Five Flash Games (2)
Beat Your Metaphor with a Stick

Culture, Gender & Games

The trouble with analysing game play in gender terms is that it's a very coarse filter. It's got two bins - male and female - and any conclusions you draw from the commonalities in those bins are very broad, and doubtless exclude a lot of subtleties. That's why we are drawn to audience models which do not make any reference to gender, such as our DGD1 and (coming soon?) DGD2 models, Nicole Lazarro's Four Keys and the notorious Bartle type model.

Alice usually posts pictures, so it's nice to see her deciding to get verbal for a change, as in her recent post GTA made me do it. Also, she reports on Ernest's talk on women in games. Ernest has been a part of International Hobo now for about four years, but we mostly meet up face to face only when we're speaking at the same conventions... We're a highly virtual company. A brief aside on Alice's summary of Ernest's keynote: when he speaks negatively about market-driven design, his point is that the game must have a vision, not that there is anything wrong with market-orientation per se; every commercial game must always aim to at least make back its development costs. (Unless his views have changed significantly in the last month!)

One point Alice makes interests me in particular:

Perhaps there are gender differences around realism in games: maybe violence appeals less when it's more realistic.  But again, maybe that's cultural: Japanese game design is all about the fantasy, whereas American game design is all about the reality. Curious?

I've been wondering about this... I'm going to dip into Temperament Theory briefly, so be warned. In terms of games, we associate fantasy (and sci fi) settings with the Rational and Idealist temperaments (traits which are reflected in about 25% of the population), whereas a desire for realism is more associated with the Artisan and Guardian temperaments (traits which are reflected in about 75% of the population).

American game design may favour realism because US game development is more democratic - and I use the word here in a negative connotation. Democracy is great... except if you're in the minority. And the Rational and Idealist are a minority in strict terms. As the market has driven Western games, they have veered ever more towards the mass market, and hence to the majority temperaments, and hence towards realism.

On the other hand, in Japan, career choices are driven to some degree by vocational tests and other elements which mean that many Japanese people end up in jobs which are effectively selected for them, rather than choosing their career path. (I don't consider this to be an innately negative approach, incidentally - and many Japanese people are grateful for the guiding hand). I wonder if it is not the case that those with the Rational or Idealist tendencies don't tend to make up the majority of Japanese developer staff, because of this vocational guidance system. Although it must to be said, the Japanese culture at large is more open to innovation, so it may reflect wider cultural issues.

We associate the Rational and Idealist temperaments more with Hardcore players than with Casual (for whom the Artisan and Guardian temperaments are more closely associated), and as such it may be the case that the export market for Japanese games tends to appeal to the Hardcore more than the Casual market. This indeed may be the problem Japanese game developers are encountering - the global market is becoming more homogenised, and therefore more focused on realism, less on inventive fantasy.

The way I see it, the Rational and Idealist players are still around, they just make a smaller market. But, they're still a market - and if we're right and this reflects a considerable volume of Hardcore players, there's a lot of vocal game evangelists in that market. It may only be 25% of the market as a whole (in broad strokes) but its a group that can be polarised more readily, and as such may be a more stable market. Which is to say, even if there are three times as many potential customers in the Artisan-Guardian market, you won't capture even a third of this market without the help of a license or the zeitgeist.

Perhaps, then, the Artisan-Guardian mass market can be left to do its thing, while the Rational-Idealist market can also survive making interesting and original games to target about a quarter of the market. (It suggests these games should use a quarter or less of the development budget of a mass market game).

How does this relate to gender? It doesn't, because play needs do not (as far as we or any other game audience model researcher we've found can tell) strictly hinge on gender issues. But, as Sheri Grainer Ray points out in her book, the problem is not strictly that we aren't making games for women but rather that we are making games which are off putting to women.

A recent list of the Top Ten Game Cliches, number 4 is "Ridiculous portrayals of females", or as we have termed it, Oversized Novelty Breast Syndrome. Most games (especially Western games) suffer from the problem that they are designed to be adolescent male power fantasies - and generally this makes them quite unappealing to women. But it is usually not the case that the game couldn't be enjoyed by female players - if it was made in a less gender offensive fashion.

Then there is the issue of violence. So many games are based upon violence that we sometimes forget that it's not a given. As Alice says:

Maybe we all believe the hype that games are all about violence and shooting and boys? And yet a cursory think produces  Beyond Good And Evil, Katamari Damacy, King's Quest, The Hobbit, The Sims, Monkey Island, Rachet and Cla-.. ok I stop, the list is endless.

Ratchet and Clank, incidentally, should not be in that list. Unless she's being ironic, Alice seems to have momentarily forgotten that this is a game about violence and shooting - it just happens to have a cartoon representation. My wife, who has become an avid game player perhaps by necessity of being married to me, did not get on with the game despite generally loving 3D platformers - because the primary interaction with the world is shooting weaponry (albeit amusing weaponry). NiGHTS: Into Dreams perhaps would be a better additional example, although it is becoming an increasingly obscure reference.

As many people have noted, it's not about making games for women so much as it is about making games which don't appear to actively exclude women. That's why Sheri talks about gender inclusive game design.

And it's not just the game design, either. Marketing, as Alice points out, is another key issue... I actually think it could be the biggest problem right now, as lacklustre industry marketeers target adolescent boys because they happen know how to target them. But I know that marketing people do know how to advertise to women, because I've seen tampon advertisements. (Hey, they make me want to buy tampons sometimes, so effective are they at portraying their lifestyle choice). Does marketing know how to advertise in a gender independent fashion?

I'd like to take this moment to give a concrete example of the problem with marketing games. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time had the potential to appeal to a cross-gender market. It should have been advertised to a gender-neutral audience. Instead, the UK advertising used the tagline: "Will you get the girl? Or play like one." Shameful. Thankfully Nintendo have cleaned up their act somewhat since then.

I agree with Alice when she says that most issues of gender are actually issues of culture - because cultures tend to create gender-based roles and we, as learning creatures, tend to imitate and repeat those roles. As Ernest says (paraphrased by Alice):

There is no such thing as a universal sisterhood.   You don't know what goes on in the head of a woman in another culture because you don't know what's going on in their culture. You have more in common with a man of your own culture than you do a say, Masai woman. Femininity is ethnocentric. So you are feminine if you feel feminine whatever that means to YOU. This is key to making videogames that is meaningful to women. I have no idea what Japanese women want. Even less idea what a Maori woman wants. So all assertions about “what women want” are bullshit unless they come with a qualifier to say who you're talking about

His father was an anthropologist, and a lot of Ernest's viewpoints are strongly informed by this perspective.

We need to get past the cliches of gender in games and move forward into a place whereby games are designed and marketed to people, and not to penises (or for that matter, to ovaries). This is hard to do, because the market has found a relatively stable cluster in the form of what we used to call the Testosterone demographic. But the economics of targeting this cluster are insane - less than 10% of games make up 50% of the turnover, and of these 2.5% of the games make up 25% of the turnover.

Three words, which will expand and stabilise the market: diversify, diversify, diversify.

I suppose my next trick is to prove this. Give me a year or so, I'll see what we can do.


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"Although it must to be said, the Japanese culture at large is more open to innovation, so it may reflect wider cultural issues."

This is somewhat unrelated to your main point, but I must state how consistently amazed I am when people fall into the trap of thinking Japanese culture is more innovative because it produces some very unusual, idiosyncratic games. Sure, Katamari and DDR are very Japanese inventions that could only have happened there, but if it was up to the Japanese, we would likely never have seen the development of the FPS, or a title like GTA. They do innovate, and in different areas than the west innovates, but they are not as a whole any more innovative or open - Japanese culture is highly insular and I would imagine by extension perhaps even less open to innovation or risk taking than in the US. It always surprises me how readily we forget the untold numbers of Final Fantasys or Dragon Quests or Love Dating Sims whenever one unique title slips through the cracks.

"or as we have termed it, Oversized Novelty Breast Syndrome. Most games (especially Western games) suffer from the problem "

If you're implying Japanese games (or the culture at large, for that matter) don't suffer from a big breast fixation...I will remind you at this point of the Soul Calibur games, Dead or Alive, and the Final Fantasy series, amongst others. Japan is right there with the US in terms of breast fixation.

Yes, you're right... Oversized Novelty Breast Syndrome does occur in Japanese games as well as Western games. I wonder if the Japanese do it because they believe it is necessary to sell the games in the West? :)

Regarding the Japanese openess to innovation, although I don't live in Japan, I visit when I can (both for business and pleasure). It always strikes me that new fads spread more rapidly in Japan than in other countries. Perhaps this only affects the young people, as I do appreciate that there is a conservative and insular element to Japanese culture which is very much counter to this.

"I wonder if the Japanese do it because they believe it is necessary to sell the games in the West? :)"

They do it because it's neccessary to sell games in Japan. It doesn't take an in-depth look at idol/model or anime culture in Japan to see that their breast fixation equals that of the Wests. The more interesting question is, did we export that fetishism to Japan, or did they adopt it to seem more in tune with the West?

"It always strikes me that new fads spread more rapidly in Japan than in other countries."

I'm not sure that neccessarily means a culture of innovation - the fads behind many pop singers, here and in Japan, were driven not by innovation but by slick marketing. One could even say the US game development culture has adopted fads rapidly, like WW2 games and FPSes. No one is going to say that's indicative of innovation, but rather emulation.

Fixation on large breasts in the West definitely predates video games, so it seems to be an independent cultural element (unless the US exported it to Japan after World War II).

You're right, of course, that a culture prone to adopting fads does not equate to a culture of innovation automatically. Still, if I mentally line up inventive games in my head, the West only does well in the 1980s... Of course, I may just be biased in favour of Japanese design practices. :)

I'm not convinced that the take up of FPS' is a good example of 'rapid fad adoption'... it really did take quite a while to push this through to the mass market... Wolfenstein 1992, Goldeneye 1997. That's five years before they hit the big time.

Compare how quickly, say, the Pokemon or DDR games took off in Japan.

Of course, this may be a population density issue... The West has a considerably larger total population, spread over a wider area - it takes time to propagate changes at that scale. In Japan, fads occur only in the urban areas (I believe) where population is more "concentrated".

There's a parallel with the UK compared against the US or European music charts. The UK pop charts are the fastest moving in the world - because it's a smaller population, densely packed. US and European charts, averaged over a larger, more dispersed population, move an order of magnitude more slowly.

"You're right, of course, that a culture prone to adopting fads does not equate to a culture of innovation automatically. Still, if I mentally line up inventive games in my head, the West only does well in the 1980s... Of course, I may just be biased in favour of Japanese design practices. :)"

I'd have to say that takes a willful forgetfulness of the titles by Ancel, Meier, Spector, Wright, Molyneux, Koster, etc...Japan has certainly produced some remarkable innovations, but just as how we still see legions of unremarkable formula FPSes here, it is impossible to ignore the crush of overwrought Dragoon Warrior clones and dating sims in Japan.

Mostly I'm just tired of the inexplicably widespread belief that Japan is an order of magnitude more innovative than the West. It seems a lot of 'experts' aggregate the creativity of Katamari and DDR and the like and (wrongly) believe that is a good barometer for the health of the Japanese game industry. Japan is suffering the same creativity crises the rest of us are; when they do choose to innovate, it just occurs in different areas and ways than in the West. However, just because they innovate differently doesn't mean they innovate more.

Your comments got me thinking, James... See the post 'The Prophet's Home Town'. Thanks for forcing me to think this through!

Always glad to kick up discussion - as one ludology site says, sacred cows make great steaks, and in game design few cows are more holy than the theory of Japanese innovation :)

Just a pernickity note, but Chris, I believe you're over-valuing sales when considering the success of games. We do believe that Tetris sold fewer copies that Super Mario Bros. in commercial form, but as a conceptual entity rather than a commercial property, Tetris is far more successful, having colonised the internet as the default 'puzzle game' - I've met people who don't even consider it a video game, bacause they can play it (or one of its many clones) but can't play other video games.

Similarly, Goldeneye being the 'big time' in terms of the FPS? In sales, sure, but I consider Doom to be incalculably important... if we consider the widespread distribution of its shareware release. We only have accurate (?) sales figures for commercially released Doom 2... but Doom surely must be considered the most important FPS of all time in terms of propogation of form.

Liked this discussion greatly - I'm gonna be changing my attitude towards Japanese innovation, cartainly. What do we think regarding 'micro innovation'? Are Japanese as prey as Western devs for lazy appropriation of previously semi-functional game mechanics? I rate Halo high on the micro-innovation-ometer due to its great weapon select, vehicle and auto-targetting systems, but the vast majority of FPSs slacky incorporate Doom-derived weapon sets, for instance. It strikes me that there's more mechanical variety in the Jap RPG (compare FF to SaGa, Breath of Fire, Shadow Hearts, Skies... or FFT to Front Mission, Arc or Disgaea) ...but maybe I'm only seeing the cream of the latter, while I see the whole spectrum of the former...?

Or perhaps to differentiate themselves, Jap RPGs require a greater degree of identity under the hood, while FPSs differentiate themselves primarily via narrative means?

Yes, you're right - I certainly do place too much emphasis on sales figures. This is just me placing more emphasis on the knowable than the unknowable, as is my wont. I accept all contrary arguments, and will try to incorporate them into my thinking.

The Tetris argument is convincing but I find the Doom argument less so. Even if we had the shareware figures, Goldeneye strikes me as a seriously significant game for two reasons: firstly, it's the template EA copied to make their WWII FPS (they admit this), and secondly it's the game that proved that FPS games were a commercial necessity.

Without Doom, someone else probably would have come up with the same weapon set (it's an incredibly obvious set), but without Goldeneye we wouldn't be drowning in tedious FPS games...

Will probably post about "micro-innovation" soon... Isn't this what we mean when we talk about refinement? I prefer the term refinement, personally.

really interesting. it makes me thinking about the world!

Just a clarification -- yes, my definition of "market-driven," which Alice didn't fully transcribe, refers to a game whose features are thrown in because of a belief that "the markets wants them" rather than because those features form part of a coherent vision. When such dicta are handed down from Marketing on high and incorporated willy-nilly into the game, the result is a market-driven game, and a mess.

The opposite of market-driven is "designer-driven," which is equally bad in a commercial environment: a game in which the designer takes total control of every decision and assumes that he has a monopoly on creative wisdom. That may work for auteur games, but it often results in cancelled projects as the designer becomes a bottleneck and often isn't as smart as he thinks he is (and I use "he" advisedly here).

Andrew Rollings' and my book makes the point that both considerations -- market needs and designer vision -- must be integrated to serve a higher goal: entertaining the player.

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