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She's Not Playing It Wrong

Conversations about bringing more women into game development and encouraging them to stay are always challenging. Lately, they've been almost impossible. Let's start thinking about it as a development problem and acknowledge flaws in our systems design.

Laralyn McWillams, Blogger

October 30, 2014

9 Min Read

If you’re an experienced game developer, you’ve probably felt the simultaneous joy and agony involved in watching someone else try to play your game. The player’s stumbling over that jump you considered easy, running by the switch for the door six times without seeing it, or throwing his controller across the room when the boss kills him for the third time. Whether it’s a formal usability test, at a station on the floor of E3, in a Let’s Play stream or even with your spouse in your own living room, watching a player in your game can be a frustrating and enlightening experience.

If you’re an experienced game developer, you’ve probably also heard someone on your team react to watching a play session with phrases like, “That player just doesn’t get it” or “He’s not playing it right.” You may have even said similar things yourself early in your career. It can be a slow transition that comes with mileage, beginning to realize that if players in your target audience don’t understand or like your game, your game is the problem rather than the players. The systems and experience you created has failed in some way.

When that happens, we’ve all learned to take a deep breath and step back. We watch the player’s video over and over again (or replay the session in our minds). We talk with our teams about what went wrong--why didn’t that player understand our rules or our visual language? How can we make it more clear? How can we fix our mistakes?

If you’ve ever worked on a live game, you’ve probably taken that a step further. Players don’t see through to The Matrix of underlying systems when they play your game. Even if they try to bind it in logic or back it up with spreadsheets of evidence, player feedback is largely based on emotions and impressions. It’s based on how your game feels when they’re playing it.

When you work with players in a live game service, you’ll often have multiple threads in the forum or many blog posts talking about how one class or character is completely over- or under-powered, or why one particular weapon is a huge rip-off, or reasons that your carefully balanced free-to-play game is actually pay-to-win. It doesn’t matter whether these players are factually correct. You may be looking at metrics right now that prove the character is perfectly balanced. Telling players that fact--even with the metrics--won’t change how they feel. As experienced developers on a live game, we understand that we have to deal with the perception of balance and fairness just as seriously as we deal with the reality of balance and fairness.

This is the world we live in as experienced game developers. Please keep that framework in mind for a minute while I shift topics.

When the conversation turns to women working in game development, as it has frequently for the past few years and intensely for the past few months, you often hear the same points raised. I’ll use one of them as an example: booth babes at E3. There have been efforts to reduce or eliminate the presence of booth babes at industry events for years. They’ve been eliminated at some events like GDC, but not at others--and E3 is usually the event that comes up along with this topic.

In those discussions, there are several points that frequently take center stage. First, that a product showcase with scantily-clad women as hostesses sends a strong message that “this is for men, not women.” Second, that the presence of so many women as sexy hostesses at an industry event sets a climate for women developers working the show that a woman’s “place” at E3 is as an object and not as a developer. There are many blog posts and interviews with women talking about specific ways the tone of E3--largely set by the use of booth babes--made their time working at the show more difficult, more awkward, and much more uncomfortable.

When we talk about these issues, though, the conversation generally dissolves into statements like these, from both men and women:

  • “I like booth babes, personally.”

  • “It doesn’t send a ‘this is for men’ message to me.”

  • “The games are being marketed to men, so it’s appropriate.”

  • “Sex sells, right?”

Or, in other words, “My game is fine and they’re playing it wrong.”

If we want to encourage more women to apply to our companies and work in game development, we need to treat it like a usability problem. These women are responding to our product--and our product is ourselves, our companies, our industry as a whole. Some of that reaction is even to real products we’ve built: our recruiting web pages, our job posting verbiage, our interview processes.

As experienced developers, we all know the reality of the situation is that it doesn’t matter what you intended with your game. It doesn’t matter whether you’re able to play it well personally and you like it the way it is. It doesn’t matter whether you disagree with the feedback you’re getting from players about how your game made them feel. It doesn’t matter whether the players are factually incorrect in their impressions. What matters is that they won’t buy it or play it. What matters ultimately is that your game has a problem with a significant segment of its target player base, and as its developer on the team, it’s a problem you can help fix.

The first step is the same here as it is with any usability problem: stop putting up defensive walls around your original game design or intent. Those “it wasn’t my experience” walls block any empathetic or even objective evaluation of what the player’s trying to tell you. Instead, start listening and watching and enabling communication--encourage players to express how your game makes them feel. For example, when women start a conversation about booth babes making them feel unwelcome at our industry events, these are players telling us about their experience within the existing systems of our industry.

These past few months have been challenging, to say the least. Personally, I hear more women in game development talk about leaving our industry every day than I usually see in several years. What has been happening and continues to happen is having a profound chilling effect on the women on our teams. It will be yet another reason women leave this line of work, and yet another reason many talented young women about to graduate will choose to use their skills and energy elsewhere in tech. Your opinion about whether those feelings are justified or correct doesn’t change the fact that the current climate and culture is alienating them. Your point of view on journalism and ethics and even on harassment doesn’t change their experience with the systems of our industry and the culture around it, and the impression left by those experiences.

Even if each of us didn’t make every element in the game they’re playing, each one of us is on the game development team for our culture as a whole. We’re watching the usability session in action--right now, today. Yes, it’s painful and frustrating. Yes, you may want to argue with the player on the other side of the one-way mirror who doesn’t understand your carefully crafted controls. Yes, you may feel shafted because a handful of malicious players are griefing a segment of the player base without your permission, and now you’re on the hook to fix it.

But as experienced developers, we all know the answer is not that “She’s playing it wrong.” The systems of our industry are failing her. It’s our game--let’s stop putting up defensive walls and instead start talking about how fix it.

[Edited to correct a typo in the first paragraph, from "steam" to "stream."]

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