Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Girls and Games

Just so you know, I'm not really a misogynist. I pretty much hate everyone. There are things I don't understand about women, and they sometimes drive me crazy, but I generally enjoy their company and respect them. Even though all the pregnancy crap pretty much ruined Angel for nearly two seasons; I know that Women at Large weren't responsible for that, and I can safely reserve my anger for that for two or three females in specific.

That makes me a minority in the game industry, I imagine, but hey. Being a minority is cool. I've been left-handed all my life (Down with Righty!), and the moment someone organizes a Sinister Million-Man March, I'll be there, if only to get street cred so I can walk around in Oakland without getting beat up next time I go there.

So. Once every twelve minutes someone says, "Hey, I just realized that girls don't play games that much!" like they just stumbled upon some great universal truth. This sparks magazines to run articles and marketers to go, "Hrm, and these 'women' tend to have money, right? Shouldn't we be setting about getting some of it?" Then everyone thinks that there's something wrong with game companies because they aren't going after women.

Here's a newsflash for people: For a game company to actively go after women would be like contributing to charity.

You have two groups: One is an easy sell and was already buying tons of products like yours and clearly enjoys spending money on them, and the other is a group of people who require extensive education about your product and generally thinks your product is dumb or frivolous and not worth the price of half of one of those pointy-toed shoes build specifically for groin-kicking. Which does your short-sighted company greenlight money for? Do you advertise to the sure thing or the longshot?

Most places go for the sure thing, because, well, it's a sure thing. If the advertising costs the same and the reward is greater, who can blame them? And so ads have big-ass boobies in them and show nerds getting laid because they bought the latest Halo game. Advertisers go after the boys and not the girls.

But this is likely a good thing. Have you ever seen toy ads that go after girls? They're horrible. Pink shit goes everywhere, and two little girls wave dolls about and go, "Oh, it's time to go shopping with Trevor! Maybe this time he'll shine that glinty smile at me!" Imagine that for Unreal Championship and you have an idea where it's going.

No one is to blame for this. Video games got popular with boys before there were grenades and sniper rifles and giant boobies everywhere. Remember Atari 2600? Boys liked that better than girls did, even when all you had was one orange square shooting at another or a dude with an arrow-sword fighting a duck-dragon. The original developers (and most of them today) were males, and so the games had themes like "Blast stuff" and "Conquer territory with your radioactive death-line." Still, even back then there was a Pac-Man for every Space Invaders.

Put alongside this that the female gamers I know have the most complex tastes of any gamers I've met. My fiancee in particular loves puzzle games and The Sims, but she also loves carving things up in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and beating people up in Jade Empire. At the table, she digs playing social characters but wants to be kick-ass in a fight, as well. Another woman we gamed with was the most bloodthirsty person I've ever shared a table with. These aren't isolated incidents.

So why do we think "a game for girls" means "pink tripe about planting flowers and hugging"?

I think it'd be nice for more women to enjoy playing games; it certainly makes my life easier that I can share that with the soon-to-be Mrs. Awesome. But I think it's unrealistic to think, "The industry is a villain because it's not focusing on women." This isn't much more realistic than going, "How come knitting companies don't target men?" I can imagine it now; loud guitars, mud flying about, and a dude grimacing as he knits the hell out of a scarf with skulls on it while two hot chicks in bikinis loaf about around him. The dude can flex and show his scarf and go, "Oh YEAH, knitting is AWESOME!!!!" before thrusting his hands into hot coals and grimacing some more. Then he shoots a gun and drives around.

I say, if you want more women to play games, stop targeting them so damn much. Maybe actually make a game that can sell on its own merits rather than relying on pictures of "hot" CG chicks to sell it. Games like Knights of the Old Republic, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft, and the like attract female gamers not because they have flowers or involve "nourishing," but because they respect the end user and don't flaunt the stupid crap.

Meanwhile, stop patronizing them. Don't print articles going, "This sucks, the industry needs more chicks!" Don't pretend to be interested in more girl gamers or girl game developers when you're obviously not. And stop pretending that what men and women want from entertainment is completely different. It's not. Women want fantasies and entertainment like men do, and yeah, most women might not enjoy something like Manhunt (though not many men enjoyed that one, either), but you don't have to go so far as Barbie's Dream Hotel or Mary Kate & Ashley's OMG What's a Sandwich? to have something a woman will like.

"Women" is a group made up of individual people, not a homogenous group of demographics. Make games people like, and a number of women will play them. Women are awesome; they tend to like cool stuff. The problem is that publishers put out games that suck but include hooks that trigger men's balls to tell them to play them, and this trick doesn't work on women.

You'll have to actually make a good game to "fool" that crowd.