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Event Wrap-Up: Girls 'N Games 2006

Held on Tuesday, May 9 on the UCLA campus, this fascinating event focused on "girls and games, and the participation of women in game design", with notables such as Brenda Laurel, Morgan Romine and Nicole Lazzaro discussing topics from Halo to Desperate Housewives.

May 18, 2006

14 Min Read

Author: by Beth A. Dillon

Girls are not only playing games, but they are also making games. Whether young or mature, females have a presence in the direction of the games industry. The casual games market consists of 70% female, according to conference moderator Associate Professor Yasmin Kafai from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

The Girls 'N' Games conference was held on Tuesday, May 9, at the Experimental Digital Arts (EDA) space on the UCLA campus. Kafai organized the conference in conjunction with a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The workshop brought together numerous researchers, designers and industry professionals from Europe, Asia and North America to discuss and review current trends in game design and marketing in a private gathering. The conference followed the workshop to serve as a public conversation about matters such as girls and games, and the participation of women in game design and play.

Games for and by Girls

In order to move ahead, it is important to understand the historical context of games for and by girls. Brenda Laurel from the Art Center of Purple Moon started by correcting popular misconceptions about the history of games made for girls. Despite the many references to Barbie Fashion Designer, Pacman was the first video game marketed to girls. Laurel joked, “The reason it was popular was because it was a game about an eating disorder.”

During 1994, in the thick of doing research in gender and technology, it became Laurel's goal to encourage girls to get over their hesitancy with computers. At the time, the Barbie IP spread. By 1997 and 1998, Girl Tech and Girl Games companies emerged. The mid-'90s welcomed hardcore gamer girl groups. To Laurel, there has been a persistent interest from females in action adventure games, which she argues is now moving into Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) such as World of Warcraft (WoW) and other online games including Second Life.

The hardcore girl gamer identity is blurring in younger generations. Jen Sun from Numedeon Inc. referenced the community behind the online game Whyville. Most players in Whyville are 8-9 year old girls, and they don't think of themselves as gamers. “They just communicate this way normally. Just girls having fun communicating on the computer with friends,” said Sun.

Communication often falls under successful game play patterns that appeal to girls, but there are others to be identified. “One of the biggest surprises I've run into is the popularity of Neopets,” said Mary Flanagan, Hunter College, NYC. The game encourages authorship and a distributive form of play. Authorship can happen with console titles as well. Harry Potter games were picked up by girls, and developers started incorporating the ideas of girl gamers who sent in requests to be able to play Hermione.

Flanagan uses constructivist ideas to help girls become authors so they can develop their own games. “If you ask them what their favorite game is, most 10-year-olds are playing Grand Theft Auto. But when you ask them what they like to do in the game, these small particulars are far more interesting.” For example, some girls play one to two times a week. They spend their time shopping for a car, steal it, and then drive it around, but don't participate in other parts of the game.

“When a game is rich enough that players can do things the developers never intended is when you're going to have your moments of epiphany,” Sun added. There are many different types of games in the community of Whyville. After pulling out data for the games, Whyville developers found that girls do tend to favor the arts and humanities activities over the math and sciences. However, when creative twists were added to the math and sciences and games, such as multiplayer components, preferences from girls went up.

Tracy Fullerton, University of Southern California, jumped in. “When games allow a multi-layering of gameplay, these systems of design are not all based on a singular genre of game.” Fullerton regularly plays Halo, and she finds beauty in the scenery when snow falls. She is drawn to the serene moments in the world. She acknowledges that she may have a different perspective on gameplay than her male friends when they get together to play over Xbox Live, but they are all still playing and enjoying their gameplay.

Developers should be cautious to avoid the pitfalls of “girl game design.” Laurel warned, “You're often working off of a stereotype.” In Neopets, children learn to have a complex understanding of economy systems, but Laurel feels funding would have been scarce if the game had pitched itself for that purpose. “Ten years ago, we learned that girls were afraid of breaking the machine. This last year, the same demographic was describing technology as a personal safety blanket.”

“Get player-generated content,” Sun advised. Whyville is able to follow fashion and what is popular by providing players with the tools to generate their own avatars. Players started making shoulder parts, accessories, and scenes. Now, there is a booming “face part” industry.

Flanagan found the same appeal in a game she works with. The game allows players to choose what kind of being they want to be, including gender and mixed body parts. Body clothing is embedded in objects and swapped through programming. Girls are encouraged to dig into code for interacting with the game. She looked at what happened when a team of girls made a game. Even the drawing style tended to carry similarities in girl teams, but the more diverse the team, the more interdisciplinary the game design project.

Moderator Jill Denner of ETR Associates had over 100 girls design games in Flash. She began to understand their likes and dislikes, and saw many instances where girls took gender stereotypes and played with them to create a number of humorous results. Most games emphasized challenging authority and pulling in humor.

“Every semester, a couple of girls find my class by accident,” Fullerton said. Most young women take her class out of curiosity, and sometimes don't play games. They are hesitant about walking into the class, but Fullerton encourages a diverse group of students by keeping all projects in the first class strictly on paper. The technology barrier is dropped. After having a chance to work on ideas, Fullerton concluded, “Young women get a sense of empowerment about what games are.”

Girl Games International

Cross-cultural studies of gaming and gender can illuminate and make less insular studies of gaming in general, asserts Justine Cassell of Northwestern University. She sees gender studies as similar to looking at games across history, but specifically in light of social constructions.

Comfort and normalcy with credit card ordering online can bring game software and hardware into new contexts. Tamagotchi was not seen as gender specific in Japan, but ended up that way in the U.S. when the game transferred with the same gameplay mechanics. Tamagotchi added in fighting features for boys in the U.S.

Mimi Ito from the University of Southern California's Center for Communication has seen a definite trend. Japanese notions sneak into U.S. through media like Pokémon. The media is both exotic and different but also very accessible. “Japan is the centrality of portability and coded differently than console playing,” said Ito. The “cute” culture plays into a wide range of gameplay. The saturation is opposite in Taiwan, as Holin Lin from the National Taiwan University points out, because there is a popular belief that only the top two games, always MMOs, can make profit. A wide range of games are not available for girls.

In Korean web cafes, according to Daniel James from Three Rings Inc., there is a pattern of gender play much different from the U.S. Lineage, he says, is played by more women there than in the U.S. “We still have Internet cafes and activism of women as gamers,” commented TL Taylor of the University of Copenhagen. The arrangement of social and public space plays an important part in gender and gameplay internationally.

There are outside forces involved in girls playing games. In Scandinavia, Taylor found at least 5 women activist initiatives at a huge LAN party of 700 people. LANs and activism play an important role.

Games have a strong tie-in with commercial advertisement in Japan. Ito said, “Really popular manga and anime series almost automatically get a game release.” The “cute” culture is also very influential and encourages girls to get involved in gameplay.

In Taiwan, Holin pointed out, Internet cafes exist almost for the sole purpose of playing online games, but the government puts very rigid restriction on students going there during school hours, and parents often put additional restrictions on their daughters. In Chinese culture, there is a strong feeling against adults playing games. Holin added, “Several boys talk about how they will quit playing games when they get a job, but for girls it's when they get married.” She is concerned about the gender implications.

Popularity trends in girl and women gamers have overlaps internationally. Taylor sees the area around her as part of the North American game scene by its involvement in WoW. Holin notices the same trend in Taiwan, since the most popular games are MMOs such as Lineage and now WoW. “Cute” culture is making its way from Japan into Taiwan quickly. James feels the U.S. is following the same pattern with games like Neopets. “100 million people are playing online games,” James argued. His game, Puzzle Pirates, targets the casual games audience, which he describes as “35-year-old women in the Midwest with two kids and a car.”

“[Women are] gaming in an industry that actively tries to keep them out,” commented Taylor. “We're oddballs if we play.” There is a gap that needs to be fixed, panelists agreed. Games are recoded through use, and not just cross-cultural, but also cross-gender.

Girl Gamers

“Girls gamers” are struggling with both the term itself and the imbalance of putting females in a position of competing with males in order to own being a “gamer.” Similarly, stereotyping by gender, both male and female, can lead to missteps in game design that alienate the targeted genders unintentionally.

When referencing research done primarily on baby boomers, Celia Pearce, UC Irvine, cautioned, “Men actively rejected games like EverQuest because of the violence.” Betty Hayes, University of Wisconsin-Madison, has witnessed a shared gender split in Animal Crossing. “Newbies, whether men or women,” she said, “need different spaces.”

Certainly not all female gamers are newbies, though. “The Frag Dolls have received criticism for identifying as ‘girl gamers,'” said Morgan Romine, also known as Rhoulette in Frag Dolls. She has struggled with a separation message. “Are we feminists empowering definitions by claiming our roles can be flexible? Or do we say is, ‘this is what it means to be women?'” Even today, Romine runs into instances where she is buying a game at a store and the clerk asks who it is for. Assumptions still run rampant.

Nicole Lazzaro, XEODesign, agreed. She feels that the higher score in a game sets the next round of gameplay in motion, which naturally pits males against females, but also males against males and females against females. She fears that the game industry is also marginalizing many men. “The market imperative to grow,” Lazzaro added, “and many men want to play co-op instead of rival games.”

The differences between girl gamers and women gamers are often forgotten. “Casual games have surprised the market,” said Carrie Heeter, Michigan State University. “One thing we have to take into account is that women have a lot of other things to do compared to teenage males and females,” Hayes interjected. Romine agreed and explained, “Casual games are easy to learn and hard to master.” They are also easily accessible and often include social elements, which she equates with WoW and the Xbox 360 Live function in games like Halo.

“Women over 30 are very different than women under 30, their roles in society are different,” insisted Lazzaro. “Play circumstances prepare you for later roles in life.” Changes in gender dynamics in society effect games. Women are getting more comfortable with being able to enjoy methods of play not for the sole purposes of learning and being productive. “Serious fun is a key factor,” Lazzaro ended.

Pearce recommends looking into the self-identified brackets within the styles of game play. When Myst shifted into Uru and Uru closed, Pearce says, the players still identified themselves as puzzle solvers. Community events and creativity are major factors in women gamers.

Desperate Housewives the game targets an interesting market,” Lazzaro added, in relation to the upcoming E3 event and new gameplay techniques for women. She feels games have to more than an idea and graphics. Girl figures are often posing or fighting on posters to advertise to a certain demographic.

However, gender identities can be played with. Within many games, gender identity is a choice. Both males and females are choosing to play the opposite gender for varying reasons, whether it be status or otherwise. Pearce usually plays male characters, because she doesn't like the representation of the female she's offered. Romine relates more to female characters and has found it more advantageous in MMOs. “I just like to play the character that looks the coolest,” Lazzaro quipped.

How, then, are female gamers influencing games? Lazzaro related experienced with motivated quests in MMOs and features such as being able to dress up characters.
“Gamers are now parents,” Hayes said while telling the story of a mother meeting her son in-game to tell him he was grounded for being up late. Casual games offer up a world of opportunities.

Female gamers need to construct and modify games too. “A lot of girls feel alienated from the game creation process,” Pearce said. However, as more generations of girls grow up as gamers, comfort with technology increases. Girls and women should not only be gamers, but also developers, panelists agreed.


Whether in different countries or different stages of life, females are undoubtedly drawn to gameplay. Women can step into development and create games for new generations, but diversity is essential as well. By relating to both men and women, researchers and developers can analyze cross-gender play, which is invaluable to the growth of games, as concluded by the wide range of panelists at the Girls ‘n' Games conference.



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