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.

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