"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?"