I’m intrigued by the renewed interest in this old problem, and dismayed by the complete lack of progress I see. The games community just keeps spinning the same old wheels, getting the same old wrong answers. Really, folks, some community memory would behoove us all. Nearly twenty years ago Midway addressed the problem by creating Ms. Pac-Man. Their market data showed that more women seemed to play Pac-Man than other games, so they put a bow on Pac-Man’s head and voila! the first woman’s game was created. This unpromising beginning has set the standard for all subsequent discussion, a standard that has been rigorously adhered to.
The basic arguments used fall into several standard groups:
"My sister-in-law plays games all the time, and she wants..." While the truth of the original statement is undeniable, the attempt to extrapolate from a handful of cases to an entire gender is, to say the least, a breathtaking leap of logic. There are a lot of different women in the world, and they display just as much heterogeneity as men. Any evidence we use must be more broadly founded than simple anecdote.
"I’m a woman, and I play games all the time, and I want..." This suffers from the same problem as above. Moreover, both this and the previous methodology suffer from an additional problem more clearly demonstrated in:
"I studied 100 women who play games, and they want..." This will tell us what women who already play games want. Inasmuch as they do play games and most women don't, they are clearly unrepresentative of the group we’re trying to get to; indeed, I think we should call them not just unrepresentative but "anti-representative". The data they give us will tell us how to sell games to women who already buy games; we’re preaching to the choir here. What we need is data for women who don’t buy games.
Don’t laugh; I have heard guys seriously make claims based on their "deep understanding" of women, such as this comment I heard recently: "Men are basically active while women are basically passive". The kindest thing we can do is ignore such yokels.
The result of these methodologies is the rather smug conclusion that what women want is pretty much what we’re already giving them. The fact that this strategy has failed for twenty years doesn’t seem to make much of a dent in the smugness.
A particularly disturbing aspect of the debate is its intertwinement with some form of community vanity. I first noticed this in the ugly reaction to Brenda Laurel’s failed attempt to create games for woment with her startup Purple Moon. I applauded Brenda’s brave attempt to boldly go where no man had gone before. Many other gamers, though, reacted like cats whose fur had been brushed the wrong way. They were positively antagonized by the very thought of games designed by women for women. The abuse heaped on Brenda by such pointy-headed jerks as Ernest Adams was an embarrassment to all of us. It reveals something deep -- and not very flattering -- about the games community. I expected that we would revel in artistic heterogeneity, that others would applaud Brenda’s efforts to put money and sweat into a bold new experiment. Instead, what I saw as heterogeneity, they saw as heresy. If we still had the customs of 500 years ago, Ernest would have been the guy holding the cross at Brenda’s burning.
Sadly, Purple Moon failed and so we didn’t get the opportunity to see the experiment through. Was its failure a demonstration of the incorrectness of Brenda’s ideas or was the plug pulled too soon? I felt that Brenda’s approach had some flaws, but none were any worse than some of the flaws I see in successful games. I think that we just didn’t give Purple Moon enough time to develop its market.
In any case, what’s significant to note here is not the success or failure of one company but rather the ugly territoriality of the reaction to it. It seems that the games community has some kind of deep resentment to methodolgies that do not follow its accepted customs. This is a form of blindness.
Two useful approaches
I can readily identify two methodologies that promise more insight than any of the flawed methodologies cited above:
Lessons from other media
Golly gee, wouldn’t it be useful to refer to other media to see what they have already learned? Take movies, for example. There are surely plenty of movies that both women men enjoy, but there is also a clearly defined genre known as "chick flicks". Sadly deficient in explosions, killing, and gore, these movies present lots of intricate social relationships. Another genre with great female demographics is the "romantic comedy": guy meets gal, they have lots of conflict, but they fall in love and in the end, love triumphs.
Another medium that has lots of experience with women is fiction. Particularly revealing are the closely related classes of literature known as "Gothic Romance" and "Bodice Ripper". These feature lots of romantic maneuvering, intricate strands of jealousy, social obligation, and social competition. But in the end the female protagonist has secured the love of her strong, manly guy, who is now hopelessly in love with her.
Then there’s television: the standard form here is the "Soap Opera", which offer endless ongoing strands of mate selection machinations and interpersonal conflict. Characters maneuver through an impossibly dense swamp of desire, greed, jealousy, love, and family obligation.
Now, anybody who can’t see the pattern here is either blind or willfully stupid. It’s the intricacies of social relationships, the dynamics of those relationships, and the intense conflicts that inevitably arise in any small group of people.
This emerging field explores how hominid history has shaped our psyches. By considering the types of behaviors and intelligences that would have led to reproductive success or failure, evolutionary psychologists are starting to pin down some of the basics of human behavior, especially with respect to gender differences. They are discovering that women seem to have been favored for social intelligence. (I won’t go into the details here -- that’s another essay that I hope to write someday.) Loosely speaking, just as men honed their hunting skills with emphasis on projectiles, the upper body strength to heave them, and the stamina to pursue their wounded quarry, so too women honed their abilities in forming social bonds, advancing their social position, and securing the material support of the most productive men.
From these two approaches we get a clear and consistent picture: while men like games with lots of projectile-throwing (shooting) and quarry-chasing, women should go for games with lots of intricate social competition. Anybody who says that women aren’t competitive has never truly examined soap operas or gothic romances. We have here intense conflict in a dynamically complex context with a rich set of rules and available behaviors -- what a perfect topic for gaming! And yet there isn’t a single game out there that focusses on interpersonal conflict.
Given the current attitudes of the games community, it’s not likely that we’ll see such a game anytime soon.
Addendum, May 31st, 2010
This ad by Microsoft appeared at the Game Developers Conference about five years ago. As you can see, not much progress has been made: