According to UCAS, just 35 per cent of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students in the UK are women. It’s a disparaging gender gap, and the industry has pinpointed several reasons as to why it’s the case – these range from a lack of role models for women to outright sexism in universities and workplaces.
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As Wired identifies, deep-rooted sexism further leads to young women lacking the confidence to step into STEM fields. For Stephen Dewhurst, that’s an issue he feels that can partly be tackled through gaming. A neuroscientist turned game developer, Dewhurst has worked at companies across the gaming industry – including a fairly recent stint at Amazon.
“Thinking back on my time at Amazon is interesting, because it’s hard to be upset about it,” reflects Dewhurst. “I learned a ton and my career did really amazing, awesome things. I met a lot of people and I got to work on a product that I loved a ton and could have been amazing.”
The product in question is Crucible, a sci-fi shooter that Amazon Game Studios shut down in 2020. On Crucible‘s unfortunate end, Dewhurst says “it’s pretty apparent in hindsight – and honestly, was pretty apparent at the time – that that project was going to fail and that Amazon is not a great place to make games, because fundamentally, their executive leadership has a lot of hubris that stems from having been very successful at a bunch of a bunch of stuff.”
“There was a bunch of [meetings] where I can recall executives giving answers that, at the time, we were just like “that’s wildly incorrect””. Though Dewhurst says the Crucible team were “phenomenal,” he says that Amazon’s “draconian workplace policy” stopped him from growing out his talents in the way that he’d liked and eventually he left “for a few reasons”.
Fast forward to today. Far from the sci-fi violence of Crucible, Dewhurst is now working on Starlight Explorers – a light-hearted game about using physics to chart the stars. Though Dewhurst is open about how much he learned working at Amazon, he says that the idea for Starlight Explorers has been bouncing around for a while.
“Starlight actually has a really weird history. Before Amazon and before Microsoft, I was at DTC, which is a graduate programme at Carnegie Mellon, which is a very interesting and exciting experience.”
“My last semester, I was assigned to a project that was sponsored by the Carnegie Science Centre in Pittsburgh. They had a summer programme called Click Spy Academy, which was like a Mission Impossible-themed summer camp for preteen girls that was trying to get them more involved in STEM fields. But going to that camp was very expensive, and running that camp was very expensive, so their total reach was like 30 girls a summer or something – not enough to actually make an impact.”
“So they had this idea: “if we digitise this into an online experience, we can theoretically provide this service to thousands and thousands of young women, and really push their goal much more than an in-person camp. Our goal was to take this experience [and] put it online to the degree that we could.”
For Dewhurst, who was the design lead for the project, that meant using the team’s limited resources to create a game.
“Our team composition was two engineers an artist, and five designers, which is not a correct team composition,” laughed Dewhurst. “And so as a design lead, I looked at that and said “okay designers, you’re all going to have different minigames and your job is all your minigames need to be very small on features and very heavy on content – you need to be able to ask an engineer to do this for you in like a week,” because we don’t have the engineering resources to go around.”
“Up until that point I hadn’t done much programming in my life [but] it became clear that even with that strategy, engineering was just wildly overtasked. The game that was mine – which became Starlight Explorers – I ended up just taking over the engineering part of that and just sort of built that out.”
And so began the early roots of Starlight Explorers, which – much later – launched on Steam in 2021. Though Dewhurst followed a winding path to get there, it’s likely that Starlight Explorers would not have seen the light of day without taking that route.
“I would not have made that game,” says Dewhurst, who’s adds that he’s a bigger fan of strategy games and the occasional shooter. “I would never have, on my own, been like, I’m going to go out and I’m gonna make a physics simulator that teaches a little bit of astrophysics to young women. I was actually a neuroscientist before I was a game designer, so it’s in my wheelhouse, it’s just not a thing I would have thought to do.”
“I’m a very cautious person. When I got out of ETC, I had a lot of friends who [said] “you’re really good at design, you should start an indie studio”. For me, it’s always sort of been…why would I think that would succeed? I don’t have a resume for that – I’m a very smart designer, does that translate into a successful game? Probably not, that sounds risky!”
For Dewhurst, who says that Starlight Explorers has “done a little bit worse” than he was expecting, raking in the profits isn’t how he would measure its success – in fact, Dewhurst would rather give it away for free if it meant getting it into more hands and doing some good.
“If there was a way to inject this into a bunch of school systems as a free thing where young women could have access to this, that would be amazing – I would love that, [but] I don’t know how to do that. I am very driven to that same goal, figuring out those STEM demographics.”
Figuring out how to go about that via gaming is tough. Dewhurst says games framed as educational have “so many hurdles,” one of which being people who see the tag and would rather play a “real game”. That’s where Dewhurst’s experience as a neuroscientist steps in.
“You can trick the brain into doing all sorts of things – and some of those are bad! But some of those are great, and I think that Starlight is a good example. Starlight does not teach you to be an astrophysicist, it’ll teach you basic orbital mechanics and if you’re really paying attention it teaches you some very subtle things like the visual effects that make up stars change their colours according to size, and [that’s] correct. There’s a little bit of education in there, but that’s not the point. The point is, someone had an experience that was linked to astrophysics in which they were put in the role of an astrophysicist and they felt like they were really good at it, and they were rewarded for being really good at it – and they felt there [are] cool people in that space.”
Rather than cramming Starlight Explorers with educational content, Dewhurst says he hopes players take away a few more general topics – namely “science is interesting, there’s cool people like you that do science, you can be very successful at this thing.”
Dewhurst’s approach – burying the educational aspect several layers under genuinely compelling gameplay – is one that he’s fond of seeing elsewhere. Pointing to Offworld Trading Company, Dewhurst says he likes how the game “teaches you a bunch of things about colonisation” without making that the focus. Likewise, Dewhurst feels that other games could take some notes.
“Here’s my slightly spicy take on this: I think more games could definitely do this. If you look at something like Mass Effect – which has different goals, so I’m not gonna blame the team – but Mass Effect could have done this, in a way that it didn’t. [Mass Effect] has a bunch of things where you land on planets, and you find deposits, but they don’t mean anything to you. A bunch of them are just made-up stuff anyways – that didn’t have to be the case! They could’ve built more orbital mechanics or real science into those plotlines.”
Through this approach, Dewhurst thinks that the games industry could really push making games a force for positive change.
“My first memorable gaming experience was playing Planetscape Torment in the ’90s. That game has some really interesting things to say about the morality of murder! I remember reading a bunch of that dialogue and being like, this is sort of horrifying, but it’s not wrong. The thing about that is if at that age, someone had dropped me a book by Nietzsche, I don’t know if I would have read a lot of philosophy. But having this cool story with these cool characters in this cool art and wanting to win, I think is a big part of it, right? Like, I want to get better at this thing, I’m driven to be successful: you just take all of this into you.”
“Starlight is a small project, but it is very much built with that sort of love. I don’t know how many people are gonna play or have access to it, but I hope we’ve accomplished our goal of making a thing that has a good on-ramp so that you feel like you can be successful, and [it] has cool characters that you want to be like…and has that mastery curve where you want to keep playing it, you want to get into it, because it’s a thing you feel you can achieve.”
On encouraging players to explore certain subjects deeper – astrophysics, in the case of Starlight Explorers – Dewhurst says that games can be “ultra-effective” at this because “they are fun and intrinsically motivating.”
“I played 700 hours of Civilization and I learned about these five ancient buildings I otherwise wouldn’t. And when you look at that from a schooling standpoint, that’s terrible! You probably shouldn’t go to school for a semester just to learn what the Eiffel Tower is. That’s bad. But games can be an amazing reinforcement mechanism, because it’s what people want to do anyways. For me, it’s all about the curiosity aspect – I would not put more explicitly educational things in games, but the more that you can tie in things just enough that you have to notice them, and are interesting enough that you can pull up Wikipedia on your other monitor, I think is awesome! You’re not trying to replace education, you’re just trying to take this amazing leisure activity and give it this bonus – you learned about stuff!”
Though Starlight Explorers hasn’t reached as many people as Dewhurst had hoped – an issue with Steam requiring a minimum amount of user reviews means it’s not being advertised as much as it should – that hasn’t taken away from the game’s positive reception.
“I have a co-worker who has a couple of young daughters who I think are seven and three. He’s a wonderful friend and was helping me alpha test things. He knows that it’s aimed sort of in that demographic so he was having them play [Starlight Explorers]. A couple of weeks after I sent him his trial copy, I was in a work meeting with him on Zoom and he kept getting distracted, kind of looking down and saying “no, not right now”. These two little girls pop up and say “when is your meeting over? When can we play the space game?””
If you’d also like to play “the space game”, Starlight Explorers is available on Steam – and if you like it, why not leave a review?