Thursday, 22 July 2010

A Blokes Guide to Games for Girls

Ok, before I start, my other half has lovingly warned me that I could very well come across as a chauvinist Neanderthal with this post. I'd make a joke about 'Hur hur, so I told her to get me a sandwich' right about now, but she'll probably read this and murder me.

So as a disclaimer, I have no intention of coming across as a Victorian patriarch. If I do, just put it down to the fact I was raised by wolves and am extremely socially inept.

Traditionally, gaming has been a male hobby. When the first electronic computers were developed in the 1940s, the social circumstances of the time meant that these innovations were almost exclusively the domain of men. This continued through the 50s and 60s and, to a lesser extent, the 70s.

The 60s saw the first computer games being developed and the 70s shaped that work, defining elements common to gamers even today. The male bias of the programming world continued right throughout the 80s and 90s. Tell you what, boot up a game like Cannon Fodder or Super Mario Bros. and have a gander at the credits. I guarantee you that the vast majority, if not all, of the staff who worked on the game will be male. And even if there are women featuring on the credits, they would likely have worked in the areas of art design, localization or marketing, and probably not in programming or game design.

It's hardly surprising then that the iconic female characters from video games tend to be a digital representations of adolescent wank frenzies. A prime example would be Lara Croft, a character who, at least initially, was a pair of boobs, a set of lips, and a gun superglued onto a broom. This trend continues today with characters like Bayonetta and possibly Rubi Malone from WET. Shit, even Lulu from Final Fantasy X has a bit of a BDSM thing going on.

But that was then, this is now. A fairly recent study of gamers found that almost 40% of players were female which is a huge increase compared to 15 years ago.

So what changed?

A whole huge shit of things, that's what. The profileration of information technology and the expansion of the interwebs in the 90s meant that far more people, male and female, pursued a career in programming and application development. Therefore studios became more likely to have female developers in key positions meaning more females in a position to make design decisions for a game.

Market innovation helped as well. I assume Nintendo woke up one day and thought 'Hmmm, I wonder if there is a potential market out there that has been largely ignored by games developers?' and came to the conclusion that encouraging female gamers would be a profitable avenue to explore. And it has paid off dividends. Out of every ten games consoles bought by women, seven will be a Nintendo DS, two will be a Nintendo Wii and one will be either a PS3 or Xbox. Admittedly, much of the games designed for females on the Nintendo systems are designed for girls (My Dress-Up, Pony Trekking Bastards etc.) but it definitely reflects a changing attitude from publishers.

And of course there are the technological changes which I have mentioned in another post. Systems like the Wii and DS eschew traditional game control in favour of more instinctive methods of direction. Whilst I'm not trying to imply that women can't get their heads around the more complex control systems, the accessibility offered by the Wii and DS is surely one of the reason's for the popularity of Nintendos hardware amongst females.

So, say you're a guy who is buying a game for his wife or girlfriend that enjoys games but isn't a full-fledged geek yet? Here's some observations that might be worth considering:

- Generally speaking, women don't go for games which focus on guns and explosions
I've encountered a few women on games like Call of Duty or Team Fortress 2, but they have always been far in the minority. I'm sure there is a scientific reason why ladies don't enjoy shooting Russians in the face as much as men, but I'm a bloke so I can't even relate to the concept of someone not enjoying the sound of a grenade exploding in a walk-in fridge. Bottom line, unless she has expressed an interest or has a picture of an AK47 as a tramp stamp, don't go buying her Killzone 2.

- If the game you are thinking of buying her is designed for females, don't buy it
What I mean by this is if you are thinking of purchasing a game that features cooking, dressing-up, ponies, or dating, don't. Seriously, you wouldn't buy your lovely lady a cookery book or a pony for her birthday, so you sure as hell shouldn't buy her a game about it. Also, the current trend with this type of game is that they have shockingly low development standards and are generally just crap games. It's the geek equivalent of buying her a necklace from Elizabeth Duke.

- Party games don't count
Party games and casual sports games like Wii Sports don't count. Why? Because they are designed to be played by anyone and everyone. They don't make for a particularly thoughtful gift, and if we're agreed that a game can elicit an emotional response, that is what you should be aiming for. If the game sticks out in the mind of your other half, then so will the person who gave it to her.

- Sex is important
Not like that you filthy fucking pervert. If you purchase a game for her whose main character is a muscle-bound grotesque with a neck thicker than his head, your other half might have a hard time relating to the character. Unless, of course, your other half is a muscle-bound grotesque, in which you? John Travolta is a good example. His neck is thicker than his head. If the man on the box looks like John Travolta, then you probably shouldn't purchase the game.A decent rule of thumb* here is to opt for a game that lets you decide your characters sex, or one that doesn't involve a male protagonist who eats bears and shits bullets.

- Story can be just as important as gameplay
I'm not convinced that this applies solely to female gamers as I know I would agree there are circumstances in which story can be just as important as gameplay. But if you want to dazzle that special someone, then go for something with a strong story that is well expedited. This applies doubly so if you are trying to get your partner more heavily involved in gaming. It's one of the true strengths of games over other forms of media, and therefore definitely worth considering.

So with that in mind, what games would I recommend? Here's a very small sampling.

Heavy Rain
This game is perfect for showing the storytelling power of games. Even if the gameplay and voice acting can be a little off sometimes, the players' hunt to reveal the identity of the Origami Killer is truly compelling and this game can tug on a range of very different emotions. As well as allowing the player to control four different characters, it has a different style of gameplay to most other games out there and the decisions you make will affect the outcome at the end of the game.

Professor Layton and Pandora's Box or Professor Layton and the Curious Village
For the DS, these games a perfect for someone who isn't too keen on hardcore gaming and prefers to use games as a distraction during idle hours. Presented beautifully, both games have a light plot and revolve around the title character and his nephew/love-slave Luke solving puzzles in order to unravel a greater mystery. My other half loves these games. Professor Layton engages the brain and, although it made me want to cry with frustration at times, it, like crack, was very moreish. Fuck you, Knights Tour 4, by the way.

Mass Effect 1 or 2
If your missus is a fan of the oul' sci-fi and doesn't mind a wee bit of shooting, you can't go far wrong with the Mass Effect games. You can play as a male or female with the story options adapting to your choice. It encompasses a range of different themes and allows you to play as a paragon of virtue, or a bit of a shit. Mass Effect is simply one of those games that is cooked to perfection and it's epic space opera flavour will appeal to most people.

The Sims 3
Really, any of the Sims games would work here, but number 3 is the most recent and comprehensive. Whilst it is effectively a dolls house game, it is very popular amongst female gamers. Yes, you can build your own house, decorated it, create Sims to live in it and watch them interact and grow. That's all great fun and part of the strength of the series, but it also encourages use of the imagination. Like, what would happen if your Sim is in the living room and you take the door away, effectively making him a prisoner? Or how about your Sim decides to pay an uninvited visit to her neighbours bedroom at 3:00am? Great stuff.

World of Warcraft
I was in two minds about including this, as it could be compared to introducing your other half to recreational heroin use. However, there is definitely some strong points for it being a great game for the love of your life. It's inherently multiplayer, so if you already have an account, it's a great activity that you can do together and it counts as both geeking out and quality-time. It also has a high focus on social interaction, which is something you don't find on offline computer games. It is fairly easy to pick up, and already popular with female gamers, meaning there's less of the 'Hurr durr, girlz don't play teh vido games, u n00b' attitude found elsewhere online.

Well, that's my two cents on the subject. Either way, in the future I look forward to seeing some mature games that are designed for female gamers, and I guess it is only a matter of time.

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