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Event Wrap Up: Games for Women, Games by Women


March 6, 2006
 

Several months ago, a group of women who have been active in promoting gender equality in the game industry formed a new group that would be dedicated to the cause. The result is Women in Games International (WIGI). Since then the group—founded by Ellen Beeman (Microsoft), Sheri Graner Ray (Sony Online Entertainment), Laura Fryer (Microsoft Game Studio), and others—has been organizing one-day events to promote and further its mission. The latest in the series, titled "Games for Women, Games by Women," was held at San Francisco's Fort Mason Center February 18. Gamasutra attended the one-day, one-room event alongside roughly 200 attendees.


The Fort Mason Center set along the coast of San Francisco, California.

The focal point of most game industry speaking engagements devoted to the topic of “women in the industry” is how to make the workplace and hiring process open to female employees. The WIGI event in San Francisco, on the other hand, celebrated women on multiple levels—women developers who are trying to advance their careers, female game studies students wanting to break into their careers, female game players, non-exclusionary games (games designed for everybody), and so-called “girl games.”

A keynote address from Robin Harper, senior vice president of community and support for Linden Lab, shared stories and user profiles from female Second Life players, which accounts for about 27 percent of the player base. Second Life, while not technically a game, is an open-world virtual environment in which all content is created and owned by the users. Because Linden Lab gives so much freedom to the Second Life community, it attracts a large number of game developers and game students who use the world to test out their design, programming, and art skills. However, many people in WIGI audience were as yet unfamiliar with the game, evidenced by the types of questions they asked Harper, such as “Does Linden Lab face much of a problem with players cheating?” (Since Second Life is not a game, there's nothing to be cheated.)

Among female developers, Second Life is regarded as having a very inclusive setup. Nothing about the game—down to its console, a computer—pushes women away from participating.

After the keynote, three panel discussions were held, followed by a break out of smaller and more specific roundtable discussions.

“People are assuming that games have to be mindless” in order for women to play them, said Heidi Perry of PlayFirst, who spoke on the panel “Games for Women.”

Nicole Lazzaro of XEODesign, who spoke on the same panel, agreed and added that the “stereotype is to make games easier” for women if you want them to play. There are a few things most players want in a game no matter their gender, according to Lazzaro, including the feeling of triumphing over adversity, but without killing, and simplified game mechanics so that the player gets into the gaming quickly.

Margaret Wallace (Skunk Studios), also on the panel, railed against the industry for disenfranchising women. “There's a push against women gamers from within the game industry,” she said. Games have been made “with puke-humor” thought to be edgy, she said, wondering why developers don't see the direct correlation between the “sophomoric” humor put into the games and women not liking them. “They treat women as a mysterious nut to crack.” Wallace's advice: “Make a game mechanic accessible.”

In discussing games that women largely do play, Lazzaro turned a critical eye to The Sims and its marketing. “The Sims is based on the dollhouse mechanic, but they weren't allowed to call it that. … The strategy was to get the guys hooked [because they are the primary purchasers of games], but when they brought it home, everyone played.”

Another panelist, Lisa Sikora from Microsoft, also spoke of the complementary roles in her game playing. She and her husband play Half-Life 2, but she said, “I want a supporting role. I want to play Alyx while my husband saves the world.” Lazzaro followed up this point with the fact that women often look for the word “co-op” on a game's package when making a purchasing decision. And both Lazzaro and Sikora, in fielding an audience question about World of Warcraft, defended the game's ability to appeal to women.

“In the World of Warcraft window, you can see lots of husband/wife teams,” said Sikora.

“I would argue that World of Warcraft actually did design the game with women in mind,” Lazzaro said, mentioning the choices players have in teaming up with others, such as crafter roles and supporting roles (fighter and healer), as well as the gradual introduction to the game. “Women come for the content and stay for the community,” she said. “It's a social lubricant.”

The other panels of the day were “Games by Women” (featuring Don Daglow of Stormfront Studio, Elisabeth Marty of Linden Lab, CTO of Her Interactive Sheri Hargus, Tina Kettell of Microsoft, and guest Laura Fryer) and “Women Who Play” (with Ubisoft FragDoll captain Morgan Romine, WIGI co-founder Ellen Beeman, John Romero, and Gano Haine, vice president of product development at LimeLife).

Haine raised the question of gender-specific marketing in not just the game industry, but the technology-entertainment sector at large. “In Toys ‘R' Us, you walk down the girl aisle and you walk down the boy aisle. At Best Buy, there is no girl aisle,” Haine said. Marketing is “not guesswork—it's a science,” she said, further probing why women, as a market, have been so completely ignored by the game industry for so long.

Women in attendance ranged from developers to students to PR specialists and other titles. Two women from Sony San Diego—one in licensing and one in marketing—said they specifically asked their employer to let them attend. They mentioned a lack of women in high level positions in the company and wanted to learn from WIGI speakers how to better leverage their careers in the face of this adversity.

WIGI has an upcoming, similar event planned for April 22 in Dallas. You can learn more about Women in Games International, its organizers, speakers, and upcoming events, by visiting www.womeningamesinternational.org.

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