Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Gender Inclusive Gaming: Expanding the Market - Sheri Grander Ray

Today, instead of doing a blog post on an assigned reading, I'm going to talk about some material I picked up awhile back, but keep referring to constantly because of its usefulness.

When I first picked up Gender Inclusive Game Design, it was with a sneer of contempt. The cover art was kinda lame. The text was printed big and friendly, a few point sizes too large. The publisher is Charles River Media which, when it comes to game design books, is hit and miss.

Let me digress for a moment. There are only a rare few companies that publish books that deal with game design. And they are ALL hit and miss. There are so few books in the industry that you can't really fault these companies, as they're the only ones- period- who are making this material available in book form. On the other hand, a lot of their stuff tends to be fluff.

My Expectations

So, I picked up this book because I'm making a game for women. But I sneered. I sneered because I'm a prideful woman, I'm an alpha, I'm a yang, I'm going to own your butt in Starcraft and then dance on your shattered remains, I'm some kind of Xena Warrior Princes Feminist (in mental personification only, of course, I'm very weak physically ;)) who thinks we all should learn swordfighting and study the hard maths and sciences. I sneered because the very existance of such a book suggested that women and men were different. I sneered because I care about gender equality. I sneered because I hate any any all gender/sex-based cultural dimorphism, and this book was one I had to read because such dimorphism still existed.

I hated the book long before ever opening it. I didn't want to hear about how women weren't gamers, or women didn't like action, or women were opposed to violence. I felt that anything with meat in this book would be all about how women can't handle first person shooters and need nice happy games like Bingo; And if THAT wasn't the topic of the book, then it would just be a bunch of fluff talking about how women are misunderstood and marketing firms need to research them better.

My Life's Mission

Let me be clear: I believe men and women can- statistically- be on equal footing when it comes to video games. That we can both like the same games, play the same games, get the same pleasure out of the games- that games are a battleground on which gender stereotypes need to be battered down so as to cause positive changes in our culture as a whole. So the very IDEA of picking up a book that was going to tell me about how women were different from men was.... painful. The fact that it was written by a woman, who would be perpetuating gender inequality by writing it, made me even angrier.

I Read The Wrong Chapter First

It told me women responded better to more visual and auditorial 'bling,' like sparkles, and weren't capable of managing much on screen at once

I Kept Reading

Let me get something out of the way:
I Love This Book, And Continue To Reference It For Everything I Do

Alright, now that that is over with... I stayed with the book and kept reading it, because it was the only resource I had available. My initial impressions and assumptions were all wrong. This book was great.

The most important thing I have to say about this book is this: For the majority of its chapters, it studied the way women have become due to cultural factors, not the ways in which women naturally are. For example, I was used to hearing people talk about how women just aren't as good as action games as men. The author touched lightly on the evidence that might support such a claim, but also presented an alternative that absolutely blew my mind:

Women aren't bad at games. Women have less exposure to games. Less exposure means less experience. Less experience means an underdevelopment of gaming skill. Statistically, women are going to be worse at video games not because it is inherent to their gender, but because they weren't as well trained in how to play them.

And that simple idea grew in my mind, and reached all over the place, it took up .root in countless crevices, and supplied meanings for questions I'd never even thought to ask.

Why Don't Women Play Games?

Before I read this book, I always assumed that I played video games because video games were fun. Why wouldn't I play them? Now I realize that while this is true, there is a much more important, dominating reason why I play video games: When I was little, my father and grandmother played video games with me. I play games because I was exposed to games. Because they were passed on to me by my relatives, and later they were shared with my peer groups. In fact, I later sought out peer groups that shared the same interests.

And the startlingly obvious realization hit me: Entertainment pastimes are shared as a result of social influences. We are introduced to 'fun' by the people in our lives. Women don't play games, because people do not play games with women.

And yet, we have all these women sitting around, right next door to the hardcore gamers, bored out of their minds. What do women do for fun? Buy shoes?  No, really, think about it.  Men go shopping at a hardware store, or buy themselves new exercise equipment; you can't say that somehow shopping is women's form of fun like sports and games are a man form of fun.

The truth is that both women and men can shop for pleasure (Hardware, sports, exercise, cars, household appliances), preen themselves or their home for pleasure (Axe Body Spray, Hair Gel, Mowing the Lawn on the Riding Law Mower(depends on the man), Taking Care of his Car) , but they have special dedicated activities for fun (Sports and Games) that women have no counterpart for. When's the last time all the women in your neighborhood gathered together in a room to watch women's basketball? If you're like most women, the answer is: never.  Why?

Did your dad play catch with you as a child? Mine did.

The first group of human beings to get video games? Engineers. Engineers are predominantly? Male. Engineers are peers with? Men. Engineers pass their luxury time activities down to? Sons. Sons are peers with? Boys.  Rinse, Repeat.

Women don't play games because men do not play games with women. Or at least not early enough in their lives for it to matter.

This Book Is Old

This book was printed in 2004, and that's why I love it. It was printed before the casual gaming boom, when there existed no games for anyone even remotely of the female gender except for games bathed in gratuitous amounts of pink, and aimed towards six year olds.  Now-a-days when people want to talk about female gamers, they jump immediately to casual gaming, and say that men are hardcore gamers and women are casual gamers, men like action and women like sparkles, or something of that nature.

But this book remembers what it was like before casual gaming. This book explains what the situation was, so that you can understand why casual gaming exploded: It was the first time anyone designed games specifically for non-gamers, and made them easily available to women who were only willing to give the games a few seconds to entertain them before throwing them away, due to lack of previous familiarity or trust in the medium.

And if you look at it that way, you can see that it won't be particularly difficult now for women to close the gap into mainstream gaming, if someone designs the proper games to lead them there, if proper games arise that are passed through their peer groups, and end up in their hands, and deliver entertainment fast enough for them to commit to sticking around for awhile.  You can also see that clearly women needed something fun to do just as much as men did, and it's hardly a stretch to say that they can enjoy heart-pumping thrills that action games deliver.

I mean, women go to theme parks the same as men, and ride on roller coasters the same as men, right? And watch the same horror movies as men, right? This book answers that question. YES, women can enjoy action games, because YES women like thrills, but to get them into gaming, you need to attend to their game-skill limitations in today's present culture, and reel them in them through ease-of-use and word-of-mouth.  You need to infiltrate their social circle. You need to let them know you're for them.

I Could Go On For Hours

This book is chalk full of interesting insights, and I'd be hard pressed to enumerate everything it said and everything I learned from it. I keep it checked out of the school library and reference it constantly. It's not a gender inclusive game design bible or anything, but it gets me thinking. It presents problems, to which I can dream up the solutions.

 It helps me understand my gender. Instead of me getting frustrated with other women and just trying to make the games I like out of spite for gender norms, instead I'm able to see where other women are coming from, understand what I need to provide them, comprehend what they enjoy and what they fear, and figure out how to help them find my product.

I'm no longer a designer legislating what I want on to my audience. I'm no longer a serious game designer, forcing my message on you. Instead I'm a designer who can figure out how to give women something fun, how to make games their go-to for entertainment, and whose message will emerge naturally from the resulting games instead of ruining them. This book made me a better designer. It's not just my idea. It's my idea on your terms, with your needs, with your wants, with your limitations, with your strengths, in the way you want it, in the way you'll be able to appreciate it/enjoy it best.

A Couple Things I Learned

I learned that games are subconsciously designed to appeal to men; that the predominant design paradigms are paradigms that ward off women and draw in men (most of which happen without the designer even realizing it). I learned exactly what hyper-sexualisation is, and what to do about it.

I learned some facets of women that are partially nature, partially nurture: women tend to be better at parsing large amounts of static visual information than parsing small amounts of mobile visual information. That women tend to seek out motivation, explanation, planning, and compromise when it comes to conflict resolution, and therefore cannot be motivated by the sheer testosterone/estrogen rush of pitched combat as easily as men. They don't hate action or violence: but they want to use their brains and social capacities in order to solve problems, and they want to be told their motivation for enacting violence.

Mostly I knew that most casual gamers were women, but it never occurred to me that I could apply that fact in reverse. I mean this: when you think of women, you skew their skillset away from hardcore gamer towards casual gamer. To me that was big. You could stop saying "Women like this and that and the other" and start saying "Casual gamers like this that and the other, and since women skew towards casual gaming, you can apply lots of casual gaming principals to games-for-women- as long as you realize what you're doing- and achieve good results." Framing things that way took away all the negativity I felt towards Gender Inclusive Gaming. I understood for the first time that I wasn't designing my game for a gender, but for a newbie. I was making a gateway drug game.

I learned that the reason women have trouble independently penetrating the games industry, without peer introduction, has to do with social power and conflict-resolution tendencies. In most cultures, men will use aggressive behaviors to establish social dominance in a setting or conversation (including sexually offensive jokes). Not only will women not use these techniques, but they will typically either stop talking so as to resolve the conflict, become upset and offended, be the 'adult' of the situation and refuse to argue, or simply remove themselves from the aggressive environment to get away from the negative stimulus. Furthermore, gender stereotypes being what they are, because women are expected to be softer (or perhaps more mature?) than men, they are looked down upon if they employ the same aggressive behaviors as men.

This causes a migration of women from male-dominated environments to ones with less men, or at least where social aggressiveness is lower. For example: Women like action-adventure, but they tend not to display it in the same way as men. Not only do they tend to migrate towards representatives of the genre with better story lines, but they tend to latch on to unique representatives of the genre, or express it in different forums. Fanfiction.net is over 80% female, and the vast majority of fanfictions submitted to the site are submitted to fantasy, sci-fi, action, horror, or adventure genres. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and World of Warcraft all have large fandoms. 50 First Dates- A romantic comedy in an area you'd expect women to be posting in- has almost none.  Fanfiction is an area where women found so few men, that they were able to step in and take it over as their own.

(This phenomena can be seen in other industries. For example, women latched on to Anime and Manga when they were introduced to American culture. Anime is a cartoon, and Manga is a comic book: but you still see that traditional cartoons and comic books tend to be for male dominated audiences. Women latched on to a new area, rather than trying to penetrate into the male-dominated one. Less women also tend to play first person shooters, which is a function not only of the lack of motivation for violence, but also possibly of the fact that shooters are often optimally played with headsets, where women might experience more sexual harassment as a result of revealing their genders, and furthermore the character avatars are almost always male))

I also learned that culturally, women are smaller risk takers. They prefer to know everything they need to know ahead of time. If they feel that they cannot obtain this knowledge, they are less likely to try in the first place. Women like to have a plan; men are happier to jump in head first.  Casual Games mitigate problems caused by this, first by placing games in a safe environment (out of the arcade and into either the personal low-end computer, or the mobile device) where they will receive less social criticism in the event of failure, and where expenditures are low; secondly by lowering the consequences of failure in game; and thirdly by ensuring the controls are so simple that the woman can understand them within a very short time span, and is therefore willing to fool around with them.

Lastly I learned that the computer has historically been viewed by women as a productivity tool, and that programs designed for productivity, non-gamers and casual gamers tend to require only one capability of their audience: the ability to left-click.

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