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Interview on Women, Games and Design

January 7, 2009

I was recently interviewed by Joanna McClatchie for her research. She gave me permission to reprint the interview here.  I get interviewed about being a woman in this industry a good deal.  In this interview, I challenge the status of a few status quos.

1. How did you become involved in the games industry?

By accident. I was at the right place at the right time. I went to school with Linda Currie, whose family owned Sirtech Software. She was looking for someone to play games, memorize them, and answer people’s questions about the games. As a 15 year old kid, being paid to play games was perhaps the greatest thing that I’d ever been offered. That was in 1982. I still have a ridiculous amount of that game trivia in my head.

2. Do you find the gender balance in your industry shapes or limits the scope of your work?

I don’t. If anything, there’s been a push to uncover the secret ingredients that make games appealing for women, and that’s brought a number of projects my way. From a more historical perspective, though, I worked with Linda for 18 years, and so had the unique experience of working in a design team led by women for years. When Linda went to work for Blue Fang, and I went to work for Atari, I didn’t and still don’t find anything about my process shaped by the gender of my design partner. I regularly work with Ian Schreiber now, and don’t notice anything that limits the scope of my work. If anything, having a design partner of the opposite gender makes me consider different things.

3. How have women typically been portrayed in video games?  Is this portrayal different in more contemporary games?

Hm. Broad, broad question. So, let’s start with player created characters. It’s not until Meretzky gives us the choice of creating females in Leather Goddesses of Phobos that we can explicityly create female characters. Though that’s been covered a good deal, there were games before this that didn’t require a gender, nor did they refer to the player created character by a gendered pronoun. The Wizardry series was gender neutral, and I certainly created a lot of female characters back then. How are they typically portrayed? There have been so many female characters in video games over 30 years, that I feel uncomfortable stating anything “typical” about them without actually collecting the data and analyzing it. The perception is, of course, that they’ve been highly sexualized and are walking around in game worlds in thongs (many RPGs) or stripper boots (Baldur’s Gate). But are there instead more princesses or samurais or whatever? And by accentuating the female figure, are we sexualizing them or displaying something beautiful as best we can? I’ve certainly seen a number of hot guy characters. I am not saying there isn’t sexualization of some characters. We’ve all seen it. Giant nipples on display, tiny waists, characters headed off into the dungeon in their protective thongs. Some game advertisements have been even worse. However, when we examine female characters over the 30 year history of the industry, can we really say that anything is typical?

“Contemporary” is an equally challenging term. Casual games, serious games, Civilization Revolution, Club Penguin, Braid, Passage. There are so many games. So many games. I think there are some games that sexualize female characters, and I also think there are some paintings that sexualize women. How do contemporary paintings portray women? One of the things I try to impress upon people who are hoping to enter our industry is to see the full breadth of games, not just a narrow field of AAA FPSs. Seeing that full range, is there data to support any particular conclusions? Analyzing the top 10 list, how do we do? We’re absent from many (Madden, some FPSs), normalized in some (the Sims), and fictionalized with a degree of accuracy in others (GTA4, if you consider the setting of the game). Some of the most popular recent games have great female characters that can even been different sizes (Miis, the avatars on Live, Guitar Hero and Rock Band characters). So, how are they typically portrayed in contemporary games?

4. Do you think this representation of women has changed due to higher numbers of female employees in the gaming industry?

I think that the discussion has been raised because a growing number of women are entering the industry and want others to enter it as well. When you see a normal female character like the one in Left 4 Dead, I suspect that there were some forward thinking men and women behind that character. She could have easily been in hotpants and a midrift cutoff and not raised eyebrows. The increasing women in the industry have caused the industry at large to question design or art decisions that may have otherwise gone unquestioned. I wonder what the game industry would look like if it were female dominated. What would our games be like?

5. The gaming industry has been described as an “all boys industry” and as a “run-for-boys-by-boys business”.  Do you agree?  Is this changing?

I don’t agree. I do think that there are way more men than women. However, if you look around the industry, there are lots of women in positions of tremendous power. Patricia Vance, Laura Fryer, Jen MacLean, Tobi Saulnier, Kathy Shobeck, etc. These women exert an influence on things, clearly. Another thing that’s interesting to me is the number of women who are leading the next generation of game developers. Me, Janet Murray (GA Tech) and Tracy Fullerton (USC) all head game programs. What affect is this having on the next generation of developers?

Some points:

* The average game player now is playing games like Bejeweled, and she’s a woman in her late 30’s or early 40’s.
* The best selling game of all time is the Sims (I think?), and it’s definitely not a “by boys for boys” game.
* The most popular MMO on the planet is Maple Story.
* Club Penguin is also more popular than many other MMOs, WoW included, and the average player is a pre-teen girl.

Right now, there is a very concerted effort by big companies to target female players. So, that’s a very good indication of where the industry is going.

6. Do you foresee women gaming employees eventually becoming equal in terms of numbers with their male counterparts?  If so / not, then why?

Interesting. We are an entertainment industry, so like other entertainment industires, I think we could eventually be proporational to them. I do think, however, that we have a certain degree of “he tells his friends, and his friends tell their friends” that will make that gender gap difficult to overcome.

7. If the gaming workforce was split evenly on gender terms, how do you think this would affect the industry?

We need more diversity than that. If it were split only one the basis of gender, I suspect we would still make games featuring a lot of white, straight people, and the games would still be made for the target audience that publishers perceive buy the the most games. The publishers would still be highly risk averse, and so would target the same thing again and again, pointing to the success of X or the failure of Y as their reasons. Will Wright had to fight to get The Sims through.  I recently wrote an article titled “What if the player is black?” and it highlighted the absolute terrifying drought of black characters in games.

8. In terms of character design, how do you feel that mixed-gender teams differ to single-gender teams?

Hm. I’ve only been on mixed gendered teams, though they were 95% male. Character design usually starts in the mind of the concept artist who is, in turn, going off the art director or the lead designer’s take on it. That character may evolve, but I have not seen a lot of “team” work on a character design. From my own experience, the single best effect of having women on the team was that the female character’s breasts were a) shaped properly, b) located on the right place on her torso, c) didn’t defy laws of physics and d) weren’t the most critical thing about her character.

9.  Is it possible for a video game to fully appeal to both genders?

Absolutely, and there are many examples – GH and Tetris being a couple huge ones. MMOs and RPGs also tend to have a good mix for their audience. Ultimately, I think it’s challenging to make a game that will appeal to everyone regarless of gender – and if you could somehow succeed in that, the game would likely be so watered down that its appeal would be limited or create interest for a limited period of time.

10.  The Sims had a development team which was comprised of approximately 40% women, and was a huge hit with non-conventional gaming audiences (it boasted a female player population of over 60%).  What does this say about the industry and female gamers?

Here’s what it says to me – The Sims team was very uncommon in the industry. The Sims was a game that women loved. We can’t necessarily draw a correlation there, though. Bejeweled was designed by a man. Wizardry 8 was a game whose design team was 50% female and whose lead design was female, and the game didn’t have that level of female player buy in. Second Life has been reported as having a 51% female player base, but to my knowledge, it’s designed by an overwhelmingly male team. The Sims, I believe, because of its narrative/setting/theme got the attention of many, many women. The gameplay had the same hook that women who do play really enjoy (building something up, just like character development in RPGs). There’s not enough data here to clearly say that a significant female presence on a team therefore correlates to success with the female audience.

By “non-conventional,” I assume you mean AAA console games? Women are very conventional gamers if we include in things like casual games.

11. Research has found that female gamers do not enjoy being portray as trophies or as victims of violences – but are these somewhat essential elements to ensure male interest?

Wow. Goodness, no. I don’t think these are essential elements to ensure male interest at all. Is this the case in WoW or Madden? GTA 4 or Left 4 Dead? What’s very immersive to 17-35 yr old male players is constant decision making and good feedback. (FPSs, Madden, GH, Rock Band, etc). The only game that I’ve seen that really annoyed in that relates to the question is in Spiderman. The way that Spidey carried his girlfriend on his shoulder like a weakling drove me nuts. To the question, of course women find that offensive, but it’s also offensive that these would be considered elements required to ensure male interest. The Leisure Suit Larry series also did this, though as a sarcasm, and it was quite popular with female players.

12. Another report suggested that women gamers demand more character depth from games.  Do you think rich characterisation is important?

Hard to say. In some games, yes. If a character is present in a game, I think that a women enjoy creating, customizing and building that character through play. Women also enjoy games with set characters, provided there is a good narrative associated with that character. Characters aren’t essential, however. Women very much enjoy casual games where no character at all is present.

13.  There have been a number of female characters who have not been sexualised, victimised or objectified in games, for example Metroid’s Samus (1986), Argonaut’s Malice (2004) and the very recent Mirror’s Edge (2008).  These characters were either almost gender neutral or represented very ‘normal’ women.  Do you think that if more female characters are presented in this non-sexual way, more women will play video games?

The single biggest hurdle to game playing isn’t sexualized female characters – it’s the controller (or the interface on PC games). Provided we can get over that hurdle, and new gamers pick up games, I think games which portray sexualized characters run the risk of turning off a potential new gamer, yes. If they see themselves in a thong or their clothing options are obviously “strip club”, they may feel uncomfortable playing. This is true in an MMO as well, of course. Having a range of outfits can address that. What I think would bring in more players is finding a way to convert casual game players to console players.

Another related point – characterization is about so much more than the visuals. Adding writers to game development teams to give our characters depth would assist greatly.

14.  My last question relates to the infamous Lara Croft.  Although she is famous for her unrealistic physical proportions, she is also a character with whom many women engage, as she is strong, independent and able to protect herself.  How do you think female gamers balance her admirably strong nature with her over-sexualised exterior?

Lara Croft is an interesting character. For many women, it was the opportunity to just play in a game as a WOMAN that was wonderful. A woman in a LEAD role! Her proportions were almost secondary when you consider that. Furthermore, I think movies and Barbie Dolls have prepared us well to understand that the lead is going to be incredibly attractive. Angelina Jolie and other femme fatales throughout Hollywood history paved the way for their digital sisters. Lara’s background was also very interesting and set her up as a strong, independent woman. I think it was that characterization that women identified with. Men could be drawn to her boobs and butt.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. jcaskey permalink
    January 11, 2009 2:20 pm

    Great interview.
    What an excellent sentence to end an interview with.

    I don’t think Lara’s original proportions were primarily designed to make her look like a sexbomb, it was more to emphasize the idea that she was in fact a woman.

    She was designed by Toby Gard, and he actually left the company (Core Design) because he strongly disagreed with using Lara’s sexuality for market appeal.

    Half-Life 2, Left 4 Dead, Mass Effect are also some great examples of “normal” females. Half-Life 2’s Alyx Vance really echoes the design of Lara Croft, she’s the daughter of a scientist but is also a key member of the resistance fighters.

    I’ve also noticed a trend where many more recent games that allow character creation have had much more conservative female designs. Fallout 3, Skate 2, etc.
    I kind of wonder how this affects some female players. We’ve all heard the criticism that many female characters are ridiculously proportioned or scantily-clad and ill-equipped for battle. But surely there are some female gamers who enjoy playing the part of a vixen? I’m wondering what their take is.

    I for one, enjoy playing the entire gamut of characters, male, female, any race, any species. I’m sure there are women who do the same. In games where I can create a character, I tend to keep two files: one where I have an approximation of myself, and one to just make whoever I want and have fun with.

  2. Mike H. permalink
    January 20, 2009 5:16 am

    I also think this was a great interview.

    I remember one RPG that had all it’s women running around in boots, thongs, & halters got complaints from even men in it’s reviews.

    My wife enjoys games like Bejeweled, and a number of men & women do, too.

    Don’t forget Roberta Williams’ influence on gaming as well. She’s retired now, but she worked heavily on the King’s Quest series, as well as other titles.

  3. November 18, 2009 10:59 am

    i dont think women play games as much as men do so y focus so much on them 😀

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