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What Do Women Want?

Child of Light lead programmer Brie Code says the answer is more than just female protagonists

"What do women want?"

It's a question the game industry asks itself with great frequency, and it's one Child of Light lead programmer Brie Code answered in a presentation today at Toronto's final Gamercamp festival. Well, sort of.

"I don't know," Code said in response to her own question. "I don't think that women want something [singular], because they're half the population. They're a varied group of people with different backgrounds and different preferences. At the same time, I know that I'm not completely happy with what the games industry is making. I would love to see some different stuff."

Code said what she wants is to share games with her non-gamer friends, people she grew up with who share many of her tastes, but not her interest in games. Something historically has been stopping them, Code said, but those barriers are falling. Many non-gamers have access to gaming platforms now, whether they realize it or not. From the phones in their pockets to hand-me-down consoles loaned from gaming friends who've jumped to a new generation of systems. Code has been using those openings to introduce her friends to games with titles that challenge their traditional notions of what games are. Recommendations to play Journey and Skyrim have been particularly well-received, Code noted.

"I think they would play games if it was more friendly to them, more welcoming," Code said.

"We can remove the barrier to a lot of women playing games if we just remove stuff that makes them feel like they're not included"

Code said part of the problem is in the question of thinking about women as a monolithic group. Everyone has masculine and feminine qualities to various degrees, so targeting "women" specifically is not entirely helpful.

"When I say what do women want, I'm joking a bit because it's more like what does some kind of personality want," Code said.

Code reflected on her own gaming history as a way of examining what has appealed to her kind of personality. Though she's loved games for most of her life, Code said she hasn't always loved them for obvious reasons. For example, her favorite game as a child was the NES RPG Dragon Warrior. She loved the way it gave players a whole new world to explore, but she didn't enjoy the game's combat sequences, and frequently had a friend play through them for her. By the same token, she loved The Sims, but found enjoyment primarily through creating replicas of herself and her friends in the character editor. Warcraft II was another favorite, not for the core real-time strategy gameplay so much as for the social aspects of online play with friends and the way it let her "build really pretty towns."

"What I take out of games isn't always what they were designed to do," Code said.

As Code went through a list of favorites including The Colonel's Bequest, Morrowind, Gone Home, and Kim Kardashian Hollywood, she began to underscore some recurring themes. She liked games that focused on characters, that involved social interactions, that understood the importance of setting a mood or using humor. She liked games that let her explore, and let her express herself. Even better, she liked games with complex systems that she could explore and express herself through, with worlds that reacted to her choices.

What Code didn't like in her games were timing-based gameplay and physical violence. Even though some of her favorite games featured both, Code said they were elements she tried to avoid or minimize. If she couldn't pass the controller to a friend, she would take advantage of opportunities to turn the difficulty down as easy as possible for things like combat in Skyrim.

Code finished her talk by asking the audience what they wanted in games. One person suggested she wanted games that don't put women in sexualized or secondary positions, saying she was tired of playing as straight, white anti-heroes.

Code agreed that was an issue, but emphasized that appealing to women means more than just changing gender roles in the narrative.

"We can remove the barrier to a lot of women playing games if we just remove stuff that makes them feel like they're not included," Code said. "But if we think past removing that barrier, say we're five years on and that problem is solved, are you happy with the gameplay the way it is?"

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Latest comments (18)

Andreia Quinta Photographer, Studio52 London4 years ago
We just wanna have fun :)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Andreia Quinta on 17th October 2014 10:58pm

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Ruben Monteiro Engineer 4 years ago
I think it's both the game industry and all sapient beings on Earth that ask that question...
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Alex Lemco Writer 4 years ago
Brie Code brings up an excellent point on the rigidity of games' difficulty structures. The only game to have attempted to break away from this long-held tradition (that I can think of, unless someone else wants to chip in here with other examples) is the recent THIEF reboot. You could customise just about everything, from the baseline awareness of the guards to excluding gameplay features like 'focus mode' and certain types of knock out blows. That's the last great barrier of gaming: standard difficulty settings. A calcified piece of an otherwise amorphous medium.

Players should be able to customise their own experiences whenever difficulty options are present. Those who want the hardcore "F*** You, Try Again Loser" treatment can have it in spades, with all the knobs turned up to maximum. Those who want the 'regular' experience can continue to enjoy gaming as is. And those who want a truly casual, story-driven experience will be able to tailor their options accordingly. With everything in-between.

Is it too much to hope that more developers will see the potential in expansive difficulty customisation, as was demonstrated in THIEF earlier this year? I think that should be a key feature of more games.
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Show all comments (18)
Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design 4 years ago
It's certainly an interesting article. I personally am all for more variety in gaming. However, we do have to take sales into consideration. I think it would be pretty odd to try and make a game that only caters to very few people and I am not talking the niche either, far beyond that.

Everyone has their own preferences even with in certain niche gaming. It's pretty much impossible to please everyone even if you try.

Adding more customization will always be welcome. We have to be careful though, not to expect the impossible.
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Shehzaan Abdulla Translator/QA 4 years ago
It's a question the game industry asks itself with great frequency,
Really? I've tried asking that question before from a game design perspective (particular in relation to navigation/maps when moving in a 3D space as men and women have been shown to favour different types of navigation styles). You can see the fruits of this in Final Fantasy XIII (which heavily employed female playtesters) which, under the female QA testers' advice, was rejigged to have (what is to many male players) a disorienting rotation-correcting mapscreen. Great idea to employ rotatation-correcting for female players, poor execution in not giving players the choice. But I thought it was still a step in the right direction.

Needless to say I was launched upon for suggesting that games could be made better by targeting different groups because I uttered the forbidden suggestion that men and women might be different. And yet now the debate has matured enough that GamesIndustry dares to run an article posing questions similar to my own without fear of coming across as deeply misogynistic. Bitter? Me? More than a sack of lemons!
I think it would be pretty odd to try and make a game that only caters to very few people and I am not talking the niche either, far beyond that.
FFXIII is only one example of a game that came to mind with female players in mind during its development. With that said the game did gangbusters despite being critically panned. My point is, I'm not sure being inclusive is necessarily at odds with being profitable. One day someone will create the "Sex in the City" of videogames (so to speak) and when they do it won't be a niche anymore.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Shehzaan Abdulla on 18th October 2014 6:06am

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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend4 years ago
I think we need more all female development teams, as I still don't know how women think and have been with my better half for over 18 years. Having more all-female (or mostly) development teams is a good thing if you ask me. Its all a matter of perspective and no matter how hard male developers try, they will always approach things from a male perspective.

When we started our company, we did originally try to make games for family/female audiences and quickly realised how little we knew about how the inner working of the female mind. We asked our partners/wives for help but still couldn't pull it off, so we ended up just going for family games.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 18th October 2014 11:12am

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Just one thing to add here.

We have a woman standing up, addressing a hot potato topic, saying nothing but common sense things and asking good and useful questions, whilst pointing out the difficulties of finding good answers. At no point did I feel this was anything other than a quest for better understanding.

Which is a pleasant change from all the venomous, bile spitting attitude I pick up from certain agitators who think they're helping their cause but don't realise they're actually killing it with their confrontational language and presentation.

Just for the sanity and level-headedness of her stance, I hope Ms Code finds her own answers and has much success with her games, maybe even bringing the gender imbalance in the audience a little more level.

EDIT: I realise how patronising that is, but am leaving it to stand. That me feeling the need to say "bravo" to someone for being reasonable says a lot in itself.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 18th October 2014 1:51pm

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I think we need more all female development teams, as I still don't know how women think and have been with my better half for over 18 years. Having more all-female (or mostly) development teams is a good thing if you ask me.
I think all-female teams can be a lovely, refreshing change from the status quo of male-dominated projects, but I'd be much more keen to see teams with a more even ratio of men to women(and more people of colour, LGBT individuals etc), using their diversity as a strength when making creative decisions and considering the needs and interests of all of their customers.

While I'm aware that it's a classic marketing technique, I think the idea of making 'games for women' can be unhelpful, as Brie observes, because we are really more different than we are alike. Making 'games for women' that are all just about shopping and makeovers, while they certainly appeal to a lot of women, are alienating to many others - and to men who might share those interests but feel excluded because of their gender. In the same way, the insistence that 'games for men', the evergreen 18-35 male market, must feature shooting, explosions and gratuitous cleavage is alienating to plenty of men who don't find themselves interested in such things. Dividing game design into gender-based demographic groups just perpetuates harmful sexist stereotypes. I think we can do much better by identifying the type of gamer we want to target in a much more granular way, that disregards gender but takes into account individual tastes for, say, violence, fast-paced action, character interaction, narrative and social connectivity.

I guess I'm more or less retreading Brie's point here, but that's because I largely agree with her!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jessica Hyland on 18th October 2014 4:33pm

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Craig Burkey Software Engineer 4 years ago
"We can remove the barrier to a lot of women playing games if we just remove stuff that makes them feel like they're not included"

This is completely the wrong approach in my opinion, look at television, you have programs aimed at different demographics alongside cross over programs that everyone can enjoy, its absurd to stop catering for the existing audience to engage with another.
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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design 4 years ago
@Shehzaan
FFXIII is only one example of a game that came to mind with female players in mind during its development. With that said the game did gangbusters despite being critically panned. My point is, I'm not sure being inclusive is necessarily at odds with being profitable. One day someone will create the "Sex in the City" of videogames (so to speak) and when they do it won't be a niche anymore.
I wasn't targeting my comment at a female player base. I mean it would be odd to get way to specific into who you are catering for. Not all females like the same thing, just like, not all males like the same things. We usually split into categories. A Genre.

So I think it would be odd to try and cater to say a female audience who is into easy FPS games with tons of character customization, lots of explosions, no blood, and social interaction.

Catering to as many individuals in my opinion, is always the best way to go about it. If females like Skyrim but a lot of them don't like fighting and the combat, then in my opinion there really isn't much you can do. I mean you can't just take out the combat XD. While it would be more appealing to some females, you would then make it less appealing for many others.

A lot of you may say, then we need to make more games in more variety. Well the more variety you have the less sales because it's targeted for a very specific audience rather then a broad audience.

XD Not sure if I am making myself really clear or understandable. Sorry.
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David Canela Game & Audio Designer 4 years ago
It's wonderful to hear a voice pointing out we're defined by more than our sexes. It's unfortunately much too convenient for many peple to see the world through a smudged, almost binary lense of male/female and attribute far too many properties to those sexes...
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Tanya Rei Myoko Programmer 4 years ago
What I want as a woman, has already been met. I get games I like all the time.

Although I'd love to head one of the big companies teams to improve the consoles dashboards. Ps4/vita and Wii u especially.
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Jaime Roberto Castro Hernández Journalism graduate 4 years ago
I'm thinking that perhaps the way devs and designers approach difficulty is part of the issue. Deus Ex: Human Revolution planted a question with it's dificulty descriptions; Easy being "Tell me a story" and Hard being "I want a challenge". However, it was Bioware who has given the best answer through Mass Effect 3's three options of play: Story focus, which made combat easy; Combat focus, which made decision making automatic; and the Mass Effect experience, the one with hard combat and tough decisions.

Bioware nailed it there. We know why many play on hard since most of us are long time gamers with a huge investment in this hobby, But people who play on easy don't play on easy just because. The underlying reason is they want to enjoy a good story without having to be pushed back by demanding gameplay. And difficulties should be thought of based on that.

The Last of Us doesn't give a straight option for storytelling when starting the a fresh game other than the old Easy/Medium/Hard, but if you go into the Option menu, they add game options that are very enticing for more narrative-oriented playthrough. Things like no HUD or Reticle, strong aim-assist and such show an understanding of what casual players are looking for: Unclutered screens and easier gameplay, not just "stupid" AI.

Also, long time gamers have a stigma with "easy settings". Hell, even playing in "normal" can feel like a shameful thing. It's wrong, but it also signs the need for a change in the overall design of how a difficulty should change the experience of the player.

I also think "making games more approachable" is not the best perspective either. I may be biased as an old gamer defending what I like and know of my hobby, but I think games don't need to change to adapt to it's audience. Not when is growing instead of sinking, at least. Rather, it should broaden to sieze that issue with new games that cover that entry-levek of the hobby. Mobile games are already helping, but there are few console games that aim to close the gap between casual and what we like to call "hardcore", not the right word in my mind, but the best I can think of for "games with a series of patterns and layers of game-design gameplay logic that we've grown accostumed to and expect of high octane games".

I want to close explaining a bit my line of thought: I've gotten a lot of friends into reading lately. Most used to say "it wasn't their thing" and I said "you just haven't found the one that hooks you in yet".I started at 19 with the S.D. Perry novelizations of Resident Evil as I was a big fan back then, once I was done I stumbled into a Stephen King book (IT) and it's been an undying passion since then. I'm almost sure I started liking games because the first game I ever experienced was Mario Bros., later Donkey Kong and Crash Bandicoot cemented my likes for them. Had my first contact with games had been Warcraft II, Fallout or Earthbound, games of genres I didn't learn to love until much later in my life, I probably wouldn't be writing here.

Mobile games might be S.D. Perry novelizations and The Last of Us might be Cormac McCarthy (see what I did there?), but we're starting to need a Stephen King somewhere that bridges these seemingly opposed approaches to game design (Casual and Hardcore) and homogenizes gaming into the united community it should aim to be. It doesn't matter if those new gamers ever cross the bridge, stay midway or decide to play abit of everything in the easiest setting.
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Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend4 years ago
Dividing game design into gender-based demographic groups just perpetuates harmful sexist stereotypes.
Depends on how you look at it Jessica.

It is not sexist for a few friends (all happen to be the same sex) to say "Hey lets start a games company and make some cool games!". I don't think anyone in the games industry has ever said "Hey lets start a games company and never hire any women (on conversely men if they are women)". Variety is the spice of life and differences between people is a good thing which helps us see things from other perspectives.

To clarify my earlier statement; I would like to see all male, all female and every possibility of mixed race/gender development teams. I see it as a good thing to have many different kinds of teams that will make games. It should mean more groovy games that we have never seen done before.

We should be careful not mistake teams of all the same sex as sexist groups of people. That is a dangerous way of thinking and leads to the incorrect assumption that people are sexist just because the group they are in happen to be the same sex. We should embrace the differences between us and be glad that no two people are the same.

All male, all female, mixed groups, the more the better, but not at the expense of any one group.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 19th October 2014 11:44am

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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up4 years ago
I think "games for women" is a really narrow way of contextualising entertainment. Its just not a thing I recognise. Comedians don't set out to tailor their acts for men or women, so why would other entertainers such as game developers?

IMO, it's a term that was passed down from the social games era of recent times (started by Singstar). People got really excited that more women were taking part in games than ever before. Old men in suits across the industry, who were responsible for corporate share prices got really excited about this and started thinking. "Hmmm, maybe there was more we could do to monetise this group of people that we see as being different in some undefined way", they thought. And so the pseudo genre was born. I'd say that failed and it will fail again.

The bottom line is women simply liked the competition and the gamesmanship that would come about by playing a games with someone they could see in the room, and with friends. It wasn't a female only pursuit, so to assume that there is such a thing would be comercially dangerous I think. Women also like stories, puzzles and many other things, just like men.

Just make good games and people will choose it if has has some synergy with them.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 4 years ago
I'm wary of generalising here, and I don't mean to, so, bear that in mind. :)

Playing games with my girlfriend, there's a lot that I (as a guy, perhaps, but certainly as a long-time games-player) ignore that she doesn't. Desert Golfing's physics is just a bit too "off" for her, but I can accept it. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit's damage-meter for cop-cars annoyed her so much, we stopped playing 5 minutes in, yet I recognise and accept it as a different version of ChaseHQ's system. Invisible Barriers... I don't even try and go up hills/past sections because I know that you can't, yet to her, there's no reason why you can't just explore over that hill.

All of which is to say that there's plenty of things which we ("gamers") blindly accept which other people don't. To split an examination of what is fine and what isn't down gender lines isn't something we should do permanently, but it might be a useful means in order to put design decisions under the microscope, and determine the expectations of players. In the same way, I think some design decisions are made without thought for their demographic, regardless of gender (check-points? We're adults now, we don't always have time to play until the next checkpoint!).

(If that makes sense? Need more coffee, I think. :p )
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 4 years ago
Yeahhhhh... You say that. Have you read how annoyed people have been by the recently released Alien: Isolation's use of them? :D Which is kind of my point - a game aimed at adults, yet the devs don't realise that adults have other things to do during their day.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 21st October 2014 2:36pm

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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada4 years ago
Agreed with the general sentiment - "women" isn't a useful demographic, because - surprise - half of the population makes up for a bit of a varied group.

To echo what Morville is saying, folks that aren't hardcore gamers have different experiences. Doing some playtesting for a game, I saw non-gamers have difficulty using twin-sticks for movement and aiming. Instead of aiming with the right stick, they'd MOVE with the left stick until the reticle was where they wanted. ie, to aim "up" they moved their character backwards :)
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