Saturday, October 21, 2006

Female gaming and the Doctrine of Swine

(Another post unearthed from my MySpace blog.)

The other night I had dinner at the home of a senior game industry finance expert who lives in Lyon.

Conversation got around to the issues faced by women developers, and from there to the eternal question of girls and games. It seems that it's something female developers are forced to take an interest in despite any possible lack of affinity for the subject. Whether we think it's relevant to us as developers or not, everyone else seems to think so. The topic is frequently raised by non-industry friends and journalists, much like in that scene from Bridget Jones' Diary where Bridget is asked to defend singlehood by a dinner table of couples:

"Tell us, Bridget, why are there so many single women over 30?"
"Tell us, female game developer, why don't females play video games."Um..because we're from Venus or something?
"What do women want?!" I don't know, why don't you give Mel Gibson a call...

But even this is only mildly annoying after the millionth time compared with having constructive comments about the game your working on, eg "I think this level is unbalanced" met with "yeah well um, you're not really the audience for our game, so y'know...". One is left wondering if one will ever get the chance, ever in one's career, to work on a game where one is included in the target audience.

My very excellent host (who cooks excellent Vietnamese food - you who have never lived in Lyon, famous for its offal not its Pho, couldn't even begin to imagine what that means to me) distilled everything down to an essential idea that I hadn't much thought about before. Sure, she said, girls play and enjoy all sorts of games when they have them put in front of them. But until, like boys, the first thought in their minds when they receive their 50 dollars' Christmas money is to go out and blow it all on a game, we haven't cracked the female market. And there's the rub. What value, fun?

Here's an interesting take on why women don't have fun by Germaine "The Female Eunuch" Greer.

Everybody else is out doing leisure. Has the woman of the house grabbed a kitbag and followed their example? Apparently not. Women don't go fishing. Women do play golf, but not many and not much. Women don't buy sports equipment or season tickets. Women don't buy sports cars, boats, power skis, trailbikes, guns, crossbows ... Women don't collect stamps, spot trains, buy music products. Women do use gyms, but not for fun.

Women either don't do leisure, or they do free leisure, or at best cheap leisure, or they fail to perceive any difference between work and leisure. Ask what a woman's leisure activity is and you're apt to be told, "Shopping".

To her thesis I would add that the cut-price, low-investment leisure activity of choice for women is television. And the tragedy is that the modern young woman of today is sitting alone and bewildered on the couch in front of the TV each night, wondering why her boyfriend has abandoned her and CSI: Miami for World of Warcraft.

Television vs games.... Women and their low-investment leisure activities. Games are more expensive and take more effort to get into than television, and yet the pay-offs are greater in terms of aesthetic rewards. I think I can say that as confidently as I would if I were to make a similar comparision between french fries and oysters (which are particularly hard to get into, even if you have the right knife).
This is essentially an application of J S Mill's Doctrine of Swine (J S Mill being Scottish, no doubt came up with the idea after watching his fellow countrymen scoff down chip butties).

So what am I saying here? That women have the aesthetic sophistication of pigs, snaffling Tiny Teddies and turning up their noses at oysters, wallowing in sated, tepid, comfort and porcine ignorance? Hmmm...

It is a difficult subject. Perhaps it is wisest to leave it to the self-appointed experts - ie marketing directors, the intellectual giants the game industry - to come up with explanations to mysterious phenomena like not being able to break decisively into the female market with male dominated development teams.

And yet, is it really such a mystery? Surely EA was on to something when they said recently that in order to crack the Asian market, they have no choice but to use Asian game development teams. Rather than asking young women what they want to PLAY, ask them what they passionately want to MAKE and give some of them the support, the encouragement and the resources to prototype their ideas. The games that make girls blow their Birthday money of late seem to be those that have been at least 50% driven by female developers in positions of creative leadership (Singstar, The Sims).

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At 12:30 am, Blogger Patrick Dugan said...

Very good points, which makes me thing you'd be best suited developing casual games. The philosophy you espouse is one that I employ in recruiting artists to work on casual games, the notion being that a sublte difference in product comes from the primary producer.

What are your skills? If you knew Flash you could cook up some interesting things yourself.

Also, I'd be interested to know what this financeer has to say about digital distribution, low-end production, contracting/outsourcing, ect. Game finance is a hot topic for me lately and I'd like to learn from someone with an unusual perspective.

Was her name Anne-Marie by any chance?

At 4:15 am, Blogger Kipper said...

Sadly, my Flash skills, not to mention my art skills, are not too flash, as it were.

I was working on the design for a casual-ish game aimed at people like me, but the "people like me" category has been deemed too niche by my friends. But yes, a small game of my own would be nice to make.

My friend isn't called Anne-Marie, but is a mysteriously French-based New Yorker with the initials R.C.,if that gives you any clues...


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