Women in Games

We take a look at the changing role of women in video game development and the rise of female gaming audiences.

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One of the biggest points of contention in the discussion surrounding women in video games is the phrase "women in video games." This implies that women are special in a way that requires them to be singled out; it implies they cannot be lumped into more general descriptors such as "video game developers," "video game characters," or "gamers," but require more-specific female-gender descriptors. The reason for this distinction between men and women in the games industry is no secret: video games are, and have always been, a male-dominated medium. Men make games, men play games, men are in games. Yet despite this being nothing if not obvious, talking openly about the lack of women in the games industry is still an uncommon practice.

It has been argued that the industry should stop making a distinction between games that are made specifically for women and games that are simply just made and that the term "female gamers" is outdated, because the gaming audience has grown significantly in both gender camps. However, these distinctions are important. While the gaming audience is expanding, it is bringing with it an increased demand for new experiences that move away from the traditional formula that has dominated the development of mainstream AAA titles. This means stronger female characters, games for women that steer clear of fashion, material goods, or small animals, and, most importantly, a viable career path for both genders within a rapidly expanding and profitable industry at the centre of a bold new art form.

The female prefix in the games industry shouldn't be shunned--it should be embraced as a new direction for the industry, one that has the potential to shift gender imbalances and create bigger, better, and more original games that will help drive the industry forward.

In this GameSpot AU feature, we look at women who are changing the industry from within, from industry luminaries to the new players, and analyse the role women have played in video games while seeking to address the reasons behind the lack of strong female characters.

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Women play secondary roles in most Greek myths.

The Role of Women in Storytelling

When it comes to storytelling, history has taught us that a story's outcome usually depends on who is telling it. Video game stories are about men because they are told by men: men have been writing stories about other men since the time of ancient Greece. There is an undeniable trace of misogynistic tradition in Greek literature, supported by the representation of women in the Greek myths. While the literary sources of the Greek myths are varied, all of the sources currently on record are male, from Homer and Hesiod to Sophocles and Euripides. The subjects of Greek myths are almost always male, and the stories almost always involve the role of the hero and his journey in overcoming obstacles (sound familiar?). Women, on the other hand, seem to play only a supporting role in the Greek myths, painted in one of four roles: the object of desire, the goddess, the demon hindering the hero's progress, or the harbinger of doom.

Stories told from the point of view of women differ greatly: fairy tales, for example, evolved from a predominately female tradition, which explains why a large portion of fairy tales feature female protagonists and themes that relate to family, child rearing, education, and morality. Widespread female education did not begin in the Western world until the Enlightenment of the 18th century and was not common until the 19th century. Until then, the role of women in literature was not as masters of the craft but as muses. Even when women found the courage to begin writing in the 1800s, they did so with a male pseudonym. Jane Austen, one of the most widely read and respected writers in English literature, published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, under the tongue-in-cheek pseudonym "A. Lady," and although her works are regarded as classics now, they brought her little fame during her own lifetime--her subject matter dealing with the necessity of marriage to secure social standing among women of the day earned her little praise among her male peers. It wasn't until the 1940s that Austen became widely read.

Literature wasn't the only medium where women had to prove themselves: the history of visual arts, film, politics, and the sciences is dominated by a strong male presence, combated only in later stages by a rising female influence. We no longer find reason to debate the number of female artists, filmmakers, authors, or scientists because it is widely accepted that women are now just as influential and active as men are in these once male-dominated fields. Video games, on the other hand, are a nascent medium. The fact that women play a diminutive role in the games industry shouldn't be ignored: it should be addressed, debated, and rectified. Why? Just look at the current formula that most AAA games follow. Are we still surprised that we always seem to be playing a beefed-up bro who never has any trouble operating weaponry or delivering constant loops of delightfully caustic repartees?

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Cultural Dynamics

Things weren't always this dire. Video games in their earliest form were family games. They were social games, first in arcades and then on the first home console systems. They were games for everyone, regardless of gender, age, or social status. Things were different in the computing industry too: according to recent studies, fewer women are entering the industry today than at any time in the past 25 years. In research conducted by Thomas J. Misa in his 2010 book Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing, the number of women entering undergraduate computer science education and the information technology workforce in the United States is shown to have peaked in the 1980s. Since then, the number of women in computing has gradually dropped, falling from nearly 40 percent to around 12 percent now, according to figures from the Computing Research Association's Taulbee Survey.

The reasons for this drop have been studied again and again over the years, but the results always seem to point to the same cause. At some point between the 1980s and now, women in Western countries became self-conscious. They became aware of an experience gap between themselves and their male peers (an imaginary gap, one might argue) and thus began to question their place in an industry that popular culture told them was not the right place for a woman to be. This is ironic when you consider that the world's first computer programmer was a woman. Ada Lovelace was a British mathematician and writer who, in 1842, helped inventor, philosopher, and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage design the concept for the first programmable computer. (The Ada programming language was named after Lovelace and continues to be used today.)

Unfortunately, the cultural shift responsible for driving women away from the computing industry after the 1980s was never reversed. Women continue to associate themselves with careers that comply with societal gender roles. In his book about the psychology of men and women, The Essential Difference, Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen expresses the idea that the female brain is "hardwired" for empathy, while the male brain is better suited to understanding and building systems. This, Baron-Cohen argues, is why females make the best counselors, teachers, nurses, therapists, social workers, and personnel staff. Some psychologists go against this idea: in her 2010 book Delusions of Gender, Australian psychologist Cordelia Fine argues that men and women learn associations about their sex in the environment, without awareness or control; so, for example, while a woman might be physically and mentally capable of becoming a computer programmer, environmental associations picked up throughout her life lead her to believe that she's probably not well suited to that career.

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Ada Lovelace.

This phenomenon is familiar to most women who have, at one stage or another, tried to enter a male-dominated industry. Jacqueline Urick is the cofounder and CEO of SieEnt, a new game development studio in Minnesota that develops games for women. Urick says she has been a gamer for as long as she can remember but never really considered it a career until a few years ago. After spending over a decade as a Web developer and online and interactive marketer, Urick knew it was time to combine her skill set with her hobby and do something meaningful. She teamed up with Liz Tupper, fellow gamer and business associate, and together the two women formed SieEnt. It wasn't an easy decision--particularly knowing the kinds of stereotypes they would have to endure both within the industry and outside of it.

"There are a lot of really negative stereotypes associated with being a gamer. First, there are the 'fat, ugly, live in your mom's basement' types of stereotypes. Then there are the 'no life; can't hack real life' stereotypes. Then finally women gamers start getting some credit and the industry turns them into sexy images. Women see their husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers "waste" time playing games and it looks irresponsible. Games become the 'bad guy,' and who wants to associate with that? So the industry has a lot to overcome in the minds of these consumers."

But it's not like the games industry set out to exclude women by making games that don't appeal to them. The drive to make money is a big one, which, in a broad way, can be blamed for the lack of creative risk-taking and originality in the industry: no publisher is going to want to take a chance on a game (or in this case, an entire market) that is not going to wield a guaranteed profit. Shira Chess, a game designer, researcher, and assistant professor in communications at Miami University, says that while game publishers have begun to actively woo women audiences through a variety of platforms in recent years, it's hard to turn around an industry that has been set in its ways since the 1980s. Because there is so little risk-taking happening in the AAA space, the breakthroughs that do become successful tend to accentuate the female stereotypes already in place.

"There is now this weird rift that has occurred between 'casual' and 'hardcore' gaming, which, to a large extent, is false: everyone has their own play style and everyone enjoys different kinds of game," Chess says. "Often this 'casual' game moniker gets somehow conflated with feminine and women gamers, and so thinly veiled insults about women gamers can be achieved through critiques of casual gaming. You hear traditional industry people say things all of the time about how the Wii is making gaming too 'easy' or how stupid they think Farmville is. In some ways, this becomes a systematic rejection of alternative gaming styles--feminine or otherwise. While on one hand the video game industry is trying to woo this newer, feminine audience they simultaneously seem to mock this idea of the mom-gamer, like that is the most absurd thing in the world. And these are the kinds of questions we should be asking: Why is it so funny that mothers (or grandmothers!) should play video games?"

Throughout her research studying how video games use themes of productivity in their attempts to garner women audiences, Chess arrived at the conclusion that the industry doesn't just need to make more games for women--it needs more diversity in general, catering to all play styles and more inclusive of ethnicity, class, and gender.

"I see so many missed opportunities. For example, why is there not more co-op multiplayer console gaming? Why are games like DC Universe Online designed so that I can't stand next to my husband or a friend and play next to them? If the gaming industry only produces one possible experience then we all lose. The future of gaming needs to be designed by people who aren't currently gamers."

Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch and Kirsten Forbes have been asking themselves the same questions. The founders of Silicon Sisters Interactive, the first female owned and run game studio in Canada, Gershkovitch and Forbes have more than 20 years of combined experience in the games industry working for Deep Fried Entertainment and Radical Entertainment in Vancouver, respectively. After noticing the lack of women in the industry, the pair teamed up to create higher-quality games for the female demographic.

"The predominant man-boy culture that [co-author of Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution] Heather Chaplin ranted about at GDC 2010 is alive and well, and it's not inviting to outsiders," Gershkovitch says. "I've had studio heads come and talk to me and say, 'We've tried to hire female coders, and every time we hire one, they quit within three months.' This is a cultural issue--something about the space is creating this ongoing departure. Cultural change is tough to do, but worth it."

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Jacqueline Urick from SieEnt says BioWare's Dragon Age presents realistic roles for female players.

So is it publishers, not developers, who should be doing more to right the gender imbalance in the industry, starting with the creation of stronger, more realistic female characters that aren't limited to barely clad, semi-moronic sidekicks?

“"I was listening to Bill Mooney from Zynga speak at GDC Canada last year," Gershkovitch says. "He said: 'We've done an amazing job building our fantasies. Games are really just us playing our fantasies.' And I thought, yeah, but we've built male fantasies. What are female fantasies, and how do we want to play them? Do we not make games for girls because girls don't care about video games, or do girls not care about video games because we don't make games for girls? It's not just about offering women cool female characters that we can relate to and that don't make us feel badly about ourselves but also gameplay that works for us."

When it comes to beating the stereotype of females in games themselves, Urick from SieEnt believes the industry needs more women at the top of the chain--it's not enough to simply have a few women on the development team. The reason that game formulas aren't changing is that men are still the ones making all the important decisions.

"Why wouldn't men want to make games with strong male characters? Wouldn't that also attract a largely male gaming audience? Obviously, as long as they make enough money to keep shareholders happy, that formula isn't going to change. Men make games for other men. It's time that women start making games for other women. Females need to both speak out but vote with their money too. We need more females writing and designing. We need more female-run business funded and supported."

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Changing the Industry

The growth of digital distribution and platforms such as XBLA, PSN, Steam, iPhone, iPad, and mobile devices has created diversity in the games industry. Independent game development is on the rise. Social gaming on Facebook is growing more popular by the day. New technologies such as Microsoft's Kinect are bringing new demographics to the gaming market. All of this translates into potential: potential for growth, potential for new experiences, and potential for new audiences. And it hasn't gone unnoticed.

During a GDC 2011 panel on social game development, industry veteran and game developer Brenda Brathwaite reacted against the idea that social gaming is somehow harmful to the gaming industry by pointing to the frequent number of times the industry has been at war with itself during the past 30 years or so that she has been working in games: when graphics replaced text-based games, when cutscenes were first introduced, the advent of consoles, and so on. "We want to make great games, even for the 43-year-old Facebook mother, because she deserves a great f***ing game too," Brathwaite shouted.

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Brenda Brathwaite helped develop Playboy: The Mansion.

She got a standing ovation. The woman knows her stuff: she has been developing games since 1981, working on the Wizardry series, the Jagged Alliance and Realms of Arkania series, and the Dungeons & Dragons series. In November last year, she and her partner, legendary game designer John Romero, left their respective jobs to form a new social game development studio called Loot Drop. The move, Brathwaite says, surprised many of her male peers in the industry. Yet it's easy to see why Brathwaite feels so strongly about social gaming and why she wants to join the new wave of social game developers striving to create more immersive and intelligent experiences. The impact of the social gaming phenomenon on the wider industry has not gone unnoticed by companies like Silicon Sisters Interactive, who see it as an incentive to draw more women to gaming.

"The social gaming boom has been a huge catalyst," Forbes says. "Even 10 years ago we used to hear stories that games like Slingo would peak at 9:30 a.m. when all the moms got home from dropping their kids at school. For 7,000 years humans in all cultures played games against each other, then for a couple of decades in console games we couldn't figure out how to do that so we gave them fantastic AI instead, but phew, now we're all back playing against our friends. Social gaming feels like a relief to me.

"From the behaviours I have observed, lots of female characteristics are in tune with what social games provide. For instance, women like to slice their time up into short, productive play sessions over the course of the day, women seek a challenge but one that doesn't require a binary win/lose outcome, women are wired to raise the future generation so may be more naturally adept at games that focus on social relationships and social skills. These kinds of things taken together make the social gaming space ripe for female players. There is lots of room to make deeper and more immersive games in that realm, and there are lots of very smart people who know that and are doing it now."

Silicon Sisters' first title, School 26, is an iPhone and iPad game for teenage girls. On the surface, it's what you'd expect from a typical teenage-girl-orientated game. However, its formula and gameplay were developed after exhaustive research into the target demographic. Gershkovitch and Forbes looked into every facet of social engineering, from examining how Asperger's syndrome presents differently in girls than boys, to the social psychology behind reciprocity in societies, to observational studies of teenage social networks. These studies helped Gershkovitch and Forbes to understand how humans read social cues, build affiliations, and develop communication skills.

"That's essentially School 26--listening, observing, practicing empathy, and building relationships," Forbes says. "And how cool is it that you level up the other characters in the game to win, not yourself. Matt Ridley, the social anthropologist who has a lot to say about altruism, would surely applaud that.

“We now see a female market that is computationally savvy, has easy access to computers and mobile devices, has money to spend and wants to play. We're in the middle of probably the biggest disruptive shift this industry has ever seen. It's an extremely exciting time to be part of it."

The games SieEnt wants to make, on the other hand, aren’t casual games, Facebook games, or games that have anything to do with fashion, material goods, or small animals. They are RPGs, released in episodic content form, that ask players to tackle problems in much the same way they might do so in real life.

"Women have to stop hoping and take action," Urick says. "Men aren't going to change this industry for us. At least not in the way we'd like. The change needs to come from us. With SieEnt, we are building the games we want to play. We figured we can't wait around and hope someone else does."

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