Why Do Games for Girls Suck?
There was a bit of buzz last week surrounding an interview that USA Today conducted with Microsoft head-honcho Steve Ballmer. The article was picked up by Kotaku and thereafter lambasted in the comments section with all the usual fury and derogation that comments sections are known for. In the original article Ballmer talked about the Kinect and more specifically about its role in Microsoft's initiative at attracting a young female audience to console gaming.
It is easy to balk at anecdotal comments from Ballmer like, "My wife used to say, 'No, no, that's the machine the boys use,' and now she says, 'Yeah, I want to go watch movies. Let's go play the dance game.'" Comments like these send the blood pressures soaring among female gamers, especially those of us who remember the 90's and the first push at including women in the world of games with such memorables as Secret Paths in the Forest.
Yet there may be many out there, like Ballmer, that don't get why the push to make games accessible to women in this way is offensive, so I'd like to take this opportunity to break it down, starting with explaining why Microsoft isn't actually evil (or maybe they are – I'll get to that later).
Like every other technology company out there, Microsoft wants the most users possible for its system. As it targets the users it doesn't have already – mainly people who don't play video games – a great majority of the people in those crosshairs (sadly) are women. The approach the first lineup of Kinect titles have been taking in addressing this issue is hardly novel: make games less game-y, or worse, make games that are more about graphics and interaction rather than gameplay.
At this point I have to concede to the Kinect that the problem here is real – why don't more women play games? Many game designers when challenged with the task of making games for women respond defensively by asking, "Why should we be trying to make games for people who don't like to play games to begin with?" In all fairness, there will probably always be a subset of people/women who just don't like games – I'm OK with that, but I know that that's not the case for the majority.
The "no gurls alowd" sign has been hanging over the industry for far too long, the aura of rampant misogyny clings to it like a retro J-RPG status effect. What puts women off, as best as I can discern from my own experience and observation (disclaimer! This is an editorial!), is primarily (believe it or not) not the rampant sexism, not the big guns and violence, and not even the lethargic culture of hot-pockets and la-z-boys. But rather, it's the fact that all too often the first game we're handed on our first game system sometime in elementary school is some crap kiddy title where all you can do is pat the puppy and put on makeup. If that's your first experience in gaming how could you not be like "Pshh, this is dumb" and forever turn your back on the medium? For the girls that do press on and explore the games not directly marketed to them, they are often forced to walk a very thin line between giving up on the gamey games to join the girls who gave up Barbie DS back in kindergarten, or risk abandoning their feminine culture to join the boys who are marketed all the fun stuff.
This is where the vicious cycle begins. Publishers make games less like games and more like lame interactive experiences in order to market to a population that they assume doesn't like games. The games then produced under this model suck. Yet inevitably some of the target audience will buy the product anyway only to discover that it really is lame. The target audience, these girls, then make the fatal assumption that since this game which was supposedly more accessible to them is lame, then all games must be lame.
The bigger problem behind this vicious cycle is that games have an innate and oft-exclusive language of their own; it's a language that takes some learning. The most hardcore gamers of our current generation, many of whom are going on to become game designers, have this language hardwired into their brains when they are exposed to games at early (and earlier and earlier) ages. The problem with this language is not only that it needs time to be learned and developed, but also that it is an inherently masculine language. What I mean by this is not in terms of aesthetics but rather how the mechanics lead the gamer through periods of stress and relaxation. Women respond differently to stress than men. While men under stress tend to leap into a fight or flight state, women tend to look to social strategy. In a video game, situations require quick reactions and periods of sustained anxiety; men and women will react differently (and yes! Video games are stressful!). In addition, take the cafeteria scene in an average school as well, the boys will tend to fight with their fists and have a more rapid emotional cool-down, while the girls will plot excruciating long-term social takedowns of their enemies. (All generalizations, I know, but bear with me.)
If the next generation of games and game systems really want to target the ever-elusive "girl-gamer," then they need to, A: realize the box that they're putting their imaginary demographic in, and B: get themselves out of that box. They can do this by beginning work on a new language of games, which is no easy task to be sure. The new language has to evolve from what is successful in the old language – an emphasis on the importance of good game feel, solid mechanics, and clear feedback systems. By this I don't just mean that there should just be more games like Katamari Damacy, games that are fun, approachable, have solid-controls, and which no-one can really hate (right?). Or The Sims, one of the most infamously accessible games, and which again has not only solid mechanics and dynamics but also is a platform for seemingly complex emotional interactions.
Emotional content is important in girl-games, but this doesn't need to equate to sentimentality. More than that, interactions between characters need to have solid consequences to gameplay (something the Persona games get at but never seem to master). The next generation of girl-games needs to operate at a different rhythm altogether – both in terms of look and feel as well as content. For example, if we know women respond to stressful situations differently than men, make a game that takes that into consideration - instead of the quick bursts of intense action followed by cut scenes or load screens, draw the gameplay out, give the player time to strategize, but also the opportunity to go in for the kill at a moment's notice.
Comments like those of Mr. Ballmer might lead one to think that the industry thinks very little of women. Their actions in marketing primarily wellness games to women and puppy and kitten games to girls unfortunately seem to back up this theory. To fight this, we need more female game designers. We need women who know the language of games, but also know and understand the limitations of the language. We also need men who are interested in pushing the boundaries of this medium in new and unprecedented directions. Until this shift happens, until we can get this right, no new piece of technology, no feature, and no peripheral can hope to lay a claim to this infamous untapped million-dollar market.