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?