By Emma Boyes.
Before I started working in game development, many games used to annoy me for their casual sexism, stereotypical female characters (oh, does the Princess need saving AGAIN? Yawn.), characters with HUGE breasts and tiny waists leaving room for only a few vital internal organs and – this is my biggest pet peeve – not being able to play as a woman.
As a result, before I actually started working in the games industry, I was sure all developers were sexist pigs. To my surprise, they really aren’t – most of them are actually super nice guys. The thing is, not being women, they had absolutely no idea they were doing all those things or that they bothered women so much. None. Something that to me and my gamer girl friends was blatantly obvious just hadn’t ever even crossed their minds. That’s the first important thing I learned.
The second thing I found that surprised me is that they are generally more than happy to change games to make them appeal to a wider audience, as long as those things aren’t going to mean rewriting the whole game, and there are lots of simple, small things that you can do that don’t. Whenever I’ve given developers advice on how something could be improved from the point of view of a woman, I’ve always expected to hear back something like ‘well, this game isn’t FOR women’, or ‘women aren’t the target audience, so…’. I’ve never had that. I’ve just got back that, like all of us who create things, game creators desperately want as many people as possible to enjoy their games.
The best book I have read on the topic of making games female friendly, and something I think that every game developer should read, is Sheri Graner Ray’s ‘Gender Inclusive Game Design.’ Sheri is a veteran game developer who has worked for companies like Her Interactive and Sony Online Entertainment. She’s a great speaker, who I remember from her talk at one of the Women in Games conferences as being unfailingly positive and enthusiastic. She’s also a great advocate of making games that appeal to both genders.
It turns out that one of Sheri’s points is that women like to play as women, too, and I cheered silently when I read this. The reason why is simple: we relate to stories and characters that are most like ourselves. We’re kind of boring that way. Whilst we can be quite imaginative about almost everything else – location, time period, whether there are flying unicorns dancing across the sky – we want to play as women. Probably because we like to imagine ourselves as the heroes or heroines of games and stories, we like our main/player characters to be like us.
So, by not allowing women to play as women, you’re instantly making the game less attractive to half your potential audience. I do realise that having a gender-neutral main character makes everything more difficult; you have to remember to always use annoying pronouns like they instead of he/she, and it never sounds quite right. You may end up having to write two sets of dialogue, one for if the character is female and one if they are male. But it’s worth it. Of course, some games will be character driven and therefore have to feature a male or female ‘star’, but I think we’re all okay with that as long as it’s not always a man, and if the main character IS male, there are some cool female characters elsewhere in the game.
Another great point she made is for developers to avoid overly-sexualised female characters, a trend that seems to be, thankfully, somewhat fading away. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have female characters that are pretty or sexy, but that if she’s wearing armour that somehow manages to leave all of her vital regions unprotected and has a bust the size of Lolo Ferrari’s, you’re probably doing it wrong.
One thing Sheri doesn’t mention is something that I’ve personally had fun with. If you’re going to over-sexualise, then over-sexualise EVERYONE. Make it really silly. If you’ve got the female model in the character creation page in an itsy-bitsy teenie-weenie bikini, then give the guy model a pair of ridiculous tighty whities. Saint’s Row the Third had this kind of mentality running through it, and it worked. It went for utter ridiculousness and won. However, any over-sexualisation in a game won’t work if you want people to take your game seriously. The only reaction I’ve ever seen from it from watching a woman with massive boobs trying to fight a dragon is laughter. Because that’s what it is, really. It’s not sexy. It’s just stupid.
Another point she makes is that having an easy-to-understand and well-thought-out tutorial that is seamlessly integrated into the game is a good thing. Thankfully, most games now do this, learning from the Japanese model that was first offered in JRPG series like Final Fantasy. I DO NOT have fond memories of having to try to find the correct page in a thick manual to try and find which button I needed to press to ‘jump’ whilst being beaten to death by a laughing giant robot. Developer, you know who you are.
One other point she makes is that women enjoy a good backstory. It gives the game context for them and makes them more emotionally engaged. I’d argue that it’s not just women that appreciate that, but men too. A game with great characters, both female and male, appeals to both sexes. A game with an interesting story and great dialogue can be appreciated by everyone over one that has some half-assed plot.
Sheri makes many other excellent points in her book, including some that I had never thought of, but found myself nodding along to while reading. I encourage anyone who is interested in making games that appeal to both men and women to give it a read. I’m also always happy to chat with developers who are interested in advice on how to make their games more appealing to women or get a female perspective on things.
Emma Boyes is a freelance game writer and journalist who, in a previous life, used to live in Japan while working in video game localisation and QA. She has been playing games for as long as she can remember and her current favourites are, in no particular order, Final Fantasy VIII (yes, VIII NOT VII), Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2 and Dreamfall. Her favourite joke is, ‘Question: What’s brown and sticky? Answer: A stick.’