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Civil Disobedience (2): Gandhi

The New Gender Agenda

Gender_agenda 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.


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More amazing & interesting stuff! You're really on an inspired roll right now as far as I am concerned! :D

I suppose if you look from even farther away, then a lot of our society is still quite sexist, or at least, extremely gendered - and the video games industry is just a particularly strong example of this. But it can be observed in almost all entertainment mediums still.

I can back you completely on the difference in graphics issue between Xbox 360 and Xbox. A number of casual friends commented to me that they didn't think my new 360's graphics looked much different - at least until they re-played an Xbox game.

A lot of the current marketplace practices expose what happens when you let prejuidice make business decisions. As far as I'm concerned, if I was involved in the business I would be more than happy to take a woman's money just as quickly as a man's.

By continually excluding this demographic there is an artificial limit placed on profits. Women may not have games as high a priority on their lists of things to buy, but with so much of the product line marketed to men it's not hard to blame them. Give them more reasons to browse the video game aisle and I think we'd see a shift in their buying choices.

Even so, buying choices is a different topic. By not marketing to women and by including gaming content that is pure male fantasy, game companies are essentially showing a disinterest in female gaming dollars.

I'm not as involved in the business side of things as I used to be, but I do know that when we did sales we could care less about your ethnicity, gender, or political beliefs. If you've got money you want to spend it on our services, we'll gladly take it. I have yet to understand this apparent allergy to money from certain segments of society that business people still have.

I found it interesting reading the Escapist the other day -- there were two references that seemed jarring:

[Nintendo slimlines its handhelds:] "Whatever the reason, at least we, the gamers, wind up with a hot electronic babe on our fingertips - eventually."

[If your Xbox 360 breaks multiple times] "The company should hire the Dead or Alive girls to play strip Halo with you for a weekend."

Nothing I consider offensive, per se, but an emphasis on the male-based assumptions made throughout the industry... and for some reason, they bothered me this time.

Trevel, I noticed those lines as well the other day and thought about the Game Developer ad that Corvus mentioned in his Round Table post. It's strange that you would read them in The Escapist since it had a female editor for a long time, and there was quite a lot of talk around the gender issue, if I remember correctly.

***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.***

I feel that there is a large leap in deciding what "the only way forward" seems to be based on what the article said. I wrote a blog post a couple of years ago that talks about suggestions on how to make games more universal and therefore more appealing to females as well as males.

The talk I went to see was by Sheri Pocilujko on the topic of Female Friendly Gaming:

My analysis of my notes from that talk (much more meatier than the meeting report above):

I haven't decided what I will write about for this Round Table yet, but one option is to possibly revisit this post. It's been two years since I wrote it, and a bit longer since the talk. I'm sure there must be some new developments on how to make games more universally appealing and accessible. B-)

dj i/o here again..

It's very strange that you mentioned a game based on "Pride and Prejudice". A while back, I found a parody of exactly that online. Here is the link (screenshot and all!)

Thanks for the comments - and links - everyone... running short of time, so I'll have to be brief (although I am not very good at this!)

GB Games: "I feel that there is a large leap in deciding what 'the only way forward' seems to be based on what the article said."

I agree. Here's the additional commentary that I didn't include in this piece: we already have plenty of data on what to do to make games more female friendly; Sheri Grainer Ray's "Gender Inclusive Game Design" contains many valuable points, for instance. But can we make these changes push through in the industry as it stands? I'm not convinced we can. Thus I turn to employing more women as a means towards achieving more general goals.

But perhaps I shouldn't have trimmed the discussion of things that could be done to improve the situation; there are steps we can take to make games more gender inclusive, and in principle paying attention to these points would be another way forward.

Originally, I was going to focus on this. Later, I brushed this under the carpet for brevity - thanks for forcing it out again. :)

dj i/o: thanks for this link! It's not quite what *I* had in mind for such a game, but it's a good chuckle all the same. :)

Thanks again!

I come from the general marketing to women realm, and have no direct experience with gaming, BUT - I so concur with your thoughts on marketing, needing: "a new era of mature game design practices, ... 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."

In my view, marketing to women 2.5 is dropping the reference to women, but marketing to the highest customer standards - and so "reflecting wider concerns" of your core consumers. I wrote a recent post about making M2W obsolete...

It's great to see folks in the very male-oriented gaming industry pondering these things.

Andrea: thanks for dropping by! I don't suppose you want to come and work in games? We desperately need people like you in our marketing departments! :)

I find this issue a tad bit outdated, since the advent of casual gaming has shifted the focus from teenage boys to middle-aged women. At least that's what everyone researching the casual game market (which is supposedly far larger than the core gamer market) keeps touting.

While the big console games are still pretty much concentrating on the traditional gamer market, the publishers are now gradually beginning to notice the casual market, which often seems to mean cheaper (almost exclusively bought online) games with smaller budgets and a wider market penetration. I guess Diner Dash and Bejeweled could be seen as the epitomes of this approach. They make big bucks with relatively small money and now more and more people want to get a slice of that cake.

The problem with the wider audiences seems to be, however, that they're not as keen on buying new games as the core gamers are. The conversion rates are really low, since the new target audience satisfies their gaming need entirely with a copy of spider solitaire , a few rounds of free Diner Dash online or with the Sims.

To the competitive players it is important to finish the game, which makes them hungry for more afterwards. To casual gamers, it is enough to play the game, so they are more concerned about the replayability of a game and seldom hunger for new experiences - which means they don't need to buy more games.

So, in my opinion, this means that the most profitable 'gender inclusive' games would be subscription based online games. They'd have to offer some value in addition to traditional single player games, which would be in the form of various social features as opposed to traditional PvP combat and high score lists. Digital Chocolate is already doing something like this with their DChoc Cafe franchise and I think they're doing quite well with it.

My view is probably a bit biased toward the casual gaming, since I come from the mobile game development where casual is the big thing and hardcore is the niche, but I still think the focus is slowly shifting away from the 'teen boy' games to more accessible and casual games.

As an end note, it seems I really managed to write off quite many paragraphs about casual gaming without mentioning the Wii even once. Scary.

How "casual" are you if you are willing to pay thousands of dollars for a game machine and then hundreds of dollars a year for games for it? I'd say not casual at all. But if you don't, then you are not a gamer. And that is why it doesn't pay to make games for casual gamers. It might be that there are more "casual gamers" than "hardcore gamers", but the casual gamers play games bought by hardcore gamers on machines bought by hardcore gamers, so for game selling purposes they are just an extension of the hardcore gamers. If you want to change that, find a way to make consoles that can be sold profitably at $10 a piece (including all the games that are ever played on them).

Or give it up. Flash based games that are free on the internet and don't require effort to buy and install are just as good as anything you could put on a console, unless you are into graphics, speed, long games or some other hardcore stuff.

Arto: "I find this issue a tad bit outdated, since the advent of casual gaming has shifted the focus from teenage boys to middle-aged women. At least that's what everyone researching the casual game market (which is supposedly far larger than the core gamer market) keeps touting."

It's true - there are more players in the casual market, and this market is dominated by women. But what proportion of games industry revenues is from the casual sector and which from the hobbyist sector?

In fact, Casual gaming is worth about $2 billion, while videogames as a whole is worth about $36 billion. It's just a small slice of the pie, but a significant one.

But I'm pleased to say that the publishers are starting to learn from Casual games, and I hope we may yet see an exciting middle ground of games that bring the engaging virtual worlds of the core market out to a more casual audience.

hej: the Wii and DS show it is possible to successfully reach out to a mass market audience with a games console, but of course, the games that make the transition are very different from what sells to the hardcore audience. Nothing is going to kill the hardcore market - but there are new markets on the fringes which are just opening up, and it's exciting to see how they will develop.

Thanks for the comments!

I like your observation about how games are marketed towards the addictive properties of fiero. Putting it that way almost makes us sound like the tobacco industry. Or, like Jon Blow recently noted - the fast food industry.

But this note especially interests me because of the recent Jade Raymond scandal with the offensive comic created about her. I've noticed a large surge of posts around as of late around the topic of women in game development, in response to the scandal.
And that's why your observation about fiero is interesting to me, because that very same agressive spirit is what likely drove most of the negativity and hate directed towards Raymond by gamers online.

So the game industry's pandering to fiero is indeed a problem in getting women into games. It not just doesn't appeal to women as much --the same aggression is making gamers push women out.

Brian: thanks for this comment, and please accept my apologies for the bizarre way TypePad treated this comment as if it was Spam. I'm scolded them thoroughly. :)

Brian, tying the designers' focus on fiero to the terrible treatment of Jade Raymond would be an interesting gender post in its own right.

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