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Analysis: Girls and computer games
by Alan Lenton (email: alan@ibgames.com) April 19, 2005

Earlier this week a friend sent me the URL for an article on a talk about women in computer games given at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference. For some years now video games manufacturers have been trying to identify exactly what it is that will drag the legendary ‘women’s market’ into playing their games. This search has gone down many twisty little alleys, and, in the main, has got nowhere. Of course there are more women computer games players now, but really not much more than you’d expect from the increased penetration of suitable machines.

Why is this?

The publishers and designers have come up with all sorts of ideas to increase female take up of computer games. They are still arguing about whether the pictures of female avatars, having been designed for men, are a turn off for women, or whether the violence puts women off, or maybe there should be special games for women that are more ‘home’ orientated. None of these strategies, or other similar ones, have, when tried, significantly increased the number of women who play games. Indeed, virtually all of the attempts to produce ‘women’s games’ have been grade ‘A’ disasters.

The logical question to ask here is not what would be a better tweak, but whether there is something more fundamental at work here. There are, of course, reasons why the more fundamental question is not being asked. Sales and marketing departments have a macho culture that says any old rubbish can be marketed and sold if it’s done properly. Even aside from that, the fact is that many people just don’t believe that an industry the size of the games industry could have a product which intrinsically only appeals to half of the human race. Well, you can see their point!

Nonetheless, they are in my opinion wrong.

I realise I’m pitting my views on this against the perceived wisdom of the computer games industry, but I think they are wrong, and that there is a more underlying reason why women are seriously under-represented amongst games players. I think that the fundamental reason that women don’t play computer games is because doing it is interacting with a computer rather than with other people. If I’m right, then no amount of tweaking of female avatar pictures, home making games, or toning down of violence will make any serious difference.

Now, I don’t want to get into heated argument about why women are more interested in interpersonal relationships than men are, or even arguments about whether it is the case. Arguments about nature versus nurture are interesting, but not relevant here. And in any case personal observation has long since convinced me that, in general, women are more interested in other people than men are.

When I first wrote the multi-player game Federation nearly 20 years ago, I was surprised, and very gratified, at the high number of women who played. Being young and arrogant then, I put it down to something that I’d done. Certainly my game was far less violent than the average game, maybe it was that. Since that time, though, I’ve been able to observe other multi-player games and the hard truth is that all the multi-player games have a far higher level of female players than ordinary computer games.

Does this mean that multi-player games designers are somehow more ‘female oriented’? No, I don’t think so, I think the answer lies in the nature of multi-player games. It’s very simple. In multi-player games you are playing with and/or against other humans. And -that- more than anything else provides the necessary stimulus to involve a higher proportion of women.

So, that’s my theory. Of course I’m biased, after all I’m a multi-player game designer, and I’m certainly not paid to go round advising companies on how to make their games more attractive to the female market. But, maybe, just maybe, because I haven’t got a vested financial interested in the industry I’m in a position where I can see the wood, and it’s not obscured by the trees!

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Alan Lenton is an on-line games designer, programmer and sociologist. He is the Creative Director at ibgames.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.


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