Thursday, July 7, 2011

Viking women got more respect than gamer girls

The other day the creative director of LucasArts, one Clint Hocking, made the point that if the gaming industry wants to be sustainable, they need more women. His chosen metaphor of Viking raiders unfortunately suggests a "Mars Needs Women" sort of mentality...which, ya know, could be part of the problem. Not that I think he's wrong about it.

Most of those who have responded with articles seem to agree with him, though many of the comments are predictably defensive, boneheaded, and hostile. Even the better comments demonstrate a certain degree of detachment from reality. At least one commenter claims that the problem isn't that there aren't more women in gaming development NOW, it's that women haven't "grown up" with gaming and (therefore) you need to appeal to the young kids coming up now in order to get results some time in the safely distant future. Aside from the fact that he is flat wrong about that (which I will get to in a minute), this is the kind of thinking that produces Barbie doll games and pink game controllers. I am not impressed.

Free Clue #1: Most geeky women are well-educated and well-read, and consequently highly likely to be feminists of some stripe. We are not interested in putting up with your boy's club crap.

Free Clue #2: Painting it pink will not help. That is because...and listen closely to this one, I am about to tell you a Female Type Human Secret...not all girls like pink. While you adjust to this shocking revelation, I further assert that putting a pink bow on it and calling it quits reveals that you have the mentality of an eight year old and the marketing sense of the Underpants Gnomes. "Lady gamers," forsooth.

Hocking is careful not to make the assertion that there is a vast untapped market of women gamers out there, but actually I think there might be. I base this on my own personal experience, plus my circle of acquaintance. I know a whole lot of very geeky women. I mean seriously geeky women; among them programmers, Georgia Tech and MIT graduates, LARPers, inveterate Monty Python quoters, and humanities PhDs. Some of them are gamers; some of them are not.

I personally grew up in the age of arcade games, and my favorite game was Galaga. I started reading science fiction when I was eleven, and my consumption of DAW paperbacks was prodigious. I've also played practically every RPG ever invented, including both Cyberpunk and Shadowrun. I used to have D&D in the pink box. I have committed LARPing. You'd think that when console games, MMO's and all the rest came along, I would have been a shoo-in. I tried; I used to play Civilization when it first came out.* Then I got bored.

And there you have it. Despite the fact that I have been heavily steeped in geek culture almost from infancy, and regularly play RPG's still, I do not play any form of MMO or console game. That is because they bore the snot out of me.

Basically, they take the things that I like least about RPG's....fight fight loot, fight fight loot...and strip away or gloss over the things I find most interesting....character creation, character development, social interaction, improvisation, and storytelling. MMO might as well stand for "Monomaniacal Munchkins Only." Based on a highly scientific survey which I conducted via the respected research methodology of asking my Facebook friends, many nerdy women agree with me. What those women like most about the games they do play are the social, storytelling aspects, and they are often frustrated by the limitations of what they are presented with. For what they can't get from MMOs and the like, they play text-based RPG's, as do I. Those are to my knowledge completely player-run. To tap that market, you'd have to offer the players something tailored to their tastes and needs which they can't already do themselves.

I occasionally get interested in the idea of working in the gaming industry, on the premise that I have something new to offer them in the way of ideas and approaches. I have an MFA in Creative Writing, am a fiction writer, and actually have professional training in educational role-playing games. Again, you'd think I'd be ideal. I've even got cultural street cred. I don't have many of the technical skills, but I'm not a complete dunce in that area plus, you know, gaming already has plenty of people who do that.** However, every single job description I've ever read for a writer or developer, even the fuzzier ones for which I don't need a lot of technical skills, includes something to the effect of, "must be a passionate gamer and familiar with all recent developments." That is, before it's even possible for me to offer a new perspective to a culture which alienates me to its own detriment, I would have to be completely immersed in that culture. In other words, in order to even qualify, I would have to not be the kind of person they presumably want to attract. I gently suggest that this might point to where the problem lies.

I don't know what else to say about that, really. Maybe someone in the gaming industry will read this and take what I've said to heart. Or maybe they'll decide the way to fix their Viking problem is to add some cute kittens.

*I tried again much, much more recently than that. Still bored.
** "Find someone just like me, only with tits" is not actually a diversity strategy.


  1. ** "Find someone just like me, only with tits" is not actually a diversity strategy.

    Best. Footnote. Ever!

  2. Hi there Sara!

    I found your blog via your comments on Love, Joy, Feminism. As another gamer girl, I couldn't agree more!

    What you said about boredom is especially true. It must be a difference in the male brain, but my spouse is willing to spend hours grinding in an MMO, or getting every detail of the stats for a Pathfinder character perfect, and I would rather have teeth pulled! It was probably part of why many of the women I know who played WoW had a dozen beginning characters...for the first 20 levels, the plot kept up at a good clip, but then after that I would have to play for hours to get the story rolling again. It eventually killed my interest, and just dying things pink would not have helped (Heh!).

  3. I like the flexibility of Second Life and the creativity people bring to it, but get bored there too. I think something like that, only with a real social structure, an actual plot and adventures, would be cool.

  4. How about The Secret World? Since its been made with Ragnar Tornquist's vision it might actually marry story and action without been obnoxious about it (I'm looking at you, The Old Republic).

    All is such speculation at the moment since its only just revving up the hype machine, but hey, it might be something worth keeping an eye on.

  5. Maybe. I intend to conduct a wider survey of games when I get the chance (my teenage son has been trying to get me to play for AGES). I might even learn to code a little bit...I am, as mentioned, not completely unfamiliar with the concept.

  6. Interesting perspective. As a male gamer, long-time consumer of mainstream console games, and holder of a Creative Writing MA, I find I sympathise with your views.

    I've never been able to invest in an MMO for largely the reasons you outlined; I find it impossible to engage with a game in which all there is to do is kill stuff and level up.

    I've always been drawn to Japanese RPGs, which are largely linear, story-driven, solitary experiences, because these tend to be structured around narrative progression rather than character progression. You progress to experience the storyline, not just to grow stronger and conquer the next boss. I've yet to find an equivalent in a social multiplayer game.

    If you'd indulge me, I'd love to know what, within current-generation hardware limitations, would be the premise of your ideal videogame?

  7. I think something that's modeled loosely on the way LARPs work might do it...where you have a lot of flexibility in creating characters, there are factions/groups you can join, and there's an overarching story...but what you do in the game can change outcomes and becomes part of the game. (That structure would naturally make social interactions...including intrigue...more of a part of the game). Allowing creative contributions a la Second Life would bring in the (HUGE GROUP OF) people whose main love in geek culture is the costumes. I think that it should be possible to do that..It would require moderators to be embedded in the game as characters, and might require a bit of policing. But it would be fun.

    You actually asked about premise rather than structure...An example of the kind of thing I am talking about would be, say, a medieval-style principality where there are noble houses (who are always trying to do one another dirt), a priesthood, a college of mages, maybe a cohort of mercenary women soldiers like the Free Amazons in Darkover as well as regular old mercenaries, town guards, and a secret thieves' guild like the Court of Miracles in Hunchback (as in you wouldn't even know it existed when you start). You could potentially join any one of these groups and would get an in to certain professions that way; but in order to join them you have to actually go and talk to the people in the group. The overarching story could be an invasion preceded by a lot of strange creatures showing up and of course, there's bound to be somebody in town who is collaborating with the basically there's something for both the hack-and-slash and the intrigue/detective work aficionados to do. I think that would be a lot of fun both to create and to play.

  8. The trouble I have with Second Life is that, while I love the way it allows people to interact and be creative, there's no 'point' to it, no progression, narrative or otherwise. It's more of a very fancy chatroom than it is a game.

    On the opposite scale, something like WoW gives you a world with a fiction to play in - but then restricts your ability to affect this fiction to which order you want to kill some things in and with which weapons/spells.

    I don't see why something like you suggested shouldn't be possible - a game with a pre-defined fiction but whose world is directly affected by the actions of the players.

    In current MMOs you can only be a soldier of some description. All other occupations - shop keepers, town planners, law enforcers, blacksmiths - are taken by NPCs. If these roles could be filled by players, then the game would progress and evolve through genuine roleplay.

    There's no reason it couldn't work, other than the tremendous amount of work required to build the world in the first place. The developer would have to create systems to manage everything from building towns to crafting weapons.

    It's certainly an interesting idea, though, and one I think people will grow more inclined to attempt when the lure of current MMOs wears off. I know I'd play the hell out of it.

  9. That's exactly what I don't like about Second Life...once you've walked around and looked at stuff, there's nothing much to do. But looking at how SL was built could be a good model; they have systems to manage everything.

    At one point I applied to Ga Tech's Digital Media PhD program; what I lacked was a project I'd already done on my own. I don't currently have the technical skills to do that stuff myself, but could probably acquire them. And turn it into a dissertation :)

  10. I'm keeping an eye on the World of Darkness MMO being developed by CCP. Everything that the designers have written so far is quite promising -- they want to create a game whose heart is inter-player politics. The fact that CCP is involved is also promising -- EVE is quite an innovative MMO, although not for everyone.

  11. Eve Online seems to quite directly address many of the complaints about MMORPGs raised here, especially those about where what you do doesn't affect the world and the lack of non-battle career options. Wouldn't it make more sense to address your arguments to that, to avoid using WoW as a straw man?

  12. Sorry I didn't see this comment before...

    I don't think WoW is being used as a "straw man"; it's being used as an example. There is a rather sharp distinction between the two. Nor are we addressing any "arguments" in the philosophical sense; we are talking about our experiences with various types of games.

  13. Hey there! I have a long, detailed response with some suggestions about gameplay, and a couple of games to recommend you! Unfortunately, it doesn't fit in the comment size limit here, so I posted it to my journal. Please check it out here On Dreamwidth.

    In summary, this is what the comment says:

    1- MMOs are varied and some MMOs have tried to offer additional, non-violent content. They may not interest you but being totally outside the industry means you can't accurately gauge what's been tried and what hasn't. Blame the execs, not the developers-- the execs don't FUND the good ideas and thus avoid innovation. This is what makes Kickstarter great!

    2-Some MMO recs