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Can we make good games for *Everybody*?
by Itzhak Wolkowicz on 04/06/14 11:05:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I’ve recently entered a debate with a Facebook friend about gender equality in games – the friend, a female gamer, claimed that we (the Israeli game industry) lack girl oriented games. She claimed that girls still play with Barbie dolls (even if virtual ones) and young boys have a many boy-oriented portals that encourage competition and promote imagination using fantasy.

My own experience is different, especially if we talk about Flash gaming portals and virtual gaming worlds (which are common in Israel) – it always seemed to me that digital games are very popular among young people of all genders, and that a data-driven industry as ours would consciously exclude female gamers as it’s not a good business practice.

I’ve answered my friend that the mere notion in which female gamers actually need a different content seemed to me somewhat sexist and offensive.  I gave this answer out of pure intuition – my personal views dictate that woman should be treated equally, and as such, can choose whatever content they like (and vice-versa, boys should be able to play with Barbie dolls, there is nothing wrong with that either). Segregation of any sort always seemed to me like a counter-productive approach. It must be said – I’m not educated in Feminism and I’m aware that giving equal treatment for both men and women isn’t always considered the optimum solution by modern feminist approaches. I try to act as I perceive right and moral. Hence it’s my opinion that what we seek is to treat everyone with equality and I base my questions according to that:

  1. Do games, which many of us either see as a form of art, or a product, or both – should be used as a tool to promote empowerment for women?
    Female gamers do exist, and many young girls play games that are not gender oriented – why do we need games that are built specifically for either gender?
  2. Which came first? Was it the chicken or the egg? – In our case: Is it the games that contribute to sexism and gender roles, or is it sexism and gender roles that dictate the games we play?
  3. Genres – are specific genres oriented toward specific genders? Are Action (violence) and Racing games necessarily genres that exclude female gamers? Are racing games not fun for girls? Maybe it’s a question of different gaming behavior (multi-tasking, shorter attention span)?
  4. Content – is there a specific content in video games that promotes sexism?
    Is there a content that can be oriented toward girls and NOT promote sexism? What type of ‘female-friendly’ content do we lack in games? How does that differ from ‘virtual-barbies’?
  5. Mixed-sex gaming portals – do those exclude female gamers in anyway? How are single-sex gaming portals (i.e. creating portals specifically for girl gamers) differ from single-sex education?
  6. We definitely have fewer women than man in the game industry, how does that affect game-design and what can female game-designers bring to the table that man can’t? Are there any good examples of games that are inherently ‘different’ because they were designed by women?
  7. Is gaming still considered a ‘boys club’? If so – why? And how much of this claim applies to the mobile market, where, for example, games such as Candy Crush Saga are being played by more women than men?

Feel free to comment, I would love to hear your opinions.

- Itzhak.

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Christian Kulenkampff
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1. Yes, absolutely. I think especially games that question role models of both genders would be really great. I have the unfortunate impression that we are still light years away from games that can achieve things like Astrid Lindgren did with Pippi Longstocking.

2. Both.

3. Yes, e.g. (beware stereotypes) hidden object games vs. FPS. I think it's some kind of exclusion when there are so many "heroes" in the vein of Duke Nukem and so many women objectified in so many games in such extreme manners.

4. Absolutely, you should watch Anita's videos. I don't think it's about abilities but role models. Most boys don't want to play with barbies, I don't think it's for biological reasons.

5. I guess usually there is no agenda, just cultural practice. How about having both? Gender stereotypes might be just one way to market your site. I don't think this is inherently bad. It's only scary, when the marketed gender stereotypes are scary.

6. It's about cultural perspective! Do you think you as an Israeli think of things that I as a German usually don't think of? I believe so. This is probably true for any difference in socialization and environmental influences. This is why diversity in leading positions in general is so essential for a rich creative output in the world. Attributing decisions during the game making process directly to the gender identity of an author might only really work when the game is autobiographical and the content is emphasized in such a way (e.g. some games of I guess games are often too shallow and/or made by too many people to really identify character traits of the authors in them. Beside this it might even hurt the case. Gender identity is itself driven by role models and stereotypes, so I think one could spot differences and at least attribute them to averages, role models and stereotypes. Stuff like this is probably interesting in this regard.

7. I think both genders are supposed to play only certain kinds of games. The cause? Probably a mix of marginalization, sexism and role models - our sad heritage. Unfortunately a big part of the games industry still almost exclusively invests in the boy's club, so despite many female gamers the press coverage etc. still upholds primarily the boy's club.

Kyle Redd
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"Most boys don't want to play with barbies, I don't think it's for biological reasons."

You're suggesting that if all children were raised in a gender-neutral fashion, there would be just as many boys and girls who wanted to play with barbie dolls (and conversely Tonka trucks or whatever boys are into now)? That seems rather silly.

Andy Lundell
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I think that ignoring demographics, or pretending that they're not different, is how people get excluded in the first place, and arguments to that effect (inadvertently) wind up promoting the status quo.

Everyone can agree that females "Should be able to" play Duke Nukem if they want to. And in fact, they absolutely can. But just saying that doesn't actually make it a non-sexist game that appeals equally to both genders.

Look at it from the opposite point of view. What if a toy store decided to "treat everyone equally" by selling only Barbie dolls? They would have nothing I want to play with.
Now, they could say that it's my fault for being conditioned by society to not want Barbies, but it doesn't matter. They can say that all day long and they STILL wouldn't have any toys I want to play with. Whatever you think boys 'should' like, a barbie-only store would be excluding boys as they actually exist, which is all that really matters.

With that in mind :

1) We don't "need" games targeting anybody in particular, but there are a lot of male gamers whose favorite games don't appeal much to females. And vice-versa. If there's a desire for those games, somebody will make them.
There's also a lot of titles widely beloved by both genders, but if we only had those games, I think we'd lose a lot of good titles.

2) Both, but it predates games. So, let's say "the media" in general.

3) "Exclude" may be too harsh of a word, but they certainly strongly favor certain groups in our society (as it exists today).

4) I don't understand the question. Is "promote Sexism" just meant to mean "targeted towards females" or does it mean actually glorify sexism like the strippers in Duke Nukem, and females only as damsels in distress?

5) Do gaming portals exclude females? If there's a significant unmoderated "chat" element, they sure do!

6) I'm not sure. But I suspect that the BEST titles are designed by people who want to make games for themselves. Kulenkampff's answer in the comment above is really good.

7) Partially because old stereotypes die hard (The TV news is only just realizing that people over age 12 play games.), but partially because the biggest budget and therefore most visible games tend to be pretty male oriented.

Christian Nutt
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I know what you mean, but I think an audience is a very strong motivator for making something to, and the idea of trying to make an audience who isn't just like you seems like an exciting (if somewhat daunting!) challenge to me!

Ian Richard
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I agree entirely with you, Christian. I stopped making games for me a long time ago and never regretted it.

There is something satisfying about taking the time to study a new audience and making it to satisfy them. It's quite a feeling to hand someone a game that you don't particularly enjoy... but see them light up.

Besides, I have Brian Fargo and Chris Avallone to make games for me.

Bruno Xavier
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I believe there are games for every niche, but you can’t expect to make a single game appeal to everybody.
Yeah, that simple.

Brandon S
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Hm well . I think the issue is (When you say the word woman ) your talking about countless group culture niches and subculture. Many who share little if nothing in common with each other socially other than being physically born woman and similar biology . That important to realize you can't really make a generalized theory of media using "woman" without understanding the social-cultural context of what we are talking about

I remember reading article it was testing if Western Academic film theory could be objectively verified outside the original culture using Empirical approaches ,In many situation theorist in media make claim such as X story has some universal property built into the story with no Empirical scientific evidence beyond the theorist social authority. This is a problem found in all tools that try to deconstruct media .you can literally only deconstruct media based on what your taught and the culture your born in ,class etc you can't step outside of that .It also lacked Empirical evidence that people from the culture outside the researcher saw the Films in the same way there theory predicted, so thus the theory lack any real predictive power . I mention film theory since we are talking about media and are perception of media .

They tested this theory using Tamli India industry and non-western conceptions of realism in different culture and what would be consider more stylistic film Tamli. And what they found (not surprisingly to me in the least ) is that the Native production felt more real to the local populations , than Western Realist Films , and the sense of realism differed depending on the person age/gender/background ,but the concept of realism was based on an internal cultural concepts based on there social experiences in Tamli , not an external one predicted by the Western Film theory . So an American Sense of realism does not translate into culture that have different reality or precieve and consume different kind of media, different religious background . So much of are perception tied to the specific of the culture , What appear real to us (The tiny specific of character plot or the perception e ) does not appear real to someone in another culture . Bollywood is more culturally real and familiar to someone in that culture than Gritty Hollywood realism .

so in the nut-shell I would argue that the culture of the demographic is more important to selling and making a game , Gender only factor in when you understand the culture of demographic or have data on the demographic. Can't just project American middle European perception on a culture even in relationships to woman and expect it to work. So I don't know much about Israeli culture so I can't say really .but I can say just "projecting " woman in a abstract vacuum is a bad idea. You would have to survey Israeli woman who play games ,to see if your friends opinion have any real merit .

So in my opinion comes down to the Cultural of the Woman in Question.

We see this all the time in Japanese games and social conflict that happen when there imported here , pretty obvious Japanese culture doesn't have the same controversy related to sex . Even older times openly showed erotic works in public Shunga (春画?) (Plenty of sex in Japanese mythology that doesn't end up with someone going to hell ) this isn't some huge controversial talking point in Japanese society . there plenty of woman works Shoujo that are Highly sexual featuring both homosexual and lesbian scenes for female audiences in japan . Very hard to translate that into US-Culture and society it seem strange confusing a weird to us . Not to mention the Japanese almost overwhelming prefer stylized character to realistic depiction so arguments about the realism of the design of a character kinda lose there weight in the context of Japanese society who never really valued literal depiction of reality . But are very weighty argument in the USA who strongly value literal depiction of reality in visual art

So when you say your trying to make game for woman it a loaded question .(Which culture of woman ) ? What Demographic within that Culture of woman ?. Where on the planet are we talking about ? What sub/niche of consumers . There tons of woman in the USA /Europe who love kim karadashin and miley cryus pretty sure there fanbases are mostly woman , and Kim Karadashin doesn't look anything like the portal female hero made by valve .

Brandon S
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Can you make a game for everybody ? You can sale to the widest audience .Hollywood figure it out a very long time . Floating around the web and you see this in blockbuster statistic the best films that sale well (Simple Romances , Action Scfi and Cartoons and Epic Fantasy, slapstick ) The worse selling films are Documentary Social-drama , Most Comedy pretty much everything in the Sundance film festival . Looking at the gaming industry say it the same pattern really , the lack of story make them more universal since understanding the story isn't a requirement to enjoy the product
.The reason these sale better is simply there less to translate , less cultural obstacle . The Coming of Age story of a young girl in boston ,won't translate into another culture ,because everyone family and coming of age is different such as a lower-class woman in Mexico . Some have elaborate rituals and specifics that are essential , other do not . With these kind of story people are drawn to the specific of the culture and the people , can't just generalize it and expect it to work . (Sometime there overlap if there enough similarity between 2 culture )Just I wouldn't expect A movie about growing up in LA to make sense to an audience in Ghana , or Eastern China .

Kujel s
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As someone who has tastes that rarely fallow the tastes of the herd I'm strongly in favour of niches. I feel trying to cater to everyone you cater to no one and end up with an inferior game.

Gaming can be for everybody sure but specific games or genres should be targeted at the people who really enjoy them thus providing the best game for each given demographic. If we as an industry focus more on niches and less on mass market games I feel we as developers will be happier and our customers will be happier with what we produce.

James Yee
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Hear Hear!

The problem of course as you point out, is we're going for "sales" more than "regular customers." In the board/card/role-playing communities there are HUNDREDS of smaller games out there for all the niches and they work at such low margins that it doesn't matter if they only have 100 sales or 100,000 they are supporting their niche and the market is richer for it.

I have no doubt we'll get there more and more as the years go by. (We're already a lot further toward this goal than we were 20 years ago!)

Sam Stephens
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The best solution, in my opinion, is to make games that most people can understand and play regardless of their personal experiences. For example, almost everyone is capable of learning how to play chess regardless of gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. Beyond that, it's all just a matter of preference which we really can't influence.

Michael Joseph
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@Itzhak Wolkowicz

"my personal views dictate that woman should be treated equally, and as such, can choose whatever content they like (and vice-versa, boys should be able to play with Barbie dolls, there is nothing wrong with that either)"

"Judge not where you have no compassion."

Do you think equality already exists? Progressives generally believe that to move closer to equality, unequal aspects of reality must be countered and that you cannot counter a push by assuming a passive/neutral position. Equality comes when the unequal force is made neutral by an opposing force.

Proponents of equality must be active forces against inequality.

Daniel Pang
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I think the debate needs to be re-framed.

It's not about equality or inequality, as that inevitably devolves into which nebulous group has more equality than other nebulous groups. It's just about having more different games. Everyone is different. Not everyone likes the same things. There's no way we don't benefit from having a larger variety of games for different people.

You might as well take American Girl to task for promoting a traditional matriarchal view for young girls through their products and branding methodology. It'd accomplish next to nothing and they'd carry on making money. Instead, how about making something for the sections of the market you think aren't being catered to? If you're right you're pretty much guaranteed to make money.

Remember, the "wider audience" is a fallacy that relies completely on oversimplification of the market. You have no control over who plays your game once it's out in the wild. Absolutely none. If they like it, they like it. If they don't like it, they don't like it. Just because someone likes X thing doesn't define who they are, for good or ill. If we're adamant that video games have an effect on other people's view of gender roles and gender identity, then why do we just as adamantly defend video games whenever people link video game violence to actual violence?

I am speaking for myself here, but I would not mind if I wrote a good book and one of the people who bought my book was a creepy-ass neo-Nazi who lived in the middle of nowhere and ate babies for his five-a-day. I will wholly admit that this makes me a terrible person, but hey, he bought my book, didn't he?

Manuel Costa
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I don't think that the process of making a game should start from an audience but from what you want to say to the world. Its not about selling a product, its about sending a message.
You can easily make a comparison with films. Even the ones directed for children can be appreciated by adults, but in a more mature point of view. Of course there are movies aimed for men and woman, but there's also bad movies, as in the gaming industry.
I am not saying we shouldn't aim an audience, but making something for a gender, in my opinion, means that it lacks quality content (in terms of reason behind making the game in the first place).

You can say that you want to send a beautiful message with a platformer side-scrolling game, but then it only has man playing because its an action oriented game. Its true because there's a lot of factors that contribute to the gender oriented target. Anyway, its just an opinion.