Making Better Games for Women: Or, No Binary Ever Made Love to a Woman

Matt Barton's picture

Why are so few women interested in gaming? The answer is simple: It’s the binary, stupid.

Every six months or so there's a little flare up in the media about how the videogame industry has failed women. The usual argument is that 99.9% of games are designed for and marketed exclusively for young males, and women (as well as gay players) are ignored. Game developers and publishers don’t care about women because women don’t care about videogames. And so it goes. While this argument is ill-informed (it totally ignores the amazing success of Her Interactive's Nancy Drew series, which has been a hit among pre-teens as well as adult women of all ages), I’m the first to admit that there is a problem when the few games that do feature women use them primarily as sex objects. However, rather than blame the game industry and give the same old tired statistics and claims, I think it's time someone pointed out that the true problem is the hardware: or, more specifically, the architecture of the computer itself. It is my belief that the computer's architecture was itself designed with and for a particular mindset, one most comfortable in the world of "binary," or simple either/or decisions--in short, the masculine mind. This fact has made it especially difficult for women to become proficient in programming and, by extension, the computer industry as a whole, since all programs (applications as well as games) have been built on this masculine framework.

Now, before anyone gets riled up at this polite observation, let me point out that I don't subscribe to any totalizing views of men or women. You can't start talking about EVERY man or EVERY woman without making yourself look like a jerk, idiot, or both. Yet it's true enough that women are socialized much differently than men, both institutionally and through more traditional means (friends, family, and so on). I don’t claim to be as well acquainted with feminist theory as many of my colleagues, but I’ve noticed that much of it is concerned with communication (or the lack thereof) between the sexes. To make a long story short, what we read about is the famous dialog about problems: Women experience emotions differently than men. Men try to identify and "fix" the problem. However, this "Mr. Fixit" attitude only aggravates the woman further, who is probably looking more for solace than a "solution." There are few men who enjoy crying. There are plenty of women who love it almost as much as chocolate.

The Soaps:: That's sex AND suffering, not OR, chump.The Soaps:: That's sex AND suffering, not OR, chump.Time and time again, we men try to approach women with a one-size-fits-all approach, even though, time and time again, women try to tell us (rather patiently, when you think about it) that that's just not how it works. Women don't want clear-cut, easy solutions any more than men delight in "drama." Yet, deep down any male who's spent enough time around women will realize just how confusing and, indeed, bewildering they can be--and it's on purpose. "What's wrong?" we ask, but the answer is never forthcoming. Indeed, the very act of insisting that a woman give us a clear answer about what's bothering her could very well itself be part of the problem. Some friendly advice: Just put your arm around her and shut up.

Now, when we take a peek under the hood of a computer, we instantly recognize it for what it is: a model of a man's brain—or, more specifically, a model of his more "rational" part. For every question, there is one of two possible answers: Yes or No (one or zero). Programs, no matter how complex, can ultimately be boiled down to a series of questions that must be answered yes or no. Does the player wish to start a new game? Yes or no. Has the player entered the command that breaks the game loop? Yes or no. At each interval, and on something of the order of millions of smaller intervals, the program must ask and ascertain all these questions and somehow emerge with the "correct" response.

Needless to say, this binary thinking that lies at the heart of every computer can never hope to offer women what it offers men: A friendly, familiar simulation of their own minds, whirring and purring in perfect synchrony, goose-stepping with all the power of a Pentium. For women, a computer is the man who keeps asking, "Will you please tell me what's wrong with you?" in louder and louder tones, even though it's clear that asking that question again is a really bad idea—almost, but not quite as bad as asking a woman if she would like to "abort."

At this point, you're probably asking, if binary is the problem, what's the solution? Well, isn't that rather male of you. But, in all seriousness, there have been suggested alternatives for binary. One example is "ternary computing," which involves a -1, 0, and 1 rather than just a 0 and 1. No less an authority on computers than Donald Knuth has predicted that ternary computers will eventually replace binary, though it is uncertain how long this might take. My guess is it will take about as long as it takes for more women to get those engineering jobs and make their male counterparts look like the nitwits they are.

However, a more immediate and feasible solution would be to try to work with existing binary computers to offer women more appropriate ways to interact with a program. What developers have to focus on is avoiding the "yes" and "no" and understanding that "hopeless" ambiguity and complexity have their place. The goal or task-oriented game must give way to the goal or task disoriented game. The "fun" of these games will exist primarily in seeing just how far you can push a system before it breaks down completely. Likewise, the system must constantly adapt in unpredictable (and hopefully entertaining ways), and allow players to push and pull without ever achieving the same effect twice. "Knowing" the rules and "understanding" the game become secondary to the joys of wreaking chaos.

Imagine, for instance, a game that focused on a series of characters engaged in various dramatic conflicts (i.e., something like Façade or the Sims). Whereas a male player would probably expect the game to always respond the same way (i.e., if you try to kiss the female character, she slaps you), a female player would enjoy the game much better if such things were left virtually random (or, to be more accurate, inexplicable). Furthermore, the fun of the game would be not in "clearing things up," but rather digging deeper and deeper, drawing out the complexities of the relationships to mind-boggling proportions (see typical Romance novel for examples). Finally, the game play would avoid the simple emphasis on decision-making that dominates almost every game on the market today. Instead, rather than make decisions, the player would be engaged primarily in complicating decisions made by other players (or perhaps by computer-controlled characters). The joy in these games would be in seeing simply what happens now that the pieces have been arranged so intricately.

Another tendency to be avoided is giving the player too much control over a game. In a game designed for women, the player should have only partial control, and mostly indirect control at that. Again, rather than controlling a character or avatar directly, the better approach would be to stand by the sidelines, offering various incentives (or the opposite) to independent characters or pieces. The player is not so much the center of the action as she is the center of attention. The "fun" of these games is not so much in dictating the "action," but rather in paying crucial attention to the particulars. Sometimes it's more important to select what a character should wear than the weapon he should wield.

Now, at this point, someone might point out that it's not violence par se that women object to in many games. The real objection it seems, at least to me, is not so much the fact that a game is violent, but rather that the violence is so damn uninteresting. Kaboom. Pow pow. There's no dramatic interest to it. It's the violence of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film compared to a murderous intrigue in a soap opera. And, please, if you don't think women enjoy violence, just watch the soaps. What you'll discover is that women are just as "violent" as men, but the devil is literally in the details. Women aren't interested in shooting total strangers or faceless "soldiers" and the like. They want to kill their ex-best friend who has been secretly sleeping with their fiancé. How DARE she. And, of course, dealing with the aftermath will be even more fun.

Halo: Games try so hard to strip the character of the very aspects that women desire most...Halo: Games try so hard to strip the character of the very aspects that women desire most...The advice I have about making better games for women isn't academic stuff. It's just simple observations that anybody could make who was willing to spend just a few minutes thinking outside the check box. If a man's game begins with complexity and ends with a simple resolution, a good woman's game begins with simplicity and ends with sprawling, delightful complexity. It's the story of the big city girl who shows up in the country village, driving all those yokels to the brink of insanity (but in a good way, of course). It's the game that offers rewards not for fixing problems, but for making them.

Of course, we could wait for men to get wise enough to start making better games for women, but I have a better idea. Stand aside, Mister.

Comments

Bill Loguidice
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Early to mid-1980's and Girl Gaming, and Girl Gaming of Today

Interesting points brought up as always. I've of course often thought about this topic myself several times on and off. I remember in the first "glory days" of girl gaming in the early to mid-80's (coinciding with the industry's growing pains, where in actuality there was a delightful amount of experimentation to determine markets), where a genuine attempt was made to incorporate young girls in computer and computer gaming advertising along with boys, and there were a few companies dedicated to making games for girls. It's interesting how you bring up the popular "Nancy Drew" games, Matt, as even in the past, many girl-games or gender neutral games were usually based on literature. For every "Cave Girl Claire", there was a "Wizard of Oz" or "Alice in Wonderland". Obviously as now, most of these were adventure-type games, mostly non-action. Of course a lot of the infamous action girl games of late have been vapid Barbie and other licensed properties that are usually poor as actual games, making one wonder if these pitiful action diversions have an effect on influencing a young woman's eventual disdain for action later on.

In any case, brain wiring and general appeal most certainly have a lot to do with the preponderance of adventure-type "girl" games and the fact that more often than not, the average female it seems would rather play Ms. Pac-Man, Tetris and Bejeweled over the more intense type of games, both thematically and competitively. Men and women are different, but I do lament the lost opportunity to make simply better games, rather than targeted games. If a game is good enough and not overly influenced by testosterone or condescending (I'm looking at you, Barbie games), I think it would be relatively easy to reach both sexes effectively.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
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Matt Barton
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Adventure Games and Girls

You're right, Bill. I haven't thought much about it, but it does seem that games based on novels (particularly series) seem to do well for women. I think this might be because it's a lot less "radical" for a girl to read books than to play videogames. It may also involve the actual content of the books. I've actually read several Nancy Drew novels lately (some of the games come with them), and I'm really interested in the way Nancy is portrayed. She's always eager to try new things, delve into "forbidden" realms, totally disregard authority and tradition--in short, the kind of girl who'd have no qualms whatsoever about enjoying a good videogame. Furthermore, the Nancy Drew games specifically avoid violence and even "rudeness," but all the while requiring Nancy to trespass, break and enter, "talk back" to her elders, and deal with some pretty dastardly foes. Finally, Nancy always has to rely on herself to solve problems. Though her friends can chip in, they all count on her to get things done (this flies in the face of the old stereotype that girls have to get help from a man or someone else in order to do anything important).

If I had a daughter, I would definitely have her playing these games and reading these books. I think they're great for encouraging critical thinking skills, and they seem to inspire a more thoughtful approach to life. They offer a staggeringly better role model for young women than Barbie or Brittany, or whatever MTV "booty shaking" crap is piled up for young women to "enjoy." And they're just damn fun! I'm sure that men would enjoy these games just as easily as women if they could just get past the stigma of playing a "girl's game."

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Bill Loguidice
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The Nancy Drew Games and my own daughters

I know the Nancy Drew games are always brought up as a shining example of targeted "girl games" that work. I don't remember what TV news outlet I saw it on, but they focused on this one group of mom's and daughters who played these games together. They would all get together in one room and play the game together, solving the puzzles and just enjoying the story and experience. Interesting stuff.

Obviously I'll be getting my daughters into gaming and edu-gaming as soon as possible. I already have a good stockpile of relevant stuff in my collection across various types of systems and my first daughter, Amelie, who's 21 months now, insists on "playing" my arcade machine and loves to watch certain games (she gets quite the giggle out of "Cloning Clyde" and "Wik" on the Xbox Live Arcade) already. It will be interesting to see if my second daughter, Olivia, who should be born around early October, will eventually have the same keen interest in this stuff, but early exposure is certainly part of the battle to someone actually taking an interest in something. It gives me the warm fuzzies to think that in five years or so I'll be sitting with my girls and playing all types of videogames with them, eventually even the latest Nancy Drew or equivalent games! Who knows though, they may end up hating all that stuff eventually...

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
[ My collection ]
[ http://www.MythCore.com ]

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Mark Vergeer
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Puzzle games and girls....

I have yet to touch my new and shiny x360, my girlfriend is on live all the time....

Women are attracted to different games than men. Especially the puzzle games like Bejeweled, Zuma, Tetris, Quircks/Puyo puyo, Puzzle Bobble. What is it that makes these games more attractive to girls and other genres far less attractive?
Does it have something to do with the different natures of the female and male mind? Do women like to tidy up and collect more then men do? Most puzzlers need the player to have an intrinsic drive to tidy up/make less of a mess. Are puzzlers more neurotic? Do puzzlers have more of a problem with chaos than non-puzzlers?
Probably has something to do with the fact that women are from Venus and men indeed from Mars….. quite in interesting subject matter from a psychiatrists point of view by the way…. ;) won’t bore you lot with the details…. ☺

Off for a nice round of MsPacman on my gp2x......

-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-

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Matt Barton
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Games for Girls and Games that Girls Enjoy

Well, I think there's probably a difference between "universal" games that girls happen to like, and games that are actually targeted and marketed at girls. I'm not surprised that girls prefer Zuma and Bejeweled to games like Medal of Honor and the like. However, I also notice that "non-traditional" gamers, like older persons, also prefer these games. The very idea of trying to drag my retired father-in-law into a game of Neverwinter Nights seems absurd, but he spends hours playing Bejeweled every day, and my mother-in-law enjoys a spelling game and the little Flash games I send them from time to time.

What I had more in mind with the post were games that were more narrowly aimed at females, like Nancy Drew and the various "Barbie" and "Bratz" style games for younger girls. What I've failed to notice are many successful games aimed exclusively at women (as opposed to girls). As Bill pointed out, many of the most interesting experiments happened early on, but I'm not seeing many bold projects in the works now. Obviously, a few games that did reach out to women (the SIMS) have been tremendously successful, even if they weren't exclusive to women.

I'm somewhat surprised that there isn't a genre of "soap opera" games that would allow women to "role play" in a non-"war" environment. From what I've heard, many women playing games like WoW enjoy the game more for the social aspect than the combat, though I'm still thinking there's room for innovation. What I'm thinking of are games that might be somewhat in the style of a graphical adventure, but with much more emphasis on character development and complex drama. If something like this could be done tastefully (i.e., without the self-parodying melodrama), I think it could be a hit. The key would be making the gameplay extremely intuitive and the characters and unfolding stories genuinely interesting. The tagline, "Star in your very own Soap Opera!" seems to have a certain ring to it. Or maybe several.

About as close to this as I've seen is in the Nancy Drew game "Stay Tuned for Danger." There was definitely some fascinating drama going on there among the various characters, and it added immensely to the appeal of the game.

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Bill Loguidice
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Dallas Quest, recent TV shows, Facade, etc.

I have "Dallas Quest" from Datasoft for the Commodore 64, but is also available on the Radio Shack Color Computer 2. It was in fact based on the "Dallas" series and was a text and graphics adventure circa 1985. Despite the addition of a cheeky, anthropomorphized monkey, it interwove Dallas characters/actors into the rather over-the-top adventure plot. I was in my early teens at the time and beat it in one marathon sitting. It was satisfying back then for the accomplishment, but certainly not the greatest of games or anywhere near embodying what you suggest, Matt. Certainly many other television shows have been adapted over the years, which, save for some of the mid-80's 8- and 16-bit computer action games based around shows like "Miami Vice" and what-not, have all been text or adventure games, leading up to recent examples like "CSI" and "Law and Order".

Then there's the recent free software experiment called "Facade", which we've discussed before at Armchair Arcade. It only partially succeeded in its goal, but it was basically an interactive conversation and relationship simulator of sorts done in a full motion manner.

Personally, I'd love to see a true "woman game" come out, not an "everyman" game like you correctly indicated, and certainly not something like a simple arcade diversion (Ms. Pac-Man), puzzler (Zuma) or adventure game (countless mentioned). Been there, done that. It would probably take a new paradigm, perhaps even a hybrid of sorts. I doubt it will happen though as stereotypes in our industry are rampant and a lot of other things will have to change first.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
[ My collection ]
[ http://www.MythCore.com ]

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Didi
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Meh...

I don't know how many times I've said this, but I'll say it again. Don't cater to male or female, cater to gamers and cater to the appropriate ages.

Everyone has different tastes, and it doesn't suffise to just put some pink in a game and say "here you go, this one is for the ladies"... Mind you, look at my "now playing" and I'm probably not the right person to talk about this subject.

I don't care who the game is aimed at. If the story is good and it has replay value, chances are I'll play it. The only thing I can say I really don't play is sports games. They just don't offer anything new in my opinion. I'm taking about Maddens and FIFAs, NBAs, NHLs and NFLs. I will play fighting games and racing because I like the genres, but not all franchises. Oh, I lied, I played True Swing Golf, but even that doesn't fall into the mainstream sports category, after all, it's not a licensed game with ads all over the place and extremely annoying commentators.

Also, I've been reading a lot recently about this "girls play the Sims because of the relationship factor". I object. I've been playing the Sims since the original came out, and my game mechanics could be summed up in real estate business or interior decorating. I spend the entire time building, demolishing, furnishing, creating custom stuff. If I actually PLAY the game I'll be picking the career style of gameplay. I attempted the family with babies once in Sims 2 and I felt like throwing the PC out the window. Seriously. Real life simulation is ok to a certain extent. I don't want to change virtual diapers!! Hell I don't want to change real ones either. I want to run my restaurant, sell flower arrangements, open a bakery, that's where the reward is at :)

Matt, the inside of a computer shouldn't matter, and I hope you're nto comparing the confusion of cables to a man's brain, that's not nice ;) Anyway, as long as what's in thre works, who cares! The only thing I would like for manufacturers to change is a way to slide new drives from the side instead of directly behind the front plate. It's such a pain. That and sliding in ram sticks, blargh! There has to be a better way to do that.

So lets recap. I don't care for pink (my favorite colors are blue, white and black), my Barbie days were spent designing and sewing clothes for them, I don't play the Sims in the same way the rest of the female population does, I hate crying because it gives me headaches and makes me eyes poofy, I hate when I get emotional particularly because I spent most of my time hiding them. I dont play MMOs to socialize either, in fact, the more I can play by myself the better (solo'd all the way to 60 in WoW, 2 guild grouping exceptions, raiding excluded). At least if I mess up, it's my fault and not some idiot who decided to pull a ton of crap because they thought only one whould come. And I actually enjoy violence in games (see here) because it's a stress reliever.

I would totally shoot my ex in any FPS (I hope you didn't mean IRL), but I'd probably freeze on my tracks if I knew it was him on the other side of an avatar. I still think of doing to him things taken out of Hellraiser because he deserves it (long story short: abuse), but the thought of facing him isn't a good one. So I can just frag anyone I don't know and pretend it's him and feel better about myself. Although I do suck at FPSs, I mean, my husband kills me 48 times in a row and all I manage is 2 rocktlauncher kills and a bunch of histerical laughing every time I die.

And you want to know what else makes women uninterested in gaming? Clans like the Frag Dolls and PMS and the companies who form and sponsor them, booth babes who don't have a freaking clue what the game they're advertising is about, other female gamer websites who still pass along the image that "girls are better than guys", and of course, everyone else who things the female gamer is a myth.

I'm glad we had a little blurb about Grrlgamer on Nintendo Power, I'm sure it has made a lot of people more aware of the female gamer situation.

PS: Man who constantly ask "what's wrong" are lame, and so are women who pretend nothing is wrong.

Grrlgamer.com | SimGrrl.com

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minna (not verified)
...

Call me oblivious, but in the mid-80's I seriously had no concept of "girl games" vs "boy games." It almost seems like as I've grown older, that dichotomy has grown larger or more obvious. I mean back then I played Combat, Missile Command, etc. on my Atari and didn't think twice about whether it was aimed towards girls or boys. I played with Barbies too! They were just different forms of entertainment for me. But the marketing of today is really trying to be more all-inclusive... probably goes towards the argument of the fast food industry using cartoon characters to influence sales among kids, etc. etc. but I digress!

Mark Vergeer
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maybe the control schemes and game mechanics are offputting

I agree with both women that it's better not to specially cater for men or women when it comes to games. What would a specific girl-game look like? An adventure with 'my little pony horses?', a Barbie Need for Speed underground edition? Nope. Quite a few games are about storytelling and there are chickflicks and guyflicks in the movies so perhaps the same types of stories incorporated into games might appeal to the two genres. Of course this analogy is off - since not many 'movie' stories translate well to a game and I (a 6'8'' straight male) actually quite like some of those chick-flicks.
What I see in my girlfriend is that she actually would quite like to try out some of the other games (RPG's, Racing etc) but the control schemes are daunting - some xbox / ps2 / gamecube games have a habit of displaying a controller with all the appropriate functions - well this could make quite a few people start to hyperventilate - it can be a very intimidating sight. Guys get a controller pushed in their hands early on in life. The little women in our society are expected to behave very girlie and play with dolls etc.... So the treshold / access to games might actually be quite a bit easier for guys - they don't have to choose gaming they just are..... Could it be that girls actually have to choose to be exposed to videogames and therefore make a consious efford and are at a disadvantage because of that?

-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-

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Matt Barton
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Current Female Gamers Wouldn't Like "Women's" Games

Wow, this thread is really getting some good discussion. One observation I seem inclined to make is that women who are already enjoying games are probably not the ones who would most likely appreciate games tailor-made for women. It's rather like a left-handed person (such as myself) who has adapted so well to right-handed controllers and the like that it's difficult for me to work with one made for a lefty. However, I don't doubt that I'd have used lefty controllers if that's what I had been presented with from the get-go.

It also seems ridiculous to think that any game made specifically for women would appeal to all women. Obviously, some would despise the very idea. It's easy to see why: How long would it be before women were discouraged from online FPS and the like and told to go seek out games more appropriate for their gender? Geez, nobody wants that. Finally, it'd seem that guys who keep calling for "games for women" seem to be suggesting that current games have nothing to little to offer women, whereas it's a fact (see the participants on this thread!) that many women are into gaming, despite the supposed bias towards men in today's market.

Meanwhile, I emphatically agree with Didi that nonsense like the Frag Dolls does far more to discourage women from gaming than anything else. I am literally stunned everytime I hear someone making the opposite claim. It's almost as dumb as arguing that Hooters reaches out to female customers by having scantily-clad female servers. Am I missing something here? The "Frag Dolls" are just one more wet dream for adolescent boys. At best, they are a severely unrealistic depiction (I might go so far as to call them a mockery) of the true women in gaming.

The only women who I think would likely be drawn heavily to games made specifically for women would be those women who have been reluctant to enter gaming because of the heavy marketing there towards men. In other words, those women who don't want to try gaming because they see it as purely a hobby for males. It's this market that I think could benefit from a niche product.

The analogy to films and TV shows is a good one. The history of radio and TV demonstrates the viability of a market for women. Sure, both sexes can appreciate shows like the Honeymooners, Patty Duke, Donna Reed, and the like, but that doesn't mean that a show targeted specifically at women won't work. Again, I know very few men who keep up with the soaps, even those these shows are fantastically popular with women. I've watched a few, and it's quite clear that many of these shows make little to no effort to recruit male viewers. These shows seem to have an understanding of the female psyche that most men just can't seem to appreciate. I mean, just look at these recaps. The thrill of these shows seems to lie mostly in the treachery of the women towards each other. Indeed, it seems like the one ingredient for a successful show is to have the most hateful, deceitful, and jealous female characters imaginable. I'll leave it to Mark to psychoanalyze that one. :-)

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