Thanks to Luke over at Kotaku I have had my daily “jaw hitting the floor” experience. Maybe I should just show you the cover of this upcoming Nintendo DS game:
That’s right… it’s a game about TAKING CARE OF BABIES! I’ll give you one guess who it’s aimed at. OK, I’ll just tell you: it’s part of a series of games aimed at girls from the ages of 8 to 14, from video game giant Ubisoft — better known as the publisher games like Splinter Cell, Myst, Rayman, and Prince of Persia. According to their press release, the other titles in the series will include Imagine™ Fashion Designer, Imagine™ Animal Doctor, Imagine™ Master Chef, and Imagine™ Figure Skater.
Wow, Imagine™ all the things a girl can do! Making food, and making clothes, and making babies!! What’s next, Imagine™ Shoe Shopping and Imagine™ Housecleaning? Actually, Kotaku already made a bunch of brilliant Imagine™ Totally Sexist Game Producers suggestions, so I’ll just quote them:
Imagine: Speaking When Spoken To
Imagine: Barefoot & Pregnant
Imagine: Shut the fuck up bitch, im watchin my wrasslin’
Imagine: Not Talking About Who Made A Disparaging Comment About Your Outfit Today
Imagine: The Propagation Of Female Gaming Stereotypes
More box art followed by some thoughts about why this is happening:
This is all from the same company that sponsors the Frag Dolls: they’re sexy! AND they can play games!
So, the fact that lots of women and girls like to play games has been increasingly big news for the last few years. A year ago, the New York Times reported on a study that said there are almost twice as many women (65%) playing electronic games as men (35%) at least between the ages of 25 and 34. And among older women, the “casual game” market of $20 downloadable games is dominated by women from 35-65. Even the guys who made Everquest are trying to get more women on-board because they want female gamers, and apparently women give them valuable insights like “No, no, no. We need puppies and horses in there.”
The game industry has been dominated by geeky white boys for decades now, so it’s not really surprising that when this industry started to realize that there was a huge untapped market of women out there, some weird assumptions started appearing. Here’s where I came onto the scene: for the last few years, I’ve been making casual games — in fact, you can see the company I work for, including me, in one of those links. When I go to conferences or hear management and designers from game companies discussing this kind of thing, someone always inevitably starts talking about “what women want.” And it’s more or less what you would expect from some gamer guy making a wild guess about “what women want” based on his female acquaintances and his perceptions of women’s interests: soft lighting, relaxing music, pretty pastel colors, clothes, shopping… It’s the even-slightly-more-clueless nerd version of what Hollywood stereotypes as “chick flicks.” The phenomenon of “pink games” being made to try and appeal to girls and women is nothing really new, but the “Imagine” product line represents a new cynical low in target marketing. It’s not just Barbie video games and software anymore; now we’re training girls for traditional female professions, including having babies.
I can’t help but feel minutely responsible for some of this. Although I am certainly amongst the legions of female gamers who insist that women can enjoy, play, and excel at exactly the same games as guys, I was also excited to work on “casual games” because they do explore very different themes than traditional hardcore games, which are still mostly about blowing up, cutting up, or shooting up various kinds of bad guys. Or simulating professional sports. There are far too few creative, refreshing games like Katamari Damacy or The Sims that can appeal to all sorts of people, and in the game industry they generally assume that you have to be a genius to come up with one of those. I really like the fact that the games I work on are often played by people who are relatively new to gaming, that we try to keep our interfaces and rules simple and easy to learn, and yeah, that a lot of the people playing are women.
So when my company created Diner Dash a few years back, we weren’t thinking “oh yeah, we’ve got to make a game for women… let’s make it about a waitress.” In fact, I don’t think ideas about target markets were on the development team’s mind at all; the idea was just to make a catchy game that a lot of people could play, with a female protagonist — a former stockbroker who decides to open and run her own restaurant, which turns out to be a lot more work than she anticipated. (She’s both the owner, business manager, and the only waitress — realism is not really one of our fortes, as evinced by the fact that one of our next games, designed by me, was a time-traveling pseudo-Marxist ideological battle between eggs and chickens.)
But then something weird happened — Diner Dash was so popular that it spawned a whole genre of similar games made by other people. First came Roller Rush and a slew of other “restaurant management” games, but then other developers started exploring a variety of settings — all of them, I have a strong feeling, picked with the “female gamer” in mind. So just in the genre popularized by Diner Dash, we have a game where you’re a wedding planner, a game set in a beauty salon, a game where you run a fashion boutique and… wait for it… one where you take care of BABIES. Well, at least these games aren’t explicitly targeted at preteens!
To be fair, not all of these games are masterminded by male game developers; there’s an increasing population of women involved too. And on the surface of it, there’s nothing wrong with a game about fashion design, or cooking, or taking care of little animals or little humans. I love cheesy games about cooking.
I can understand, from first-hand experience, that there’s pressure on game designers to make games that publishers and marketing folks can feel assured that “the average woman will like.” On the other hand, I think when you’re creating a mass media product, you have to look at the landscape and see what’s going on around you. You’d think more people would be concerned about pandering to the audience — heck, if you look at some of the comments and reviews left for these games on the sites where you can buy them, parts of the audience clearly do feel pandered to and patronized! And then Ubisoft… well, clearly they have a whole product strategy, and their games are being presented in a way that sends a shudder down my spine.
My own company made a game set in a spa, but we chose to make it a parody of appropriative new-age health treatments because we were worried precisely about this problem. And our latest game, which is a spiritual successor to Diner Dash, also has a female heroine, but it’s not set in a “pink” environment — it takes place in a corporate office, where employees clash over sexual harassment and racist stereotypes, and where the CEO is a woman of color. (OK, maybe I’m being slightly unrealistic again, or at least unlikely… but I wrote the game, it’s my fantasy world!)
I could write plenty more about how annoying it is sometimes to be a woman working in the game industry, but I think I’ll end on a positive note and mention some very cool female game developers who work for Ubisoft, but are not Frag Dolls or Imagine™ Female Rubber Stamps For Marketing Decisions. First, Heather Kelly who designed an amazing experimental game that’s secretly masturbation practice for girls. Then, Jade Raymond, known by drooling male gamers for her looks as well as her creative skills, who’s producing and video-blogging about an eagerly anticipated game where you play an Arab assassin who has to try to put a stop to the Crusades by eliminating corrupt government officials and Christian knights.
Phew, that’s a lot of game links. Enjoy!
Next time: Barbie meets World of Warcraft, but unfortunately does not get Hellfired to smithereens.