Women and Video Games

This is the tweet that inspired this post.

This is very cool, very striking, and completely untrue.

By all accounts, League of Legends is a “good videogame”, loved by millions. And yet most women gamers do not want to play it. 90% of LoL players are male. It’s even more severe with EVE Online: only 4% of players are female.

This is not limited to online games, where sometimes people hide their gender to not find themselves in an unpleasant company. For example, only 14% of single player, offline Mass Effect players were female. We are talking about the game the creators of which invested an extraordinary amount of resources — people, money, time — into allowing the players to choose between a male and female protagonist.

Some people would like you to believe that is because of the male protagonist on the box cover or in the promo videos, but that does not explain why Professor Layton has 50/50 ratio of male/female players, now does it?

Take a look at this infographic (taken from here as this archive shows). It’s not 100% accurate but it does show trends properly: see how the female demographic shrinks when we arrive at certain type of games. Additional data can be found here.

What the above are missing, however, is the other side of the spectrum: games dominated by women players. One such genre is HOPA, Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures (if we want to learn more, read this, and if you want to give them a try, I recommend Phantasmat). The biggest company producing and distributing these games is Big Fish, and here’s what its CEO had to say about its demographics:

Games are a universal pleasure. Whereas traditional gaming companies are focused on young males, at Big Fish Games, our audience is global, more than 80 percent female, and so engaged that on any given day, we distribute 1.5 million games. Our primary customers, young women and chief household officers, as we like to call them, enjoy a broad variety of games on our site, including puzzles, hidden objects and solitaire, all of which provide women with the opportunity to escape relax and have fun.

To sum up this part, a) there are genres that women tend to like simply because the genres as such appeal to them, b) there are genres that do not achieve that, and c) there are genres that the games of which women like or not depending on the actual features of the game.

This is nothing new. There are things in this world that men and women like equally, and there are things that women like more than men and vice versa. For example, in the world of books, most readers of fiction are women. However, more men read sci-fi fiction than women.

Note that in games, the process in which men gravitated towards certain types of games, and women went after something else, was organic. There were no quotas, no ideology behind it. It just happened because that is how the market works.

Here is a crucial quote from the interview with Big Fish Games’ Jeff Haynie, art director for the Mystery Case Files series:

Examiner: […] was there a conscious effort to make games that would interest women?
JH: It wasn’t a focus on female gamers as much as a focus on gamers who liked more puzzle solving and adventure. As the company evolved the style of game, the core audience just worked out to be more skewed toward females.

This is how businesses operate. They like to make money. They see what works and try to please the audience to make even more money. When it turned out that women like HOPA games, creators started to analyze how they can cater to that audience better.

It would be a very intriguing concept that one should not understand their audience when crafting a game in a genre that appeals to that audience...

…and yet here we are. For some reason figuring out what women want from video games is wrong. But, as I said it earlier, businesses and creators usually respect their audience and even if they don’t, in order to make money they usually want to understand it.

Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch from Silicon Sisters, “the first female owned and run video game studio in Canada […] committed to developing […] games with a decidedly female focus”:

To share an example (but one that’s not a trade secret), we came across a study that explored how women and men differ in regards to finding objects in cluttered environments. This is the perennial example of a man standing in front of the fridge asking “where is the ketchup” while his wife at the kitchen counter can see it from six feet away. It is an interesting finding when we consider how it has impacted the games industry.

Mike Turner, who worked at Big Fish on the publishing side, has this advice on Quora:

Bigfish is somewhat of a leader in casual games and has a strong understanding of female players. If you’re making a game targeted towards casual demographics or women and this is one of your first games or first times operating a game, working with them isn’t a bad idea. You will learn a lot about what goes into operating a game of that type.

Valeriya Mallayeva from Absolutist, creators of casual games, in Fall 2011 issue of Casual Connect Magazine (all issues are archived here):

Women also have the best sense of how other women want the product to look. Because the design and the general appearance of a game are the first things users notice, getting the look right is essential. Even though the number of men and women in the art department is roughly equal, Tatyana Bunda, the head of the department, gets the final say. “My word is always a deciding vote,” she says. “It means I can always insist on any idea, though it is always interesting to know how the men imagine the things that will seem lovely in the woman’s eyes.

Linny Cendana, the founder and CEO of Room Candy Games, Casual Connect, Summer 2009:

Men generally prefer gameplay that involves direct competition and combat. Conversely, women seem to react much better to indirect competition or peer pressure. They don’t need to be the alpha of the pack, but they want to level-up to the same standing as their peers. These equations best illustrate the dynamics of men vs. women:
• Men > Men
• Women ≥ Women

And one more from Linny:

It goes without saying that the casual female market is attracted to games that look, well, pretty. The retail industry knows this, and makes this a top priority. Publishers of games developed for this demographic must also remember that the “window shopping” mentality is very well ingrained with women, and making games look pretty is as important as making them fun to play.

I want to stop at that last one, as this is something I have personally discussed in the past with certain creators of HOPA games. I cynically suggested to them — purely because of my personal taste — to learn of the desaturation technique in Photoshop. They showed me the middle finger, because, as they said, that’s not what their vastly female audience wanted. And they kept their colors and prettiness, and then they released this:

…and of course it turned out to be their best-seller. Although trust me, when it comes to HOPA, this is a Lovecraftian level of desaturation anyway.

And guess what — yes, women like playing as women! That is why nearly every single HOPA game features a female protagonist. Of course, it does not mean that if you make Call of Duty’s protagonist a woman that magically its audience will become 50/50 men and women. I already mentioned that having a gender option did not do wonders for Mass Effect. But still, it’s a good thing for a designer to know that the gender of the protagonist is not without meaning to the women gamers, isn’t it?

Anyway, the point is, women like certain things, men like certain things, and although there obviously is an overlap, there are also things that work for one gender and don’t work for the other. Studying and understanding these things is not exactly a bad idea.

Before we get to the most controversial element of this post, a couple of important notes:

  • Whenever I said or say “women this, men that”, I always mean “most women, most men”. Obviously some women love games that the players of which are mostly men (and vice versa). And they can be fiercely awesome at them. Not only at a certain UK trade show I have witnessed a female Quake player sweeping the floor with dozens of men who challenged her — but I have been on the receiving end as well. I was a five-year Quake vet and I could not even score a single kill.
  • As always, things are a bit more complicated than described here. There are women who are not interested in “men games”, but also dislike colorful games as well, for example. So bear that in mind.
  • Creators do not have to care about the audience. Understanding and respecting the needs of the customers is a sane thing to do when you want money from someone for your work, but it’s not a requirement. Sometimes, the creator might just create something and say “I didn’t create this with anyone specific in mind. Take a look, and if you like it, buy it” — and that is obviously fine. It will usually turn out that certain groups of people liked the work more than other groups, but it’s a side effect.

All right, and now for the big finale.

If men and women naturally like and dislike certain genres and games, and the market seems to have solved the problem already (half of population are women, and half of gamers are women, so there’s no under-representation, if you believe in that sort of thing) and is keeping everyone busy playing, why do we keep hearing the voices asking for “games for women”, “stories that are not just for men”, “strong female protagonists”, etc? What is the reason for this push to invade the market that could be described as core? Why can’t “men games” be left alone, when we all have too many games to play anyway? And why don’t we hear men protesting the lack of male protagonists in HOPA?

Obviously, there’s more than one answer to this.

Some answers are extremely simple and obvious. A certain female minority would love to murder and torture their enemies just like we do in “our” games, they would just love to do it as a woman, for example. So they want that, and ask the creators to cater to their needs. Realistically, chances of that happening are similar to the chances of the romance novel market undergoing a massive change so that half of its books cater to the male minority and their needs.

(However, in my opinion, creators should consider adding tweaks to the game that may please the female audience: female protagonist option, tailoring game experience, etc. If this approach does not work for your game or is too much work or is not needed as the game is universally appealing, great, stick to your vision — but if only a bit of work can increase your reach …why not do it? That’s just smart business. People invest a lot of time and money intro porting their PC games to Linux and Mac, because even 5% more sales is still real money, so it’s only reasonable you might want to achieve even better commercial results with only a few clever updates to the core design. See this as an example: it’s not necessarily gender-oriented, but it shows how a few tweaks of already existing variables make the game appealing to a larger audience).

There is also the question of cultural colonialists eager to conquer a new territory. We have seen that happen to comics, we have seen that happen to sci-fi, we have seen that happen to atheism — now it’s time for video games. Chances of the colonialists succeeding are slim, but bigger than previously, due to the amplification provided by the gaming media and the ideology infecting the developers themselves. We will see if the push-back from certain group(s) of gamers stops the assault, but mostly the issue will simply be decided by the public’s wallet.

I personally think, though, that the biggest reason for the flood of demands is simply the question of both media prestige and production budgets.

The media prestige thing is basically about how games are presented to the general public. HOPA games can sell an insane amount of copies, in 2008 the publisher reported The Mystery Case Files franchise has sold more than 2.5 million units to date — and that was seven years ago. Top titles easily sell a few hundred thousand copies, making 99% of “core market” indies jealous. And yet you will not find any of these games grace the cover of Game Informer. Actually, you will most likely never read about HOPA in Game Informer at all. Or any other core gaming magazine in the world.

Artifex Mundi is one of the biggest gaming studios in Poland, with over 100 employees. They do female-centric HOPA games, with over 12 million official downloads. And yet even the websites that consider themselves the most progressive — like Polygon — have never written a word on them or their games.

Why? Well… Does that help?

This is not a jab at Polygon. Simply, as much as it’s “progressive”, it’s also a business. Since its readers are mainly men, it rarely talks about games that mainly women love (although an article or two would be nice). Weird how that works when it’s actually your own money at stake, eh?

But anyway, games that mostly women enjoy are not considered as prestigious as the games that are the core market dominated by men. Some women don’t care about that (and they’re right, in my opinion, business still can hear them and that is what really counts), but some do.

The production budgets thing is exactly about, well, production budgets. As much as HOPA and other casual games crafted mainly for women are fun, their budgets are only a fraction of what action-adventure core market AAA games get.

So, basically, some women say, “Listen up, we want big games with big production values, you know, the type that costs trillion dollars, gets the magazine cover and wins gaming awards.” — and I get that. Currently it’s like men and women have their own indie movies, but only men get their big budget movies. If I am not mistaken, there is not gaming equivalent of The Hunger Games for women gamers.

The problem is, well, it’s not an easy problem to solve. If it were easy, business would do it a long time ago, because money is money. But replacing Kratos with Kratosia is not the solution. Most women just don’t like these types of games, and their production with focus on female audience would not be commercially viable. For the female audience-oriented (or even simply for more of universally appealing games) AAA-budgeted games to happen we need different types of games (e.g. like what Telltale does — I’d kill to see their real demographics data, but I think it’s a safe bet they have more female players than DOTA).

And this is why it’s so frustrating there is a war on the currently existing franchises and genres, instead of focusing on broadening the palette. And both sides are here to blame: thick-skulled ludofundamentalists’ hatred for games like Gone Home, and radical feminists’ hatred for male fantasies that dominate the core market. As if the growth of walking simulators somehow made Call of Duty or GTA cease to exist (when data points to the opposite conclusion), or as if Call of Duty or GTA ruined humankind (when data points to the opposite conclusion).

On top of that, some people try to pressure businesses to drop everything and risk dozens of millions of dollars to make a game that must exist “because women” — as if somehow these businesses would not do it themselves if only they knew how.

Businesses — publishers and developers — are listening, as businesses always do. Screaming at them might work, but if they attack the issue mislead by the vocal minority, they might end up like the guys who thought Playgirl would be as popular as Playboy. A much smarter approach is to point the businesses in the desired direction with your money. We already have enough different types of games on the market — from female-centric explorers to female-led AAA action adventures — to provide the businesses with the necessary info. But be aware, sometimes that info might not turn out to be what you personally would like to hear.

From that perspective, the games market reminds me of the TV market. The only sure way to keep the beloved TV series afloat is to watch it with ads for free or buy it — online or on DVD/BR. Anti-cancellation campaigns rarely work, and in those rare cases they do …well, it usually turns out the series was canceled for the right reasons (lack of viewers) the first time around. And only the series’ actual financial results assure others get interested in this type of TV as well and help it grow. Not screeching and scratching.

Bottom line: yes, it makes sense for designers to understand women gamers if they want to make a game that appeals to them. Why the fuck are we even discussing this? Also, you want more games for you? Buy and promote the games you love.

P.S. There is a response from the author of the tweet I quoted in the opening, hence “Women and Video Games Part 2”.