Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How to Create/Market Games for Women

(Dear readers, 

Allow me to introduce you to Julia Barry; song writer, musician, and director of the documentary "In Her Image: Producing Womanhood in America" - a multimedia documentary of how media portray and shape women's lives in America. Julia gracefully accepted my invitation to share her views on video games from a woman's perspective, as a guest blogger. I think you will, as a reader of this blog, benefit from her observations, especially if you are trying to make/market games for women. Enjoy...)

I’m really glad to be guest blogging, and want to give kudos to Taylan for soliciting a female point of view on videogames.

Many people assume that girls and women don’t talk about videogames and media because they’re simply not interested and therefore not involved in it.  Being a bit of a tech geek myself who also does work with girls and teens, I can safely say that there are just as many females intrigued and excited by digital tools and toys as guys.

But why do videogames and girls still seem to exist in different realms? 

Lets go to marketing, products, and capitalism for a second.  Videogames are entertainment products, purely made to be sold to gamers.  As far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong), the gaming industry’s main mission is to make money.  (The industry has also been at the forefront of developing technology for creating stunning graphics and motion, which is pretty exciting from a tech/art point of view, but is still designed in the service of creating an exciting product that will sell.)  The framework of videogames as commercial items leads game-makers and marketers to rely on salient imagery presented at a pulse-thrilling and interactive pace to keep customers coming back.

Unfortunately for girls and women, “salient imagery” today usually means thoughtless sex and violence, both of which we are all made immune to through repeated exposure.  This content alienates girls two-fold: 1) girls are socialized not to engage in or like violence, but rather to be thoughtful and nurturing, so taking part in these sort of “boy” games undermines femininity, and 2) even if we are more aggressive and don’t mind playing “boy” games, within the games there is often little room for girls and women.  There are usually less (or no) female than male characters; female characters are primarily created of an unrealistic and unhealthy body ideal, wear incredibly sexualized clothing, and act sexually debased; and many tasks a player gets game points for (or even the video transitions that a player watches between screens) involve disrespecting or brutalizing women, or at the least, being thoroughly macho and reveling in disregard for other characters.

All that doesn’t mean girls don’t like the challenge and thrill of videogames as a media or format (many of us do!), and corporations are certainly aware of girls as a consumer market.  However, in trying to create “girl” games in recognition of the disconnect between girls and popular, “boy” videogames, companies pander even more to gender stereotypes that ironically don’t reflect the 3-dimensionality of real girls and women. Marketing games to girls shouldn’t mean making everything gossipy and pink, yet there are countless products in that vein.  Games and toys aimed at the female population are often shallow, fluffy screen versions of dress-up and shopping—worlds where friendships and rewarded behavior revolve around looking one’s best for men and spending money.  How passive and for-everyone-else’s-benefit is that?

In a past post, Taylan wrote that playing games and playtime in general is “an integral component of development of the individual” where we “learn…skills that are crucial to survival,…[particularly] when the knowledge and information is directly related to winning. Millions of years of evolution has sharpened one trait the most, common in all organisms alive today: competitiveness.”

Games surely involve competition, and competition can be a component of fun and sportsmanship.  But with many videogames, we are entrenching a world of values where boys impress each other by being violent, and girls impress boys (and compete with other girls) in being pretty and inviting of sexual encounter.  Is this type of play really actually an innocuous way to experience risks out of context?  I don’t think that hijacking cars, destroying aliens, and murdering prostitutes are risky behaviors we need to practice for real life applications. 

And let’s not doubt the connection between videogames and real life.  As Taylan wrote, “Th[e] strong association of playtime with learning of skills that are crucial to survival has shaped our brains into being incredibly receptive to new knowledge and information that we are exposed to within the activity of playing.” 

Since game-time is so important to real life, the games I love are those that skip over gender pigeon-holing and cruelty, and give us practice at tasks and behaviors that can make our non-videogame lives enjoyable and rich too.

This index includes some adventure/invention videogames where a player thinks through clues and creatively hurdles obstacles, and of course, the Wii.  I was thrilled when the Wii came out because a whole new type of videogame was born, a genre where fun is based on sports, music, and movement, rather than on death and insensitivity to fellow humans.  Funny too, how the types of games that don’t involve as much sexism and violence can be more team oriented—winning Wii games often depends on cooperation and collaboration rather than competition and singular gain.  (The only example I know of where violent videogames foster teamwork is in the case of internet games, where people can be, say, on the same Airforce squadron, working together to obliterate an enemy.)

What do you think about gender and videogames?  Do you have apropos stories?  Contentions with or examples of what I wrote about?  Games to recommend?  Please let us know your thoughts!

Further resources:
Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins (eds), From Barbie® to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Reactions to my previous post

On LinkedIn, there has been some great discussion going on about my last article, and I want to share those comments in addition to the others here on my blog.

Ted Southard CEO at DigitalFlux Entertainment, LLC:

"Interesting, and you raise valid points. However, how do we know that Six Days in Fallujah was not that mature game in an FPS shell? It may well have been, and it was something that was touted as one of it's differentiating features, since I believe it followed the story of an actual squad in that battle.

The actual matter is that it's okay to do Call of Duty 4 or Modern Warfare 2 in these locations because they are not real, and thus do not enter into the realm of politics, which Six Day in Fallujah did. When that firestorm brewed up from both sides of the argument, Konami backed off and folded like a chair at the beach...

What needs to happen, in addition to what you had recommended in more deep games being produced (and you're right in that those are in short supply) is for companies to stand up to their parents as well. I would not have backed off the game, but would have addressed all of the critics with facts and slugged it out.

People appreciate integrity, and the lack of it in some of the dealings in this industry reflect the immaturity you speak of. In this case, Konami showed a lack of integrity in backing off of the project instead of taking their case to the public in a more aggressive manner, which not only would have benefited them, but the entire industry by showing people that we can and will stand up for our medium. Otherwise, we just look like kids with their hand in the cookie jar."

Ernest Adams Game Design & Development Consultant, Freelance Teacher

"Your message is worthy but short on specifics. Yes, the industry needs to grow up. I've been complaining, sometimes bitterly, about that for nearly 20 years. But what does that mean in specific terms?

To me, one thing it means is that when the developers of a game DO choose to tackle difficult and controversial subjects, they must do so with the utmost seriousness. They must not yield to the temptation to include gratuitous shock content, inside humor, or anything else that would justify a criticism that the game is trivializing the subject. (It will receive that criticism anyway, just for being a game; the question is whether the game includes content that, in candor, really DOES trivialize the subject.)

Some will undoubtedly complain that if Quentin Tarantino can trivialize violence and brutality, why can't we? And the answer is that Tarantino works in a medium that has already earned its cultural status -- as you yourself point out.

I don't know enough about Six Days in Fallujah to know whether it treated the war with the gravity that it deserves. I had heard a rumor that it was less a Rambo-style FPS than a survival horror game, because that's what the battle really was: survival horror. If true, I think it would have been an important step forward in our portrayal of war, and I would like to have seen it. But I also know how game developers love to slip in cheats and Easter eggs and other supposedly "clever" material that is fun to find, but subverts the tone and message of the subject matter. And that would immediately destroy the credibility of any game on a subject as grim as the battle for Fallujah.

If Atomic had included even one powerup, or hidden super-weapon, or invincible mode, or Easter egg that changed all the enemies into giant rabbits, then it would have ruined the game -- and been a major setback for anyone else trying to address a controversial subject. Did they? Or did they really take their subject matter as seriously as they should? I guess we'll never know."

Ed Salsberg Owner, Steel Valor Online - Video Game Consulting & Beta Testing:

"We've done WWII to death, raised it and to the death again! When I heard it was canceled due to the controversy of the current war(s) I was majorly disappointed. We need fresher content!

Honoring the fallen by telling their story and even pushing some of the profits to the families of the fallen would change the public's view of this game entirely. The stories on the Military Channel, especially those dealing with current or recent events are the most interesting and very popular.

I really think they should reconsider or pass the project to someone with the balls to do it and do it right. We could use the new content as teh only gold series we currently have that deal with modern day combat are GRAW, CoD and ... ummm ... exactly.

Honestly, if K was concerned about content dealing with current conflicts maybe they should stop selling their Crusades games ... as that was will always be fought until we die or forget the gods."

Jaime Kuroiwa :

"I believe this is the reason for SDF's demise. Shortly after this news broke on the blogs, Konami pulled support. I don't think it was coincidence.

And here is a comment from reddit.com user randomlulz:
"... is the opinion of a jobless MBA grad in his twenties..."
...I must say I am flattered that I can still pass for twenty-something...
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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Why "Six Days in Fallujah" was really cancelled

"Bang! Boom, ratata, boom, bang!" she said, while holding an imaginary rifle in her hand and doing her best to impersonate a testosterone driven male gamer, mouth agape and pupils dilated.

The person sitting across from me was my potential future boss, the creative director of a noteworthy agency in BC, interviewing me for a job. This was her reaction to me saying that video gaming was one of my hobbies. It was inspired by her general impression of video games (violence, explosions, guns, etc.), and followed by the question whether I was really into that

My answer to her question was a protest. It started with a sigh and continued along the lines of "You shouldn't think that way," and "That's not really fair." But as I continued to explain my viewpoint, I was simultaneously realizing that her opinion, while unfair perhaps, was at the same time perfectly reasonable in its origination.

For what reason was there to think otherwise?
Even for those of us who know that there is so much more to video games than B-rated action movie rip-offs, it is no small mental challenge to dig up a glorious example of deep storytelling from our memories, without having to go many years back in time.

There was a time that video games were giving us thrilling glimpses of a new kind of storytelling, rich with emotion, philosophy, experimentation and unparalleled immersion. There was content on par with fine literature. Ironically, that was also the time when gaming was associated only with kids, teenagers, and adults who had horribly failed at getting a life. Gaming was far from being hailed by the incumbent media as a "cultural phenomenon." It was nowhere near being mainstream, and its appeal was deemed childish at best.

And then video games did what all the other media before them had done to gain mainstream popularity: they dumbed the content down. It was in the fashion of a brat screaming and begging for attention: loud, crass, inappropriate, irresponsible, hormone-driven. Gone were long chunks of dialogue from the screen, "because people did not like to read." Gone were thought provoking stories, "because people just wanted to have fun." The content did not mature up, but rather got an "M for mature," meaning it adopted a behaviour pattern rife with sex, violence, nudity and coarse language, just like a rebellious teenager imitating his/her impression of what an adult is. And it worked like a charm!

Today, video games are not simply a childish waste of time, produced entirely by isolated programmers here and there, doing some coding while they are slacking off on their full-time jobs. It is a big, serious industry, employing many professionals from a wide variety of digital fields, and serving a global market worth billions. The content strategy has served the industry well indeed. Or so it seems, if you ignore what is starting to happen now.

What got you here won't get you there 
It was back in April, Konami announced that they were dropping the controversial game Six Days in Fallujah even before it could see the daylight, due to an overwhelming outcry against the game's premise. The premise was a digital reenactment of one of the key battles of the Iraqi War, in the style of a First Person Shooter. It was criticised by both Pro-War and Anti-War commentators. Some blamed the game for trivializing war, while others said it was glorifying war. While these points might seem contradictory to a non-gamer, it should sadly be noted that war games (to date) have an uncanny knack for pulling off both offenses at the same time.

Yet there is something in this story that does not make sense at first glance. After all, this was not the first attempt to portray the Iraqi war. There are already many movies made about almost any war in recent and far history - most of them featuring Americans fighting in somebody else's country. Why such a strong reaction to a game when seemingly anyone can make a movie about anything related to war?

Add to this puzzle the fact that there are games such as Modern Warfare, Battlefield series, and many more, taking place within the context of imaginary conflicts that are blatantly obvious anagrams of real world conflicts, and yet faring merrily in sales figures with nary a protest, nor an objection. So what's going on here?

The answer is simple. When it comes to handling sensitive subjects of the real world with due care, video games just have zero - none, null, nada, squat - vote of confidence from their audience. The situation is exactly that of the previously described rebellious teenager who, upon asking if he/she could take the keys to the family car to go to a late night party, is given the answer: "Yeah, right. Like that's gonna happen in a million years."

Six Days in Fallujah is not the only manifestation of this. It is a similar thing that happened to the game Super Columbine Massacre RPG at the Slamdance festival of 2006. A different kind of reaction stemming from the same sentiments came for the last Resident Evil game, blaming the developers for being insensitive about racism.

Movies do not suffer from the same bias because that medium has long proven itself capable of "adult responsibility" with many fine examples of film making. They have deserved and earned the benefit of doubt that saves them from being cancelled even before being filmed.

While the braindead marketing philosophy of the last century might think of these controversies as "great publicity for games," (Dante's Inferno, you hear this?) the truth is that there is no more ground left to be won by such tactics. In fact these very tactics are becoming a hindrance for video games in their rise to the dominant medium of the future throne. Especially at a time when the whole global business community is engulfed in change towards more social responsibility, this particular industry runs the risk of drawing more and more ire from gamers and non-gamers alike, for its glaring indifference and reluctance to grow up.

It is now time that the teenager should get a clean haircut, learn to self-administer mouthwash, and start wearing something that doesn't have skulls and pentagrams on it. Such a thing is far from being unimaginable. It used to be, in fact, a reality.

The humour in the Secret of the Monkey Island was comparable to Terry Pratchett. The haunting riddle of Planescape: Torment was no less profound than any quote from Nietzche. The noir style of Grim Fandango could make Tim Burton jealous. The video games industry used to be that responsible person (and still immensely fun) a long time ago. And it can become that person again.

But how, you ask, will video games prove themselves worthy if they are not even given a chance? My answer is: learn to mow the lawn first before you ask for the car keys. Work your way up from less sensitive subjects and show the world you are ready to take the responsibility of being the dominant medium.

As a good example to that, I recommend looking at how Battlestar Galactica series handled the topic of terrorism, war, and even suicide bombings admirably, without offending its audience. There are lots of similar examples out there, if one wants to find them.

(Note to journalists and researchers: Next time, before you publish an article about storytelling in video games, please do take time to study the matter in depth. When you ignore all those fine examples of storytelling as if video games started off with Grand Theft Auto, you end up misleading your audience and hurting the credibility of your authority in the subject field.)

(Note to my interviewer: No offense meant to you at all! It's still okay to hire me!)

P.S. I have copied the comments from game-devs about my article in a new post, which you can find here. Or you can join the Game Developers group on LinkedIn to see them there.
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