Home > games, gender > The Game Industry Struggles to Adapt to the Age of the Social Gamer

The Game Industry Struggles to Adapt to the Age of the Social Gamer

At the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) this year, my PhD student Betsy DiSalvo was struck by the irony of a bunch of middle-aged white men debating whether social games are evil.  Social games are aimed primarily at non-traditional gaming audiences.  The new hard core gamer is 40 and female.  The irony of a bunch of guys dismissing the games liked by women was apparently lost to the GDC panel.  “Dear ladies, instead of playing free games with short play times per session in which you pretend to grow vegetables or run a café, please pay $60 to buy a game with one-to-two hour long play sessions in which you shoot at things.  Thank you, The Game Developers.”

One underlying issue is diversity in the game industry. Now that we have a more diverse gaming audience, we need a more diverse community of game developers. And game scholars. I remember folks at GDC back in the late 90s dreaming of finding games that would appeal to women. If only we could find what they like–we’d double the potential market for games!  Now that we’ve achieved that goal, we have a tiny little problem: many of the developers now don’t like the kind of games they have to make.  Hence the hostility at GDC.  (Be careful what you wish for….)

People don’t go into the game industry to get rich or have a great quality of work life–they go into it out of love for games. If you hate the stuff you’re working on, that’s a problem. Will game companies now have to offer developers more reasonable working hours? That might be a silver lining.

Researchers in computing education have often argued that love of games is one factor that draws young men to study computer science and pursue CS careers. Now that there are more women playing games, will more young women choose to follow that path too? I’m guessing that they will, but the effect may be smaller than the industry needs–because the new social games tend to appeal middle-aged women, not high-school and college students choosing career paths.  The young women who do go into the game industry will likely find themselves in demand.

The other consequence of this turn of events is that there will be a much greater need for good design practice. It’s relatively easy to design for yourself and others like you–you figure out what you like and do it. As game developers are challenged to design things they would never play, they are going to need to actually read an intro human-computer interaction (HCI) textbook and learn about techniques to get input from members of their target audience before they invest development time to make something.

I agree with my colleague Ian Bogost that these games have privacy implications, and also that it can be problematic to treat your friends as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves.  (That’s the definition of unethical, according to Kant.) But the games also connect you to friends and family in a positive way, and have shorter playtimes that better fit into adult lives. There’s a lot to debate here both positive and negative.

And to the organizers of GDC: maybe the next panel on social gaming could have panel members (other than the moderator) who actually play social games?


Addendum: This is a somewhat unfair shot at this particular panel (which I heard about second hand from multiple sources, but did not attend), but the broader points about the game industry hold.

Categories: games, gender
  1. March 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    On the comment about “good design practice” involving designing things you wouldn’t yourself like, I suppose as someone who likes various kinds of media and art, I go out of my way to try to make sure designers aren’t doing that in the stuff I choose to spend my time on! (Though one can never be sure.) It can be good design practice, but can it be good art/media practice?

    Do I want to read a novel that the novelist doesn’t themselves necessarily find interesting, but where they’ve done careful audience research, and written it in an attempt to appeal to me or my demographic? I definitely don’t! Part of the whole point, to me at least, of reading a novel, watching a film, playing a game, etc., is to get a window into what someone thought was interesting enough to construct, express, whatever. It’s a bit of a reverse-engineering process: why did they make this? Why did they think it was interesting? What did they want to call attention to, express, or question with this book/film/painting/game/installation? I want to believe that they actually had an answer to those questions, and that the answer isn’t “well I dunno, I don’t even really find it interesting myself, but according to our research we’re pretty sure it’s the kind of thing you’ll like”. It just seems like a really cynical way of making art, and I feel duped as a consumer if I end up on the receiving side of that kind of targeted art.

    • March 16, 2011 at 12:50 pm

      Mark, you make some interesting points. But remember that a lot of software design is making things that you’d never use yourself. Like designing the interface for a computerized medical device, like a radiation therapy machine. OK, I’m not a radiation therapy tech or an MD, so I’d better go talk to them and work with them to make sure I get this right. The field of HCI has evolved volumes of techniques for how to do this well–that’s what HCI is about. It’s really shocking how little HCI practice makes it into the game industry. My assertion is that as developers more and more need to work on games that they don’t immediately understand, the more they’re going to need to understand good HCI design process.

      I think you’re arguing that game design is art. I buy that. But designing for others is also art! It just requires more method.

      • March 16, 2011 at 1:05 pm

        Hmm, that’s an interesting point of view that I don’t have quite an answer to yet. Certainly I agree that the game industry doesn’t use a lot of HCI methodology. But from what I can tell, they do do a lot of audience research, mostly borrowed from practices in the film industry.

        Most designers I talk to seem to feel that the main problem isn’t too little focus on what target audiences want, but too much, to the point where designers at big companies actually have almost no freedom to make games that they think are interesting: market-research, demographic targeting, and focus-group testing dictate the parameters of the games they’re assigned to make.

        I can certainly believe that the Hollywood/EA model is sort of at one cynical extreme of audience-focused design practice, though. I personally like the art-house-film / indie-game aesthetic of a designer making something they personally find interesting, but a third model of designers designing to audiences in some less crassly marketing-oriented way is intriguing.

  2. Vanessa Larco
    March 16, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    As a woman working in the social gaming industry, I can say that designing and creating games for middle aged woman is no easy task when your team is predominantly male. Part of the problem is that most of these men come from console gaming and they don’t understand the appeal of social games. The other part of the problem is that they don’t understand the motivations of their female players. The one tool that we do have (which has made us successful) is real time metrics and A/B testing. The producers, engineers and designers can all debate about what will appeal to women, but at the end of the day we will A/B test all the ideas with our players to see which sticks. After running many tests and looking at tons of data, we get a good idea of what features work and what types of behaviors they invoke. There still may be no understanding of why these features invoke these behaviors, but that only hinders us in reaching the potential of these games instead of killing them all together.

    Coming from the console gaming industry, where I had no voice because I did not represent the majority of our player base, to the social gaming industry, where my opinions are heavily valued gives me hope for women getting into the gaming industry. It’s nice to finally see some part of the gaming industry encouraging women to join in.

    • March 17, 2011 at 11:23 am

      interesting to hear about your experiences switching jobs, vanessa!

  3. March 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Wait, I’m middle-aged? WTF.

  4. March 17, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    “The irony of a bunch of guys dismissing the games liked by women was apparently lost to the GDC panel.”

    Did you attend the session? Did you read any articles or reports on its contents? Particularly on my positions? Did you attend or read my presentation at GDC Online about social games? What about my “rant” at GDC about social games? Did anyone on the panel advance the position you attribute? “Dear ladies … please pay $60 to buy a game with one-to-two hour long play sessions in which you shoot at things.”?

    Do you think either of these positions accurately describes of what I said on this panel or elsewhere? Do you care if it is, or does it even matter, because clearly a white guy can’t have an opinion about these games? Particularly one who has spent the last 9 months of his life thinking about their complexities, because I freaking made one (which is played by 39% women) instead of just disparaging them blindly?

    Incidentally, I brought up the over-maleness of the panel (which the legendary Steve Meretzky put together), and suggested Margaret Robertson as an able leader who would add at least some female participation to the panel. Is that satisfactory? Surely not. But I resent this post for painting me and my colleagues in the light it does.

    • March 17, 2011 at 2:52 pm

      You make some good points, Ian. I spoke with people who were there and had a strong reaction to the panel and that inspired the post. And I did read every account of it I could find. But that’s not the same thing as being there, and it’s definitely a cheap shot. Though it was great fun to write. 🙂 I put an addendum at the end of the post. I hope that helps.

      And yes, you’re middle aged. I’m more middle aged than you, but we’re both middle aged. Scary, isn’t it? 🙂

      • March 17, 2011 at 6:10 pm

        Thanks. And indeed, scary.

        I think there were many problems with the session, for what it’s worth.

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