The Great Divide
Silicon Sisters Interactive is making games for women and girls, but to do that properly means going back to basics
The games industry is commonly perceived as being run by men, who are making products specifically targeted at their own gender. The emergence of smartphones and social networks as viable gaming platforms has expanded the audience, making games accessible to a wider variety of people, and cheap enough to encourage developers to reach out to under-served demographics.
Silicon Sisters Interactive is a Vancouver-based studio with a goal of making products that truly acknowledge what women and girls want from gaming. In this interview, GamesIndustry.biz talks to co-founders Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch and Kirsten Forbes about the ideas behind the studio, and creating gameplay that can take the place of shooting, driving and sports.
Q: You have both been involved in the industry, in separate capacities, for quite a few years now. How did the idea for Silicon Sisters take root?
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch: From my side, there were a couple of different things. Really, the change in the market in 2008 was quite compelling. Opportunities to do work-for-hire at the company I was with really dried up, and I was looking for what came next, and I'd really always wanted to build games for women and girls.
The other key light-bulb moment for me happened when I was sitting in the Canada games conference here in Vancouver listening to Bill Mooney from Zynga speak. He said games are about us playing our fantasies, and I remember thinking, "Well, y'know, they're really about us playing guy fantasies. We really haven't done a good job of figuring out what that female fantasy is, and that's what I want to try and figure out. That's what I want to try and crack.
Kirsten Forbes: I think my whole career in games was writing for the right time for this to happen. I remember sitting in GDC, oh, a hundred years ago....probably 1998 or something, and listening to a woman from New York who ran a research company say, "We ran a study: we gave $50 to boys and asked what they would spend it on, then ranked it and videogames were in the top three. We gave $50 to girls and asked what would you spend it on, videogames were ranked eight, nine and ten."
We watched Purple Moon struggle with that, making fantastic games for girls, but girls just not choosing to spend cash on that kind of thing. And then it all changed. It all changed when the iPhone came out, and smart-phones worked, and Facebook became one-stop shopping for teenagers, and downloadable, and broadband, and everything. Suddenly it's equally accessible, and girls are like, "yeah, it's not like we didn't want to play games before, it's just that we didn't want to spend $600 on all the equipment to play games, and then hassle with the controller to play the games." But now it's there and it's easy for them, so the timing was pretty perfect for that.
Q: How did you relate to games on a personal level when you were growing up? Obviously, you're both professional developers, so you weren't alienated from games in that way. Was it something about the games that were being made at that point, or just something about you as individuals?
Kirsten Forbes: Well, because it's a really fun industry to be in, for sure. As Brenda says, when you talk about the male fantasy, it took 30 years to really perfect the three things that males seem to really love, which are shooting, and driving, and sports. And those are absolutely kick-ass games now, and you really have to sit back and go, "What is the equivalent for girls? And please God, don't let it take us 30 years to get to as high a quality level as that."
All of the gals I knew were playing Portal, so I wondered what was going on. Then I found that Kim Swift was one of the lead designers
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch
It's not particularly difficult to make games for someone other than yourself, and it was so much fun to evolve with that industry. It was so new, and not conservative, and not set in its ways, and there was so much still to discover and improvements still to be made. It was a fantastic industry [to work in] in that regard, and then it was us sitting down and going, "so, it's not shooting and driving and sports for us, so what is it? What's that incredibly cool mechanic that gives us the same thrill?"
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch: My story is a little bit more typical. I was really, really into games. I was an arcade rat, and I played a lot of games when they first came out, from Pong all the way forward. I was Asteroid champion when I was 11. I just really loved being at the arcade, and I had an Atari at home.
But then I went off to university and left it behind a bit, and that's where it stalled for me. I went into a completely different sector - the healthcare industry - but when I had a little bit of money and was looking for a change, and came to that pivotal point of asking myself, "If you could be doing anything you wanted to do, what would it be?" For me, that was making games.
I was fortunate enough to get a chance to ask that question and get invest some money in a company. The timing was also quite fortunate for me, because as I'm sure you are aware, there has been such revival of those old-style games, and that quick gameplay I always enjoyed.
Q: With a company mission statement of, effectively, 'games by women, for women', I think a lot of people might assume that you're coming from a place of frustration, but talking to you both it seems more like you're coming from a place of opportunity.
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch: Oh, absolutely.
Kirsten Forbes: Yeah, for us it's like, "Hooray! Now we can do it. The time has come."
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch: There was actually a second thing that propelled my thinking in this direction: it was when I fell in love with Portal. I had this odd compulsion to play Portal and couldn't stop playing it, and that was a little unusual for me; running a business, three kids at home, I just didn't have that much time.
I was curious about that in myself, and I was asking my friends, "Are you playing Portal? Are you playing Portal?" And all of the gals I knew were playing Portal, so I wondered what was going on. Then I found that Kim Swift was one of the lead designers, and I thought, "How interesting is that?" So I went back and looked at a couple of other things I really connected strongly with in the mainstream, and there were women involved in key roles in the design team there as well.
I became curious about whether having a woman on the design team led to a product that connected more strongly with a female demographic, and that's one of the key things we're exploring in the studio.
Q: Clint Hocking wrote an article recently that expressed a similar idea: that the games the industry produces are a product of the male-dominated environments in which they're created, and more female creative influence would materially change the product.
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch: I loved Clint's article, actually. I thought he was pretty correct in a lot of the parallels he drew with Viking culture, and if we don't stop being expansionist and set down roots and start including more people in our community, we're going to continue excluding [consumers]. I think to some degree that's true, and that's what's starting to happen right now.
Q: He also pointed to a lack of female applicants as part of the problem. Have you experienced that when you've hired new staff?
Kirsten Forbes: Well, we get a lot of press because it's a good story, and that press draws... any girl that's interested in the industry is gonna figure that out and contact us. But it is as it's always been: the hardest ones to find are programmers... I think 47 per cent or something, the number of women in the Eighties in computer science, and that hasn't done anything but steadily decline. So that's a huge problem.
And game designers now. I mean, game design is changing, but traditionally, forget about it, it was a problem finding either males or females who were good, because it's a totally esoteric skill. "Do you play a lot of games? Can you deconstruct them in your head to some degree? Alright, you're hired."
So now there are schools, and a number of good ones in Vancouver, that are outputting game designers. And I talk to a lot of their girls, grab a coffee probably two or three times a week, and they all come to me and say, "You know what I discovered in game design school? I discovered I'm an excellent project manager." And I say, "Forget about it. We're all good project managers. Go for design, go for design, go for design. You will be sought after. Figure it out; figure out what girls want and go for design."
So we're starting to see an up-swell in that. But the other thing is that the ones we do find are dedicated. I mean Jesus Christ, you have to be tenacious to have stayed in it and learned the skill well, right?
Q: Historically, the industry's approach to relating to females was to release pink hardware, and even an Amazonian male fantasy figure like Lara Croft is held up as a sort of icon of female empowerment. Looking back, are there any examples that inform what you're trying to do with Silicon Sisters?
Kirsten Forbes: I don't think there's a complete absence, but the mechanics that women intuitively dig are non-obvious. I think that's the thing that everyone is struggling with the most. For sure, narrative always comes up; women love a good story, they love a good narrative punch alongside the game they're playing. So there are things we already know.
When you look at the visceral thrill of shooting and what it gives men, looking for the equivalent of that in women is non-obvious
But, again, when you look at the visceral thrill of shooting and what it gives men, looking for the equivalent of that in women is non-obvious, and I believe it's going to be more subtle. I believe women, just through evolutionary traits, deal in subtleties. Our survival skills are not about getting rid of the enemy; our survival skills are much more complex than that. And in my life I've worked with a ton of women and a ton of men, and I can tell you that the women are more difficult. They are.
I use persuasion as an example. That's something women are incredibly good at: persuading people with our words and our thoughts and our bodies... and how do you translate something like that into a mechanic? If that's something that we're good at and gives us a visceral sense of satisfaction, then how do we turn it into gameplay?
Whereas shooting. I don't think guys stumbled on shooting in the videogame industry and were just like, "Oh, lo and behold!" I think it was completely clear from the beginning - that was the killer thing to do, right? Yeah, and the nature of modern gaming devices and how connected they are does open up opportunities for some of these new, more social qualities to form the basis for gameplay.
Q: With that in mind, the industry thinks it already has the solution in the form of Facebook games, and readily parrots statistics about the number of females playing social games. Is the industry right?
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch: I think there are different levels to what you can offer, and what we've seen is a fairly superficial offering where, in the absence of truly understanding what women want in terms of game mechanics and connection, what we're getting is a female wrapper around a game that's really designed for men. And with some degree of success: I think the best example that I'm aware of is Sorority Life, which was in fact a Mafia game that was rebuilt in a number of weeks and shipped with some pink fluff and some blonde chicks and it's done reasonably well.
But while that works to some degree it's not going to, in my estimation, really build the gaming community, and really contributing to that aspirational goal of finding out what it is that women connect with when they game. I love the way Kristen describes it, which is when you feel like a rockstar because you've nailed the game. What is it that we can deliver that will make women and girls feel that way? More than just appealing to them with what I feel is quite a superficial solution.
Kirsten Forbes: I mean, thank goodness for Facebook for opening a lot of women's eyes to some form of gaming. It's almost like training grounds that we'll benefit from as we innovate on it.
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch: And if there's this mythical checklist of things that women connect with, then certainly some of those games are checking off some of those boxes, right? It's just that there's a whole bunch of other boxes that haven't been explored that thoroughly and haven't yet been checked off.
Q: The impression I'm getting is that, even for women working in game development, it's still very difficult to get a handle what games that really connect with the females should be like. Did you have to start from scratch?
Kirsten Forbes: Well, I'll tell you one thing, we don't want to contribute to the construct that there's some big gender divide in videogames. We're very careful about that, and the way we handle that is we go incredibly vertical, and age is an enormous differentiator - probably bigger than gender. So we take vertical slices of the audience that are very carefully defined: 14 to 16 year-old girls who own an iPad, who are on Facebook 3 times a week, who have this amount of disposable income, and this kind of education, etc, etc. And that's where you really start to narrow down with the mechanics.
One common denominator that has been observed in women - and this is not to the exclusion of men, it's just something we see in women all the time - is the desire for their gaming and their entertainment to have practical applications in the real world. For all elder people, particularly, the idea of exercising your brain and memory games is very compelling.
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch: Or in someone else's life. The ability for a game to have some kind of positive outcome that carries on is really compelling for women in that age group as well.
Q: Your game, School 26, is aimed at teenage girls, which is a part of the female audience that has been sporadically well served in the past. Do you have any projects with that older demographic in mind?
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch: In pre-production we do, yeah. But I do want to speak to you point about teenage girls, because, as the mother of a teenage girl I have been so profoundly disappointed with the stereotypical information my daughter receives through gaming, and I really think those girls have been poorly served generally speaking. With a few exceptions: I think the Sims franchise deserves a shout-out. You asked about games that are doing it well, I think The Sims has profoundly connected with that audience, and interestingly enough it had a 40 per cent female team and it's led by a female.
I'd love to do a study on them and how that's impacted the whole industry, because you see people moving from there over to Zynga, over to Double Fine. I think there's some really interesting work coming from that original team, but that's a different story.
But just to say that, teenage girls, we really haven't found, in my opinion, products that strongly represent what they're into and what they want to play. We've done it, again, superficially - shopping games, modeling games, and all that kind of stuff - but what is that really strong connection? And I think playing with the concept of social engineering and social mastery has proven out quite well for us. It's something that teenage girls spend a lot of their time thinking about.
I have been so disappointed with the stereotypical information my daughter receives through gaming, and I really think those girls have been poorly served generally speaking
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch
In our new product, I love the concept that our designers came up with for that one. In a traditional game you might see a player collecting gold to buy higher quality weaponry, whereas in our game you're using secrets to enhance relationships within a friendship group. It's a neat mechanic, and it's connecting well.
Kirsten Forbes: The really nice thing about School 26 is that it validates the things that girls spend their time doing. [Socialising] will stand them well around the boardroom table because those are the skills they're learning - how to use information in judicious and strategic ways. Parents don't think that their 14 year old girls who are obsessively talking and planning and engineering their social groups are developing valid skills. That was our big message to girls with School 26: this stuff is legitimate; pay attention to it, and do it well.
Q: What sort of research is behind your work? Where are you looking to develop this new understanding of gameplay for women and girls?
Kirsten Forbes: Well, the DNA of the studio is a research bible that we put together six months before we opened our doors, and the bibliography on that is probably 20 pages long. There are an enormous number of academic studies that cover tiny slices of female play in all kinds of different ways. We compiled all of that together and saw certain trends emerge.
And some of the trends are wrong. A lot of studies went on in the early Nineties that ended up concluding, girls need extra tutorials, girls need explicit congratulations and positive reinforcement, girls need a larger number of hints. And we were like, "No, silly, that's not girls, that's noobs."
Q: It's a little patronising.
Kirsten Forbes: We discarded a number of things from the early Nineties, but then in the late Nineties and the early part of last decade lots of universities said, "okay, if we get a group of girls together and ask them to design a game, what are the clear differences I get from when we ask a group of boys to design a game." We got some trends that were very useful to us from that.
Q: What were the differences between the boys and the girls? Did the boys parrot existing genres and ideas?
Kirsten Forbes: Exactly right.
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch: If you look at Carrie Heeter's study - it's called the Alien Study - one of the big findings there was that boys recreated games that they'd played. Essentially, everybody tried to build Halo, whereas the girls came up with innovative, unique gameplay because they didn't have all of these games running around in their heads already. She gave this pretty open concept; the only thing that they really were guided by is that the game had to include an alien.
Kirsten Forbes: And when you look at hardware, boys treat a console as a machine to be deconstructed and dominated, whereas girls see it as a tool to make their lives easier, and to solve problems for them.