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Soapbox: ARGs and How to Appeal to Female Gamers

November 29, 2005
 

How to attract women to gaming is one of the trendy issues du jour. The business keeps examining and re-examining the same roadmap of suggestions and success stories: Women play The Sims. Women play puzzle games. Women play games designed by female developers. Women like cooperative gameplay. By now, there is a broad consensus on how to get where we want to go, but a certain hesitancy about following through. Nobody wants to be the risk-taker here. Not only is there a large amount of money at stake, but I'm sure some companies are privately afraid of losing valued developers and their traditional core audience if they "go soft and make girl games."


Perplex City is an ARG that offers clues through puzzle cards, featuring riddle, cryptography, illusions and other puzzles.

Well, I've got good news for you. It's already been done, and it really works. At the end of this road, you don't find an exclusively female audience and a disenfranchised male ex-playerbase. Instead, you find a gaming audience that looks a lot like the world we  live in every day. Welcome to the gender-balanced world of Alternate Reality Gaming.

ARGs, for those few of you still unfamiliar, are what happen when you take interactivity to the next level. Think I Love Bees, Art of the Heist, Jamie Kane, and of course Perplex City. In these games, a cohesive narrative is revealed through series of websites, emails, phone calls, IM, live and in-person events. Players often earn new information to further the plot by cracking puzzles. Most important, the players of these games typically organize themselves into communities to share information and speculate on what it all means and where it's all going. These are platform-free MMORPGs, where there is no out-of-character, no avatar, and no definite distinction between the in-game world and the real world.

The birth of the genre is widely considered to be in 2001, when a team at Microsoft ran such a game for the Spielberg film A.I. That first community, the Cloudmakers, were an introspective bunch, and even then were aware that that merry band was a lot more gender-balanced than anyone would have predicted. Sadly, no solid figures are available. This wasn't just a one-time phenomenon, though. This summer, a group of ARG players and developers gathered for a convention in New York. There's one notable group photo from the event; in this self-selected hardcore crowd of gamers and developers, nearly half are female.

So what's in an ARG that attracts women gamers? Let's take a quick overview of those oh-so-famous pieces of conventional wisdom on what women are looking for in a game, and see how ARGs have managed each of these elements without alienating a male audience -- and how a conventional game might follow suit.

Strong Story

Quality of writing in games is a hot-button issue all on its own these days. If you're trying to attract a gender-balanced audience, this becomes doubly important -- Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda games are oft trotted out as examples of story appealing to women. I'm not going to try to come up with some evolutionary psychology reason why, but the pundits seem to agree that women are more sensitive to the presence or absence of story in a game than are men.

In the most successful ARGs, the game and the story are inextricable from one another. In an ARG, there simply isn't a way to devise a game without simultaneously devising the story, and the quality of the game lives and dies based on the quality of the writing. In every ARG team I'm aware of, the lead writer is a crucial part of the dev team. Poor characterization, bad pacing, or lack of plausibility are showstoppers just as much as a blue-screen would be.

The action item here for conventional gaming: Make the writing an integral part of the development process, and not an afterthought.

Strong Female Characters

When you're going after the holy grail -- the maximum-appeal playerbase -- you need to take some care with how you choose to portray female characters in your game. If you want women (and even some men) to take your game seriously, evaluate the male/female character ratio in your game, and then consider carefully what you have those women doing. Here's a hint: If your women are in the game exclusively to be hot, you need to rethink your strategy.

Many successful ARGs have featured strong female characters, beginning with Laia in the original A.I. game, who was witty, sarcastic, and proactive without overt sexuality. In Perplex City, there are female characters in roughly equal numbers to men in all corners of the world. In fact, the joke is that to have a good ARG, the protagonist *has* to be a strong woman. This isn't a blanket truth, of course, but it doesn't seem to hurt any. These characters aren't just somebody's girlfriend, nor are they primarily in need of rescuing. Think Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. Think Princess Leia in the original Star Wars movie.

Developers: Consider making half of your characters female. (Yes, even the bad guys.) Apply this to NPCs and PCs alike.

Female Developers

I've heard laments that recruiting women into games development is difficult. Qualified women simply don't exist, or so we hear. This is against a backdrop in which, according to a recent IGDA report, the share of women working in the industry dropped to 11.5% this year vs. 17% last year. And so we have a Catch-22. You need female developers to make games that appeal to women; you need games that appeal to women to attract women into the business.

ARGdom apparently missed the memo. The original team for the A.I. game was almost entirely male, but since then, the rolls of ARG development have grown to be studded with high-profile women: Brooke Thompson, Krystyn Wells, Jane McGonigal. At Mind Candy, our staff is roughly 30% women -- and though the actual ARG production team varies in size, it's been as much as twice that for some arcs.

The lesson here is: It's true that if you make a game that women want to play, then women will want to develop, too. But the reverse isn't true; it's possible for a bunch of men to make a game with cross-gender appeal. There goes your easy out for not trying, gentlemen.

Vibrant Communities

Women, we have learned, are somewhat more social creatures than are men. In fact, women are more significantly more likely to participate in online gaming than men -- 53% vs. 43% -- a fact that could be attributed to the social element of online gaming. In MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, guild leaders are slightly more likely to be female than male.

In ARGs, the entire playerbase is usually structured into something like a single guild, typically with a team of moderators in place. (In the original A.I. game, two of the seven Cloudmakers moderators were female.) Teamwork and cooperation are the very essence of playing an ARG. A player in, say, London and one in Houston who have never spoken to each other before can and will exchange phone numbers to help propagate information during a live event. This kind of collaboration leads to a strong sense of belonging to something greater than one's self.

Not every game can have the kinds of social structures that an ARG does, but it looks like gaming as a whole is on the right track, here. Having a well-moderated forum is important. Allowing networked play, particularly between friends, is even better. There may be other ways to allow and encourage social structures unique to your game. Don't be afraid to look for them.

Accessible Game Mechanics

Women are notoriously time-poor. I've personally tried and abandoned any number of games because I can't be bothered to master the interface, and I'm by no means alone. There are some interesting developments along these lines, now, with Bemani games, EyeToy, and the coming Nintendo Revolution controllers. Along this same vein, many men and women alike don't have eight hours at a stretch to commit to their gaming experience. Nobody wants to spend forty hours trying to get to a single savepoint. That's not fun no matter what your gender is.

The primary mechanic in ARGs have typically been entirely mental or social. A typical ARG presents you with a wide array of puzzles, from cracking a character's email password to decrypting Enigma. Along with puzzles is character interaction; convincing a character to take a particular course of action via IM, email, or even on the phone. Men and women alike are adept at and enjoy both of these modes of interaction.

So take a gamble on interface. Consider tailoring your game to deliver rewards immediately and reliably, and not after hours of gameplay. Consider making a sliding scale of difficulty (if you don't have one now) and don't call the easiest mode "girly-man." Make it easy on the moms and dads with full-time jobs who only have twenty minutes at a pop, but still want an enjoyable gaming experience.

Conclusion

ARGs conform to this list of criteria for attracting female gamers by sheer serendipity. In 2001, this neat list of actions hadn't yet been firmly ensconced in the mind of the public as "How to Appeal to Women Gamers." Now that we've drawn out the roadmap, we find that ARGs are already waiting at the destination.

It's crucial to remember that all of these suggestions are generalities about large groups of people, and not indicative of the preferences of individuals. Just because men are, in general, taller than women doesn't mean that Sally can't be taller than Bob. Likewise, Bob might be happiest playing The Sims and Sally might be happiest playing Far Cry.

It's also important to note that the dearth of women gamers is somewhat overblown in the first place. When we as an industry decry the absence of women in gaming, we're forgetting that 43% of PC gamers are women already. (Only 19% of action gamers are women, though, and I'm pretty sure that's where this women-don't-play idea comes from.) We don't have as much catching up to do as you might think.

We in the gaming industry like to compare ourselves to Hollywood these days. This is one area where we have an important lesson to learn. Hollywood does make movies geared separately toward men and women; let's call it romantic comedies vs. baseball championship films. Sure, some of these movies will defy expectations and attract broader audiences. But at the end of the day, neither of these kinds of films are the ones that we expect to win Oscars. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Schindler's List, The Shawshank Redemption -- all of these films succeeded on mixed-gender audiences. Inclusiveness is key. Now, as an industry, we need to put our heads together and figure out how to make our Oscar-winning games. We've got our route to inclusiveness, and we know it works -- now we just have to take a deep breath and go.

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