For some time now, I’ve been less-than-subtly pressuring Sheri Graner Ray into blogging, and this year she has finally thrown her hat into the ring with a new blog, FEM IRL (female in real life). To celebrate, I decided to interview Sheri about her career in videogames, and why the industry is still struggling to understand the benefits of gender-inclusive game design.
Chris Bateman: You've worked for some of the major companies in the games industry, including EA, Origin, and Sony. At some point, you became the de facto spokesperson for women in the games industry – how did that happen?
Sheri Graner Ray: I’ve always like games – both table top and computer games – and I consider myself to be a pretty typical girl. So I didn’t understand why there weren’t more women playing computer games. Out of curiosity I began to do a little research. It quickly became very apparent that as an industry we were making some pretty major mistakes that actively kept women out of our games.
So, thinking the industry would want to know how to make more money, I began to talk about what I’d discovered. Imagine my surprise when, instead of a positive response, I was greeted with derision – one guy actually stood up in the middle of a talk I was giving at GDC (CGDC back then) and started calling me names.
Chris: How rude!
Sheri: Well I guess I’m just stubborn because instead of dissuading me, this behaviour just made me more determined to get the word out. So, I guess basically I’m just a game designer that can’t keep quiet when I think we, as an industry, are making big mistakes!
Chris: Well since then there has been significant progress, hasn’t there?
Female players now make up 40% of the market for games, and 25% of the console
market. That's a huge step up from where we were, say, ten years ago.
Sheri: Oh please be careful with those numbers! I hear them so often now and usually it’s from publishers patting themselves on the back saying “See? Our game audience is now 40% female. We can relax now and not change a thing!”
Chris: So you don’t think there’s been an improvement?
Sheri: There’s definitely been an improvement, but like most lies, damned lies and statistics, the numbers are very misleading. The reason these numbers look so good is it’s an average – the traditional game market is still less than 20% female. However, the “casual” game market is 70% female. Average those and you get 40% female audience over all. But that does not mean 40% of the players of Gears of War are female!
Chris: But if the casual games market is doing so well courting female
players, what’s the problem?
Sheri: Most of the development capital is still in the traditional titles, and these are still missing out on a huge chunk of the market.
Chris: By traditional titles, do you mean console videogames?
Sheri: Mostly, but don’t forget that MMOs are still focused mostly on the PC market. By the traditional titles, I mean all the big titles – it’s where the money is and where the best jobs can be found. If we continue to keep women out of those titles, we will continue to keep them out of the industry and the industry overall will suffer for it.
Chris: Is there still a fundamental misunderstanding about women gamers, in
that people think you need to make games especially for them? I ask, because
it's becoming clear that huge brands like Final
Fantasy (which has sold 85 million games across all its iterations) and Mario (201 million games) – not to
mention The Sims (100 million) – have
all succeeded in part because they appeal to both men and women.
Sheri: The game industry has long been looking for the “silver bullet” that one magic title that all women will play. They thought they had it with the “pink” Barbie games. Then they thought they had it with the Sims games. Currently they think they have it with the “casual” online games. Each of these categories of games has made money, but each time it results in the same thing, the entire market of “women” is re-categorized as one genre.
Chris: As if people can’t get their head around the idea that there might be
as much diversity among female players as there is in male players… Although
sometimes I wonder if the industry has even got their head around the diversity
of male players, to be honest!
Sheri: If anyone is familiar with the history of the women’s suffrage movement, you will see some surprising similarities with the way the games industry looks at female players. One of the big “fears” about giving women the right to vote was that they would become one huge homogeneous voting bloc that could, in theory, control the outcome of every single vote. Of course, this proved to be completely untrue as, lo and behold, women did not all believe the same thing, want the same thing, nor vote the same way. Thus, there was no monolithic voting bloc that upset all politics as we know it.
It’s the same in
games. There is no, one monolithic audience called “Women” who all want exactly
the same thing in games. It actually is one million markets… each one with its
own tastes and wants in entertainment. The only thing these markets share in common
is a particular chromosomal make-up!
Chris: But you’re not saying that you can’t target a specific female demographic?
Sheri: No, of course not – the female market is certainly a valid market for
making targeted products for: the romance book market has figured this out, as
has Hollywood, with the “chick flicks”. However, you can’t just say “this is
for women.” You have to categorize and analyze your target demographic just as
you would for any other demographic. You need to say, “this is for women
between the ages of 10-18 who like backpacking, camping and other outdoor
recreational activities” or you need to say, “This is for men, ages 25-50 who
live in suburban areas, are college educated, and own at least one classic
The better you can
define your market, the better you can pinpoint what that market wants, what
they need and how you can the better
target your product to them… regardless of gender!
Chris: We recently processed the data on people's favourite games from our last player study and found that role-playing games are hugely popular with both men and women – 20% of the male players and 20% of the female players surveyed listed RPGs among their three favourite games, more than any other genre. And this wasn't just Final Fantasy but also the Elder Scrolls gamesand even older games like Baldur's Gate – all beloved by both male and female players. Why do you think RPGs have such cross-gender appeal?
Sheri: I think it’s because they provide the more flexible play styles. In other words, they appeal to a broad demographic because more people can find their preferred play style in them.
Chris: Another thing the player study showed up was that while first person shooters were hugely popular among the male gamers (about as popular as RPGs), they didn't interest the female players at all. And in fact, RPGs and RPG-like games that used guns like Deus Ex and Fallout rated okay with male players but not with female players. Do you think there's something about guns that female players find off-putting, or is it just that fantasy settings are generally more appealing to them?
Sheri: Neither. I think you’ll find that the vast majority of female players have never tried a FPS. So to say they inherently don’t like them is a bit like saying female don’t like the food served in strip clubs. How can you know that? Very few women go there!
Chris: But there are women who play and love FPS’s, of course.
Sheri: Well I should give my disclaimer here! When I say something is “female” or “male” I mean it is predominantly a trait of that gender. It is not exclusively that gender. Everything is a bell curve and there are people who fall in all areas of that curve. If you are female and a lover of FPS, then the generalisation is obviously not pertaining to you.
Chris: But you agree there’s a disparity of some kind here.
Sheri: I would say it has nothing to do with the guns or the violence. All research I’ve done has shown that girls have no problem with violence. What they do have a problem with is violence for violence sake. In other words, violence isn’t bad because it’s “icky” but because it’s boring.
Chris: Happy to beat someone up as long as there’s a reason for it!
Sheri: Something like that. I suspect the reason few women play FPS games has less to do with the guns or the violence and more to do with the barriers to access in the titles today. Inherently weak stories (which mean little reason for the violence), male-only avatars or female avatars that are hyper-sexualized, a focus on head-to-head competition, punishment for error models... all these kinds of things are less appealing to most women, and therefore are barriers to access for the titles.
Chris: What about the Grand Theft Auto games? Although these were marginally more popular with male players, an awfully large number of female players rate one of these games as a personal favourite, especially San Andreas. Is part of the appeal here that Rockstar North (I still think of them as DMA design, I confess!) just make really fun virtual worlds to play in?
Sheri: The GTA games are open, virtual worlds thus, much like the RPGs we
talked about earlier, appeal to more people because more play styles are able
to be expressed. It’s a bit like the difference between a playground and a single
theme park ride. You can do what you want in a playground. With a lone themepark ride,
it’s a one trick pony.
Chris: It seems to me, looking at the games that have been succeeding in the wake of what you might call "the casual revolution" that part of the success of the casual games movement has been that games are being designed either for female players, or at least in a way that doesn't exclude them. I look at the huge success of hidden object games like Mystery Case Files, for instance, and think: these were made for a female audience!
Sheri: I agree. However, please be careful by calling them “female games.” As
I mentioned before, there are as many different wants and needs in games as
there are women, so we must be careful categorizing anything as “for a female
audience” Note that we don’t call regular games “for a young male audience.” We
say the “Traditional” audience and all assume it’s young males ages 12-21. We
need to come up with terms that are more specific to the demographic than
“female audience” if we want to avoid the problems the “pink games” had back in
Chris: Is this perhaps the secret to Nintendo’s recent success? When I look at the games that Nintendo have been selling in huge numbers, it seems clear that female consumers are part of the equation – I'm thinking specifically of Nintendogs (22 million), Brain Age (17 million), Wii Fit (14 million) and Animal Crossing (11 million). None of these games appeal solely to women, but it's hard not to imagine that a large number of women have bought them, and Nintendo's marketing reinforces that impression.
Sheri: Yes! These games are successful because they target other demographics
beyond the “traditional” game demographic. It is about time the game industry
figured out they can make games for other demographics and be successful.
Chris: Do you think we're heading for parity in the market – an even split between male and female players?
Sheri: I hope so. We aren’t there yet. As stated above, the “40% of gamers are
female” number is quite misleading. We still put the majority of our money into
developing titles for that one single demographic: young white males. And, with
the exception of the Wii, most console titles are still aimed squarely at that
market. The game industry has to come to realize two things. Firstly, the
female market is not a single monolithic market and secondly, they can access a
huge number of new players by addressing barriers in their current titles. If
both these problems can be overcome then we will begin to see parity.
Chris: Even though the female players are only 25% of the PS3 and Xbox 360 market, that's still more than 12 million players. When you think that selling a million is still considered a success in our industry, doesn't it seem like there's a lost opportunity here?
Sheri: Of course. The industry needs to look at their titles and address
barriers to access and they can begin to reach more players. And not just
female players, either but other minorities as well. There is still a huge
untapped market out there. We’re effectively throwing money away!
Chris: Why do you think the console market has a smaller share of female players?
Sheri: For two reasons. Firstly, they are risk adverse. Come on now, if your
job depended on selling 2 million units of a game, which would you want? A game
that is just like the last game you sold 2 million units of – that you are
comfortable with the concepts, the channels, the retail strategy for? Or some
new game that you don’t really understand, don’t necessarily know the channel
for and can’t really put numbers to. Obviously, you are going to go with what
you know. However, that’s leaving a huge amount of money on the table.
Chris: And secondly?
Sheri: The industry continues to produce games without thought to barriers to access. Because some of the current games are selling in good numbers, few people think to look at what might be built into the games that might be keeping other markets from interacting with the product. The bikini-clad, heavy bosomed woman on the cover sells to that post-pubescent boy… marketing departments don’t even consider the fact that if a woman isn’t going to want to pick up the box, she isn’t going to buy the game for herself.
Chris: I think most marketing departments fear that changing the appeal of the
box designs to allow for a female audience will weaken the appeal to the young
male audience they are so intently focussed upon.
Sheri: So in the name of “it’s worked before", the industry as a whole continues to slam the door in the face of a number of markets that are tech savvy and have large amounts of disposable income to spend.
Chris: Well it’s clearly not a clever strategy, but it’s safe, and large corporations come to rely upon the safe options.
Sheri: Right up to the point they declare bankruptcy because some more agile
competitor beat them to the punch on a new opportunity!
Chris: It’s a crazy business! If you could change one aspect of the games industry's development culture to make it easier for companies to profit from this large pool of female players with a love of games and money to spend, what would it be?
Sheri: The recruiting attitude and hiring practices of the industry,
definitely. This sounds very strange, I know, but our industry has terrible hiring habits. We put ads in
places only game industry folks will see, thus we advertise to the same people
again and again. We refuse to consider skill sets, only experience, so, once
again, we only hire from those who have been hired before, and when we interview, we send the candidate
through a full round of interviews with each team member, telling the team
“tell us if you like this person” –
which translates to “is this person just like you?”
We never hire outside
our comfort zone. Thus, we end up a very homogeneous work place. We are an
industry of young white guys making games for… surprise! Young white guys!
Chris: But it has to change at some point. Every other successful industry
eventually hurdled these kinds of barriers.
Sheri: I think the biggest change will come from diversifying our work force. To do this, we have to actively recruit in non-traditional places, be willing to look at skill sets rather than explicit experience, and support those organizations that do outreach and mentoring for minority groups in the industry. If we want to build diverse products that reach broad, diverse audiences, then our workforce has to reflect that.