Women Members of the Games Community

October 10th, 2014

I wrote this for Gamasutra, but they haven’t published it on my Gamasutra blog for over four days now, so they must have blacklisted me or something. That’s why I’m putting it here.

I have not been following the Brouhaha Previously Known as GamerGate, or whatever people have been calling it of late. I couldn’t help but be buffeted by some of the sturm und drang coming out of the fight, so I know the barest of outlines. From what little I know, it seems to me that the fight is no longer about rational objectives but instead has degenerated to an “us versus them”, “he said she said” pointless tussle. I will not give you my opinion about who is right (yes, I do have an opinion) because my opinion is just one among a tidal wave of opinions.

Instead, I want to concentrate on what positive contributions I can. The first useful point I can make is that gamers comprise a community, and the nature of that community is defined solely by its members. If enough people are willing to insist that the community should adopt red as its logo color, then that's what it shall be. There's no right or wrong here; it's just a matter of what the members of the community want. If there's a disagreement, then the community fights it out, one side wins, while the other side quits and founds a new community. This is why there are so many Christian denominations in the world — each one represents a battle that somebody lost. 

The gaming community must determine whether it follows the feminist style advocated by one side or the sexist style of the other side (forgive me for reducing two schools of thought to a single word apiece). Whichever side has more active members willing to assert themselves will win this fight. I suggest that the losers in fight set up their own subcommunity to further their own special interests.

Second, I want to remind female gamers that getting a good game for females has been a Holy Grail since somebody put a bow on Pac-Man and dubbed him Ms. Pac-Man. For over 30 years now people have talked about the problem and NOBODY has solved it. One of the smartest people I know, Brenda Laurel, made a magnificent attempt years ago, an attempt that was a commercial failure. All you bright-eyed female designers should take pause at that: if Brenda couldn't pull it off, what chance do you have?

Of course, we've come a long way since then and perhaps the door can be wedged open a tad. But before you repeat the same mistakes that have been made by so many of your predecessors (would you mind if I call them ‘predecessoresses’?), please ask yourself, as I was trained to do, “What is the ESSENCE of the problem?” Why is it that games just don’t seem to work very well for many women? 

If you think in terms of challenge, I believe that you will get an inkling of the answer. What human talents do games challenge? There are four: 1. spatial reasoning; 2. puzzle solving; 3. resource management; and 4. hand-eye coordination. Do any of these challenges appeal to females? Well, maybe somewhat, but they completely miss the primary thrust of female entertainment: social reasoning. Females devote a lot of energy to honing their social interaction skills. From dolls to romantic comedies, gothic novels, soap operas, Jane Austen, and a host of other entertainments, social interaction lies at the core of much female entertainment.

I hasten to add that this is merely a first-order approximation; human beings are infinitely complex and no actual female is so shallow as to have her interests limited to social interaction. But if you’re looking for the best place to start in designing a game for women, social interaction is clearly the best starting point. 

So, have we solved the problem? No way! Because right now there’s no way to build adequate social interaction games. The problem isn't a technological one, it’s intrinsic to the nature of the interaction. Any idiot can figure out how to plot the trajectory of a bullet through space, but writing code for whether a gal will fall in love with a guy? Fuhgeddaboudit! Ain’t gonna happen!

So perhaps you ladies should shrug your shoulders, admit the futility of your efforts, and abandon games to the testosterone-poisoned guys. It really is an immensely difficult problem. There are some women doing admirable work on the problem: Elina Arponen at Tribe Studios is developing Velvet Sundown, a free social role-playing game.  Judy Tyrer has been building Ever, Jane, a game of romantic interaction in Regency Period England. Emily Short has done a great deal of good work in the field of Interactive Fiction, and her Versu project has great promise. And I’m sure that there are plenty of other women struggling with the problem.

Third, I want to encourage you women to stand up to the shit being dished out by the misogynists in this world. I recently read a horror story by Kathy Sierra, one of the game industry pioneers, about the harrassment she has endured at the hands of Internet trolls. It truly is ghastly. I never realized just how many vicious misogynists there are in our world. I still find it hard to believe that men would harbor such hateful feelings towards women. 

Please add your voice, in whatever way you see fit, to the chorus of people denouncing the manifestations of misogyny.