This topic is one that I usually get into sooner or later. In this case perhaps sooner than I’d like, having hung out here less than a few posts. But still, and with regards to the piece posted at Gamasutra, I’ll get into something that is very close to my heart. Women in games. The reason is of course that I’m a woman. And a game developer, and incidentally also an avid gamer. 

In the text that I’m referring to, Ben Abraham challenges his readers to think about sexism and to take an active part in changing the world around us. From the final punchline: 

Gamers and game developers are some of the best and brightest people on the planet. If anyone can address this and other problems like it, we can.

If we are indeed some of the best and brightest people on the planet, let me ask you this: why does sexism, ableism, racism and other isms still have a place in games? In fact, why aren’t games at the forefront of challenging gender stereotypes and racial stereotyping? Why, indeed, does Ivy from Soul Calibur have breasts that keep growing and growing for every new installment of the game? Why are games like The Witcher and Duke Nukem (okay, that last one was a cheap shot) still being made? Why do we still sell games using sex as the sales pitch? Why are the women’s stories still so scarce in games?

Where are all the stories featuring strong women? We have Lara Croft, sure, but how often is she not associated with the size of her boobs? We have Samus Aran, but look what happened to her when her femaleness started to become a point of interest. I would like to see more women like Aveline from Dragon Age 2. She’s a woman in her own right. She’s not there to support the player character, Hawke. (Well, she IS, but bear with me.) Instead she has a life and a motivation of her own, and her values aren’t always in agreement with Hawkes values. She is as much on an emotional journey as Hawke is, going through just as much loss, sorrow and joy as the protagonist. She also has flaws and insecurities, which makes her someone I can believe in, and most importantly, someone I can identify with. There are other examples such as Grace Holloway from BioShock 2, and someone that always comes up for discussion – Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 (which I personally haven’t played enough to comment on).

If the game developer community really want to address the issue of sexism, I’m pretty sure we can. But it will require change. It will require seeing gamers not as adolescent, white males but as women too. As all kinds of ethnicities. As all kinds of people, able or not, women, men, Hispanic, Asian, what have you. It will require that the game developers no longer choose to ignore women (or for that matter other game minorities), because “it will be expensive to  add another animation rig and set of animations”, or whatever other handy excuse presents itself when push comes to shove. In short it will require an effort to actually think twice and change.

I’m not saying that every game ever made is sexist, or that every game out there is sexist, because they aren’t. There are tons of games that don’t even touch on the subject. I’m not saying that we should stop making games with content that might be seen as sexist. I’m not saying every game should have all female characters. I don’t want to ban any kind of content in games. That’s not my point. My point is this: if you want to expand your audience, you have to find out what your new audience would like to play. You’ll have to establish that audience as a presence in your games. To be able to act, you need to be someone, to someone. In order to be someone we need an identity. To get an identity we need to be acknowledged for our actions. Applied on games this means if women are supposed to be able to act in games, they need to BE in the games, they need to have an identity of their own and the games have to take that identity into account and acknowledge it. Make the span of games wider. Make it more inclusive. Tell stories that appeal to more than one target group.

So what can you do? As a developer, what can you do? First of all, I would say find your audience and listen to it. Include your audience in all kinds of testing. Usability testing, focus group testing, playtesting – whatever kind of testing the company does, make sure that there are women in the groups. All too often I find – when asking – that the studies only ask men. That’s not going to work if you want women in the mix.

Second, don’t choose subjects for the game that automatically exclude women. There are a lot of games out there that only focus on for instance warfare, and the armed conflict. To put women in the mix (which you actually can do without changing anything, btw. Except the number of visible women.), maybe slant the game to include or be about code-breaking? Or intelligence work. Or maybe choose another topic altogether?

Third, make a good game. Look at Zombie Lane. It’s a game with a hardcore theme, and a largely female audience, as I understood it at GDC Europe. Don’t make it pink and think it will sell. It won’t. Make the system kick ass, and you’re halfway there. Make the game accessible and you’re all the way there. Think about the fact that you’re trying to reach an audience that isn’t necessarily comfortable with a SoulCalibur setup of special moves.

I think the main thing here is “do you want women to play your games?”. If there is no such desire present, then ignore this post. But if you do want a wider audience you need to act on it.

Are you prepared to make the leap? Are you willing to risk it? Are you ready to truly be inclusive?