Thursday, January 10

Women and computer games

I could, personally, write a huge book (possibly broken up into various volumes for easier transport and reading) filled with my thoughts, theories and ravings about the topic of "women and computer games" and "women in computer games".

If you take a look at the average shelve of an average shop selling computer games (I do include games for consoles in this), you'll find about 100 games obviously (by title and package design) for men and about 1 for women (usually in pink). Among the software for girls and boys, the ratio is slightly different. (But games for girls are often pink as well.)

Of course, that's a rather biased point of view. There are games not specifically designed for one gender. And in certain genres there are indeed a lot of female players. Adventures, role-playing games (even the MMORPG) and some sorts of simulations (business simulations or those games where you have to build something up) are well-liked by women, too. And even in areas like ego-shooters, which - by their design - are definitely created for men rather than for women, there are female players.

"The Sims" has about 20 percent female players and, as recent studies showed, the rate for female players in MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) has risen quite high as well. And then there's the complete market of the so-called "casual games" - games you can play for five or ten minutes while doing other stuff (like writing this post) without seriously interrupting anything. And all of those official statistics do not cover those players who play on their boyfriend's/lover's/husband's computer and don't buy their own games.

Consoles have a slightly higher percentage of female players on the whole - they are considered 'less complicated' than a computer (although, with Windows and modern Plug-and-Play interfaces, a computer isn't much more complicated than a console). And, of course, more teenagers and kids are playing games on consoles.

As for myself ... looking at the games by my computer (which, mostly, are currently installed as well), I see quite a mixture, too. There's "Hellgate: London" (a role-playing game), then the currently newest version of "The Sims 2", "Sherlock Holmes vs. Arsène Lupin" (an adventure), "Anno 1701" plus Add-On and "The Settlers: Rise of an Empire" (both games in which you have to build up a whole economy), "Sam & Max: Season One" (another adventure), "Civilization IV Complete" (round-based strategy) and "Age of Empires III" (real-time strategy). My all-time favourite real-time strategy game, "WarCraft III", currently isn't on my hard drive, but it's just a matter of time.

That much for the simple facts: women are playing less computer games and less games are produced for women. But behind those simple facts (which, by themselves, are not very bad) are other facts. Women are less likely to use a computer. They are also less likely to spent an extended amount of time learning more about the computer than they absolutely need (meaning "how to start it up" and "how to go online" [although the actual access to the net usually isn't maintained by them]). Given the fact that the computer gets more and more important in work life, this can't be good in the long run.

In the computer games industry, women in charge are rare, but they do exist and have always existed. "King's Quest", one of the most renown adventure series produced by Sierra (although it has been quite some time since Sierra put out the last adventure), was created and produced by a woman. And among those creating parts of a computer game (like graphics, marketing and so on) are quite some women, too, as you can see in the credits of most games. But they are not the ones most well-known, most of the top game designers are male.

So, there aren't many women in charge of making computer games, there aren't many women playing computer games, then what about women in computer games?

Female heroes are rare. There's Lara Croft, obviously (who, in the first drafts of the game, was a man). There are various heroines in "beat 'em up" games. There were the female members of the royal family in some "King's Quest" episodes and there are some female characters in adventure games (although men/boys are more common). Role-playing games based on pen-and-paper varieties mostly allow the player to create female heroes, too. Apart from that, most women appearing in games are best described by the word "victim". They get attacked, kidnapped (like Princess Peach from "Super Mario" who gets kidnapped about once a year) or killed, giving the male hero a reason to go on. Some of them are just two-dimensional, while others are really annoying. They are sex-objects (like the normally rather strong women from the beat 'em up series "Dead or Alive" in their "volley ball" game) or simply objects without anything attached. Strangely enough, the genre of "survival horror" (like "Resident Evil") is the only one with strong women - in movies and games dealing with that kind of horror, female heroes are a bit more common.

When it comes to games especially created for women, the ideas of the industry seem to very limited. There's "Barbie"-games for girls, of course. They are usually pink - but that's Barbie for you. Then there's a few games for more or less adult people which are also mainly directed towards women (like "Beauty Factory", also in a pink package, which is okay for a business simulation, but not exactly taxing - as if women couldn't master a 'real' simulation).

The market of "casual games", on the other hand, is directed very much at women. This might be, because casual games - games, in other words, about which you don't have to learn very much in order to succeed - are a good way to get into gaming. On the other hand, the high percentage (compared to other genres) of women playing "The Sims" or "World of WarCraft" (a MMORPG) proves that women are not just into 'five minutes' games, but also into games you can - and usually will - play for hours. (I always say 'oh, just half an hour' before starting up "The Sims 2" and then play for two or more hours.) This gets me thinking - and the industry should think about it, too.

Adventures, for example, are a dying breed (or so it seems sometimes). On the other hand, intelligent and funny adventures are quite popular with women. So why, if men are no longer interested in the genre very much, not produce more games with a female lead? The main character in an adventure doesn't have to be a tough fighter, but can be everything from your ordinary neighbour (that's where "Leisure Suit Larry" comes from - that guy will never, ever get a really good date) to an archaeologist in outer space (interesting idea, now I think of it - wait, there was "The Dig" already). Even though I haven't installed them all at the moment, I do have quite some adventures beside my computer. There's "Sherlock Holmes vs. Arsène Lupin" (already mentioned), the two first Agatha Christie mysteries "... and then there were none" and "Murder on the Orient Express" (the third one, "Evil under the sun", has just been released), "Sam & Max: Season One" (also already mentioned), "Everlight", "Simon the Sorcerer 4" (personally, I'm a fan since part one - but not of part three, that game sucked) and the third "Delaware St. John".

Role-playing games - both online and offline - are also quite popular with women. And they have been sold more and more ever since "Diablo".

Business simulations - also a genre with a lot of female fans - are another area in which women could be won (but, please, not with games that insult their intelligence).

But most of all, women need to understand that a computer is neither a complicated machine better left to specialists (because it isn't, not the computer you usually buy for use at home) nor a monster that will strike them down. It's a tool, not more complicated to handle, on the whole, than a washing machine or a dishwasher (my personal nemesis, as I don't have one at home and thus have no idea how to use them correctly).

That was, admittedly, more difficult some years ago, before the invention of Windows, when you had to keep in mind all those commands. But at that time, computers weren't that common in offices, either. The average male user isn't any more intelligent or well-versed with computers than the average female user. But, unlike women, most men are not afraid of learning more about using a computer.

So, this is a basic overview over a topic I am rather fond of - and that should be quite obvious, given it has taken four pages on my word processor and four evenings to write everything down. Expect more about it every now and then.

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