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Games For Girls? How About Games For Everyone?
by Mary Lee Sauder on 08/12/14 12:56:00 pm   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.

 

Previously published on my personal blog.

The portrayal and treatment of women in and around video games is a sore subject for a lot of us. It’s been talked about to death, and yet it still doesn’t seem like we’re making much progress. It’s a very polarizing, but uniformly upsetting issue that lingers on in this otherwise great community like cat pee on an oriental rug.

The most common solution I see proposed to solve this problem is making more games that girls can enjoy. And while there is definitely a place for games directed specifically at girls and women – like hidden object games and Diner Dash – they don’t tend to integrate girls into the larger world of (mostly male-focused) video game culture. In some ways, making “girl games” serves only to segregate the sexes even further. So I think that, moving forward, we should focus less on making “games for girls” and more on making games for everyone.

(Because right now, these are the only games that young girls are presented with. Yikes.)

Extra Credits once had an episode about propaganda games and the harm that can come from normal game developers accidentally indoctrinating a particular point of view into the player via lazy design. For example, making Middle Eastern men a default enemy type in modern combat games has potentially increased the amount of Arabic racial slurs on services like XBox Live.

Well, I think the same principle can be applied to the treatment of women in games. Developers have mostly been making games for the core audience of young adult men for… forever, basically. But even though demographics have changed over the years to include more and more women, games have not evolved to take their sensibilities into account. We in the gaming community are a mixed bag, but the overwhelming majority of mainstream titles brought out each year still trumpet the masculine power fantasy and feature cookie cutter girls in skimpy outfits or, worse, no female characters at all. I’m looking at you, Assassin’s Creed.

(Pictured: Possibly the best ever representation of the male power fantasy in a single image. Thanks, Gears of War!)

Even games that are otherwise great often fall victim to lazy design by, say, dressing a female character up like a prostitute to sell more games. Sadly, I have to rake one of my favorite games over the coals for this. Tales of Symphonia developers, why is Sheena’s kimono top open like that? She’s a great character, but her sexy outfit doesn’t fit her personality at all. She is a determined young woman who is trying desperately to prove that she can redeem herself for the harm she has caused others in the past. The only reason she dresses like that is so that the artists could slap her on the cover to get customers to look at it.

However, sometimes these design choices can make sense. Shiki, from The World Ends With You, shows a lot of skin, but that’s because everyone in the game is dressed as a parody of Japanese hipper-than-thou street fashion. Shiki, in particular, tries really hard to fit in and look cooler than she actually has the confidence to be. Here, the skimpy outfit works because it’s relevant to the character’s personality.

Once again, there’s a time and a place for all kinds of things. There is absolutely nothing wrong with games like Call of Duty or even Dead or Alive existing. The gaming market needs a little bit of everything, and if gunning down terrorist insurgents while being hailed as a war hero or fighting as a large-boobied schoolgirl in a heavily stylized and tongue-in-cheek world where her appearance kind of makes sense is your cup of tea, then godspeed. The industry will keep your gaming library stocked for many years to come. But developers can’t just keep focusing exclusively on those customers forever, or they’ll lose the rest of us who would rather play something that speaks to our own interests.

So. Games for everyone. What do I mean by that? Well, the gist is that I think developers should be making more gender-neutral games, rather than just trying to “balance out” the many male-targeted games with female-targeted ones. If there are more games that boys and girls alike can enjoy, then we can raise a new generation of kids who are brought together by games, not driven apart along gender lines.

Take Minecraft, for example. To say that this game is popular among young kids is like saying that Tim Burton just sort of likes working with Johnny Depp. It’s astounding how much this game has taken off with both boys and girls. And why? Because it’s basically LEGO 2.0, and what kid in their right mind doesn’t love creating, exploring, and forging their own destiny? It’s like exploring the forest behind your house and building a secret fort, but without all of the mosquito bites.

We need more games like Minecraft that encourage creativity and exploration to get girls to grow up loving video games. I had Pokémon and the Nintendo 64 Legend of Zelda games, but even then I couldn’t play as a girl in the former until three years after I had started the series, and the weird gender politics of Princess Zelda getting captured near the end of Ocarina of Time never gelled well with me.

We need more developers to realize that bland, generically attractive female characters with low cut tops don’t get off scot free anymore just because they’re in a video game. We need more female role models in the industry, but we’re not going to get that if we keep treating them like garbage (more on that another time). We need more events like this camp that encourages girls to make games together and gives them the professional recognition that they deserve. If we don’t, and the next E3 conference is yet another smattering of the same male-targeted games with the same committee-designed protagonists, then I’ll have no right to keep being surprised when more and more of my female friends say that games just aren’t for them. And I don’t want to live in a world like that.


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Comments


Ryan Geiger
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One of the best even-handed, well-written posts about this topic I have read. People need to make what they want to see, not make something that "targets" a demographic. We're falling into Hollywood/Television pitfalls here, trying to see how a property "resonates with the 12-23.76 bi-racial male with 2.4 siblings and 0.5 dogs demographic."

Notch didn't make Minecraft to "appeal to children, ages 5-72 on iOS devices," he made it because he wanted to play it. This needs to be the driving force behind game creation, because that's how you get Minecraft. Dead or Alive is not "what's wrong with the games industry," it was created by Itagaki because that's what he wanted to see; games by large publishers that are noted to death with things like "we need to include/exclude this thing because our thing didn't test well with such-and-such group in our focus meetings" is what's wrong with the games industry.

John McMahon
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Problem is some developers just want to play games like COD, Halo, or Gears....It's not often that you hear developers say, I don't like playing First Person Shooters with male leads.

Lars Doucet
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I don't like playing First Person Shooters with male leads.

Stephen Korrick
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I don't like playing First Person Shooters with male leads. (Lilith & Maya from Borderlands, all the way!)

Chris Book
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Why is it a problem? You can't force everyone to make or play things they don't want to just to equal out a pie chart that shows protagonist demographics. Its counter-productive and only increases resentment.

Lo Wee
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I don't like playing First Person Shooters with male leads. I'm saying it to troll, but infact find this statement revolutionary.

Enough to say it again, "I don't like playing First Person Shooters with male leads."

I think I'll make a T-Shirt.

ken wong
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I don't like playing first person shooters with male leads. I believe most of my developer friends (male and female) are similarly bored of them.

Luis Guimaraes
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As long as they don't talk, male leads are fine for me.

Theresa Catalano
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I don't like playing first person shooters with ANY type of leads, period. And since the game is in first person, it doesn't matter whether you're playing a man or a woman anyway.

Kyle Redd
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"For example, making Middle Eastern men a default enemy type can have the unintended consequence of gamers being more hostile toward them in real life."

There is no evidence of this anywhere that I am aware of. The Extra Credits episode you linked to certainly doesn't cite any. Something like this should not be presented as fact without such evidence to support it.

Further, what is an example of a game in which Middle-Eastern men are the "default enemy type"? If you're referring to war games that take place in that region, what type of enemy should the player be fighting?

Mary Lee Sauder
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At about 5:46 in the video (http://youtu.be/UP4_bMhZ4gA?t=5m46s), the Extra Credits team talks about Muslim men being a default enemy in modern war games. Then, at 6:30, they talk about how the amount of racial slurs about Middle Easterners has increased since Call of Duty 4 came out. I probably could have phrased that sentence better, but that is where the information came from. Sorry about any confusion.

Kyle Redd
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I encourage you to rephrase it. Even as presented in the Extra Credits episode, it is only an anecdotal testimony from a single person that should not carry any weight as evidence: "Looking back, I don't remember hearing a fraction of the racial slurs related to Muslims or Arabs used as a generic putdown on XBOX Live [before the release of CoD 4]." So it is not only anecdotal but also filtered through his six-year-old memory.

Edit: I saw the change and I think that is much better. Thank you.

Kenneth Blaney
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http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mind-stage/201211/do-fict
ional-characters-affect-our-real-life

There is some preliminary evidence that similar things could occur in other fictional contexts, especially with children. So, we probably shouldn't fly off the handle and suggest that the poor image of women in games is causing women to be the victims of crimes. Fortunately I don't believe the author is suggesting we should so much as she is saying that female characters need to make more sense in the way they are designed and written. (I'm inclined to agree as writing in games is generally poor by most standards.)

Rob Lockhart
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It seems like a lot of commercial media is unnecessarily split along gender lines. There are Guy Movies and Chick Flicks. There's even Spike and Oxygen gendered channels. The media I enjoy most is the kind I can enjoy with my Wife or my Mom or my Sister, which is why the game I'm working on is based on a genre of books with a lot of cross-gender appeal: the Magical Coming-of-Age Story. http://codemancergame.com/

Mark Velthuis
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In the beginning
"In some ways, making “girl games” serves only to segregate the sexes even further."

At the end
"We need more events like this camp that encourages girls to make games together and gives them the professional recognition that they deserve."

I'm worried that more "females only" game camps might have the same effect as "girl games". I mean, if you want to include a group of people, you should just include them, not give them a separate space that is sort of like the real thing. I know it's harder than I make it sound, but I believe it will be even harder when people can get the mindset of "But women allready have a place specifically for themselves".

James Coote
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The trouble is, if you had a gender neutral gamer camp, and just left it open for anyone to apply, you'd probably get 90% of those applying/attending being male. Just that makes it feel like a boys only club, which in turn makes girls/women feel like they don't belong.

It's self-perpetuating, and the same effect is seen in education and employment. Or to put it another way, the system is not self-correcting, so needs a big shove in one direction to get this problem fixed.

Equally, games targeted at girls have the same effect of making girls/women feel like they don't belong. "Proper" AAA games, given huge production and marketing spend, and celebrated by gamer culture, are invariably hyper-masculine. Then, as if to drive home the point, "girl" games are some shitty little flash thing that everyone ridicules, are full of extreme stereotypes and caricatures in the other direction.

The imbalance this time is that, in the first instance, we are making extreme games. Following on from that, those games tend to be extremely male dominated. So the initial action needed to redress this is to make more middle-ground games, then go from there. The op is saying that we can do that without reducing the number of extreme male games, and so not impinge upon the vested interests of those making and playing those games.

Johnathon Tieman
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@James Coote:

While I don't necessarily disagree with anything you said, women-only development camps aren't a solution either. Unless you advocate for male-only and female-only businesses, at *some* point men and women must work together. I don't think telling children, "Boys, go to this camp, girls, go to that one" is the best way to foster understanding between the genders.

Frankly, girls shouldn't be afraid to be the only one, or one of a few, in a crowd of boys, no more than a boy should be afriad of being the only one, or one of a few, in a crowd of girls. We need to help children get comfortable with being different and accepting those with irrelevant differences, not telling them that because they are different they deserve something special.

Todd Boyd
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A lofty ideal, but nearly impossible to follow through with in the current state of affairs. It is absolutely not analogous for a boy to be the only male among a group of females as compared to a girl being the only female among a group of males. This extends well beyond anything to do with our industry.

Phillip Harben
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Which came first - the lack of girl gamers or the games that catered only to males. I suspect that the two are intertwined.

Female gamers are a small minority of the gaming community - like it or not. Dev teams can't ignore the largest section of their potential customer base by focusing their game around girl interests. It's financial suicide.

That's not to say it's right - far from it, but until more women get involved in gaming, the developers aren't going to risk their livelihoods on a minority audience.

Oh and I always play as a female character ;-p

David Proctor
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It's not true that female gamers are a small minority of the gaming community. According to the ESA, women are close to half of the game audience, measured both as people who play games and people who buy games (http://www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/esa_ef_2013.pdf).

And despite received wisdom, it's clearly absurd to say that marketing games to women is financial suicide. Kim Kardashian Hollywood is expected to make $200 million this year (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-08-07/kim-kardashian-ho
llywood-glu-mobiles-addictive-moneymaking-app). Games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds have been massively successful.

People like you and I have (I assume) been playing games for years and have a lot of ideas about what they should be based on that, and that makes it easy for us to look down our noses at these simpler, more casual games. I pretty strongly feel that's a mistake. Despite all our criticisms and condescension, games like Kim Kardashian Hollywood have found a way to resonate with female audiences and we have not. We've been hearing explanations and absorbing stereotypes about why video games are so male-centric for years, but I expect that all of that is just noise. There are plenty of games that prove there is a female audience for games, if we'll just make them.

Christian Nutt
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The problem here is pretty easy to untangle.

Games are so heavily gendered now that the idea that a game appeals to women necessarily means, in the heads of those who play core games, turning them into Barbie's Horse Adventures (or maybe Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, which is hardly played by only women, but I'm guessing shootymans fans don't really conceive of that.)

The fallacy here is that content that appeals to women is highly STEREOTYPICAL content that appeals to women.

In the end, developers and marketers are to blame for this. Over the course of the last generation in particular, the creative scope of core console games narrowed considerably.

Theresa Catalano
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The idea that girl gamers are a small minority... I think that used to be true, but it's not so true anymore. As our culture becomes more entangled with computers and the internet, gaming for girls is becoming more and more socially acceptable. It's definitely on the rise.

Johnathon Tieman
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I think the idea that girl gamers are a small minority is both true and false. The key is context. Women that play the large, AAA style games are a minority. However, when looking at mobile games, women are actually the majority of players (at least, based on memory of the statistics here on Gamasutra). This is a rather key point that *never* seems to get mentioned.

Phillip Harben
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Bingo! I was talking about AAA titles, forgetting the casual/mobile market. Taking those into consideration, I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers were more equal.

Thing is, I don't really class those as games. They're diversions, primarily geared to part you from your money via micro transactions. They're not born of a single person's grand vision, they have no story and in my opinion, are cynical in their ambitions.

Christian Nutt
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Like triple-A games are "born of a single person's grand vision."

Brian Bartram
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Excellent article. I'm glad that you gave concrete examples. I'm always concerned when the subject is brought up and relevant, concrete examples aren't provided because, in my experience, it's easy for the male audience to have a blind spot for what is very obvious to women and girls.

Theresa Catalano
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The answer is obvious, in my mind: game developers, you should make games for *yourself.* Not for women, not for men, not for everyone... make games that you personally would want to play. That is always the answer, always. As an artist, you always want to be successful, but you'll never please others if you don't please yourself first.

That being said, I think that games that appeal to women are already on the rise. Articles about how we can have more games that appeal to women just seem redundant and useless to me, as there's already a ton of games out there that appeal to women very much. Look at Pokemon: I've never met a girl gamer who doesn't play it, and Pokemon has been around forever! Obviously it's a game that appeals very much to women. And as more and more women get into thew gaming scene, there's only going to be more.

In other words, this is a problem that we can't really do anything about, but we don't need to because it's already working itself out. As a girl gamer myself, I am happy with the way things are going. You just have to look past the useless musclebound AAA gaming scene to see it.

Jonathan Adams
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Large publishers are not just avenues for an individual's creative juices, but rather seek out specific types of games to appeal to players, hence the endless sequels and moving an IP between studios. While they're using that power to control the games coming out, they may as well do so in a way that grows the culture in a healthy way.

That said, artists who don't look beyond themselves narrow their audience and the power of their art, and it's not something to encourage artists to be. Artists should challenge themselves, not just copy each other.

Teresa Howe
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I really do not think it's necessarily the developers that should shoulder the entire responsibility in this. I believe the publisher, who only sees the dollar signs in the games, are putting restrictions on developers because they know a certain type of game will sell because of its proven track record to sell in the past. Since developers need the publishers to get funding to even develop the games, they lose in this situation.

With this said a game can still be developed along with what a publisher wants - but artistically the models could be toned down some and given realistic proportions instead of fantasy based proportions. A simple fix that could appease both the publishers and the female gaming community. IMHO.

Leanne Taylor
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Thank you for highlighting Shiki as an example of when a woman's costume bears some relevance to her character development! That was my favourite surprise of TWEWY's plot. :)

Larry Carney
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"We need more developers to realize that bland, generically attractive female characters with low cut tops don’t get off scot free anymore just because they’re in a video game."


But as a male, those are the female characters I like playing as?

It is interesting, this discourse:

It begins with an assumption of females in gaming lacking agency, which then turns its gaze to the player / developer / publisher supposedly withholding said agency and creating an actualized form of dependency as the only representations allowed (supposedly) of women in gaming are based upon the player / developer / publisher and their caveman-esque sexual deviancy for wanting a particular representation of the opposite gender, which in turn is a form of harm both towards female characters in general and female gamers.

A solution is offered, that the testosterone must be abandoned, the fur loincloths put away, the dudebro caveman gamer must step out of the dark of Palutenas' cave and into the resplendent dawn of a New Era in Gaming. Leave behind your old avatar and its baggage!

Play as a female avatar---

Oh, silly boy!

Not that one!

What do you mean, "It's hilarious this all began with a question of agency?"





I am trying to say this as simply as I can:

The signals being put out there by some in the gaming community are contradictory and confusing.

Angel Torres
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I really liked this article. I don't have kids but I have a wife which little by little Im trying to get her into playing video games with me. Unfortunately she is not that interested at all even by trying the most simple yet "balanced" gendered games like "Limbo". Although she really likes NES Mario and Nintendo 64 Mario Kart. As a junior developer i've been analyzing this subject and it really makes me intrigued, I have been led to believe that is the lack of understanding of the women psyche by male developers to involve girls/women into their creations. If you think about it, most of the girls portrayed in games are very similar features: Skinny with huge boobs and flashy hair. Most of this are made by Male artist who only make what they like to see in females the result you get from this is people with the same interests which would be most male. I Believe my point is, this industry would need some female game designers/coders for the transition to be made in at a faster pace. There is not much involvement of women in this particular industry, I hope that with the emerging Indie push some of them stick their heads out of the water.

John Trauger
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Nothing wrong with girl-games. Make 'em!

Nothing wrong with guy-games. Make 'em!

Nothing wrong with gender-neutral games. Make 'em!

Vive la difference!

Possibly the biggest problem with the backlash against the time-honored white-male-protagonist or young-male-oriented games is the implication that making such a game is "wrong" or shameful. That smacks of political correctness.

The problem is not that such games are made but that they're practically the only kind of games made.

Stretch. Do something different. Take a chance. The female gamer market is terribly under-served. make a girl-game (or a gender-agnostic game) that's a runaway hit and let the cloners and follow-ons turn it into a genre. ADD colors to the spectrum of choices. Don't try to black out what we have.

Maria Jayne
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I just play games, it's nice to play as a female character when I get the opportunity but I have never in my life sought out a game "for girls". I'm 36 this year and wonder how I managed to end up so involved in video gaming when at the time, there were no games with female protagonists.

Parks Daniel
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I like to playing a game i have played almost games .. and well written post shared here. Thank you.


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