When you think of typical gamers, you probably conjure up the image of hordes of teenage boys holed up in a basement, staring blanking at a TV screen for hours on end. If this is the case, you’re dead wrong about the gamer population. Turns out women make up almost half of the gaming audience – 47 percent in 2012 – and there are far more female gamers over the age of 18 than there are male gamers under the age of 17.
Robin Hunicke, an award-winning game developer and cofounder of game startup Funomena, will tackle the issue of women in games in a breakout session at the GamesBeat 2013 conference on Oct. 29-Oct. 30.
So, why are women still considered to be a minority in the gaming world? While many factors are at play, one of the biggest drivers of the gender disparity is the dearth of women involved in making games. The vast majority of game developers are men. As a result, it’s no surprise that many games address male perspectives and expectations to the exclusion of women’s. Popular hit titles like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty rarely feature playable female lead characters yet often receive criticism for presenting females as weak, oversexualized eye candy.
What results from having so little diversity in an industry? Hunicke, a long-time game designer and a co-creator of games like Journey, said in an interview that she has a favorite example from the auto industry. An all-male team of car engineers was tasked with designing a new seat belt. After much careful collaboration, they finally put their prototype into testing … and proceeded to decapitate every single female crash dummy. The engineers hadn’t thought to accommodate body sizes that weren’t male.
Successful games appeal to broad audiences. “We don’t stereotype book readers or TV watchers as being mostly male or female, so why should we do that with gamers?” Hunicke said. After all, “games are just a different form of interactive content.”
For a game to reach global potential, Hunicke said companies need to embrace the global nature of creating them, starting by hiring and nurturing a diverse team. By incorporating different perspectives, game developers make their games better and more robust. When Hunicke worked on the blockbuster title The Sims, her team was 50 percent women and included designers from a wide range of cultural and economic backgrounds. The team also actively reached out to their global fan base for inspiration, a creative habit that was unconventional at the time but later adopted by many other developers.
Hunicke has a few tips for game studios looking to increase their diversity. First is to design games that have broad appeal and speak to atypical gaming audiences. Diverse games inspire young people to create their own and learn to express themselves through the medium. Additionally, men in gaming, particularly in leadership positions, should honestly evaluate their own behavior to uncover unconscious biases.
For example, Hunicke encourages men to ask themselves questions such as “Am I giving more eye contact or soliciting more feedback from the men rather than the women on my team? Am I testing only with typical male players rather than getting broad feedback?”
Hunicke also has a key piece of advice for young women looking to enter the game industry: Find a trusted female adviser in your organization or industry you can speak to if gender bias issues come up. Without a sounding board, many women are hesitant to stand up to sexist or inappropriate behaviors that their male colleagues consider “normal” or fail to notice entirely. If these issues aren’t discussed, they can easily become patterns of denial or bad behavior in the company.
Join the discussion at GamesBeat 2013 on “Women In games and entertainment – Why it just makes sense,” moderated by Hunicke and featuring female leaders in the game industry: Caryl Shaw of Kixeye, Anna Kipnis of DoubleFine Productions, and Chelsea Howe of TinyCo. GamesBeat 2013 will be held on Oct. 29-Oct. 30 at the Hotel Sofitel in Redwood City.