GDC Q&A: Women's advocate, industry hero, Sheri Graner Ray

The game developer, author, and avid gamer discusses ways to create diversity in the game world--and describes some of the double standards that still exist for women.

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SAN FRANCISCO--When game developer Sheri Graner Ray attended her first Game Developers Conference in 1992, she was one of just a handful of women at the event. That year, she delivered a talk on women and games. "They said, 'Why are we even bothering to listen to you? Girls don't play games.'" In 1993, Ray held a women's roundtable that became the seed for the volunteer organization, Girls in Games.

Ray got her start as an avid Dungeons and Dragons player, moving into video games when she was hired by Origin Systems to work on the Ultima series. While working on an unreleased game called Arthurian Legends, she protested the lack of female characters and began her crusade to make the games--and the industry--friendlier to women.

She was later offered a position with the nascent Her Interactive, a division of American Laser Games that produces titles for girls. Ray moved up the ranks, eventually running the studio that launched McKenzie and Co., Vampire Diaries, and the Nancy Drew series.

Soon, Ray began taking note of the trends that repelled would-be women gamers, and the kinds of things females looked for in games. She founded Sirenia Consulting to provide that insight to other companies, and in 2002, Charles River Press asked her to write a book on the topic. Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market was released in September of 2003, and has since become a textbook at several universities.

Ray returned to the developer world; she is currently the content lead for Sony Online Entertainment's Star Wars Galaxies. Meanwhile, she continues to speak out in support of women's presence in the game world. At the 2005 GDC, while Girls in Games directors Sande Chen and Michelle Sorger moderated a roundtable on the female demographic, Ray joined Entertainment Arts Research CEO Joseph Saulter in another panel, "Diversity: The Invisible Hurdle." That panel explored ways to bring minorities into the industry, mirroring Ray's women-based efforts of more than 10 years ago.

Those efforts seem to be paying off. Compared to GDC's few women attendees in 1992, Ray says she was told that this year's conference was attended by about 1,000 women--10 percent of the total. We caught up with Ray on Thursday of last week to discuss the industry's progress in welcoming women--and what more needs to be done.

GameSpot: This year you won the Community Contribution award from the Independent Game Developers Association for your women's advocacy. What does that mean to you?

Sheri Graner Ray: It's the most amazing thing I can imagine. To have gone from this conference in 1993--when they had their very first roundtable on girls in games and there were six people--to driving it all that time, and now having the industry recognize...it's more than just recognizing me, it's recognizing the validity of the work that the women's group has been doing. It's so exciting to see that kind of shift in attitude. It's wonderful.

The industry, back in '93, was still saying, "Women don't play computer games." Period. End of story. Won't talk about it.

GS: And we know that's not true.

SGR: Of course we know it's not true, and we knew it wasn't true back then. But the industry didn't. The industry is now actively addressing: how do we capture this market? What barriers are in our titles right now? As you see, we are now moving over into racial and ethnic issues as well. It's like the industry's growing up. It's wonderful.

GS: What put you on the path to being an advocate for women?

SGR: I enjoy gaming so much, and I'm such a hardcore gamer, that I didn't understand why other women weren't. That's where it really started. I always thought it was an untapped market, and [I wanted] the ability to share my passion with other women and also the ability to grow the industry.

GS: Do you think you've answered that question of why other women weren't interested in gaming?

SGR: I think we're beginning to answer it. We haven't got a full answer yet, and we won't have that answer until we see [that] 50 percent of our playing audience is female, and 50 percent of our workforce is female. That's the dream, and one I'm looking forward to. Then we'll have a better answer.

GS: What have you figured out, so far?

SGR: I had a really interesting experience happen when I was speaking at the New Zealand Game Developers Conference. I did a day-long workshop called Girls in Game Design. It was all about: what can a designer...do, right that minute, to start addressing issues in our titles?

I had 25 women in the class. In the second half of the class, I brought in five machines, and I put in five games, Warcraft, Diablo, Halo, Half-Life, and Max Payne. We're talking top-selling games, here. We're talking record-breaking, highly recommended, highly recognized titles. And one of those games was put on each machine. There were five women in a group, and I put the group in front of the machine. It became clear all of a sudden that none of them had played any of those games. These were women in the game industry. They had not played those games. I was floored.

I said OK, you're going to play them. By the end of the day, they had voted Warcraft as their number one favorite game, and they were all going to go out and buy it and play it. So it wasn't the gameplay that was stopping the women from playing the game. Something else had stopped them, at the door, from playing these titles before. That's what this industry has to identify: What is stopping women from picking that box up off the shelf?

GS: Have female characters in games changed over time?

SGR: That's something we're working on. I expect we'll see it change, because that's something I've been screaming and hollering about the loudest. I'm going to speak specifically about avatars, because avatars are what we ask our player to identify with. The avatar is the representation of the player in the virtual environment. So this is going to be you.

Now, every time I talk about avatars, I get a lot of push back. They say, "We exaggerate male characters just like we do female characters; you girls are just too sensitive." That's true in some ways, and it's not true in some ways. What's true is, because we want that avatar to represent us, and we want to be the hero of the story, we want that avatar to be a hero. There are certain physical traits that we equate with being a hero. We expect our heroes to be young, we expect them to be strong, and we expect them to be either virile or fertile.

There actually are physiological signals that say this. We know that, for males, those signals are broad shoulders, narrow waist, slim hips, large arms, large legs, and long, thick hair. For females, those signals are large breasts, placed high on the chest cavity, slender waist, round derriere, and long, thick, flowing hair. We exaggerate those traits [for both genders].

What we do differently with our female characters is we add an additional layer of exaggeration. We exaggerate those traits that say, "I'm ready for sex right now." When the human body is ready for sex, there's a blood rush to the face, we see a reddening and a thickening of the lips, we see a thickening of the eyelids--resulting in that heavy, bedroom-eye kind of look--we see an open mouth with an increased respiration rate, and erect nipples. What we do with our female characters is exaggerate those. And then we dress her to emphasize those traits.

Males exhibit exactly the same traits--with one notable addition--when they are ready for sex.

GS: One you probably can't put in a video game.

SGR: It would be funny if we did! But we don't exaggerate them on the male, do we? So what we do is put a character in the game that says, "I'm ready for sex," all the time, and we ask our female players to be that person. And then we wonder why she gets come-ons from the other males. Of course guys are going to respond to that. And we give her no choice. We force her to be viewed that way, and to display these traits at all times.

There's no male player I'm aware of that would be comfortable with a male character that was displaying these traits. So bringing this awareness to our artists and developers is one of my mini-crusades. To understand what we do with our female characters compared to our male characters, and what we can do to increase the comfort level for our female players when you give them avatar characters to play. Don't hypersexualize them, but make them young, make them strong, make them fertile.

In Star Wars Galaxies, in our character creator, we actually have a slider that they call "torso" that actually increases the bust size. That was put there at the female players' request. Females want to look heroic, and that's a fine thing. They don't want to be hypersexualized. They also want the choice of being able to dress sexy when they want to dress sexy, and not when the devs say, "This is how you have to look all the time."

GS: I've heard of a few people who play World of Warcraft who enjoy playing a character of the opposite gender.

SGR: Men play female characters. I don't have the exact numbers, but a huge percentage of males play female characters. The number of females playing male characters is so small as to be not worth counting. And they'll tell you, "I don't play a male character because it's not comfortable."

GS: And yet if you're in a stand-alone game, you often don't have a choice--often you are a male character.

SGR: Right. Or you don't play. On my women's mailing list, you'll find them all the time that say, "I didn't play Fable because there wasn't a female character to play." So it's one of those barriers. It's one of those doors that stops them from ever playing the game.

GS: You already talked about one aspect of Star Wars Galaxies that appeals to women. Do you want to address anything else in that game that does this?

SGR: Well, I can address massively multiplayer games overall. We find that we have a higher percentage of female players in multiplayer games than we do in standard PC stand-alone titles or the console titles. I think that's due, in part, to the fact that massively multiplayer games are so open that it allows all sorts of play styles to express. Women can get in there and play the game how they want to play it. That doesn't mean there's one way that girls play games.

One of the interesting things we found out about women in massively multiplayers is, they tend to be the glue that holds all the social groups together. Women players will internalize massively multiplayer games, and take it out into their daily life. They're the ones who run the fan sites. They're the ones who write the fan fiction. They're the ones that lead the guilds, or serve as second in command and hold it all together. I attribute that to the fact that they internalize the game and make it very much theirs. They're also some of the most loyal customers. With any of these games, if you turn the lights out, the women are going to be the last ones to leave.

GS: How did you consult with other developers to try to make games that appealed to women?

SGR: It wasn't just game companies. I had a lot of different consulting gigs. I had a lot of other major software firms come to me and talk to me about accessibility.

GS: What kinds of questions were they asking?

SGR: Most of them were just, "How do we do this?" They all want to ask: "How do we make games for girls?" And that can be a good question to ask, but a lot of times that's not the right question. The real question is: "How do we get more women to play our games?" And that's why I will try get groups to focus on addressing their own title and looking at whether they may have barriers in there.

The whole thing about games for girls is that it can be a trap. They say, "I can make this game for girls, and I don't have to change anything I'm doing over here," you know? And changing my own stuff, and admitting I have to change, that's really hard. Getting them [to look at] how you can expand out your market for your own title--that's the harder question to ask.

GS: With the diversity panels today and yesterday, what has the response been like?

SGR: It's a new area for me. What Joe is doing, they are taking the trailblazing we did with the women's group and applying it to other minorities. It's really exciting to think that we may have actually made the pathway for other minorities to have their issues addressed within this industry. What a cool effect from that little roundtable we had back in '93.

GS: Do you think it's working?

SGR: I know it will. The minute you start to pull people together to work on things, we can move mountains. Once we show this industry that this is the way we can make better money, make better products, and sell more titles, I mean, heavens, it's a no-brainer.

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