Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Balancing Act

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The conversation I most dread is the one that starts: 'I hope you don't mind me saying, but it's quite...unusual that you're a woman.' My smartypants answer is that is perfectly usual for me, thank you very much, but I'm sympathetic to the point being made. Women are still a minority amongst conventional gamers, and it's rarer still for those women to make gaming their job. But while I agree it's a fair point that I'm in an unusual position, I still dread the questions that follow it. I have no good explanation for what it is that drew me to gaming. I still don't know if I saw something in gaming that most women don't notice but would like if they did, or if games found something in me that most women don't have and wouldn't want if they could. I'm profoundly uncomfortable being asked to be a spokesman for 51% of the world's population, especially since the only thing we know about me for sure is that I'm an oddity.

But the commercial necessity behind better exploiting that 51% remains, so the question is going to keep coming up. And from now on, I'm going to answer it by referring people to 'Is There Anything Good About Men?', a paper given at the American Psychological Association's annual conference by Dr Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University. In it, he suggests that most cultures are equally, but differently, exploitative of men and women, leading to a situation where men are more attuned to wide, distributed networks that reward competition and specialisation, and women prize small, intimate social networks which thrive on co-operation and generalisation. You're bound to disagree with some or all of his points, but it's well worth a read - it's long, but light - and got me thinking in some new ways about game design.

What's particularly interesting to me is that the gender imbalance he describes is evident even in the way that very conversation tends to go: women who ask me about how I got started in games follow up with small-scale social questions - how have I been treated, do I encounter prejudice, am I self-conscious when playing in front of a male audience. The men get very rapidly side-tracked on to specialist, general-scale questions. If I mention Dungeon Master as being the first moment when games took over my life, women ask me how my parents felt about my new hobby, or if it brought me greater acceptance among male friends. Men, on hearing this news, are more likely to move on to wondering whatever happened to FTL, or whether or not I'd ever tried completing it with only one character.

So allowing that I find the root of Baumeister's argument plausible, what does it mean for the great Girls In Games debate? In asking why more women don't play games, we worried a lot, initially, about surface things - boy-games were too violent, too lasers-and-robots. What we needed was girl-games about shopping, horses and make-up! Now, thankfully, we've moved a little past that (despite the fact that games about shopping, horses and make-up do seem to be proving particularly successful with young female consumers, particularly on the DS), and are looking at important external factors. So we've noted that for games to be attractive to women they need to be available on hardware they feel comfortable with, and offer play-patterns that are compatible with busy, often fragmented lives.

But what Baumeister's paper makes me think about is whether or not we're neglecting an examination of more basic gameplay issues. Does his thesis suggest that women would be more comfortable with a game which had a small cast of characters than either none or many? Does his theory that women see less advantage in specialisation mean that they'll be alienated by the common RPG mechanic where levelling-up in one field disables your potential in another? Should risk-reward ratios be normalised - smaller risks for smaller rewards - for games aimed at girls rather than boys? By which I mean, could you produce a functionally identical game - same visuals, same interface, same goals, same structures - but tune it to appeal more to one gender or another?

And, actually, Dungeon Master might not be a bad place to start. Would women prefer it if the initial character choice was smaller? Would they enjoy exploring more if the mazes were more compact, but contained more hidden detail? Would they warm more to a levelling-up system that was fuelled by the characters' interactions (rather like Disgaea 2's spell-learning system, where characters can learn magic by osmosis, simply by standing near their spell-casting father-figures). Would they (oh, the hate-mail) like it better if it was easier?

Actually, in a transparent attempt to divert you from your poison pen, I'm going to point you to Return To Chaos, a Windows port of Dungeon Master, for those too impatient to find it for Steem, or those too lazy to unearth their ST from the attic. Don't hesitiate to play it if you haven't before, and if you have, don't worry about whether your fond memories of it will survive having their rose-tinted spectacles ripped off. It hasn't aged a button.