Once upon a time, the issue of gender in games was tied up with the problem of getting women interested in videogames. But that time has long since passed – every survey conducted now shows that there are only marginally fewer female console players than male, and in the casual space there are more female players than male.
So why is it that high profile videogames are primarily designed for a male teenage audience, and marketed to this audience using highly sexualised and sexist imagery?
The answer to this question is not as simple as it first seems, so to begin with, let us air out some well established problems. Firstly, the games industry largely employs men. Partly, this is because women often don’t consider videogames as a career option, partly the inherent gender bias of the industry makes it difficult to attract or keep women employees.
Secondly, the games industry generally speaking does not understand games or play – rather, it employs people who have enjoyed videogames in their youth and who thus have beliefs about videogames based solely on their own prior play experiences, which in part because of the pre-existing biases represents a lot of teen boy fantasies of violence and power. This is what videogames mean to most people who work in the games industry, and it functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Thirdly, the marketing departments of videogame companies only know how to market to male customers, which is a result of both of the first two issues, and since these companies are not making many products targeting a female audience (“pink games” excluded) there is little momentum towards changing this state of affairs. That game stores tend to “stink of boy” is the final nail in the coffin – even the retail outlets are not friendly to a female audience.
All this makes the videogame industry as a whole seem to be the unequivocal bad guy – but sadly, there are actually a few sound commercial reasons why we have dug ourselves into this rut. The principle factor behind this appalling state of affairs is so hideously simple it may even read as offensive: statistically speaking, women in Western society would rather buy a pair of shoes than a videogame. There are indeed a great many women game players – but the economic expenditure by this market sector is substantially less than male game players.
Of course, you can see this as an outgrowth of the same problems already identified – the games aren’t geared towards them, so why would they be interested? If you dig into the matter, however, you will find that even when female players are interested in games they are (statistically) much less likely to justify the expenditure of hard-earned money on a game versus some other purchase. Some even get boyfriends or relatives to buy the games they want – they don’t even want to be seen buying a game!
I believe this is more than just the by-product of the pre-existing biases in the industry. It is difficult not to notice that the majority of big game releases are built around the competitive play pattern – players experiencing excitement and anger as they face challenges which they eventually beat to earn fiero (the rush of triumph). This play pattern is extremely addictive in any player whose play style is compatible with it – and the players who are most attracted to this style of play appear to be predominantly teenage boys.
This is presumably why the games industry is so insanely geared towards making first person shooters and the like, even though the most successful of these games rarely sell more than about five million units or so (with a few choice exceptions), and other types of game can pull in two or three times these figures. Fiero-addicted players (mostly teenage boys) can’t get enough of the games that deliver this play experience, and it drives them to buy more and more of this style of game. Trouble is, because most publishers are so stuck in this groove, competition between these titles is fiercer than ever – and in the meantime, Nintendo and EA are pocketing a fortune reaching out to a wider audience with games like Nintendogs, BrainAge and The Sims.
What the games industry is waiting for is not a new age of “games for girls” (or games for women for that matter) but a new era of mature game design practices, in which the audience is understood as being diverse both in its play needs, and in the skills that they enjoy using. In such a game industry, games need not be thought of as being for male or female players, but rather designed reflecting wider concerns with significant benefits for players of both genders. A palpable first step towards this is hiring more female employees across the board – in development, in publishing, in marketing.
The new gender agenda isn’t “games for girls” but “games for everyone” – it just happens that, given the extent to which female players have been neglected thus far, they remain the chief minority group in terms of representation.
Unfortunately, this makes the solution to the problem seem far simpler than it is. Design without resorting to the competitive play pattern seems like it would work – and make no doubt that I do believe that there is a huge untapped market for games with no dying, less killing, more comedy, and more romance. (I’m convinced I can make a hit game adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, for instance).
But the budgets upon which console games are developed has grown to such an absurd size on the back of “farming” the teenage boy’s addiction to fiero, such that this mould is incredibly hard to break. EA and Nintendo can push past the problems through the application of substantial marketing resources (The Sims would have failed without this), but it’s not so easy for everyone else to make this change. In fact, publishers shy away from anything “Sims-like” on one of two assumptions: that The Sims is a fluke (which is naive) or that they don’t have the money to market against The Sims (which is shrewd, but depressing).
To make the games that don’t resort to the competitive play pattern commercially successful requires something to compensate for the absence of the inherent addictiveness of fiero – something that isn’t just massive marketing spend. And here we draw something of a blank, because nothing we have to offer seems to stack up against the easy sell of another shooter or racer, although a solid progression structure with many rewards helps considerably. So facing weaker commercial prospects, innovative games end up with smaller budgets, and thus fail to compete on visuals, or – more commonly – are never signed, and never made. (While ironically, a well made and well marketed innovative game can sell more than ten million units, and may face little or no market competition).
It doesn’t help matters that most game designers are obsessed with game design issues that are vastly out of step with the needs of a wider audience. It’s all very well complaining that the power consoles have focussed on graphics power instead of AI and other bells and whistles – but all that fancy stuff doesn’t provide as much of a commercial advantage as pretty visuals. Anyone can understand a pretty picture – it takes a highly literate player to appreciate the subtleties of more complex game designs. (Then again, I'm not convinced anyone in the mass market can tell the difference between the graphics on the Xbox 360 and those on the old Xbox, unless you actually put them side-by-side...)
Given all these problems, what is the solution? The only way forward seems to be the one I have already mentioned: hire more women to work in development, publishing and marketing. Until we reach some semblance of parity in employment we will struggle to break out of the gender-biased rut that the industry has fallen into. It’s not the cure to all our ills – it just happens to be the most practical way to proceed.
Games for everyone is the new gender agenda – a games industry where any player can find games they want to play, regardless of their gender or play preferences – but getting there is going to be a struggle of epic proportions.