It was not until after my first day that I realized the error of my excitement and poor choice in a supposedly scientific term.

The horror of working there did not stem from tedious tasks, long commute or even small pay. Most of the job was quite pleasant. My co-workers were friendly, the atmosphere was welcoming, and there was a kitchen with free food and a bowl of delicious candy at the front desk, its contents for the taking (in which I did partake. feverishly). Rather, the dreadful dismay derived from a deep daunting dilemma from within. But I do not digress.

The game I was paid to play for 8 hours a day 3-4 days a week went against most fibers of my being. Since these filaments had already been contaminated by similar products, I could not turn the other being. I was helping produce the very propaganda that has affected me and many other girls and women (in one way or another). This (per)version was to be packaged for preteen girls (ages 9-15). Most of its features included shallow ideals, dancing promiscuously, lack of diversity and a cast of ditzy girls who think skool is st00pid (lololol). After a week or so I voiced some thoughts about the game with two of my supervisors. I let them know that I felt it seemed irresponsible to target such a young and specific age group with potentially harmful paradigms.  I also asked them what they thought of the game. One said he thought it was better than selling violent games (to which I pointed out at least have rating (as ineffective as they may (parenthetically) be)). The other felt similarly but remarked that the “intellectual” property could not be changed.

amanda2My inner conflict remained unresolved and quickly began to seep into life outside of the studio, staining my thoughts and ruining my ability to sleep soundly. I would often lie in bed thinking about it. I could see the credits rolling on the back of my eyelids: there was my name, listed. Imagined proof that I helped unleash a destructively dancing monster laden in pink, singing about getting revenge on the girl her boyfriend cheated on her with. I would often lie to myself and say it didn’t really matter. My pathetic attempt at excusing my prolonged participation consisted of something I had to do in order to get the chance to work on better games in the future. Thankfully, it was a failed attempt.

Suddenly, I put in my two weeks notice.

Don’t tell anyone but I did not disclose the primary reason for jumping ship.


amanda4Amanda Dittami is a game designer artist and project lead at Game Changer Chicago Design Lab. 

Art by Amanda Dittami.

Beneath the Drape: The Work of Gynecological Teaching Associates

In honor of International Women’s Week, the Ci3/Section blog is spotlighting the stories of our staff and constituents. Today, research specialist Erin Jaworski shares her past experiences as a gynecological teaching associate.

During graduate school at the University of Minnesota, I fell into an unusual line of work.  At the time, I was underemployed and soaking up as many diverse opportunities that I could balance while working towards a Masters degree in Public Health. If it hadn’t been for this reincarnation as a student in a new field and the resulting openness to novel experience, I probably would not have responded to the enigmatic request for “Patient Educators” hidden at the bottom of the University Women’s Center email and probably never would have begun work as gynecological teaching associate.

Unless you are a medical professional, it is unlikely you’ve heard of gynecological teaching associates or even imagined that such a line of work exists. A comprehensive discussion of the field could easily fill a very interesting book or at least a solid season of a cable television series. In brief, gynecological teaching associates, or GTAs, are laywomen specially trained in leading gynecological workshops for students in medical professions, using their own bodies to teach. Yes, their own bodies.

GTAs were introduced in the early 1970s by Dr. Robert Kretzschmar at the University of Iowa. Prior to the adoption of this instructional model, the medical establishment had a variety of sordid methods for instructing in these exams relying on anesthetized women, cadavers, or plastic pelvic replicas. I hope that time has obviated the need for elaborating on the heinous ethical and legal considerations of exploiting anesthetized women and cadavers. However, the historical use of inanimate pelvic models alone has it’s own unsavory implications, reducing women to not much more than their anatomy. Enter gynecological teaching associates, (consenting) women trained and paid to instruct in the delivery of competent and comfortable, patient-centered gynecological exams.

gta pic

Image courtesy of

Over the years, the gynecological teaching model has become a standard at medical schools across the country and their pedagogical value has been well documented. GTAs receive extensive training in physiology and anatomy, exam technique, and interpersonal communication. During a session, we will lead a group of students through the breast and pelvic exams providing real time feedback and instruction, while maintaining a focus on practicing strong patient-provider communication. The workshop content is broad and may span everything from using appropriate eye contact during the exam to identifying non-verbal indicators of discomfort or pain to navigating how to find and palpate those oh-so-elusive ovaries.

It probably goes without saying, but many of the students practicing the breast and pelvic exams for the first time are tremendously nervous. Beyond their fear of causing injury to another person and their desire to appear competent, they are confronted with the unavoidable reality of nudity, genitalia, and vaginal penetration—all hypersexualized and private domains in our culture. In these workshops, we offer an interactive and non-threatening learning environment that mitigates anxiety and fosters confidence by way of providing technical expertise, verbal feedback, and humor.

Many people are supportive of this work. However, I continue to be the recipient of my share of askew glances when I talk about leading the GTA workshops. Sometimes people perseverate on the awkwardness of being naked and examined by strangers or question the implications of “renting” your body to medicine.

On the contrary, I see this work as a rare opportunity for women to literally lead the study of and conversations about women and women’s bodies in the medical world. The evolution of Gynecological Teaching Associates is a history of female empowerment, from passive anatomies and medical exploitation to the creation of a unique, impactful model where women are the experts of their bodies and experiences. While, sadly, we’ve yet to reach an era where every clinician is sensitive and communicative and every well women visit is free of pain and embarrassment, GTAs are on the job. One exam at a time.

Erin Jaworski is a Research Specialist at Ci3 and the Section of Family Planning and Contraceptive Research.

The History and Politics of Hair

In honor of International Women’s Week, the Ci3/Section blog is spotlighting the experiences of our staff and constituents. Today, Political Science Doctoral candidate Dilara K. Üsküp discusses the history and politics of hair.

Since December I have decided to embark on a journey wearing wigs and weaves until June. My only experience with hair extensions was at Michigan when I walked in college fashion shows. Thus far I have received a variety of reactions from friends, colleagues, and complete strangers about my hair. Some were convinced I cut my hair, others were not so sure what I did, and those that I considered friends knew.

As an American woman of both Turkish and African descent I recognize hair becomes a cultural, religious, political, economic, gendered, sexualized, and racialized expression.

Hair has a rich global history. Particularly, within the American experience African American hair has been associated with an ideology of ascription of White conceptions of femininity, beauty, and womanhood. There are those that believe Black women have embraced hairstyles and beauty approaches that are reflected of prevalent Eurocentric notions and standards of beauty. Some maintain that replicating Eurocentric standards of beauty, styling, and grooming directly enable Black women to be accepted by White culture and potential employers, educational institutions, and the like. Others have argued that historically during the 19th century Black women practiced hair processes such as straightening to reduce perceptions of being hypersexual. African American hair procedures, styling, and performance are intrinsically rooted within a cultural history acknowledging the ways race, gender, class, and sexuality interact in the way one performs their identity.

Recently, the natural hair movement has emerged as a means for African American women and men to present their “natural hair”. Now the term “natural” is fully loaded and depending on who you ask you may receive a different answer. Some define “natural hair” as a maintaining one’s normal texture—not altering one’s hair texture through chemical straighteners, colors, relaxers, texturizes—and using minimal heat processing. Others profess that “natural hair” consists of being wig and weave free. There is a cadre of natural hair definitions complete with various tutorials and a growing industry of hair care products to support this burgeoning hair care movement. As a person who wears her hair “natural” in the summer time—I wash it with conditioner, throw some oil in it and leave the house—and styled in the wintertime—I go to the salon biweekly and have it blow-dried and flat ironed—I do not necessary consider myself as a complete natural hair devotee. Admittedly, I enjoy coloring my hair once a year and trying new hairstyles.

As I noted recently I am embracing weaves and wigs. During this past month, Black History Month, I became frustrated when on occasion scrolling through my Twitter or Instagram profile and seeing memes—an image with usually a funny header and or footer—conflating “natural hair” and “Blackness”. Interestingly enough many of the memes I saw were being uploaded by Black men. I was so fascinated with these memes I began searching hashtags associated with Black power. One in particular said “Natural hair is fly (but you know that)” with an Afro pick depicted as the image with a caption below of “Stop trying to look like White #blackgirlwithnaturalhair #girlswithdreeds #blackqueens” the comment went on. I found this incredibly frustrating and problematic.

hair beauty meme

By wearing hair weaves and wigs was I some sort of race traitor, was I not Black enough? To associate one’s hair with one’s racial and ethnic identity is just as degrading and problematic as associating one’s skin tone with one’s racial and ethnic identity. Factually, the association of phenotype with race has and continues to have devastating consequences on the identities of men and women. I began to wonder if these self professed enthusiasts of the Black Power movement were in fact so imprisoned by these generic delusions of Blackness and so shackled by the cuffs of White hegemony that they failed to see any other nonracially motivated and logical explanations for a woman who wears wigs, weaves, or styles their hair in a particular way? How acceptable is it to make a gross assumption and generalization of Black women and hair that seeks to further marginalize them, their choice, their gender display, their self conceptualization and their image?

hair beauty meme

Furthermore, many of the memes conflating natural hair and Blackness were projected by Black men—this could of course not be statistically significant and there are all sorts of selection biases through social media—but there is a unique relationship about the Black bodies in relation to one another specifically how we see each other, evaluate standards of beauty, and notions of ourselves through others. Arguably, men have too added to the self-conceptualization of women by desiring particular hairstyles, hair lengths, and hair colors. I find it admirable that Black men are growingly supporting diverse expressions of Black femininity, gender, and womanhood. However, we must be careful not to make assumptions and generalizations about one’s gender performance. Obviously, this conversation is steeped in a larger conversation about gender display, standards of beauty, and bodies in general and I in no way intend to minimize the natural hair movement, movements of Black Power, and larger movements of identity but I do challenge ourselves to relate more deeply and more consciously to the human experience.

Late last year, my mother who I fondly call “The Mommykins” was diagnosed with Her2Positive Breast Cancer. As a result of her diagnosis and treatment she has endured surgeries, now chemotherapy, and radiation. As a result she has suffered side effects associated with her treatment, not limited to nausea, and more importantly, hair thinning and hair thinning. When I asked her what made her feel like a woman she answered her breasts and hair, for her cancer has attacked the two things that make her feel feminine—thus her own perception of herself. The Mommykins and I are very close she is truly a best friend, a motivator, a consigliere, I could go on ad nauseam. I decided to start wearing weave as a result of her treatment because I knew according to the evidence, research, and conversations with her providers that she was going to lose her hair. If I could I would go through the treatment for her so she would not have to suffer but I cannot. I, however, can wear wigs and weaves in solidarity as she embraces them. We are becoming “Weaveologists”—experts in weaves and wigs together. It has become a family affair as even my partner Michael has purchased The Mommykins a wig. As I travel back and forth during the quarter to attend my mother’s chemo and other treatments we embrace wig shopping and the eternal quest for her to find a Weaveologist as expert as mine, Shari in Chicago, in metro Detroit. The truth of the matter is that cancer sucks and through this experience we have to find ways to have fun. For The Mommykins and I we are having fun with experimenting with our hair through this moment of health devastation. I know there are some other Weavologists in training out there and no one should have to feel judged as a result choosing to become one. Life is complicated, hair is complicated, and the human experience is complicated. The more we are accepting and open to a multitude of human expressions the more we can grow to understand each other. We truly never know what someone else is going through so who are we to judge.

natural hair meme

 Dilara K. Üsküp is a second year Doctoral Student in Political Science at the University of Chicago. Her broad interests include public opinion at the intersection of religiosity, race, gender, and sexuality.

(All images courtesy of Essence Magazine)

Working as a Female Critic

In honor of International Women’s Week, we’re spotlighting the experiences of our staff members, supporters and constituents. Today, Ci3 Communications Manager Lauren Whalen discusses her experiences as a Chicago theater critic.

Here’s the thing about female critics: there really aren’t that many.

Go to any film or theater preview or opening and look in the press section. Chances are, you’ll see mostly men, with the occasional woman trying hard not to look too out of place. Often, male critics are loudly pontificating their opinions to anyone who will listen. As a woman, I’m more careful. Not that I’m not confident in my reviews, but I’ve experienced the consequences.

When I’m not at Ci3, I work as a critic. I’ve reviewed film since 2009, theater since 2011. I’ve grown accustomed to being outnumbered, to having my opinions ignored, pushed aside or downright insulted. And occasionally, disgruntled audience members, cast, staff and random readers with bones to pick, get personal.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. I’ve always had a passion for movies, and I’ve been a performer since I was four years old. Every time I step into a cinema, a playhouse, or a church basement, I strive to keep an open mind, to avoid being one of Those Critics who hate everything they see and choose verbal snark over thoughtful critique, to make my voice as a woman heard. It’s not always easy.

In March 2013, I reviewed a show I didn’t like. Let’s be honest: I couldn’t stand it. I found the dialogue trite, the comedy manufactured, and the heroine an absolute twit. Moreover, I felt the show was written with someone like me (a single woman in her early thirties) in mind, which I found supremely insulting. I love a fun romantic comedy, but this show came across as patronizing, reducing young women to little more than whiny parasites whose only purpose in life was to find a man to take care of them. The playwright was male, and I imagined he’d seen one too many Katherine Heigl movies and made the assumption that this is what all women were like.

Never the Bridesmaid


After my review was published, it was the number one-viewed piece on the website and received over 40 comments. Go on, read some. You’ll see that my family is insulted, that I’m accused of trying to speak for my entire gender (when I clearly state in the review that I’m not speaking for my entire gender), and that people on the Internet can get very nasty. I also received an email from the lead actress, something that hasn’t happened before or since in almost three years of reviewing theater.

Of course, it’s not a surprise that people on the Internet can get nasty. But it’s astounding how many of these comments get personal. What does my family have to do with my opinions on a play? Why were they brought into this?

Also, this was not the first time I’ve encountered a barrage of negativity from one of my reviews.

Male critics aren’t immune to loud arguments from readers. In the digital age when anonymous commenting is so easy, no one gets away clean. However, female critics are especially vulnerable. A fellow theater writer has had her weight insulted (because we all know that one’s size is directly related to her opinions). What shook me the most about this particular review was the general feel I got from the negative comments: “This is a play about and for women. You’re a woman, so therefore you should like it and you are less of a woman because you don’t.”

It’s been almost a year, and I continue to review. I keep hoping to see more female faces in the press section. I know my opinions and my voice matter. But I still ask myself: if I were male, would my reviews be questioned so much? And sadly, I think I know the answer.