So, some notes. Big chunks missing - this was a full hour's lecture! But the good news is, the conference is going to try to upload all the speaker presentations this evening. There's a chunk in the middle which doesn't translate so well without the illustrative slides, so I recommend you go fetch later on...
Developing Games Backwards in High Heels: Ernest Adams
[The title references Ginger Rogers who did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels…]
I feel women have to work backwards because they’re developing for a male market, and in high heels because they're developing against a masculine culture. My own experience in all of this is somewhat atypical. Speaking for myself, I loathe the exclusive company of men, and I’ve never felt particularly uncomfortable in large groups of women... and as a keynote speaker I consider it my job to ask questions, not provide answers. I’m going to raise issues and give you the benefit of my thinking. I'm a game developer with a long standing interest in improving the situation of women in the industry. It’s 95% male. I’d like to improve that situation.
So, I begin with our foremothers. The game industry has been around for 30 years, and there've been women in it from nearly the beginning. So beginning at the very beginning we have Ada! Ada Lovelace, the lady who wrote the first computer program. So she's the foremother of us all, the first programmer of any kind. Jump forward 130 years, and we come to the first woman I could find who developed a game for *sale* - Dani Berry, with Mule. Now Dani had a bit of an advantage because when she was developing she was in fact a man. Moving on - Donna Bailey, worked on Centipede. Carla Meninsky, Warlords. Roberta Williams, King's Quest. Carol Shaw, River Raid, 1982. This lady was a hardcore hacker - it ran in 4K bytes of ROM, and 128 bytes - BYTES! - of RAM. That's all she had for her variables…Brenda Braithwaite. Anne Westfall, Archon, 1984. She was a programmer, her husband did the design. This game included strategic and tactical activity. She too was one of the early and most influential women in the industry - the first ever signed by EA to be one of their developers. Then the good turning point of 85, at which point numbers went up a bit, so I'll go no further on that topic.
So – I’m going to jump wildly and ask a huge question: what is femaleness? Why am I doing this? Because a man has no right to make any assumptions about it. As human beings we all have a need to assign people to one sex or another. There’s a deep need for this, and most of the time this is quite straightforward. But under some circumstances there is ambiguity.
Biology is the first thing everyone thinks about, but if you study the womb and embryo, you find biology is not reliable. You can be an XY female, for instance. There are all sorts of chromosomal things that produce people of ambiguous gender. Hormones too can override chromosomes.
Psychology. That would seem an obvious thing to pick, but psychology is either biology again, or persona reports. People say how they feel about what their gender is. We can collect these reports but these reports are socially mediated, you report TO someone, so you have certain expectations about what the listener understands.
Culture! There’s a theory in anthropology if you peel the culture from a human it's like an onion. There is no seed inside, we are almost entirely culture. The only uncultured people are feral children from the wild, and by ordinary standards they're brain damaged, they can't speak, they're not human. So to be a human you have to be culturally constructed. You are female if you feel that you are and if you've learned how to be.
So if I were to characterise it in old fashioned terms: clothes, makeup, shoes... I’d get shouted at for being sexist, but it’s not sexism, that’s ethnocentrism. It’s not a wrong definition of femininity inasmuch it is a 1950s Western definition of femininity.
There is no such thing as a universal sisterhood. You don't know what goes on in the head of a woman in another culture because you don't know what's going on in their culture. You have more in common with a man of your own culture than you do a say, Masai woman. Femininity is ethnocentric. So you are feminine if you feel feminine whatever that means to YOU. This is key to making videogames that is meaningful to women. I have no idea what Japanese women want. Even less idea what a Maori woman wants. So all assertions about “what women want” are bullshit unless they come with a qualifier to say who you're talking about
The Female Character.
Also in this lecture I’m going to address three major areas that cover obvious points I think we need to think about. The character, the player, the developer.
One question that jumps out is why the heck men play so many female characters? Men gender bend online a lot more than women do, and no-one knows why! However most men completely suck at role-playing women. I think I’m quite good at it, but it's pretty easy to spot a man who is role-playing a woman online. Female game characters aren't so femme that they scare men off... they're a bit more accessible to men. Men like looking at sexy women, and men like controlling a woman. She's a puppet more than an avatar, someone under control rather than someone who we are. Lastly, a woman won't be more butch than me! The He-Man guys might put me off, I can't compete.
And here’s a theory of my own: men would like to be sexually admired in the way that women are, and this is the only way. So I get myself a really sexy-looking female body and I can be a target of other people's sexual admiration.
Why women don't play male characters: no-one really knows. They're OK at role-playing men but they're less interested in doing it. Use lots of caps lock if you want to role-play men, by the way. Women are more interested in self expression through play rather than disguising their identity completely. You're expressing yourself through her, she's your avatar not your puppet. That's a distinction worth exploring.
Women too have been stuck with watching male heroes all their lives. Games is their big chance to be the hero. Games don't discriminate against women that badly in RPGs - we have tended not to give penalties to female characters. Female gendered characters have the same abilities as males. Women are also frankly not that interested in male game chars, perhaps, except bishonen, maybe. But these guys are beautiful, not sexy.
So what do we have?
Women as an icon.
Ms Pac Man. Male is the default, female differentiated just by certain characteristics.
Woman as Target of Misogyny:
Custer's Revenge: rape the American Indian girl. Grand Theft Auto 3: have sex with the prostitute then run her over. Just awful.
Woman as Object of Desire:
Leisure Suit Larry.
Woman as Plaything:
Woman as Damsel in Distress:
Donkey Kong, Princess Peach, Princess Zelda.
Woman as assistant/sidekick:
Alura McCall, 007: Nightfire. She's not much use to you, she's mainly someone to look at because she can't be better than James Bond, but maybe she can draw enemy fire.
Woman as Evil Opponent: the Ice Queen or the Hag.
Dark Queen of Krynn, or ..
Woman as Man With Breasts:
Lara Croft. This is tricky. Why is Lara Croft not a woman? She's doing things that are stereotypically male, running around and having adventures, shooting things. That's OK.
But she has no traditional female qualities at all apart from the shape of her body. She doesn't do any typically female things at all, and that's also OK - but it's unusual to meet a genuine woman who is like Lara Croft, who doesn't engage in any feminine activities... but the real reason that she's a man and not a woman is that she's completely designed to appeal to men. Her femaleness is not innate, it's constructed for male pleasure. I don’t feel as if... she's a rolemodel that women can aspire to? Well if they aspire to going through caves and shooting things... fine, but this is no role model this is just an adventure character.
Woman as Herself:
Zoe, Dreamfall. The women in these games do genuinely feel like human beings. They're not stereotypically male or female, but the woman is responding to her environments and circumstances according to her character, which is really important.
Women in Other Media:
Various types of role stereotyping. Women who stay strictly in role: Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Mrs Cleaver in Leave it To Beaver: American nuclear family, the woman is the mother and doesn't leave it. Those who must suppress their abilities: Lucy in I Love Lucy. She was always doing things that her husband didn't want her to do: driving, etc. Samantha in Bewitched too. Her husband didn't like for her to use her abilities because he thought she would embarrass him. She was constantly trying to suppress her innate abilities in order to not be a nuisance to the man. Those who struggle against: Cagney & Lacey. Doctor Quinn.
But I’m more interested in the fully self-actualised woman. She defines her role; she is not defined by it. Her choices are made for HER reasons. She remains a feminine woman as she understands it: she may have to struggle against stereotyping but the struggle is not the story. The struggle is an incidental nuisance between her and her goal: Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Miss Marple, Jane Goodall, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Boudicca, Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth I.. all had a struggle, but it was incidental to the goal.
Our goals should be to try to create fully self-actualised women. Women who are pursuing their own goals for their own reasons in their own way.
The female player.
In the US academic feminism has got a very bad (and undeserved) reputation, because it's got tied up in politics. The credibility of scholarship comes from unbiased, public trust in the pursuit of truth - it loses its credibility in direct proportion to the degree in which is it used to support political opinions. If someone grabs your work and makes political hay out of it, you will lose credibility. Take a more pure than Caesar’s wife approach to your scholarships because you are under the gun. Your reasoning has to be bullet-proof, and that means no hand-waving, no airy generalisations, this is part of what it is to be dancing in high heels. You have to work harder than people do in other fields to make sure your work gets the respect that it deserves.
Go buy Gender Inclusive Game Design by Sheri Graner Ray. This is a practical work, and too short, but close to being a How To.
You can design with these qualities in mind, but you cannot build a girl game by gluing them all together! Purple Moon did this, and the game was boring as hell, boring to men, women, everyone. It didn't inspire. It had all this stuff about socialisation but junior high [the setting] is a slice of hell. Who wants to go there to play a game? So their games were market driven and they never do very well because they're not the expression of someone's VISION.
This stuff can inform your thinking, but it should not drive your thinking.
It is completely foolish to make the world into this. For any product you make, there will be an audience of some size comprised of both genders. There is an area of overlap. It is important to know what that area is.
I want to mention briefly the phenomenon of girl gamers. Frag Dolls, etc. They stand out but they don't represent the typical western woman. Trying to appeal to Frag Doll-like women is not the approach to take; they are a tiny minority of the potential female players out there. There are millions of women playing Word Racer on Yahoo!.
I believe the key to attracting more women is character depth.
Example of three dimensional character: Captain Aubrey in Master and Commander. Personal conflict. He gets drunk, fights, navigates AND plays the violin. He tries to figure out what to do in the face of conflicting impulses.
This is key to what we should be trying to do.
The Female Game Developer
This is the practical bit. I was begged to actually have some practical advice in this lecture. Building a computer game is fundamentally an engineering problem. The hub is a piece of software that needs to run on a machine. Most of the budget goes to pictures and sound, but the content has to work with the machinery and is constrained by the machinery. If you don't want to be an engineer or work with engineers, stay out. That may or may not be off-putting to some women, but I think it's a fundamental that's unlikely to change.
• Use your initials, not your name
• Make a brilliant demo. People respect performance.
• When you're at interview: see how many women already work there. . Don’t go snooping around when you're there, but do what you can. Look at what they're doing. If they're front desk and handling the mail, that's a bit different to making a product.
• Pay attention to office decor: what's that stuff on the wall, unless the company is actually making porn, porn pictures indicate a porn attitude. This influences the way you feel about yourself and your job. Any company that tolerates offensive material or behaviour doesn't have much to offer you and is unlikely to go far anyway. It has little to offer you.
We need more women.
But: we may oversell what it will do for us right now. Female developers will bring new attitudes, perspective, experience and balance. But... all developers are atypical. They’re really weird people. They’re not that normal. Women game developers are even more atypical. They can't speak for western womanhood.
If men can't make games for women, then women can't make games for men... no, the key is empathy. Make games for the player not for yourself. Not for men, or women, or as a man or woman. When you’re working on a product that is targeted towards men however, you are going to have to dance backwards.
A vision of the future. Storytelling is mostly about people. Games are mostly about things, so far. It is easier to create mathematical sims about things than people. Men will not perceive a need for women in the business until they get past 'things' and to 'people'.
It’s no coincidence that many of the people still making text adventures are women. It’s all about stories about people. Go download Facade, it's an interactive drama, not a game. Depending on how you behave, different things happen. It's a completely different thing. There is neither point-collecting nor objective, there's no indication as to what you have to 'do'. But I think it's wonderful.
This, I believe is in the long run, key to the future of game development.