I'm feeling brave today.
A long time ago, after watching this GameTrailers interview and having met, for the first time, a woman who enjoys a Real-Time Strategy game, I decided to give my take on the question of women's place in the gaming world. Will games ever appeal to as many women as men? Do women want different experiences or have different expectations?
I forgot about this article for a while, but Brian over at The Weekend Gamer brought it back to mind by highlighting a new study. Incidentally, the scientist's conclusion (that gaming in general is more natural for males) isn't supported by his evidence (which suggests only that particular types of gameplay are more suited toward males).
Anyway, here are some semi-random thoughts on the subject. Much of the information about physical differences between men and women I learned from my youngest sister, who is a biomedical engineer, medical researcher at the National Institute of Health, and now training to be a physical therapist. I'm also fairly well schooled in psychology. And I grew up in a family with two boys and three girls, which means I've been having discussions about these differences all my life. The sister in medicine also happens to be the one who played games like Halo with me for years.
First, here are the things I'm sure of.
Women are destined for games, too
Every year now, there are new reports of the growing numbers of female gamers. For whatever reason, gaming has been more popular with guys for a long time. But a day is soon coming when a woman playing video games will be no more surprising than a woman going to see a movie or watching TV. Nothing about the medium itself, interactive entertainment, is exclusive or preferential.
And the cultural barriers that deter girls from trying out games in general are slowly but surely being eroded. Those cultural barriers might not disappear altogether -- male gamers might always outnumber female gamers -- but female gamers will at least become nothing to raise an eyebrow at. Groups like Frag Dolls (a group of women devoted to competitive war games) will always be exceptional, but girls will game in some form.
Some games are for us all
Many games are or will be equally popular among both sexes. In my experience, the original Mario Kart on the SNES is such a game. So are some classic arcade games and MMOs. The Sims series is popular with both sexes, as I'm sure Spore will be.
Some games favor one sex
The term "chick flicks" didn't come out of nowhere. Through the many decades of motion pictures, many films have been far more popular among women while other films have been far more popular among men. The same is seen in literature and every other artform. The same will be seen in video games.
Genre alone does not determine the audience. Though guys generally hate being dragged to sappy romance films, there are some romances that are popular with guys, too (French Kiss, There's Something About Mary, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, etc). Action flicks generally draw more male viewers, but some are popular with women (Speed, Rush Hour, LOTR, etc).
Here's the stuff I'm not certain of but think is likely.
Men and women have different ratios of rod-to-cone light-receptor cells in their eyes. This means that women tend to be physically more capable of distinguishing separate colors than men and have better peripheral vision. Men, on the other hand, tend to have better depth perception and form tracing. This probably affects women's interests in game art the same way it affects women's visual interests in clothing and interior design.
Women tend to have a greater appreciation of vibrant colors and cumulative design (meaning how objects fit together). Men are more attentive to shape and the structural layout of environments. The RTS that my female friend said she loved is Warcraft 3. Without suggesting that she likes it for the visuals alone, that game and World of Warcraft use vibrant colors and a rounded art style. Mario Kart and other Mario games, popular among women, also employ this basic style.
Spore could be a great instrument of study in this area. I bet patterns will emerge in the sort of creatures and objects men design versus what women design. Incidentally, a woman might be the better researcher there, because women more often notice patterns (focus on cumulations, rather than specific objects, is as much a part of female brain development as eye development; male and female brains form a little differently).
A woman's gait is naturally different from a man's gait; not because of different attitudes, but because of a number of physical disparities in things like center-of-gravity, shape of the knees, and shape of the hips. If a game's visuals are real enough that the uncanny valley is a concern, then this difference between sexes should also be considered. It might be the reason that something doesn't look quite right. But the difference is slight... easy to exaggerate into a seductive parody, so artists should be careful.
Women tend to be more socially attentive and cooperative than men. Both men and women are often bull-headed, but a man is more likely to insist on his own way, refuse help (instructions, driving directions, etc), and focus on individual gain. So I think women tend to favor cooperative multiplayer over independent multiplayer. That's not saying that women are not competitive... just that they like to explore and compete in a more cooperative way.
All three of my sisters played competitive sports, and it was obvious that they play in a different way than guys. Women tend to focus more on team achievement. Team performance is important to men too, of course, but individual achievement has more relative value for us. Star Wars: Galaxies and Star Wars: Battlefront are good examples of games which favor male-type cooperation. Players can act separately while contributing to a common goal. Everquest and Halo are examples of games which favor female-type cooperation. One player's character cannot survive without the other's direct participation and intervention.
Yes, mostly-male militaries around the globe are based on the latter sort of cooperation, but how many young boys playing war games pretend in a support role? Soldiers fight side-by-side because it's necessary to survive and win; not because it's their preference.
When I asked one of my sister's about psychological differences between men and women on the soccer field, she mentioned that teammates shout words of encouragement much more often on women's teams. In her own words, "women respond more positively to encouragement". So it would make sense to include such encouragement in a game for female gamers.
On the flipside, I wonder if men respond more positively to the harsh criticism that's typical when coaching men's teams. The warrior instinct might mean this tends to inspire men by challenging our egos. The only video game experience I can cite here in Crackdown, in which I loved the narrator's mocking commentary and challenges.
As I said before, genre alone does not determine whether a game is attractive to both sexes or one. But some genres are ideally suited for gameplay which favors one sex over the other, just as most Nora Roberts fans are women while most Tom Clancy fans are men.
We might as well start by acknowledging that the division in films and books will translate into games. Romance favors women. We haven't seen many romance games yet, but they're on the way. Mass Effect's choice-empowering relationship play is one hint at things to come.
Women like war dramas, while men are the primary audience for war action. In addition to other features, an FPS game might be made more attractive to women through more personal dialogue between soldiers and more exploration of the protagonist's character. Women might also be interested more in rescue missions and guard missions, since their goals tend to be more about relationships.
Horror seems like a neutral genre, though men might favor the "walk into the darkness" type of horror while women favor the "something is coming" horror (feeling trapped). Men tend to like plans (structure) and predictability, while women are more willing to accept and adapt. Thus, a game like Dead Space probably favors men, while the movie Alien is more a woman's style in this way (the protagonist is unexpectedly trapped with the monster and defends herself; she doesn't seek the monster out). I'm far from sure about this theory, though my sisters generally agree. Also, women probably like their horror more contemplative and relationship-driven (like The Ring and The Grudge), while men prefer battle-driven plots (Predator, The Ghost and The Darkness).
I think women more commonly choose light-humored entertainment than men. Perhaps it's those confrontational instincts. Men seem to choose dark and severe entertainment more often than women. Women seem more appreciative of silly jokes and behavior. I think that's one reason all of my sisters loved Mario Kart so much. Popular romances are more often comedies than tragedies, it seems (though, again, I could be way off on this).
These are things worth considering, but I have no idea how they affect women gamers or games for women. They are psychological differences, though, so I think there probably is an effect of some kind in games.
When women fight
Cat fights are notoriously vicious. I wondered if this might be a myth, but the women I know don't think so and its confirmed at least in my own experience. I have no idea what the reason is for this ferocity, but I can't help but think it must translate into gaming somehow. Do cat fights tell us anything about women's perception or approach to any element of gameplay?
Dealing with pain
When studying psychology, I noticed that there might be a difference in the way men and women handle emotional pain. Depressive disorders are more common among women, and aggressive disorders are more common among men. Men seem more likely to project their pain onto others, while women seem to focus their pain inward (perhaps one reason encouragement is so appreciated).
When a woman is approached by a friend with a problem (a non-emergency), she's likely to first respond with sympathy. Women seem to value emotions more than men, and when hurt or troubled like to know that a confidant understands the emotional distress. When a man is approached by a friend with a problem, he's likely to respond immediately with advice; to try to solve the problem.
Random adages on the subject
Men never forgive. Women never forget.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
A woman can say more in a sigh than a man can say in a sermon.
Is there anything else y'all can think of? Any other area of possible difference?