How To (Accidentally) Build A More Female-Friendly Game

Video-game culture can be incredibly toxic for women and girls. They may face sexist remarks, harassment or even threats of rape and death. When Niantic Labs launched its mobile game, Ingress, in 2012, it’s unlikely that they designed it specifically to create a more female-friendly environment. But many women and girls who play Ingress say they’ve felt welcome and respected. Ingress is pretty different from other video games, but some of those differences create opportunities for equality — and opportunities to learn how to design a game with equality in mind.

I started playing Ingress just weeks after the beta launched. Although I played a lot of video games as a kid — Pac-Man, Golden Axe, the whole Mario oeuvre — I’ve gotten away from them. I don’t deal with frustration or fast-paced action well, and I get bored sitting still while grinding away at some virtual task.

Ingress is pretty different. It’s an augmented reality game, based on real-world locations and maps. There are two factions, the Resistance and the Enlightened, who compete to capture “portals” of mystical energy. These portals are located on monuments, statues, historic buildings, murals and other public works of art, which means that in order to play, you have to get outside.

Left: a portal on a locally owned restaurant in San Francisco. Right: the real-life location of the restaurant, as shown in Google Maps. Niantic Labs based the Ingress world on Google’s mapping system.

I liked a number of things about Ingress immediately, including its encouragement to explore. You can also, for the most part, play at your own pace. That made it less frustrating for me. Plus, I liked the idea of “owning” and caretaking landmarks, even in a competitive city where players of opposing factions destroy and capture the same portals multiple times a day. I liked that turf-war aspect, too.

As your Ingress experience level increases, a social element emerges. In order to get the gear you need to play, you “hack” portals and they toss out items. But when you reach a higher experience level, you need higher-level gear, and the only way to get that gear is to collaborate with others on your faction to make higher-level portals that will provide it. Ingress players frequently organize “farms” where several people get together to make high-level portals and stock up. In the process, they get to know each other and sometimes hatch plans for future events. Players who have an oversupply of gear can share it with others who need it, or visit each others’ neighborhoods to fortify their portals. These actions create both opportunities to meet up and a culture of sharing. These interactions often carry over to social media, including Google+, reddit, Google Hangouts, Slack and other systems.

An Ingress “megafield,” coordinated by player maesteromni. Image courtesy player Caeles.

When you link three portals together in a triangle, it creates a canopy or “field” of energy that supposedly influences the thoughts of all the people underneath it. (Have I mentioned there’s a whole storyline in Ingress? I tend to ignore it, but there is). Fields can be tiny — smaller than a city block — or can blanket an entire continent, as long as there aren’t other links or fields in the way. It takes significant coordination to pull off a big field, and even more to prevail at Ingress’ occasional anomalies, where hundreds or thousands of players converge on a single location to battle over specific portals or objectives. The Ingress storyline changes based on which faction wins an anomaly, so they tend to be a big deal.

Because the game is location-based, it becomes easy to figure out where players live and work. That has a major upside: players on the same team who play near each other can work together to capture and field clusters of portals or defend their turf against players on the opposing faction. But it also has a downside; antagonistic players often camp out near an opponent’s house, or follow them home, a problem I’ll return to in a bit.

Whether it’s a farm, a turf battle, a big field or an anomaly, every helpful player counts. Gender doesn’t matter — what matters is pitching in.

Ingress Is Kinder To Women — Mostly

The treatment of female gamers has become an international conversation in the past year or so, and it’s been on my mind a lot. I’ve been harassed and threatened online (in fact, two Google+ users trolled me and other players in comments when I asked for input on this essay), but it occurred to me that my Ingress interactions have been remarkably troll-free. Fellow players have been largely respectful, kind and helpful. The few times I’ve faced insulting or mean comments, they came from an an angry opponent, but the remarks weren’t misogynistic.

That got me thinking: is my experience unique? Is there something about Ingress that makes players treat each other with more respect, regardless of gender? So I asked players from both factions around the world what they thought.

Many women told me their Ingress-related experiences have been positive and free of sex-based harassment. Like me, many have encountered the occasional insulting remark — particularly in the in-game communication channels — but otherwise feel they’re treated as equals. Many women have become leaders in different regions through organizing events, farms and communities and orchestrating players for larger operations.

When I asked players why they thought Ingress might be friendlier to women, they offered a variety of answers. Some suggested that it’s a byproduct of all the face-to-face interaction; folks who troll or threaten others prefer to do so behind the protection of an electronic screen. Alison N. whose in-game name is vidicon, noted that in Ingress, players’ screen names can make it difficult to tell whether a player is male or female. Many women choose gender-neutral names, but players of either gender sometimes pick names that aren’t obviously aligned with their gender. Lisa H, who plays as pandorina, said that’s a big difference from many other games, where players are obligated to choose an obviously male or female avatar, which can trigger assumptions in other players. In Ingress, by the time you learn someone’s gender, you’ve already seen how they play, Alison said.

“Eventually as you get into hangouts and communities, people are going to learn you are female — but they are also going to be meeting you in real life at the same time and also see you as a valuable contributor. It humanizes that interaction,” she said. “So the would-be trolls don’t have that time period where the only piece of information they have about you is that you are a woman, which makes it harder to troll. ”

Ingress’ focus on teamwork makes it important to value any player who’s actively helping. “The female agents on our side play a vital role in our day to day activities and are definitely viewed as equals when it comes to the playing field,” said a male Ingress player who uses the name Liberaldan.

Others noted that Ingress players tend to be adults, which might foster more mature interactions. Niantic is tight-lipped about player demographics, but some aspects of the gameplay make Ingress less available to kids. If you live in a city where the in-game environment is dense and public transport is functional you can play without driving, but many minors don’t have that kind of freedom. Playing in rural areas requires using a car to cross the often-large distances between portals.

“This means you tend to have a more mature group of people with more life experience to help them know how to deal with other people respectfully,” said Maggie Coyne, who plays under the name bigmaggie. “The social and cooperative nature of the game … seems to attract a more level headed and open minded sort of person, at least at the team game play level.”

Even so, several female players told me they’d endured harassment, sexist remarks and even stalking. Some said their experiences of in-game sexism were about on par with what they encounter in the real world — implying that it’s less than what women face in other gaming communities — but others provided no such caveats.

“I believe the rabid sexism/trolling we see in online gaming communities is largely due to the privilege of anonymity enjoyed in that space,” said Crystal D, who plays Ingress under the name Habit. “To really play Ingress you have to give up your anonymity. … In real life, starting over is a lot more difficult, and threats can put you in jail. It’s not that Ingress is a game that fosters respect for others, rather it’s a game that lacks the favored safe haven of abusers: anonymity. ”

The relationships that build between Ingress players often has a protective effect. Those who have been playing in a consistent area for a while likely know not only their own teammates, but their opponents. If someone knows your name and has seen your face, you’re less likely to harass them — especially if their teammates also know who you are and where you spend your time.

Crystal said the existence of women-only Ingress communities, where female players can have a safe space to talk, is a sign that they face sexism within the game. Coyne runs a statewide women-only community in Indiana, where she has fielded complaints about male players harassing women. It’s common in Ingress for communities to police themselves, and teams will even shun a player who’s mistreating others, which can make the outcast less inclined to play. But that doesn’t always happen. In Indiana, a female player told her teammates that a male player in her faction was following her around and wouldn’t stop asking her out, but nobody took it seriously. Eventually, the victim switched factions because her team wasn’t willing to help her, Coyne said.

There are signs that sexist behavior crops up when a team or region is dominated by an abrasive male player or a culture of negativity. LacedUp, a female Ingress player in California’s Central Valley, said that when she started, there was a local leader who encouraged bullying and scare tactics. He even followed her home one night, hoping to intimidate her. Over time, others took over the region, the obnoxious player quit and players began treating each other more kindly.

“Some of the most well-respected agents I know are women,” LacedUp said. “Gender doesn’t matter, getting the job done does.”

The science of cooperative gaming

Video-game researchers have found that cooperative video games tend to foster more positive, social behavior. Their studies suggest that when players only battle other players or against computer-controlled opponents, they’re more likely to feel aggressive (a finding I take issue with, but that’s a story for another day). However, if players have to work with other teammates in order to solve problems and level up, they tend to be more kind, according to Texas Tech University researcher John Velez.

“What we found was cooperative play seems to have the biggest effect in terms of decreasing aggression toward other people,” Velez said. “We found that playing with a helpful partner increases the expectation of others to reciprocate that pro-social behavior and generally be helpful.”

Few researchers have examined how different types of video games influence male players’ behavior toward female gamers. But a study released this year by Michael Kasumovic and Jeffrey Kuznekoff suggests that some players in cooperative video games — namely, guys playing Halo 3 with an ostensibly female teammate — make more negative comments when they’re performing badly. In particular, those guys were more likely to make negative comments to a female teammate than a male one, according to the study. So much for “pro-social behavior,” right?

Halo 3.

The study was relatively small — it included 189 male players who spoke up during 163 Halo 3 games. Some of them were playing with a female-voiced teammate and some who were playing alongside a male-voiced teammate, both of which were actually pre-recorded, canned responses. (Interestingly, in the course of those 163 games, although an unstated number of human female players participated, none of them spoke. The researchers said this reinforced the idea that women are participating in an arena that is male-dominated.)

When Kasumovic and Kuznekoff looked at whether any of those negative statements could be considered “hostile sexism,” they found that only 11 men said something that was overtly sexist. That implies that the rest of the negative comments weren’t directed at the gender of their ostensibly female teammate, but it’s tough to say for sure, since the researchers didn’t provide examples of what those other comments were.

Ingress is pretty different from Halo. It isn’t a first-person shooter, it isn’t particularly fast-paced and, outside of discrete events like anomalies, there is no “winning” — just a constant cycle of gaining and losing ground against the opposing faction. Still, the Halo study supports the idea that Ingress can serve as a model for how to create a culture of respect and equality. “By demonstrating that female-directed hostility primarily originates from low-status, poorer-performing males, our results suggest that a way to counter it may be through teaching young males that losing to the opposite sex is not socially debilitating,” Kasumovic and Kuznekoff write. An environment in which there are no clear winners and losers, like Ingress, can provide other opportunities for such lessons.

Some of the gameplay aspects that set Ingress apart — and perhaps create a better environment for mutual respect — still have their downsides, particularly for female players. One of the best times to capture portals is late at night, when opponents are more likely to be sleeping. Male players are more likely to feel safe playing alone in the wee hours, Coyne points out.

The portals in Indianapolis’ White River State Park.

One of the best places to level up in Indianapolis is White River State Park, which is studded with portals, Coyne said. A male player who had, at one point, amassed the most Ingress points in Indianapolis did so by spending “all night, nearly every night” in the park. “While I would feel comfortable walking around that park alone during the day, I would never dream of being out there alone at night,” Coyne said. “When I do play there at night, I only do so with a male agent I trust accompanying me, which limits the time I can play at night there to times when a male teammate is available.”

From an equality-making standpoint, Ingress isn’t perfect. Partly that’s because there are misogynist, anger-prone guys who play the game, just like there are misogynist, anger-prone guys elsewhere online and in the world. But its real-world gameplay also fosters community, and community members are more prone to protect each other from bad behavior. If you’re looking for examples of games that are more likely to foster respect, Ingress is a good place to start.