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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