This One Goes Out to All the Ladies

Reader Bondage_Zombie has spent over a decade in video game drag. He'd like this option in more games, but not just for his sake. He thinks that there aren't enough female gamers out there and it could be the developers' faults. So what can devs do to bring in the elusive audience?

It seems like a lot of people have been talking about courting female gamers, so here's my 2 cents.

Every gamer has their own 'flavor'; a genre addiction that constantly calls out. All you have to do is look at the games you own to find out exactly what scratches your itch; for me, bullets do the trick.

When Quake II came out I tore through it in no time, and quickly learned to use Gamespy and other clients to ferret out competitive servers for my burgeoning addiction. One-shot railgun kills and grappling hooks changed the game into a caffeine-fueled-eye-straining-gibfest. My favorite part of the entire experience was the angry waves of text as my female avatar soared through each level, pumping depleted uranium slugs into the face of her ham-necked counterparts.

That's right, female. A presence that is almost always conspicuously absent from games that involve unloading a few clips into the faces of a diverse range of assailants. The loving developers at Id gave me a choice that forever changed my view of shooters by allowing me the preference of a strong female lead in my blood-streaked after school playground.

I am male; at least I was the last time I checked. In most games that give me the option, I play a female because it almost always seems like a novelty. The main characters in games like Quake II, Call of Duty and many others are overwhelmingly male

This is not by accident. Roleplaying has always relied on story to drive the action and choice to give characters more involvement in growth, appearance and even gender; helping to bridge the gap between sexes, even if that sex isn't what you live day-to-day. Big developers like Activision have even come under fire by claiming that female leads "don't sell games", even generating as much focus group data (in delightfully skewed ways) to support their claims, according to articles popping up at industry-focused sites like Gamasutra [url][www.gamasutra.com]
This would explain why their female leads tend to be Barbie and Dora the Explorer; not exactly reaching out to the female community.

Activision even seemed close to hitting the mark when their Black Ops commercial "There is a Soldier in all of us" featured women, in a variety of dress, duking it out with their male counterparts. Unfortunately, females are wholly absent from the multiplayer and single-player campaign, even though the game offers many degrees of customization it seems strange that they would fall short in this area, despite many online community forums consistently raising the issue with developers of First Person Shooters.

The developers that break stale tradition, like Valve's Portal franchise, strike gold with the female set seemingly without effort. It takes aim at puzzles instead of wanton bloodshed, narrating the single-player campaign with witty dialogue and continuing narrative. Hell, there aren't even any faeries, horses or shades of pink anywhere on the box! Other genres, particularly RPGs, have often given the option to play as a female character in some way while including an overall narrative that appeals more to women.

So, what are companies like Valve doing that is so right while other companies let a growing market slip through their fingers?

Interpret, a marketing research firm, released a new report "Games and Girls: Video Gaming's Ignored Audience", which examined behaviours of female gamers. It found that the market is growing and not just in casual(facebook), music and exercise games. They are only putting numbers to what developers like Bioware(makers of Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Baldur's Gate) Lionhead (Fable) and Valve (Team Fortress 2, Half-Life, Left For Dead) have known for years: A good story and the availability of strong female leads help their games appeal to women, even if they exist in gaming domains people consider to be dominated by males. Not only that, but these numbers are GROWING—according to the report recently released, by 50 percent in just the past two years. This time frame saw the releases of 2 Mass Effect and Dragon Age games as well as Fable III and Left For Dead 2.

It's no surprise then, that the story-heavy games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age try to further their appeal by allowing characters to use even simple tools to modify the faces of their characters, helping them feel more emotionally invested as they make decisions and occasionally engage in visceral combat. The research lends more weight to this approach. Courtney Johnson, an analyst for Interpret notes "they[women] are much more likely to prefer to play solo than men, and play games for less competitive and more narrative- and character-driven reasons."

When I think about it, it seems like the simplest thing in the world: inclusion. Games have had narrative and female characters for years, but many developers have been wildly successful making games where women are only present as eye-candy or impractical beings better suited to burlesque than serious protagonists (not that there isn't a time and place for these things).

It's no silver bullet, but it's a start.

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