Skip to main content

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, 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.

GamesIndustry.bizYou 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.

GamesIndustry.bizHow 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.

GamesIndustry.bizWith 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.

Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
Related topics