Women are desperately needed as game and virtual world designers.
This has been my belief for a while, but once again reinforced when I attended the Games 4 Change conference back in June at NYU in Manhattan.
Acclaimed near-future science fiction novelist Neal Stephenson is famous for two things regarding virtual worlds:
1. Creating an indelible image in the minds of many geeks of the Metaverse he described in the 1992 book Snow Crash.
2. Not caring at all about the Metaverse anymore, because he claims he got so much of it wrong.
I don't think Stephenson got his vision wrong, but I think instead it has been virtual world designers who have carbon-copied the look-and-feel of Stephenson's Metaverse. Platforms like Croquet, ActiveWorlds, Second Life, There.com, and others all adopted a paradigm that included:
- Interaction via avatars (an idea from prior sci-fi before)
- Continuous 3-D space with multiple owners serendipitously juxtaposed next to each other
- Additional private land spaces
- Transport both by teleport and vehicles
Stephenson also had a profound prediction about sexism in the tech, games, and virtual world industry.
But the designers of the real Metaverse (realizing I use this term to mean a collection of different virtual world and social media platforms) ignored the realities of what went on: Social Media. The ideas of social media and democratizing media via cheap distribution of blogging, video, etc - took most people by surprise. In 2000, the web was still mostly a 1-directional medium with discreet areas of forums for discussion; if we wanted to chat, it was the telephone paradigm: person to person over instant message services. By 2007, it was clear that things like MySpace and Facebook and Twitter were rapidly facilitating whole new types of interactions.
The value of the web was about connecting people, not connecting websites.
Unfortunately, the designers who brought us the 1-directional flat web were still the ones with the money and clout. And they were still missing the point. And it is clear to me why: Too much testosterone and not enough estrogen. There is a chronic, pervasive lack of empathy in Silicon Valley which leads to an inability to understand the needs of people as social creatures, and is evidence in the fact that user interface design and user experience seems to be an afterthought to every company besides Apple. (I still dislike Apple as a company, but credit is due.)
Case in point: Facial expressions.
Juanita Marquez is a supporting character in Snow Crash, but is absolutely the hero of the Metaverse as Stephenson imagines it. Consider these two passages, describing her role in Black Sun Systems, the fictional company that created the framework and rule-set for the Metaverse:
"... she was working on faces. She was the face department, because nobody thought that faces were all that important - they were just flesh-toned busts on top of the avatars. She was just in the process of proving them all desperately wrong. But at this phase, the all-male society of bitheads that made up the power structure of Black Sun Systems said that the face problem was trivial and superficial. It was, of course, nothing more than sexism, the especially virulent type espoused by male techies who sincerely believed that they are too smart to be sexists." (chap 7, pp 57 in the paperback edition)
And then reiterated in the next chapter, page 63:
"[Juanita] was the one who figured out a way to make avatars show something close to real emotion."
And it's not that, in reality, one person would be able to do that. Juanita is a concept Stephenson introduces to breech a subject that was completely unspoken 20 years ago when the book was published, and is still now taboo, sadly: The idea that we enlightened, scientific, logic-driven males have sexism rampant within us. The sexism takes a different form from the beer-chugging, wife-oppressing, overprivileged, right-wing, womanizing, frat-boy stereotype that we like to have in our heads to neatly declare, "But I can't be a racist/sexist/bigot!" - but as Stephenson stated, it is "especially virulent."
Why, then, 20 years later, a full generation having grown up with 1990s and 2000s values of equality and playing fair in a post-racial, post-sexist world, are computer science, Internet, engineering, and other scientific jobs still dominated by males? Hint: It's not because men are better at science; it's because of 2000 years of male-dominance in any career that involves critical thinking while women raise the kids.
The thing is, men and women *are* different - from a statistical sociological level. Women tend to have more social intelligence, men tend to have more spacial intelligence. This is hard-wired since we were hunters and gatherers, with men doing the hunting and women running affairs of the village. But social intelligence is equally essential - or more - as any other intelligence. We work in groups, in companies, we sell to clients, we design for customers, we design rules with one another to govern ourselves. These things apply nearly universally to almost all careers, and so science and software design are no exception.
Yet still, these skills are not the ones glorified. The l33t haxx0r programmer is the "god" among software geeks, and socially and politically inept people are groomed to lead software companies. This is why people like Bill Gates took 20 years or so to learn the concepts of how not to look like an idiot during public speaking engagements. (By the way - Bill - by now you totally seem to have it down really, really well. You're an inspiration that even the most nerdy, Aspy people can learn to be social and thoughtful.)
Need more evidence? Let's look at the most popular games of the last few years.
2011's list isn't out, Modern Warfare 3 blew away sales records.
2010: Call of Duty: Black Ops
2009: Modern Warfare 2
2008: Grand Theft Auto 4
2007: Call of Duty 4
Of these, all of them are war / combat based, none of them feature women main characters, or even women secondary characters of any note. (Except for drunken Irish stereotype bimbo you can date and then get killed in GTA 4.) And all of them contain online gameplay where the expected behavior will be pubescent anti-gay slurring and face-squatting.
Great people are working on serious games, many of them women.
I loved the Games 4 Change conference. The number of high-quality games done for the purpose of forwarding awareness and social good causes was both impressive and heartwarming. It was good to see so much creativity and talent go into so many worthy causes. And you know what I noticed? A lot more women in the crowd than at other techie events I have attended. Is this observational bias? Sure. But it's another one in a long line.
Violence and Sexism
One of the keynotes was about violence in video games. Ironically, it wound up being oddly sexist, itself. The speaker started off talking about how he bought his daughter a Hello Kitty game, and she came out crying because the game had the namesake character essentially going around bonking enemies with a magic wand. Even a 4 or 5 year old realized how wrong this was. Oops. The speaker continued to make the point that popular games were violent, and essentially, it's because we are a violent people. This concluded ultimately by saying that we ought to be a force for change in this, by making better games.
However, the gender bias was obvious. "Give a boy a stick and he will pretend it's a gun." was a pivotal point he made. Uh, yeah, but ... what about if you give a girl a stick? Will it be a magic wand or an orchestra conductor's rod? Perhaps a hiking stick? I was literally mouth agape in my seat, furiously tweeting about the obvious oversight. And it wasn't just a one-time thing; his whole argument was hinged on this assumption that all kids act like little boys, an assumption so blatantly wrong.
I can't say specifically why gender roles are so reinforced in Western society, and what has the most effect. I can guess though:
- Professional sports
- Obsession with war by the news
- Fairy tales
- Splitting up young kids by gender in school for play and organizational reasons
- Annoying eye-gouging pink as the color for girls
- The toy industry
- Religious norms
And so on.
But ... here's an enlightened, intelligent, successful gentleman, and he completely ignores the obvious fact that his argument is completely ignoring women. Like, somehow, we
I have a counter-suggestion: Hire some women.
That's the bottom line. Games will continue to be violent and sexist and women will game less until we get some really gender aware men and some women in design positions in the game industry. I am not talking "head of PR" or "community manager". I'm talking the creative positions where decisions are made about what the game activities will be. Story writers, level designers, concept artists who don't draw DDD women with 28 inch waists and "empowered" bikini-clad "armor". Until then, the Juanita Marquezes in the industry will be there, frustrated at the silent machismo that is taboo to suggest exists.
And I do not want to hear some bull-crap "affirmative action" negative response. My argument has nothing to do with specifically promoting a female agenda, and everything to do with creating an equality of genders. Also, it makes practical, monetary sense: Women are still a largely untapped market in games, and if you can capture that, it'd be a ton of cash.
I should not even be required to make a case for the fact that games are mostly designed for men; it is obvious. Top selling games are violent, star male characters, and portray women in the role of romantic interests and scenery - that is, if they portray them at all. How many games don't even HAVE women in them? (I'm looking at you: EVERY SINGLE COMBAT GAME EVER.) **
Rethink about how you approach game design. Realize there's an incredible male bias pervasive in our industry, and it affects the very fundamentals of everything from initial design to how the online interaction is moderated. (hint: it's not, and it's a chauvinist, disgusting mess unsafe for youths.)
** (Kudos though to the rare exceptions, examples including: The original Resident Evil, Halflife 2, Portal, Dragon Age: Origins, and Mass Effect, who all have strong female playable characters in combat games aren't aren't solely there to be stared at, like Tomb Raider.)
Women are desperately needed as game and virtual world designers.