Sunday, July 31, 2005

A short interview with a lady friend: Why video games are pointless

The majority of titles in my prefered genre, computer strategy games, are played by men. The few statistics I've seen put the number in the upper 90th percentile with a few notable exceptions such as Heroes of Might and Magic. This rather random thought floated through my head while I was at the local Dragon Boat Festival on a decadently hot Sunday here in Colorado. About forty of us, both men and women, were lounging about in camp chairs underneath the rowing team's big tent, drinking chilled beverages, watching the boat races and generally practicing the fine art of relaxation. A classic lazy summer afternoon.

Naturally, I brought up the topic of games. How could I not? One athletic young lady, a new acquaintance of mine, mentioned that she was an avid board game player. Yet, in the same breath, she also claimed that video games were a worthless activity. I posed to her a simple question. "Why?" (I'm honestly ashamed that I've taken this long to ask such a question in the first place.)

Her answer was quite succinct:

  1. Mastering the learning curve: Most video games require learning complex reaction-based skills in order to player competitively. The required investment in these skills creates a large entry barrier.
  2. Lack of social elements: Board games are social and therefore time well spent. Many video games have very limited social interaction and are therefore worthless.
Admittedly, this was a sample set of one, so I proceeded to pull another charming lady into the fray. The same question was posed and shockingly enough, the same basic answer came out. Now, I know for a fact that there is more to the story than just this perspective. The burgeoning casual games market demonstrates that at the very least many women are willing to play simple games as a form of relaxation. Yet, I was intrigued by these honest answers from women who clearly dislike an activity that I hold so dear to my heart.

"You have 8 out of 10,000 games that match your query"
First, it is quite obvious that the vast majority of commercial video games on the market do not fit within the guidelines above. If you value a social game that doesn't rely on skills mastery, it is remarkably fair to generalize video games as being 'worthless.' Most existing games focus on mastery of some twitch-style gaming and only a few could be classified as social. I've even heard from many gamers (all male, 16 - 25 surprisingly) who claim that unless a game has a mastery element to it, it is not worthy playing. If you can't beat Half Life 2, what is the point? Strike one against the game industry.

And for your information, shooting people in deathmatch while periodically typing "OMG ROTFLMAO" is not exactly social. I asked. Strike two against the game industry. From my small female sample set's perspective perhaps it is us, the hardcore male gamers, who are missing the point.

Imagine a game with a large social element that focuses on non-mastery activities. Off the top of my head, I can pick out a rather short list of The Sims, several MMOs, Nintendogs, Mario Party, Animal Crossing that fit this definition. Each of these has a substantially larger percentage of female players who mysteriously choose to purchase. For the Sims, that extra market boost was worth over $500 million in additional revenue. The benefit of appealing to women gamers is certainly obvious.

I'm sorry, my brain is broken
I'm not here to berate game designers for not designing more games playable by women. Instead I want to talk about how surprisingly hard it is for me to wrap my head around these two very simple concepts. Consider my basic design process. Put me in a room with the task of generating new game mechanics and I immediately latch onto new systems that involve shapes, patterns, timing sequences and other 'obvious' challenges that relate to mastery.

But there's a whole class of social problems that I don't even consider. I've got these big design blinders on that are so overpowering, I miss some of the most obvious challenges that our ape brains are dying to solve. My fiancee recently posed a problem to me that is no doubt a constant dilemma in her world. "I'm going to a dinner where the dress is described as 'casual'. However, most of the people there are older and are the cream of a politically important social group. What should I wear in order to make the best impression?"

This is a very real social problem that requires substantial mastery in order to pull off. In fact, you could argue that applying social skills, not shooting things, drives the majority of our daily lives. Yet, I'm completely unqualified to contemplate the subject. For example, in my little bubble world, I wear pants and a shirt. Beyond the basic physical benefits afforded by these simple and durable items, I rarely consider the implications of my dress. If I don't even realize that there is a problem, how can I design a game that manipulates the subtle psychological systems driving this pursuit?

Huh, I really suck as a mass market game designer. So do the vast majority of game designers practicing in the business today. Ouch.

An oath
I'm willing to admit that I'm an ignorant male game designer who is finally putting into words what millions of women around the world assume is common knowledge. I'll never be a new age sensitive guy, but I can learn. From this point forward, I swear the following oath.
  • I will question basic assumptions: Just because I like blowing things up as a demonstration of my elite skillz, it doesn't mean that everyone feels the same. The obvious, intuitive game mechanic that pops into my head like stroke of creative genus is not always the right one. Sometimes, it is just my hormones raging away.
  • Ask women for their opinions (and listen): When a woman dismisses your game design, it is unlikely that she is fundamentally uninterested in games. More than likely you've simply designed something that is fundamentally unappealing to her. Listen to why your game sucks in her eyes. Be willing to go back to the basics (see the previous point)
  • Include women as a target demographic in your design: All I want to do is double my potential market. If I need to improve my skills as a designer to pull it off, so be it. No one ever said this job would be easy.

In the future, I'll also be comparing my game designs very carefully to my new rules of thumb. Is the title social and does it let new user jump right in without being at a major disadvantage to the experts? Imagine if I can make a strategy game that garners a population of 30 or 40% women. That is a worthy design challenge. Of course, I may be kicked out of the Elk Lodge in the process, but I'm okay with that.

take care