Girl Friendly Games?

People keep talking about making games more girl friendly. When women make up over 50% of the world but only a small percentage of your customers, more women gamers means more sales. Naturally, there is an emphasis on attracting women to video games. But then people guess at what to do. More cute characters would be good. What girl doesn’t like Hello, Kitty? Or what about making games geared towards girls? Barbie games? Yeah, right.

Instead of trying to attract women exclusively or specifically, why not simply make the game more accessible in general?

An example:
Debian Women is a project to get women more involved with Debian.

We will promote women’s involvement in Debian by increasing the visibility of active women, providing mentoring and role models, and creating opportunities for collaboration with new and current members of the Debian Project.

Debian’s mailing lists are known to be elitist, which turns off many newbies. People were leaving Debian for Gentoo which has newbie-friendlier web forums, and in general there are more men than women involved in computers. Still, it turned out that this community project didn’t just attract women. Debian Women also attracted men who were tired of hearing “RTFM” when asking for help. When Debian became more accessible, it allowed everyone to participate, not just more women.

Awhile back I went to see Sheri Pocilujko of Incredible Technologies give a talk on Female Friendly Gaming. When I asked her about the basis for her ideas, she admitted that there were no studies to support them. She was basically going on anecdotal evidence. Still, I think what she noted and suggested makes sense. She noted that making games more attractive to women in these ways also attracts men. I paraphrase them here, but the basic idea is to make your game more accessible, not more pretty. Women, non-gamer men, etc. Even the hardcore “mainstream” gamers of today aren’t as hardcore as they were years ago. Playing a game that has the interface of some old NES games would be a painful experience today for many who have been spoiled with modern advances.

When making a choice, you should be provided with all the information you need so that uncertainty is minimized.
Research has shown that girls are less likely to get called on in class than boys. Boys continue to get attention even if they are wrong, but girls in general are more timid about being wrong and so avoid participation. In the end, boys grow up to be men who are risk takers while girls grow up to be women who are unsure. Women don’t take mathematics or science classes as much as men do. In fact, girls are raised to believe that “Math is hard”. There are other studies that show that females are raised differently from males. Males are prepared to be independent while women are prepared to be dependent. They grow up with certain expectations which turn out to be wrong when it comes to the business world. NOTE: while I normally like to receive feedback, my experience in LA&S classes in college requires me to point out to you that these studies exist and in no way do I imply that ALL women act a certain way. I am not claiming that women are always frail flowers or that they can’t be competitive with men, so please don’t respond as if I did. Thank you.

What is the point? The point is that when you are making a decision, whether in a game, in business, or in life, you have a certain fear. No one wants to make the wrong choice. The more information you have, the less uncertainty you have. When you provide a choice to the player, you should be able to provide all the information that the player needs. But too many games require the player to “know” something. Imagine if you were given a choice of three potions: red, blue, or green. It might be a legitimate fear that if you pick a potion, it might be the “wrong” one. What if you should have taken the red one but you took the blue one? What do those potions do? Why might you need each? How likely will you need each one? With this information, it is enough for people to stop playing. “Math is hard, so I won’t take it in college if I can help it.” It is said by men and women alike. There are just more men who happen to like math and video games. Maybe the analogy is flawed, but I think they are related. I think men play video games more often than women because they were perfectly fine with trial and error to learn how something works. Doing it wrong the first couple of times didn’t phase them. Women, on the other hand, probably got discouraged from initial failure and went back to their training: “Math is hard, so do something else.”

Provide enough information for the player to make an informed choice. Super Mario RPG is a great example of a game that provides information on screen when you need it most without making it annoying to experts.

All relevant information needed to play the game should be provided upfront.
Pocilujko related the story of a girl who bought a fighting game for her boyfriend. She practiced for weeks so that she could surprise him by being able to play the game with him. When she gave it to him, and they started to play, he defeated her soundly. He would even make use of moves that weren’t in the instruction manual. When asked, he just claims that he “just got it”, but the girlfriend was very put off of the game. She read the instructions, practiced, but the special moves were completely missing and she wasn’t aware of them.

I personally didn’t like playing Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct because there was no way to learn the moves in game. You had to learn it from someone else or through cheat guides. That’s not fostering community so much as making a bad first impression. Super Smash Bros is a fighting game where the controls are the same for each player. Sure, there are slight differences in results, but the interface and mechanics are roughly the same. People pick it up quickly, although it would be better if there was a way to make it obvious which buttons do what in game as opposed to requiring someone to read the manual.

Don’t hypersexualize the female characters.
Women with unrealisticly large breasts might appeal to male teenagers, but most women (and some men) will take offense. You might have scrawny males, fat males, muscle-bound males, but women are almost always sexualized in some way. I’ve heard some people, including women, claim that making the men attractive will help too, but I don’t think that showing shirtless men will really attract the other half of the world to your game.

Characters should have a purpose in the game other than fulfilling the sexual fantasies of teenagers (in age and mental capacity). Won’t it be more compelling to more people to have interesting characters, or should you continue to cater to those who would rather spend their gaming time trying to zoom the camera down a polygonal blouse? Last I heard, The Guy Game didn’t sell well at all even though those were real women.

Make it easy for people to want to buy from you.
Another thing that Pocilujko talked about was marketing and selling. Girls don’t buy games at video game stores because the exclusively male team who invariably works there almost always make them feel uncomfortable. Instead, girls shop at Walmart or Target for their games. The people who work there don’t care that she’s a gamer, so she isn’t in fear of getting asked out on a date or being told that she should look for My Little Pony games instead of Doom 3. While a girl might play at a gaming kiosk, she might back away from it the moment males start to play or a male sales representative appears. Why? Comfort. Have you heard what 12 year olds say when playing a video game? Yeesh.

She mentioned being a salesperson for a Star Wars card game at one point in time. Not only did women feel more comfortable buying from her, but imagine how the men reacted. Here is a woman who not only knows about their game but is also interested in it. Quite a few sales resulted in those interactions, although I don’t think it is necessarily for a good reason. Still, people were more open to the female salesperson who was also knowledgable in the game than they would have been to the male version. Women specifically were more open to playing a game where the person teaching them wasn’t perceived as judgmental.

It is funny because this isn’t just a secret to getting more women gamers. It is a secret to any sale in any business. Make the customer more comfortable about buying from you, and you eliminate another barrier to closing the sale.

Long ago, games didn’t have a lot of room for storing things like a good interface or help text. Most gamers were game developers, which mean they were programmers. Interface wasn’t as important since the person playing the game knew how to use a computer. Today, there is no excuse. A lot of research has been and is being done, and many of these problems have already been solved quite well. Most people aren’t computer science majors and you can’t expect them to be.

Still, the problem is not making games more girl friendly. There are whole communities of female gamers, so it is obviously not an intrinsic problem with the gender. The actual problem to be tackled is in making games more accessible to girls AND boys who wouldn’t normally play. “Math is hard” isn’t just a problem with females, as I’ve said. People generally accept that casual games are supposed to be made more accessible to the soccer moms who play them, but I think that lowered barriers to entry are needed in normal games as well.

My own anecdotal evidence: a friend of mine once remarked that the interface for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on the PC was not intuitive. I didn’t notice the interface being a problem. Why? Because she doesn’t play computer games regularly and doesn’t know that the keys W-A-S-D are normal. I naturally moved my fingers to those keys whereas she was trying to use the arrow keys. It is not fun to be told by someone that you’re doing something wrong, no matter how nice they say it (and I distinctly remember being nice about it, for the record). Here was a kid’s game that was causing problems for an adult. How did children who don’t normally play games figure it out? Another story: I remember playing a game on the Apple II and getting frustrated with this same issue. I had to use I-J-K-M to move about instead of the arrow keys. “Who thought of that?” I remember thinking back when I didn’t know what “intutive” meant. I had to look up information in one of the computer manuals to find out how to move. The Computer was still new to me so I was already used to figuring out how it worked, but how many people would never play that game because they couldn’t figure it out?

I don’t think that game developers should try to cater to girls so much as they should target non-gamers. Female gamers exist and play mostly the same games that males play. It’s the people who don’t play games that need games that work for them. They need to know that math and video games aren’t painful, scary, or hard.

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