The Eternal Question

What do women want (in video games)?

There was an excellent post on Man Bytes Blog talking about women and video games the other day. Go read it.

This question comes up all the time on WomenGamers.com and the Girl Gamers Community. Indeed, if you post this question on WomenGamers.com, you’re likely to get called a troll since once could very easily just use the search function for the answer.

The gist of their answers can be summed up with: “We want the same things male gamers want — good games” with the qualification “But we don’t want vapid, objectified pieces of meat with big boobs”. Women don’t necessarily want “girly games”. There is a large portion of women who take offense to the idea that they would even like “girly games”. It’s these women who enjoy pretty much what male gamers enjoy: RPGs, FPSs, MMOGs, survival horror, fighting games, rhythm games, etc. I will say that women seem to be drawn to certain genres more than others. And it’s true that some women do like cute games but it doesn’t mean they’re more likely to go for a shite “pink/girly” game over the next Resident Evil game, even if they happen to enjoy Resident Evil and cute games.

I meant to write a long-winded entry about the topic, to elaborate on the comment I made on Corvus’s blog, but time got away from me. I’ll just re-post my comment here, with edits/additions:
 

I don’t consider myself as typically interested in what the average woman is interested in (e.g. I’m not a girly girl, although I do have my rare moments), therefore many of my gaming choices are more in line with what most gamers play these days (“most gamers” being male). Having said that, as a woman, I do have opinions on this gender angle.

Rather than make games more girly (“adding pink” so to speak) people should focus on games in a more gender-conscious way. Think about the roles, characterisation, and just the image of women in games and in the marketing. Adding more female characters is a superficial step at best, but visibility does help. Creating strong, central, non-objectified female characters is something that people might look into more.

If a game would be the same with a male lead, why not think about making the lead character a woman? It worked for Metroid. Women like women characters who are strong, interesting, can kick ass, are good-looking (but not hyper-sexualised), are not objectified, but can also maintain their femininity.

In games where you have a party of adventurers, you often see that there’s only one female character, and she’s usually the healer. Gender stereoptypes anyone? Why not make an equal number of male and female characters? Why not make the woman the warrior class, and make the male the cleric?

Just more awareness of the presentation and image of the female characters in video games is a step in the right direction. Maybe asking a woman’s opinion on the characters? Marketing surveys perhaps? Pretty obvious, I would think.

Most of the games out there will not appeal to the non-gamer woman just on the basis of most of the marketing (which is possibly the first impression they may be getting), much less the game itself. I won’t elaborate too much on the sexist advertising one sees in magazines or television, because we all know what they consist of.

When you see even innocuous (e.g. not particularly offensive) adverts on television and in magazines, whom do you generally see playing the game? Men/boys. Women aren’t visibly enjoying video games in the media, so they may assume that it’s a male past time. Vicious circle.

Society does need to change its view of video games and who plays them, no doubt, but it’s not like the industry or even the players are helping to bring about this change. Whenever gamers encounter women, like in MMORPGs, they’re quite often sexually harassed — male hit on them, they get cussed out if they turn down the guy gamer, no one believes they are a woman (denying the existence of a gamer is not very welcoming), etc. Of course, that’s assuming that the woman gamer will even let the ‘secret’ out that she’s female. I know of a lot of women who will say that they are male just to avoid the harassment. Men are subject to harassment in MMORPGs, no doubt, and you could argue that women gamers just need to suck it up, however I think knowing that they should expect to be harassed might discourage women from wanting to experience online gaming at all.

The last time I checked, guys want more women playing games — the reaction one gets in real life when they find out one is a gamer is generally the following:

1) They don’t believe it at first. This is annoying, because they would never disbelieve that a guy played video games. And you have to prove that you play video games by showing your knowledge or skill. If you’re a casual gamer, one is usually dismissed. And yet guys who are casual gamers can still call themselves gamers.

2) They think it’s “cool” and your “hotness” level increases because of your hobby. Once you prove that you are 1337 and worthy, you suddenly become “hot”. Most of us don’t like this.

3) Sometimes guys underestimate and patronise the girl gamer. They make assumptions about: her taste in games (that she likes “girly”, “non-violent”, or “kiddy” games), her knowledge of games (that she lacks knowledge of the industry and whatnot), and her skills (that she has less than males).

Casual guy gamers can be just as misinformed as casual girl gamers, yet guy gamers seem to get less stick for being ignorant. People seem to notice it more if a woman gamer doesn’t have all the facts. Excuse us for being human, too.

For an market filled with players who would love their significant others to share their hobbies, male gamers can be insular and territorial at times. Why they are so quick to underestimate or disbelieve the existence of a female gamer just boggles the mind.

4) There are times, though, when you are taken at face value. You’re treated with the same respect as any other gamer, regardless of how skilled you are, how informed you are, how many hours a week you spend playing games, or what type of games you play. You’re not forced to go through a test to prove you play video games. And everyone just gets on with life.

Marketing to women is possibly a risk that publishers are not willing to take, never mind creating women-friendly games. Why put adverts for video games in women’s magazines, when they can have a better return from ad placement in men’s magazines? I would argue that if they had to think about placing video game ads in a woman’s magazine, they sure as hell would increase their sensitivity to what that market looks for in an advertisement and in a game. If you want more women to play games, you need to place marketing where women will see it.

There is a market for girly/pink games and we can’t ignore that some girls do like that sort of stuff. However, girls grow up. And maybe the industry should, too…

Sadly, as Corvus said, the games industry sees no need to break out of their profitable target demographic (18-34, male). The industry is comfortable. They make money and they believe they know what this demographic wants. As is often painfully clear, judging by the masses of crap games targeted towards women and girls, they don’t have as much of a clue of what women want. Sure, Nancy Drew is great, but honestly, a lot of girls would find it boring. Women have a variety of tastes in games, which is something that game makers need to discover. By why should they take a risk by forging into new, and potentially unprofitable territory?

And yet, Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft at E3 2005 were loudly proclaiming that they wanted gaming to reach a wider audience. In my mind, I think Nintendo is the company most capable of this endeavour, but we shall see what happens. Hopefully, the push for wider markets will force game makers to really examine other aspects they might not have considered in the creation process.

EDIT: Please see the follow-up to this post.

  14 comments for “The Eternal Question

  1. Dyannamika
    31 May 2005 at 02:49

    I think you make a very good point, here. I mean, I have nothing against looking at pretty people in games. That’s a given. But really, does the heroine have to have a triple D sized cup with a skinny waist? I mean, seriously. Do you know how hard it is to run around and fight without support if your that size??! I find myself feeling more sorry for the poor girl more than anything else.

    For the sweet love of the gods. I hear the term “girly games” And I go into the shakes.

    There are some examples of video games that don’t objectify women…we can think of the RE series, with Jill Valentine, Claire Redfield… well, they are strong women… The gaming industry needs more characters along these lines. Final Fantasy X-2, actually was a bit girly, but it had three strong central female characters at the least.

    Well, the long and the short is that I agree with you. I don’t want to play girly-girl games (god no) but I would like to see stronger women characters and more equality. I want female characters that are independant, strong, and ass-kicking!

    :D

  2. 31 May 2005 at 06:27

    “I want female characters that are independant, strong, and ass-kicking! ”

    If you haven’t yet, play Beyond Good & Evil!

  3. Anonymous
    1 June 2005 at 03:13

    Corvuse,

    Damn, I’ve wanted to play that one for a while. Right now I’m stuck in Poland and there most of the games are… well, in Polish Language version. I’m waiting to go back to the states. There will be so many games… what will I ever doooo?!

  4. Anonymous
    1 June 2005 at 08:27

    Oh god, please not Beyond Good & Evil, don’t encourage them! Infantile politics, horrid stealth mechanics, green(!) lipstick, and one of the most insultingly inexplicable endings in video game history do not a good game make. Quite honestly it was one of the worst games I’ve played this generation, and that’s saying something.

    Instead might I suggest Parasite Eve I/II (PS1 -last generation, granted, but still great games), Syberia I/II (PC/Xbox), Blood Rayne I/II (PC/Xbox/PS2/GC), Fatal Frame (Xbox/PS2 – haven’t played the second one yet, but it probably deserves to be on this list), Primal (PS2 – sadly overlooked), Drakan : The Ancients’ Gate (PS2), and Pirates : The Legend of Black Kat (Xbox/PS2)?

    Mind you, none of these really contains what I’d call a perfect portrayal of women, but they’re generally decent.

    PE/II has the famous shower scene, which I thought nicely done but which I suspect would have quite a different effect on a guy. That aside, Aya Brea is a strong woman who gets things done and her later and sudden attachment to Eve is both believable and touching.

    Syberia’s Kate Walker has to put up with continuous phone calls from mother, fiancé, and best friend through the first game. These are supposed to advance the character, but come across as mostly annoying and occasionally insulting — not to mention that where they head is so terminally obvious it’s sad. On the other hand, Kate is another one who gets things done and her loyalty to the elder Hans and his dream is, again, believable and touching (and there’s even a little reverse sexism, in the second game Kate’s complaints about the monastery are more than a little ludicrous).

    Blood Rayne’s eponymous dhampir is a heavily sexualized Goth girl with super powers and a globular cluster’s worth of ‘tude. The focus on ‘boobage’ gets to be more than a bit much at times — the scenes with the Butcheress come to mind — but between the camp aspects and Rayne’s ability to more than back up her attitude it all works without, at least to me, being too insulting to women.

    As for Fatal Frame, well… I have belts that cover more than that skirt (on the other hand, I own skirts that short, I just don’t wear them to haunted houses) and, let’s face it, going into a haunted house with naught save a flashlight is not the brightest of moves (but since her brother pulled the same stunt we can safely assume that we’re not talking about a family of potential Nobel Prize winners here). Brights aside, Miku does get to solve an ancient mystery, release a ton of unhappy ghosts, and, if you play through enough, save her brother’s bum.

    The severely underrated Primal is kind of a reverse fairy tale, with Jennifer ‘Jen’ Tate having to save her ‘dude in distress’ boyfriend. I’ve seen some comment on Jen’s appearance, specifically her bust size, but honestly she’s no bustier than I (not every woman is an A-cup anymore than ever woman is a DD) and her appearance is never the game’s focus (unlike, say, with Rayne). Really this is probably the best portrayal of a female lead in a video game I can think of, and it’s an excellent game besides.

    While Drakan’s Rynn often comes across like a Euortrash supermodel (and has a leggy pre-adolescent male body to match), there isn’t a lot to complain about with this one, either. Rynn, and her bonded dragon pal Arokh, kick serious behind and get to save the world. A decent, if also overlooked, game. Has the funniest armorer in history (“If it isn’t my blood-soaked princess!” He cries out happily as she enters his shop), Rynn gets some pretty good lines off as well (“Did you have any *friends* in the old days?” She asks Arokh after about the thirtieth bad-nasty from a hundred years ago has shown up to try and kill them).

    Pirates’ Katrina ‘Kat’ DeLeon bears more than a little resemblance to Rynn, now that I think about it — albeit with a less supermodel and slightly more feminine bod. Like Drakan, this is a fun enough game that isn’t going to win any major awards for much of anything. Kat runs around, kicks lots of butt, saves the world, and all that. Really the only thing to complain about is that the devs saw fit to include various unlockable modes whereby you could put Kat into different outfits, mostly various bikinis. I’m doubting they did this out of concern for Kat’s comfort on various desert isles. While not as egregious as Blood Rayne’s unlockable “Juggy Mode”, it also doesn’t fit the game’s general ‘feel’ nearly as well, it just comes across as bizarre.

    Anyway, sorry this got so long. If I get a chance later I’ll add a few thoughts on the general subject, just in case this didn’t bore you to death.

    Myria

  5. 1 June 2005 at 09:57

    I’m currently playing Beyond Good & Evil (because everyone raves about it), and I totally agree with the shallow politics. I had read that it wasn’t quite so complex as the title implied, so I was prepared for that. Honestly, it is fairly average third person adventure game. I will finish it, eventually. I’m not totally invested in the characters or immersed in the game, so I’m playing it quite mechanically just to see how it ends.

    However, I think Jade is a pretty good female lead. For one, she’s wearing clothing that is practical for adventuring. She’s strong, courageous, and determined to get to the bottom of the conspiracy.

    Another one I can think of is Alexandra Roivas from Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. She’s smart (a mathematician), courageous (what else do you call battling horrific demons from other dimensions?), and strong-willed (risking her own sanity many times over the course of the story).

  6. 2 June 2005 at 02:29

    I’m amused that you could knock BG&E for green lipstick, but not flinch at recommending Blood Rayne.

    I like the cinematic presentation of BG&E. I like the character designs. I like the characterizations. True, the politics were transparently thin, but I found the presentation of the story to be utterly charming.

    Whereas the stealth mechanics were no Thief or Splinter Cell, they weren’t meant to be. I consider the stealth sequences to be puzzle rooms and when approached that way, quite fun.

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to turn this into a “defend BG&E” rant, sorry.

  7. Dyannamika
    2 June 2005 at 03:24

    Hmmm… I did quite like Primal, though. I have to with hold judgement on BG&E, though now I’m not sure when I’ll play it! As I’ve got a few other games… I’m getting Brinstar syndrome! Too many games too little time!

  8. Anonymous
    2 June 2005 at 09:25

    “I’m amused that you could knock BG&E for green lipstick, but not flinch at recommending Blood Rayne.”

    The green lipstick comment was mostly tongue-in-cheek, though frankly I did find the whole Jade/Green thing annoying after a while.

    Blood Rayne certainly had its weirdnesses (to put it mildly), but there is a fundamental difference between the two that made the weirdensses of one okay to me, even amusing, and the other annoying as all get-out.

    Blood Rayne never, ever, ever takes itself seriously. It’s played for camp. Much like, say, Little Shop of Horrors, if it wasn’t for the camp aspect it would never work.

    Beyond Good & Evil, on the other hand, takes itself depressingly seriously, presumably because it believes it has Very Important Things ™ to say. While a game doesn’t need to be light hearted or camp to work, Beyond Good & Evil’s relentless attempts at freshmen philosophy rise to levels of ludicrousness rarely seen and contain all the subtlety of a hypersonic brick to the noggin.

    The difference in attitude permeates both games. Rayne’s hyper-sexualization is an integral part of the camp aspect of Blood Rayne and it’s played as such, in context I have no problem with that at all. Jade’s green lipstick, aside from striking me as being as bizarre as Jak’s green goatee, also seem emblematic of the game — an attempt at cleverness that is anything but.

    Myria

  9. 2 June 2005 at 11:01

    That’s interesting. I didn’t find that it took itself all that seriously. In fact, many of the moments seemed quite like sendups of 1960/70’s spy movie stereotypes to me. I was also amused by Double H’s throw away lines (They’re all losers, Ms. Jade!). I wonder why we have such different impressions of how seriously the game took itself?

    You have convinced me to give Blood Rayne another look though. I played demos of both 1 and 2 on the PC and didn’t care for the control scheme. I’ll see if the local vid store has a copy I can rent for my ‘sole.

  10. Anonymous
    3 June 2005 at 05:58

    I find the comment “There is a market for girly/pink games and we can’t ignore that some girls do like that sort of stuff. However, girls grow up.” (emphasis mine) extremely shallow. Which is really sad, because there are a lot of good points made here.

    It betrays an attitude that is, in my personal view, just as destructive to gaming as the points expressed here — the attitude that there are “mature” and “immature” games, and nobody over 12 should enjoy the latter.

  11. 3 June 2005 at 06:48

    There is a difference between a game’s target market, and a game’s appeal. A game can be targeted towards a certain demographic, but it can have widespread appeal. I am not saying that gamers shouldn’t enjoy games just because they are targeted towards a certain age group.

    I’ve openly stated my dislike for “girly” games. Almost all “girly” games are targeted towards young girls and often present very stereotypical conceptions of gender. If I think that games targeted towards girls should go beyond traditional gender presentations, then that’s my prerogative.

    I support games that are universally appealing, without denegrating either gender. It may be beneficial if the industry does “grow up”. People have to grow beyond what they think girls like — the pink crap that currently pervades the girly games market, and move towards more universality if they want to attract more players. The pink games may only appeal to girls for so long, before they look for something more. But when they look, they may get frustated with the limited selection in the market — either guns and guts (which they might not necessarily like), or pink and fluffy (which they might tire of), with limited middle ground.

    I certainly don’t think that gamers should feel embarassed about playing Animal Crossing or Pokemon because they have “grown-up” and shouldn’t enjoy “kiddy” games. Hell, I unabashedly play Pokemon and I would get Animal Crossing if I didn’t already know it would be too damn addicting. And I’m in my 20s. Those games have universal appeal, but they don’t target any particular gender.

  12. 3 June 2005 at 10:49

    “It may be beneficial if the industry does “grow up”.”

    I’m only quoting that, as it’s where my eyes were focused when the following rant started off in my head. The whole thing might be a bit too tangential, but I thought I’d post it anyway.

    Why do kids games have to be dumbed down to the point of being completely non-challenging? I feel that a well crafted game that is targeted at a young audience should have an appeal to an adult audience as well. I’ll use Animal Crossing as my example of it being done right, even though it didn’t tickle my particular fancy.

    Children’s media ought to contain content that challenges them and pushes them a bit. My child will not be playing bland and insipid games, I can assure you.

    Here’s where I try to bring it back home:

    Games that specifically target a demographic as their audience, tend to be flat, stale, games with little merit, whether they are meant to appeal to women, boys, teens, children, or house wives.

    Now, I’m not saying that a game can’t be built within a framework which dictates it be accessible to a target demographic, or that demographic information should be ignored. Publishers and marketing departments should use demographic tools to sell a game. Developers shouldn’t use demographic tools to design a game.

    And that, more than anything, is where targeted games seem to be running into trouble.

  13. Anonymous
    6 June 2005 at 04:00

    But really who cares about role models in computer games, I loved Guile and Blanka as a kid and well they aint feasible. Neither is Snake (in all his guises) but do I care? No because its not real its escapism and fun, the only, repeat only thing to judge a game by is the gameplay.

  14. 26 June 2005 at 11:10

    Everyone should care about role models in computer games. Not because we all need to analytically approach our playing of every title, but because the subconscious messages are the ones with the most resonance, culturally speaking. If all the women in media are prized for their physical appearance, and not their intelligence or resourcefullness, then that’s the message our children will grow up with. Sending positive message in popular media is important.

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