The Mice Girls

Sophia Chauchard-Stuart meets three programmers who are more interested in making their mark than breaking stereotypes
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Mary Newing played computer games for nearly 30 hours last week. And this was in her spare time. Suzanne "Maddi" Maddison, her fellow programmer at the London-based Intelligent Games, also admits that she is obsessed by computer games. "I started messing around with computers when I was about 11 or 12 and used to clone bits of games on my Spectrum computer," she says.

The Institution of Analysts and Programmers estimates that women make up only 28 per cent of their membership, but it's a number that is steadily increasing. Newing studied computing at Kingston University and Maddison studied computer science at Staffordshire University. Only 10 per cent of the people on their courses were female, but the third woman at Intelligent Games, designer Cathi Diet, studied at South Bank University, where women made up a third of the people on her course.

"People often get excited that I program games, and tell their children," Newing says. "Or, more often, they say that they've got something wrong with their PC, drag me off to a room somewhere, and ask if can I fix it."

Newing and Maddison started working at Intelligent Games soon after graduation. Diet had already designed software for IBM when she joined. "I came here because I was looking for something more artistic, that would use more of my graphics skills," Diet explains. "I find designing computer games very satisfying, creatively."

The company, based in leafy Fulham, west London, rather than an anonymous concrete industrial site, started eight years ago and is now one of the leading computer games development companies in the UK. It specialises in creative sports, strategy and adventure games on PC CD-Rom for publishers that include Maxis, Interplay, Mindscape and Electronic Arts.

All three women prefer playing and designing strategy games. Maddison is currently programming a first person combat puzzle game. Newing, who worked on SimIlse, a continuation of the highly popular SimCity games, is developing an isometric combat game, and Diet has spent time recently walking round Wentworth golf course with a video-camera.

"I am collecting data for additional course disks for PGA European Tour Golf," Diet explains, "taking photographs of all the different holes' dimensions; taking notes of the hazards and special bunkers, and the changing landscape, including all the trees around the course.

"It's quite a technical design," she explains. "I need to create three files - one that reads the textures, another file for the objects - such as the clubhouse - and the third for the information, which looks like an X-ray of the holes, with a grey-scale file that identifies all of the darker areas and the depth of the holes. All this makes the game as realistic as possible."

Newing says the excitement is tangible when she sees a game that she has programmed finally on the shelves. "You get given a copy of the game, but I never dare take off the cling film wrapper, because you're convinced it will crash if you try and play it. But when you see someone looking at it in the shops, you want to rush over and talk to them."

The question of gender doesn't seem to occur to these three women. Newing says that sometimes she is treated differently, but not in a negative way.

"I can't really explain how. I've never found anyone opposed to me because I'm a woman. Older men tend to treat you in a strange way, like they should apologise if they swear in front of you, but it's mostly younger men here at Intelligent Games.

"When I was at college, there was a section of guys on my course who were not good at relating to the world - let alone women - but by the time I got to work here I felt that everyone had grown up a bit."

What do these three think is the popular conception of a female programmer? After a long silence - the question obviously doesn't often occur to them - Diet suggests that it had become glamorised in recent years. "I think the image that is portrayed in films like Hackers has become quite sexy. Which I think very funny," she smiles.

"But," interrupts Maddison, "there was that woman in Wayne's World 2 who was just a female version of the nerd, wearing glasses and clutching a Unix book under her arm."

The three women at Intelligent Games are less worried about image, more interested in getting on and actually programming - and playing - games. Mary Newing swears that the 30 hours last week was unusual, and it's usually 10 to 15 hours, but Maddison doesn't even want to estimate how many hours she whiles away, and goes off into peals of laughter at the idean