In space no one knows you’re a girl

Last post (for the moment) on women in gaming. I was interested but not surprised that CCP recently informed Destructoid that 96% of EVE players were male.

I don’t think there is anything inherent in the game itself that edges women players out. It’s not a very exciting game on a minute to minute basis, but plenty of people would theoretically enjoy the crafting and economy game even if they didn’t want to get involved in fleet action. I also think that the gameplay is fairly hostile to the more casual gamer who may have hours at a time to devote but may also have to leave the computer at short notice to answer the door/ phone, or deal with some minor household emergency.

I also take huge issue with the argument that women traditionally don’t like scifi. Hello, thousands of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica female fans would like to prove you wrong there.

The heavy competitive/ PvP focus traditionally is more appealing to male players. I imagine there are way more female players in games like Wurm Online (another sandbox with strong crafting emphasis) which doesn’t have the same push to PvP. The EVE community has also never been that friendly to women – what I mean by this is that if there was a kickass female-run corps, you’d see more interest from the type of women who might like the game anyway purely from the appeal of “get to play the type of game you like with people like you”. Which is more appealing than “get to play the type of game you like with the kind of people you try to avoid online where you can.”

There is also a certain type of complexity-for-its-own-sake that appeals to people who (in tabletop) love setting up spreadsheets for their Champions campaign, using the encumbrance mechanics in D&D and designing tanks using GURPS Vehicles. I’m talking about the trainspotter faction in gaming, predominantly male.

The other factor is because of the great advantages you get in  game by joining as part of a pre-existing group (most notoriously, Goons). That’s not a bad thing in itself, but when the majority of the groups are heavily male dominated anyway offline, any lone female joining the game is at a double disadvantage (because she would have to sign up with a group that are not particularly welcoming if she wanted that environment). Sure you could go sign up for SA but if you find that community toxic, why would you?

So basically I think the entire social structure of the game, albeit unintentionally, edges out the type of women who would otherwise enjoy it. And because so much of this is down to the metagame and out of game communities, there’s not really much CCP can do even if they wanted to. And they don’t really want to market to women because it might impact on their “harden the fuck up” narrative.

Plus of course it’s a hard sell pushing a subscription game to anyone in the current climate.

Games for Women: Hidden in Plain Sight

Have you ever noticed that the types of games on offer in retail game shops are just different from the games you can pick up on sites like Steam? If you’ve read about a game in your magazine/ website/ bboard of choice then the chances are that you’ll see it on shelves eventually. But especially in the PC market (assuming your game shop has any PC games at all), there’s a whole slew of games taking up shelf space that no hardcore gaming site ever mentions.

(Yes I realise it is counter-intuitive to be talking about brick and mortar shops when Steam has a crazy-good Summer sale on at the moment.)

This is partly due to the arcane mechanisms of game distributors (Puzzle Quest simply wasn’t in shops over here for example, despite the likelihood that it would have sold in bucketloads). But if we assume that shops don’t put boxes on shelves just for the fun of it, we also have to assume that lots of people are buying games that are practically invisible to the ‘typical online gamer’.

I am of course talking about puzzle games, and hidden object games in particular. Ever seen those adventure type PC games in boxes on shelves – probably about detectives, or historical mysteries? You won’t see them reviewed in ‘respectable’ gaming magazines. They know fine well that their core audience isn’t interested. But the non-core audience is happy enough with Phoenix Wright, Professor Layton, Puzzle Quest and various other popular DS games, and spends money to prove it. It feels to me as if games on the DS have more leeway to branch out. Gamers seem to have accepted that ‘women play puzzle games on the DS’. But put a hidden object/ puzzle/ mystery game on a PC and no one wants to know. Bizarre, isn’t it?

hiddenobject.co.uk lists many of the more popular games. I’d suggest anyone who likes the Professor Layton style of gaming take a look through the list. It is tricky to find reviews online though, or to know which are the best of the genre. (If you have played any hidden object games or want to share any favourites, please feel free!)

There are also plenty of indie games ploughing the puzzle-gameplay furrow. Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box, for example, is a hidden object/ puzzle game with a supernatural-romantic storyline. The demo gave me strong vibes of being a cross between Professor Layton and Gabriel Knight (this is a good thing, by the way.) The developers worked very closely with the writer all the way through development – a winning and far too unusual combination – and are very clear that they’re aiming their game at female players who like romance novels and playing puzzle games.

In theory, this should be a HUGE potential audience. So why are these types of games always sidelined in the gaming press? Who is reviewing them? Where are the communities of gamers who enjoy them? Why do hidden object games have to be so …. hidden?

All about EVE

In the great firmament of online gaming of which we, gentle readers, are merely the most minor of cogs in the great machine, there is one great truth that is widely held by developers and commentators alike. Men and women don’t play the same games.

Except, of course, that many of us do. Many games appeal equally to everyone – Bejewelled knows no colour, or gender, or age. Even among games that genuinely are more targetted, the population of Farmville isn’t 100% female. Women play Modern Warfare 2 and other shoot-em-ups. It’s also true that those of us who are gamers will often play the games our loved ones play, even if it might not be our first choice.  Still women and men tend to favour some play styles above others, and many games on the market right now are directly targeted at either male or female fantasies.

Stargrace wrote an intriguing entry this week about attracting more female gamers to EVE Online, which is part of a competition organised by Crazy Kinux, the well known EVE blogger.

The actual answer for CCP is to just finish the goddamn Vampire game already. Or alternatively, I hear that flowers are quite popular? EVE is a hard sci fi, hard simulation, hard business, hard PVP game. It doesn’t need to be softened to make it more mainstream. Anyway, in the far future I’m sure people can live without women.

Nope? OK. Let’s start by looking at some of the very basic reasons why women don’t play EVE in great numbers, and how they might be addressed.

1. Deep Space

Hard Science Fiction is not a genre that is heavily populated by women, either as writers or as fans. Series like Star Trek or BSG which do have a very strong female following do so on the basis of the characters and the culture, not the space ships.

To inject more storytelling and more NPC soap opera into EVE would really run counter to the whole sandbox ethos. EVE is based on a game world in which players make their own stories, even if they mostly consist of boring mining ops. So there’s the double problem of:

  • no one is really interested in other people’s stories
  • even your own story probably isn’t all that exciting most of the time

Some of this could genuinely be addressed with better social features. Players could have their own cross-indexed blogs. Or more background could even be inserted into the game world – even player created.

Imagine having an information console where you could pull up details of interesting events that had affected either places you visited or people you knew. There’s definitely scope for making the existing stories more accessible.

2. PVP

Women tend to prefer to cooperate rather than to compete in games. It isn’t that they aren’t competitive, but it tends to make them feel bad or even guilty. It’s just the way we’re socialised. So, we need to be introduced to PvP gently, in a way that makes it clear that everyone is OK with it.

Now EVE does have some relatively safe locations where a new player who wanted to avoid PvP could stay. But that won’t protect them from being scammed on trade chat, or subject to whatever that scammy can flipping thing is called. To encourage more women into a PvP game would need more enclosed, limited PvP environments. Or better tutorials, or mentors.

And they need to be protected from being duped into PvP when they didn’t intend it. A woman is far more likely to just dump the game after an experience like that.

3. Better social functions

The chat window in EVE is functional, but hardly one of the game’s better features. It also isn’t especially easy to find a suitable corps (guild) and if you try to do it via the new players channel, information will scroll past faster than you can easily keep up.

4. Small scale business, art and craft

Women have traditionally been heavily involved in craft and cottage industries. And a lot of people, when playing simulations, don’t want to play sim-corporate-empire. Or in other words, they aren’t hardcore and don’t want to be wiped out by people who are. EVE has a very comprehensive industrial and trading simulation, but it is also one that pushes players to think big and industrial-scale, not small and bijou.

It would undoubtedly engage more women if players could create or commission unusual items of art or craft. Things that could be made in small numbers and not just by playing the intergalactic stock exchange. Or maybe even pursue careers as space pop singers, or theatrical producers. This is drifting away from EVE’s usual purview but it is the industrial, impersonal scale of EVE crafting that puts a lot of people off.

I’m interested to hear how the new ‘walking around space ships and running your own shop’ expansion will pan out. Imagine a typical female-fantasy type enterprise: a small boutique fashion shop. Could that exist in the new EVE? They have mentioned fashion outlets and plastic surgeons but does that mean players may be able to trade something that isn’t a commodity? Could she run a crazy popular hangout and be known as the place to come to get all the gossip?  Could a player commission or source enough unique and unusual items to make her shop an important hangout for intergalactic arbiters of fashion? Maybe even run her own fashion shows? Maybe she could. The link above highlights ‘custom, player made clothing’ as one of the features to be available.

Those sorts of roles in game would attract the female players who may not be interested in space piracy, mining, or being a queen of industry.

And then the question would be – how hard would it be for someone who just wanted their own little fashion emporium to accomplish that without having to slog through the gameplay that doesn’t interest her? And that is what we still are yet to see.  (OK, my actual first question is “how long before the first brothel?”)

4. the newbie experience

A better newbie experience is good for all new players, male or female alike. But men and women do favour different learning styles. I’ve lost the link but I recall reading an article that described how female players were reluctant to learn a new game by just jumping straight into it. They preferred to practice a small piece at a time and get comfortable with that before progressing to the next stage. They were more risk averse, and strongly disliked feeling rushed or pushed through a tutorial more quickly than they had wanted to go.

So even if a woman isn’t put off by the deep space theme, hardcore reputation, and notoriously steep learning curve, the EVE newbie experience is still a scary and lonely place to be. Especially to someone who isn’t a hardcore gamer and used to just jumping straight into stuff, dying horribly, and then doing it again. Or making horrible newbie mistakes with skills and talents, and just laughing it off. Even the lure of player created frocks might not be enough …

EVE is a fascinating game. I don’t play it myself, but I can see both the appeal and the frustration whenever people write about it. I think the new developments are going to be very exciting, but asking how to attract more women might just be the wrong question.

Added —  And for the purposes of competition, here are links to the last five entries on this topic:

Ladies to the gunfight (I laughed)

Hell hath no fury

(Cogito Ergo Yarr) The ladies of new eden

(Confessions of a Closet Carebear) Ladies of New Eden

(Cloaked and Watching You) Ladies of New Eden

What makes a good games shop?

First up, thanks all for the discussion yesterday. It’s been interesting and I know I’m thinking about my assumptions.

Second, thanks muchly to Ixobelle for cleaning up the header here.

Back to the topic, I had a really unusual experience yesterday in a games shop. Ever since I was a teenager buying comics and RPGs, I’ve felt like an outsider in games and comic shops. The token female. Even when I knew lots of other women were into this stuff, somehow they never seemed to be in the shops. Games shops themselves have always been a small corner of male-dominated geekery.

Truth is, since I started playing MMOs I don’t buy other games all that often – I have to be very sure that I’ll want to play it enough to find the time. Or else it has to be cheap in the sales, or else maybe an old, classic game that I’ve wanted to play for ages but never got around to. Or a DS game.

The DS is actually the only current gen console that we own, because it’s just perfect for train journeys, of which I make several a week.

So on this occasion I was in GAME because I wanted to pick up a couple of copies of Puzzlequest Galactrix. Puzzlequest (ie. the prequel) never sold well in the UK, but surely part of this is because it was hard to find  on the shelves in shops? I don’t know how many people buy from brick and mortar shops rather than online,  but guessing still a majority.

I don’t know what went wrong with the promotion. A good puzzle based DS game with a fantasy theme really shouldn’t be a hard sell. It’s not like GTA: Chinatown which failed to sell because the people who own DSs don’t want to play GTA.

So I was happy because not only did I find a copy, but it was also in the sale (presumably because it didn’t sell as well as expected – perhaps the total lack of promotion was a factor there too?). So I went to the counter to ask if they had another copy and the guy behind the desk asked if I was buying it for myself. I said I was, and he brightened; we had a quick chat about how great Puzzlequest was and how disappointing that it hadn’t been more popular.

Do you know how unusual it is for an employee of a games shop to treat female customers over 30ish as if they were actual gamers and not just buying for a child or partner? VERY.

Funny thing is, I had to go to the other branch of GAME in town to pick up the second copy  since I’m not buying a copy of Galactrix for myself without getting one for my husband, that would be a cause of minor household friction, and the guy behind the counter there was pretty much the same. So either

  • they’ve all had solid diversity training
  • all GAME employees like Puzzlequest (to be fair, it’s a good game)
  • or if a woman over thirty comes into the shop and buys a puzzle-based DS game, odds are it’s for herself. (ie. games shop employees have a good knowledge of gamer demographics and this was a shoe-in).

Whatever it was, I like it.

Now of course, we can buy over the internet, where no one knows you’re a dog. So we can avoid those pokey little holes stacked high with shelves of games for consoles you don’t own, where people act like you don’t belong. But if they can make me feel more as though I’m part of a community of hobbyists, I’ll be more likely to spend time there and if I spend more time there, I’ll spend more money there too.