How do we get more women into games?

Games artist Hannah Crosby thinks that turning women on to game development is in the games themselves, but not where the industry thinks. Illustrations by Kate Lomax.

It will come as little surprise, particularly to women who play games, that the video game development industry is one in which men massively outnumber women. A 2005 International Games Developers Association (IGDA) survey put the proportion of those in the games industry that are female at under 12%.

In plain language, women don’t see themselves represented in video games, and consequently they don’t consider games development an attractive career.

I was recently asked to participate in a series of panel talks on this subject. It was presumed that being a young woman working in games, I would have some relevant insights. The questions raised during the talks led to me think more about this problem. I discussed the dilemma with a friend, who asked what I meant by women in games – women working in the industry or female protagonists in the games themselves? It struck me that perhaps the answer was in the question: Why are there so few women in video games? Because there are so few women in video games.

In plain language, women don’t see themselves represented in video games, and consequently they don’t consider games development an attractive career. A problem like this would be cyclic: the lack of female representation in games would lead to further lack of female representation over and over again.

Games for ‘girls’

While games for women are not being made, games for stereotyped, idealised little girls are – known as ‘girls’ games’. These include Barbie Horse Adventures, for the eight-year-old who arent getting a real pony. The website Girls go games contains a typical spread of casual downloadable girls’ games with names like Nail studio, My new room and My dream cake, perpetuating the stereotype that all females are interested in appearance, shopping and cooking. And horses.

With games development studios being staffed almost exclusively by men, making games for women becomes a case of men trying to figure out ‘what women want’ – a process that has been characterised by failure in practically every industry that’s tried it. The fault lies not in the game developers’ intentions, but in grouping ‘women’ as a target audience, rather than acknowledging that women are diverse and as such, would enjoy a diverse range of experiences in a multitude of genres.

Male gamers are understood to come in many shades and varieties Why then, do we misfire and decide that ‘women’ are a single target audience who will all enjoy a similar game?

Male gamers are understood to come in many shades and varieties, each desiring a different gaming experience. The first person shooter gamer would often not enjoy the repetitive mining activities of the massive-multiplayer role-playing addict, who would likewise quickly get frustrated at the lack of avatar customisation offered by the average action-adventure game.

We make games for car enthusiasts and games for fantasy fans, tactical manoeuvring simulators and zombie action shooters. Why then, with this experience of the diversity of gamers do we misfire and decide that ‘women’ are a single target audience who
will all enjoy a similar game?

The truth is that women enjoy just the same range of games as men. Despite the lack of games aimed specifically at women, 40% of the gaming market is female. It may be the lack of representation of women in the games themselves that means that those women who rabidly enjoy games are wary of taking part in designing an experience clearly aimed at a male audience. We are trespassers in a foreign country; the clear sense of women having not been part of designing the games we play does nothing to encourage us into the career.

We are trespassers in a foreign country; the clear sense of women having not been part of designing the games we play does nothing to encourage us into the career.

Cardboard cut-out female protagonists

Women see so little of themselves in video games. Seeing the shell of a woman put on a character is not the same as seeing a woman, so merely changing the protagonist to a woman, as several games companies have tried, is not enough. If that were all we needed to relate to a character how could we sympathise with so many of the male heroes in the vast array of video games that women play? A woman is far more than long hair, breasts and a feminine face. Perhaps women cannot identify with these shell-like female characters in video games because they don’t represent our desires, our struggles and weaknesses.

‘Female’ characters are also frequently hobbled in their ability to wreak havoc on the enemies in game. Games featuring a female protagonist killing other humans are usually far less gory and bloodsplattered, perhaps because many men struggle to believe that many women enjoy that kind of visceral experience. The idea that a woman might find tearing the head off an enemy and shoving a grenade in their neck cavity may not be one that some men want to entertain. This phenomenon may also have its origins in ‘market research’: asking women what they want, but by virtue of the usual focus group situation, receiving disingenuous, socially acceptable answers such as, ‘I don’t like gore and violence’.

Games that skirt the usual stereotypes

Hannah recommends: ‘For all the bad publicity Lara Croft gets, the first Tomb Raider game is a good example of a kick-ass action game with a well-rounded female protagonist. She wasn’t hindered by an obsession with sparkly pink shoes or saving fluffy animals. She showed that a woman who is athletic, violent and intelligent can also be sexy.

These days, the Lara myth is more impressive than the game itself, which is dated in both graphics and gameplay. Today, the type of game I think would appeal to the largest non-hardcore female audience would be action-platformer games aimed at boys aged 7–12. Mostly these feature genderless, non-sexualised characters, allow you to shoot, kill and blow things up, and use problem-solving and dexterity. Ratchet & Clank, Banjo Kazooie and Jak and Daxter are all games which follow this formula, and are very popular with female casual gamers.

So what are we left with? Toned-down versions of the games aimed at men, with a visually, but not emotionally, appealing cardboard cut-out female protagonist. Or worse still, video games that claim to represent women because they have a female character in a supporting role. As often as not, these characters are only part of an escort quest or a sidekick with broken AI (artificial intelligence), an irritatingly limited dialogue range and who walks in front of your gun just as you go for a killing shot.

So what are we left with? Toned-down versions of the games aimed at men, with a visually, but not emotionally, appealing cardboard cut-out female protagonist.

Games for women not required

No wonder we don’t relate to these toned-down, supporting-role kind of women – we’re playing these games because we want to be in the driver’s seat, take control and kick arse. To get that truly visceral experience that certain female gamers desire, they turn to games designed for men. Women have always played games designed for men, because it is the only option if you want to play games at all. This, more strongly than any other argument, shows us that women have no problem playing gratuitously violent games, or being ruthless and dominant. The need to create games ‘for’ women does not exist; we simply need to acknowledge that women do play these games, and to temper the sexism.

The need to create games ‘for’ women does not exist; we simply need to acknowledge that women do play these games, and to temper the sexism.

Stereotypes reflect values

It is unrealistic to expect society to give up its gender stereotypes in one go. Video games reflect our values and desires even more than films and television, because they give us a chance to act on them. Similarly they reflect our prejudices and stereotypes. Women will not feel accepted in the gaming world until games start being released that acknowledge that we play them.

How then, can we expect women to produce these games if we deny that women are a significant part of the market?

The answer is probably not a revolutionary call to arms. Instead, the slow, steady filtering of women into the upper management areas of games creation will inevitably influence the direction games take in future, inspiring more young women to enter into the industry. Representing women as whole human beings, rather than simply appearance, may be the first step towards making the games industry a more welcoming, familiar option for women. That is to say, seeing ourselves in video games means more than a bouncing ponytail and an ample bosom.

Wanna be a game designer?

Hannah shares some insider knowledge that might help you make the leap.

What do you actually do?

Games development is made up of roughly four departments:
• Marketing, project management and HR
• Art and animation
• Design
• Programming

I work in art, specifically 3D character modelling. I take the 2D drawings created by our concept artist and model them in the computer before making them ready for the animation department to use. It involves almost no programming, but requires a strong background in traditional art and a basic understanding of computers. Being an artist in video games isn’t so different to being an artist anywhere else. A computer programme is just a medium, and traditional art concepts like anatomy, perspective and colour are what it’s all about. I think of computer modelling as digital sculpting.

How did you get into it?

I was still in my teens when I first got hired. I had only taken a short course in games development, but I had a long portfolio of traditional art and a history of modifying games, such as The Sims, to back up my lack of experience. An interest in and enthusiasm for games will get you noticed – games companies want to know that you are passionate about the industry.

An interest in and enthusiasm for games will get you noticed – games companies want to know that you are passionate about the industry.

Qualifications are less important. Understanding of how assets for a game are produced and training in the computer programmes used are easiest gained through a games-related course. You can teach yourself everything you need to know through free online tutorials, but this requires a lot of dedication and passion.

Gaming companies advertise positions almost exclusively through the gaming community – on gaming websites and forums, in gaming magazines, at games conventions and through contacts already in the industry. This can make it a little insular, and may accounts for the higher female representation in areas which are not directly linked to games – such as reception and HR – where positions are advertised through traditional routes.

How is the industry changing?

Games development is currently schisming into two distinct areas: the big-budget games aimed at a hardcore audience and the small-budget handheld games which target casual gamers.

As the machines that run games become more powerful, an understanding of programming will become essential. Job advertisement for artists are now about a third for technical artists: people who write code and have an artistic eye.

Games are becoming more like cinematic movie experiences. They focus strongly on storyline and will need good scriptwriters to get the player emotionally involved.

On the flip side, the profit margin for big-budget games is getting slimmer, and more companies are turning towards hand-held and mobile games. These require fewer staff, but people with a more diverse range of skills, rather than specialists.

It also falls back on more of the traditional game creators’ tricks to get a detailed effect out of a less powerful machine. They are also focussed largely on the ‘fun’ side of games, which draw in a player by simple, addictive puzzle-solving and dexterity challenges.

Hannah Crosby is an Australian video game artist. She enjoys crochet when shes not pwning your assin Quake III. Illustrations by Kate Lomax. This article appeared in Filament Magazine Issue 4, March 2010. Unfortunately that issue is now sold out, but you can get our latest issues or subscribe right here.

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