[Paleopsych] NYT: What Do Women Game Designers Want?

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Thu Oct 14 17:00:50 UTC 2004

What Do Women Game Designers Want?
NYT October 14, 2004

DENISE FULTON spent much of her childhood playing computer
games. At 8, while growing up in Ohio, she was already
playing Zork, Adventure and other text-based games. And the
fascination continued into her adult years.

So it is not surprising that today Ms. Fulton, 34, is an
executive producer at Ion Storm, a video game company in
Austin, Tex., where she is overseeing the next installment
in the popular Deus Ex series.

The surprising part is how rare Ms. Fulton is. Behind the
computer screen, as in front of it, video games are a man's

Informal estimates put the percentage of women in the
industry at around 10 percent, and even then, most tend to
be in jobs in customer service, marketing and quality
assurance. Relatively few women work as game designers and
producers, and even fewer are programmers.

"It's not so much that women look at the industry and
discard the idea," said Sheri Graner Ray, a senior game
designer at Sony Online Entertainment. "It's that the game
industry just never even comes up on their radar."

The reason has to do with a truism about the computer game
industry. Those who work in the industry tend to enter
their jobs as avid gamers. And playing video games,
especially those loaded with graphic violence, has been a
male pursuit. According to the NPD Group, a market research
firm based in New York, some 81 percent of video-game
players are male.

"It's a chicken-or-egg thing," said Ms. Fulton, who sees a
lot of résumés in her job, almost all from men. "If more
women were playing games, they might get interested in
games as a medium and might choose to pursue that as a
career. But it's still stigmatized as a boy thing."

Now, though, manufacturers are starting to think about
making games that are more appealing to women, like the
Sims, a role-playing game that is viewed as one of the most
popular games among women.

"Do women not play games because the games that are out
there are designed for men, or is it just that women really
don't like computer games?" said Elizabeth Sweedyk, an
assistant professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd
College in Claremont, Calif. "My guess is they don't like
the games that are out there."

Manufacturers understand there is a huge untapped portion
of the market. "They've realized they have to appeal to
women," said David Riley, senior manager at NPD. And as
more games are marketed to, and played by, girls and women,
more women eventually may end up choosing a career in the

Until then, though, people like Ms. Fulton, and like Nicky
Robinson, a programmer, will be the exceptions.

Ms. Robinson, 44, is accustomed to being one of few female
programmers who works on games. She grew up playing board
games of all kinds and then, in ninth grade, was introduced
to Dungeons and Dragons, the role-playing fantasy game that
used dice, pen and paper. "That completely captured my
imagination," Ms. Robinson said. College led to Rogue, a
dungeons-and-dragons-type adventure game played on a

She entered the game industry when she was 23, and has
worked on more than a dozen games through the years,
including some unequivocally male-oriented titles like
Battle Tanx and Army Men.

Ms. Robinson said she felt an obligation to make games more
appealing to women. To that end, she said, she has worked
to make the user interfaces more intuitive. "I personally
loathe interfaces that are cluttered," she said. "I've
heard this as a common complaint from women."

Ms. Robinson also dislikes the atmosphere at some game
companies. There are the constant sports metaphors she has
heard used in the course of developing and shipping
products, for instance. "Does everything need to be
expressed in terms of 'fourth and goal?' " she asked. "How
about a nice literary allusion?"

Then, she said, there is the testosterone-fueled attitude
among upper management that she believes pervades many game
software companies. "They all have to prove that they are
tougher and more macho than the guys in the other
department or at the other company," she said.

Now Ms. Robinson is director of technology at LimeLife, in
Menlo Park, Calif., whose goal is to make mobile phone
applications especially for women. Ms. Robinson had the
chance to air some of her frustrations last month in Austin
at the Women's Game Conference, held in conjunction with a
more broader industry gathering, the Austin Game

The women's event was attended by about 150 women, most of
them designers, marketers, educators and students. Some of
the sessions were devoted to brainstorming about ways to
entice more women into the gaming industry.

The process starts, most agreed, by designing video games
that appeal more to women. But what do women want in a
video game?

Not, many participants agreed, a lot of graphic violence.
They said that first-person shooter games, especially those
with female characters that are depicted in sexually
suggestive ways, are offensive.

"The more abstracted the violence the better I feel about
it," said LaMaia Cramer, a game designer and programmer in

Ms. Robinson said that while producing Army Men, a game
featuring plastic army figures, she argued that women were
more likely to like a game based on plastic figures. "The
violence of melting or blowing up a plastic figure was
something we'd done, so it wasn't going to turn women off,"
she sad. "And indeed, the game was played by far more women
than similar games with realistic human figures."

Some women said they wanted to see more characters they can
relate to, as well as "instant immersion" in a game's story
line. "I know I'm opening a can of worms," said one young
attendee. "But I'd like to see more romance."

Dr. Sweedyk, who also attended the conference, said The
Sims is popular among women because of the social
interaction among the game's custom-built characters. With
a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Dr.
Sweedyk is developing a course designed to encourage women
to build computer games for women. The course, which Dr.
Sweedyk believes is the first of its kind of the United
States, will be offered beginning next semester.

For Ms. Fulton, one of the things she appealed to her about
designing the new Deus Ex game is that players are given
the option of a less violent version. As a producer, she
said, she is drawn to work on games that draw a wider
audience. "I definitely want to continue to work on titles
that are more than the standard, violence-based,
shoot-and-kill play style," she said.

But the reality of her job at Ion Storm, she added, demands
that she maximize the potential success of the titles she
works on. "I can encourage the development of features that
might have a broader appeal, but ultimately need to fulfill
the expectations of publisher and market," she said.

Like Ms. Robinson and Ms. Fulton, Laura Fryer, 36, grew up
playing games more readily associated with boys. An avid
Dungeons and Dragons fan while in high school, Ms. Fryer
went on to work at Microsoft nearly 12 years ago in a
game-testing division, and gradually worked her way up. Now
an executive producer, Ms. Fryer supervises a group
developing games for the Xbox.

Ms. Fryer said she sees a difference from when she was
younger. "A lot more women are playing games" than when she
was in high school, she said.

Ms. Fryer said she recently had two teenage girls as
houseguests, and was surprised by how much they knew about
games. She took them to Microsoft and watched them play
Halo, MechAssault and other shooter games in the lobby. She
was surprised to see that, against stereotype, they were
completely comfortable with the games. "That opened my
eyes," she said.

Ms. Ray of Sony said that the challenge remains first to
get women interested in playing games, then interested in
making them.

"We know they're there and they're tech savvy," she said.
"It's a matter of raising their awareness. As we do that,
and get more women into the industry, the games they make
will have much broader appeal."


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