Statistics can tell you a lot of things. For example, they can tell you that women can lift only a little over half of what men can, or that women prefer the Wii to any other home console. They also tell us that women make up 40% of the gaming market. There’s definitely a market for making games that will appeal to women young and old. However, I find the term “games for girls” to be offensive, irritating and unsettling on a number of levels.
By example, and if you’ll permit me editorializing for a second, take that first statistic. I spent one Christmas running the games department of a major high street chain – a job which required me to heft a number of X-Box consoles down 4 flights of stairs on a daily basis. Not being the kind of man that’s accustomed to regular heavy lifting, and console sales being particularly strong that year, I often needed the help of my colleagues to stay on top of this. Many of those colleagues were women and, contrary to what that statistic might say, many of them could lift more than I could.
The point I’m trying to make is that there’s a vast difference between a median average statistic and a generalized fact, which seems to be something that escapes a lot of publishers and developers, especially when it comes to gender differences.
“Games for girls” is a term visible in many channels of the games market. It is true that this is a profitable growth area for the industry –but it’s also a new area. There is little data on what games, if any, women purchased before these games came along. It is hard to tell from the numbers whether or not this market is reaching its potential, or just its projections. To put it another way - what numbers can’t tell you quite as accurately is how many games you could be selling with a more sensible strategy.
Developers keen to capitalize on the ever-increasing percentage of women making up the games market are smart to focus on the means-tested things that women enjoy: fashion, social conflict, horses, babies. Experience, testing and sales data has proven that, in general, these things appeal more to women than men. Two of the words in that sentence are very important.
On the surface, Dead Rising 2 is a very macho, male-orientated game. Players take control of Chuck Greene – a square-jawed, gruff-voiced, morally ambiguous hetero-normal hero who finds all the answers his life needs at the end of a baseball bat with nails in it. He’s got a mind for quick one-liners and an eye for the ladies, and – just to prove his sensitivity in this modern world, he loves his 7 year old daughter with all his heart. Players can rejoice in mashing zombies with all kinds of blunt and sharp implements. They can run over them in vehicles. They can tear their arms off and soccer-punt their heads to the horizon.
They can also dress Chuck up with over 100 pieces of clothing – something that takes up a considerable amount of fan discussion in forums. Gamers everywhere, and of all genders, can be see delighting in finding new outfits for Chuck – and its not just for the sake of hilarity and corruption of the game’s cut scenes. There’s plenty messages out there from people looking for just the right type of hat to complete Chuck’s “detective” outfit, or reveling in having frosted Chuck’s hair and given him a tuxedo for that 70s super-spy look, and they're not all from girls. Some of them are the most stereotypical male gamers you could ask for. Dressing up might appeal more to women than men, but that's not to say it isn't fun for men at all.
My point – one that Clint Hocking seemed to be hinting at in his blog recently – is that just because the mean average statistic says more women prefer a particular type of game over another, that doesn’t make it a wise decision (or an ethically sound one) to label your title “for girls”, bathe it in pink, and alienate the 60% of gamers who statistics would tell you are too busy scratching at their 5 o’clock shadows and dead-lifting their own body weight to take interest in such a fluffy floral presentation. Nor is it a valid excuse for not exploiting your game mechanics to their fullest, and appealing to the broadest possible base of gamers.
Focusing on developing games specifically for girls is not only insulting to the many, many girls that don’t necessarily land anywhere around the median average, but it turns away male gamers as well. Why not focus on incorporating the gameplay styles women appreciate into generalized designs? What is wrong with pitching a game which simply has a larger chance of attracting girls, but is still perfectly acceptable for anyone of any gender to be playing?
Combating diversity issues in gaming might seem like an insurmountable task, but there is a solution. We can turn a problem into a profit, and use new thinking to breed innovation. All we need to do is find ways to combat these things that benefit everyone involved. Try to capture the biggest audience each game can, and we'll actually profit from diversity.
And while we're on the subject, stop giving people achievements for tying women to railroad tracks.