Friday, January 25, 2008

Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market

I recently picked up the book Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market by Sheri Graner Ray from the school library when looking for books to read whilst preparing my upcoming mini-course Computer Science and Games: Not Just For Boys! Despite some of the negative reviews on the Amazon website (which aren't without merit), there was information in this book that seemed to ring true to me as a female and potential gamer. What follows is a mixture of my own thoughts with some ideas suggested in the book.

One of the book's first discussions revolves around the issue of boys being better exposed to technology in their childhoods than girls are. When I was growing up, this was probably quite true. It was the boys who went to computer camps, not girls. It was the boys who were given games to play on the computer, while the girls received educational titles like typing tutors. And, of course, a lot of the game marketing through the 80's and early 90's targeted males (often featuring Graner Ray's favorite term: "hyper-sexualized women") .

All that changed in the mid-nineties with the introduction of Barbie Fashion Designer in 1996. Well... almost changed. While the incredible sales numbers for this product proved that girls would play computer games, the industry was not able to see past this one concept. When others failed to capitalize on mimics of the Barbie game, it was as though they gave up and went back to creating male-friendly titles. To this day, the female market, which is actually larger than the male market in numbers, is largely ignored.

But who cares, right? I mean, the video game industry is still growing in huge ways, so why worry about the girl gamers?

Well, for one thing, that growth is predicted to slow in the US this year. Perhaps the momentum could be maintained instead if sales to female gamers picked up the slack. Even if it doesn't slow, who wouldn't want to make more money by simply putting in a little extra effort to target a portion of titles to girls, or simply make all the titles a bit more female-friendly?

Obviously the task must require more than "a little extra effort" if few are successfully doing it yet. Still, innovations like those created for the Wii seem to be attracting whole new demographics including girls and even beyond into groups like the elderly, so what's the secret? There are a few things worth keeping in mind when trying to include a larger group of people in your target audience.

One key suggestion made by Ms. Graner Ray revolves around the notion of conflict and its resolution. I remember a male friend once commenting back in high school that he wished girls could resolve problems amongst themselves like the boys did -- by having a (possibly serious) fight after which everything would be ok -- rather than holding grudges and carrying on the conflict for a long time. It was then on that I truly realized how differently males and females handle conflict. Boys favor direct conflict situations and girls prefer indirect conflict. Unfortunately, many modern video games tend to cater towards the former.

To expand the appeal of a game to the other half of the market, designers can consider providing more than one option for resolving conflict in a game, or, if designed specifically for women, concentrate on indirect conflict on its own. In indirect conflict, the player is not specifically pitted against another character or player; that is, one player cannot specifically alter the outcome for the other. Gymnastics is an example of this because each competitor's success is independent of the others. This also shows why titles like Myst, with many puzzles and no face to face boss fighting, are more popular among females.

Another important piece of information brought up by the book is that males and females tend to respond to particular stimuli differently. It's probably not surprising that males respond physiologically to visual stimulus while females get that type of response from emotional stimuli. That's not to say that males can't be emotional and that females can't appreciate visual art (for example); rather, it simply means that a physiological reaction is not elicited.

Now, nobody is suggesting that every video game has to remind you of a sappy romance novel for women to be interested. Instead, introducing into story lines a meaningful goal that is socially significant can keep girls interested in the game. I can say for myself that this really does make a huge difference in my enjoyment of a game. I want to feel like I've accomplished something, and saving a village filled with characters I've come to really like (even love!) is the reward I am seeking for finishing the game. According to my husband Andrew, it's not like this end goal isn't appealing to guys as well, but it seems that males may be able to get more enjoyment out of games without this element than girls do. (Why? I'd imagine that the other aspects discussed here probably provide some clues.)

Another interesting aspect of girls and gaming is that, apparently, girls don't find numerical scores important. They also don't care for the kind of game where you can die for making a mistake, forcing you back to the beginning. Once again, I must say this is true for me. I can remember back in the 90's, when my brother and I had a Sega Genesis, I couldn't really play the games that forced you to restart from the beginning each time you died (which was pretty much all of them). Instead, I watched my brother, since he had better skills built up thanks to a lot of patience, and therefore quickly didn't die nearly as often as I would. Ever since then I was a backseat gamer. Only recently have I (almost) picked up games again, largely thanks to the Wii.

To address this aspect of gaming, titles that don't include win/lose scenarios can be produced. The Sims is a good example of this type of game and the alternative reward system (i.e. you don't really 'beat' the game). On top of this, the traditional game style could simply be augmented with alternate rewards, such as exploration and side quests (which could also help enhance the story's emotional tie-in!). Other simple additions like the ability to experiment, such as the ability to try your own terrain maps in certain areas, also seem to be a hit with female gamers. Finally, adjusting the response-to-error actions could help. Even just a little more forgiveness could go a long way while still keeping an element of challenge intact.

There are many more ideas for how to expand the audience of games in the book, but I'll let you to read up on it on your own if you are interested. In the meantime, I would be very interested to hear about your own experiences in relation to these concepts, whether you are male or female. How accurate do you think they are?


Haz said...

As annoying as the previous comment is, I can't help me smile as a researcher knowing that 'they' just broke google's captcha. Chalk another up for the darker arts of AI...

Gail said...

I deleted the buggers' comment. Been getting a few of these lately. Didn't enforce the captcha for registered users, but guess I will now! :)

Gail said...

Haha, I take that back. Captchas were on, I just don't see them as blog author. Figures. Oh well, at least I can delete the posts fast enough.

On another note, please do share your stories on how true the stuff in this post seems. I will be working on a post about how Harry Potter's latest Wii game holds up once I start playing it. I have a feeling it will do well as a gender neutral game according to this book.

tara said...

hey! thanks for the comment on my beer notes! did you find my blog randomly, or did you get it from chitch/haz/christian?...he's my brother. what are the chances?

Gail said...

Christian totally told me about it - we went to school together (Carleton) :)

kat said...

While I agree that the game industry should take the time and effort to appeal to both genders, I find the following claim to be somewhat inaccurate:

"To this day, the female market, which is actually larger than the male market in numbers, is largely ignored."

Upon examining the statistics mentioned in the linked-to page, it states that the male market is actually significantly larger (as of the time the statistics were taken). I suspect the confusion comes from this statement:

"Women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (30%) than boys age 17 or younger (23%)"

This is a misleading statistic. It's very easy to accept that almost any demographic that surveys a population with an age range of 18+ will have greater numbers than that with an age range of 17-. What this statistic is really saying is that the present female adult market is greater than the present male youth market. Perhaps to suggest that instead of targeting males 18-25, they should pay more attention to females age 18+.

To be perfectly fair, I think they should pay attention to making good games that appeal to both genders in their own ways. People of different ages may be drawn to different game styles as well, but you can't please everybody at once. Little bits of every type of experience would be, I think, ideal. However, I suspect that allowing for the option to completely avoid direct conflict throughout the game in favour of indirect resolutions would be no better than hiding from our problems. Likewise allowing a way to bypass puzzles and storyline falls into the same category. The point is just that a bit of mental stimulation of every sort does a person some good. Hiding from it does no good, and just reinforces the idea that you can escape from a difficult situation by looking for a different way to resolve it. That's true in some cases, but just how every problem is suited to certain languages, some problems are suited to certain approaches for resolution. Direct conflict can be the most appropriate answer to a situation.

I have to make a bit of a leap here. People do learn from games, expecially while growing up, and the knowledge gained from how they solved the problem carries forward into their lives. In context, what this suggests is that completely cutting out things like direct conflict is like cutting out a part of our education in how to deal with a subset of the kinds of problems we experience through life.

Gail said...

"To be perfectly fair, I think they should pay attention to making good games that appeal to both genders in their own ways."

I definitely agree with this statement. The suggestions outlined in the book certainly aren't meant to trump what's already out there, but to supplement what already exists in games so there are alternative ways of playing that appeal to a wider market. I think this is starting to occur more these days, which is nice to see.

Zeuts said...

The only thing that can change the market is what makes money. If developers aren't convinced that catering to a female audience is likely to net a profit, then they won't invest. Part of the problem with adding extra elements to certain games is that it simply broadens the "target" audience--not the "actual" audience.

Game developers have to deal with heavy time and budget restrictions. It would be wonderful to see a game that everyone can enjoy, but from a profit perspective, this would be a bad move. Therefore, such a game is unlikely to happen. The larger the target audience becomes, the more diluted the elements of the game become. Eventually, you have a game that caters just a little bit to a lot of people, but nobody buys it because they can find what they prefer in some other game in greater abundance. To flesh out all areas of a game so that the elements in that game meet the quality level of more narrowly focused games in their respective areas takes far more resources than any company is willing to spend on a single game, lest that game fail in the market. In some cases it isn't even possible to cater equally to multiple target groups with the same game without allowing for radical customization on the part of the player. For instance: Imagine attempting to merge an RPG, an FPS, and an RTS all into one game. How can it be done without dramatically dumbing-down the key elements in each category?

Even among males there are different groups that are catered to. You have FPSs (first person shooters), RTSs (real time strategies), RPGs (role playing games), fighting games, sports games, racing, etc. . . The target audience for each of these game types is different (often dramatically so), despite some overlap between the audiences of the categories.

The reason we don't see many hybrids between these game types is because hybrids generally fail to attract enough gamers to make up for the expenses of production. Hybrids take more time, resources, and innovation to be produced with a sufficient profit margin, simply because hybrids involve multiple areas of expertise. Some companies are great at making RPGs, some at FPS, some at RTS, etc. . .

Females tend to enjoy RPG's more than other types of games, which is where I think the most potential for broadening the target audience lies. However, the more an RPG begins to cater to the female audience, the closer it comes to alienating the male audience. I'm not saying that there aren't common areas of interest between males and females. But, I think most of the RPG's that females prefer, have mostly discovered those limits, purely from a design perspective. Sure, you could make an RPG that would attract more females, but it would also attract more males. It could do so simply be being better-crafted (like better graphics or sound quality, or more content) without changing the gameplay style/focus. That is, I don't think we could alter the RATIO of female-to-male gamers in the RPG genre without cutting into profits.

Let's also not forget that most game designers are male. Games that cater to the female audience, are therefore not the area of expertise of the majority of game designers. Which means that in order to create such games, they would need to spend additional resources in developing that expertise. That won't happen unless they can be certain that such an investment will be worth its weight in the long run.

On that note, it is quite possible that such an investment WOULD be worth its weight, but not in terms of hybrids. As things currently stand, the money does not lie in hybrid games. A company would need to develop games that target females. Such a company, I imagine, would be highly successful for the following reason: Even though the population percentage of female gamers is less than that of male gamers, there would be very little competition for the female audience (at least, at first). Thus, games targeted to females would be likely to make quite a tidy profit in their own niche.

Regardless, the bottom line is: As of right now, games that cater to male and female audiences equally are not the answer (in terms of profit). Yet, as society changes, we will probably start to see more hybrid games, simply because the expertise of any one game designer is becoming broader and more extensive. (We are becoming an information-based society. The children of today understand far more about the world than their parents did at the same age.)

Thus, even though it might not be practical right now, in the future I think we will see a natural shift of the market ratios of male versus female audiences for games.

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated - please be patient while I approve yours.