“No Girls Allowed” – Chicken or the Egg?

I wanted to comment on the recent piece “No Girls Allowed” by Lydia Heitman over at Kotaku. Heitman is a woman working in gaming PR. Her take on the PR side of the business in light of the sexism that still goes on made some refreshing points. For all the insistence that gaming is male-dominated and that’s where companies should focus their marketing, it becomes a chicken and egg question. Do women not play as much in certain categories because they’re uninterested or do they not play as much in those genres because they feel unwelcome or are simply not marketed to?

That holds true for recent controversies over not just Duke Nukem Forever, but Brink, which touted its extensive character customization options but featured no female character models at all, supposedly because including them would’ve half-assed the development on all customization options. The message there was simply, “You’re not worth it to us”. Unfortunately, not all signs of being unwelcome are so blatant nor communicated with gamers at large.

There are also focus groups for which women are never even considered for invitation. I understand that there are target demographics for different games, and the audience is not necessarily the same for Hello Kitty Online as for Age of Conan (though in my case, they are). But as far apart as those extreme examples are, they are just that: extremes. Somewhere in the middle, there are many games and potential game ideas that could have much wider appeal than people think at the concept and marketing stages. Developers and publishers are throwing away potential money by ignoring the needs of customers and potential customers. Blatantly saying female avatars aren’t worth the development sink is a slap in the face. It turns me off to anything developed by Splash Damage. Brilliant marketing work there, isn’t it? Any company that says to me, you are not worth even considering isn’t worth considering when it comes to where I send my money.

The default marketing target is usually a young, white male customer. According to the EGSA, the average gamer is now 37 years old, and women comprise over 40% of the audience. There is still a sense of elitism and an insistence on looking down on those one might not consider “real” gamers among pockets of the community at large. If that’s the case when the audience numbers are actually heading toward parity,  when most developers are still overwhelmingly white and male, perhaps there are remants of similar biases among them. The example Heitman uses about the party illustrates that facet of things well.

My sister is seven years old. Whatever she chooses to play shold be open to her, with devs and community willing to listen and respond positively to their female audience members. But the issue is not just applicable to current customers. Games are art to me, but they are also a busess. Part of running a successful business is drawing more customers into the fold. And as Heitman’s piece and examples like Brink illustrate, there are still a lot of blocks to that, whether because those in charge of marketing the games can’t wrap their head around women’s interest in their titles, lingering culture issues, or both. On a somewhat brighter note, most girls now grow up playing games, so the importance of acceptance by devs and by gamers is hopefully something that will be less of an issue in years to come.

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