Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of Shery Graner Ray’s Gender Inclusive Game Design

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Oct 24, 2006

Author: Sheri Graner Ray
Full Title: Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market
Publisher: Hingham: Charles River Media, 2004
List price: £39.95
Pages: 193
ISBN: 1-58450-239-8

A Review by T.L. Taylor

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The editors here gave me this book last December and, as you can see by the timing of this review, I’ve been quite slow in writing up my comments. It’s not that it is uninteresting or didn’t hold my attention – if anything quite the opposite. The points Sheri Graner Ray, an accomplished game developer who now works for Sony Online Entertainment as senior game designer, raises range from the provocative to downright straightforward and reasonable. The fact that many of her arguments continue to go unheeded by the games industry both baffles and points to the necessity of books such as this. Indeed many of the points she raises have been ones that I discuss frequently with colleagues and students. If one of the criteria of success for a book is that it opens up conversations and points for further research, Graner Ray’s certainly meets the mark.

Having just recently returned from the Austin Women’s Game Conference (organized by Graner Ray and several other members of the design & academic community) I was struck by how incredibly important discussion around gender and gaming is right now. The book comes at a moment when the issue of who makes games, who plays them and how is getting increasing attention. This is certainly not the first time the games industry has wrangled with the question of girls & women in gaming. In the mid to late 1990s we saw the emergence of what might be called the “pink games movement”, with its emphasis on designing around gender specificity. The intent was that in giving girls what they wanted (or at least what adult designers thought they wanted) they would become active players of computer games and maybe even more involved in technology and computer science (see Cassell & Jenkins, 1998, and Laurel, 2001 for overviews).

This approach – which often relied on fairly stereotypical & homogenous notions of gender – hasn’t quite stood the test of time. Ventures that suggested “girl games” were going to solve the problems of disenfranchisement don’t seem to have taken us far enough. Yet there are indicators that, in spite of the games industry’s almost willful disregard of the market, women do play computer games. Depending on who you read they account for fair portion of the massive multiplayer online games playerbase, they do purchase consoles, and they make up at least half of the players of online games (for example, see ELPSA’s recent whitepaper “Chicks and Joysticks” by Krotoski, 2004). Gender Inclusive Game Design jumps into the issues surrounding gender & computer games and offers an intervention from an on-the-ground designer seeking to address an underserved population – female gamers.

Sheri Graner Ray gives the reader an overview of what she sees as some of the central game design issues developers need to take into account if they want to really tap into a larger, more diverse market for their products. She suggests that there is a latent female audience basically waiting for developers to wise up and start providing a wider range of titles that cater to a variety of tastes. One of the best things about this book is the way Graner Ray puts responsibility back on game companies for the markets they have… or lack. As she formulates it,

It’s going to take designers that are willing to look at different conflict resolution styles and different learning styles. It’s going to take artists that are willing to rethink how they present avatars. It’s going to take design teams that keep the broad market in mind from the very first lines of the design document, it’s going to take development houses that are willing to examine their hiring practices and make sure they are an option for potential female industry candidates. In short, it’s going to take an industry that is willing to step back and look at their titles, and ask themselves, “But what if the player is a female?” (p.xvi)

Bravo for someone – in the industry no less – standing up and saying what needs to be said. In what follows Graner Ray provides, in fairly concise easy to read chapters, overviews of everything from the evolution of game characters to industry workplace practices. The underlying theme throughout it all is that game companies simply aren’t pushing themselves enough and, rather than innovating forms of reward, gameplay structure, avatars, and even the workplace, designers and companies continue to rely on fairly narrow genres, systems, and practices thereby alienating potential players and fostering a fairly limited labor market.

Where the book is at its strongest is when it points to areas where critical intervention is so desperately needed, such as around avatar design & character representation or industry hiring practices. The book draws on numerous examples from existing games to illustrate points along the way. On the subject of avatars and characters Graner Ray suggests that designers need to pay attention to the kinds of meanings and social relationships particular images evoke. Whether it is the hypersexualization of female avatars or the underrepresentation or superficial/unimaginative use of women characters in a game, Graner Ray argues that content matters. In the case of multiplayer online games especially, the paucity of meaningful choices for avatars can have important social – and play – ramifications (Taylor, 2003).

When it comes to tackling hiring (and retention) practices within the industry, Graner Ray similarly raises crucial questions about what it takes to have diverse workplaces healthy companies are built on. One of the common criticisms lodged at game companies is that designers (not to mention entire production teams) are more often than not fairly uniform in demographic. The problem becomes that this is then folded into a pervasive reliance on “I” methodology (“what do I like”, “what do I find enjoyable”, etc.) that breeds a distressing amount of homogeneity in games. Graner Ray proposes that having more gender diversity (and I think it’s safe to say more diversity in all forms) can only push toward better design by raising critical questions, proposing scenarios and alternatives that may not be typically thought of, and even influencing ideas about what constitutes a good work environment (something also beginning to be addressed by things like the International Game Developer’s Association quality of life initiative).

A good portion of the book is also spent on examining the underlying structures of gameplay by looking at forms of competition and reward, game genres, and what Graner Ray terms “stimulation response.” Here is where things get a bit trickier. I would suggest that she is onto something quite important when she suggests that designers could push themselves more in thinking about the varieties of play styles they might draw on for their games, or the different ways players interact with, understand, and enjoy games. How, for example, could rethinking the use of direct competition, risk, and even conflict help designers branch out? Or what might games that take serious emotional engagement, tactile feedback, or strong collaboratory models look like? In examining each of these topics Graner Ray poses some important challenges for game design to break out of what are often taken-for-granted assumptions or unspoken rules.

What is problematic, however, is that her arguments too often link these issues back to a notion of gender difference rooted in contested data and theories. We have long had stories (often dubbed scientific) that try and isolate spatial skills, competition, aggression, cognition, risk or care taking, emotionality, and relational modes of being, within either biology or fairly tenuous notions of bio-social evolutionary theory. These explanatory models unfortunately emerge throughout the book, as in the passage that suggests that there is an evolutionary link between the behavior of hunters of the past and contemporary men such that “males excel in targeting a single moving object in an uncluttered environment, such as an antelope running across the plains or a fighter jet in the clear sky” (p.53). This formulation of difference between the sexes is used to suggest that women are less invested in the visual or that men almost naturally excel at quick first person shooters. Approaches like this, which go back to the influential (and highly critiqued) work of Washburn & Lancaster (1968) and others, root difference and behavior in very imaginative reconstructions of not only human evolution, but the relationship between history and sexual difference. But there has been a fair amount of excellent work on the subject of (socio-)biology, evolutionary theory, archaeology, paleoanthropology, and sexual difference which challenges many of the underlying arguments we find here. A number of researchers, for example, contest the typical notion of cognitive difference, suggesting that variations within a gender are much more significant than between genders. Others explore the value-laden assumptions and flawed methodologies behind much of the research on biological difference and suggest that previous work on brain size, hormones, aggressivity/passivity, and general men-as-hunter/women-as-gatherer stories need to be critically re-evaluated (for more on these subjects see Bleier, 1984 & 1986; Fausto-Sterling, 1985; Gould, 1980 & 1996; Hager, 1997; Longino, 1990; Tavris, 1992). Indeed, even the very notion of sexual difference – that genital differentiation is always obvious and of a uniform meaning – has been historically explored and critiqued (see, for example, Fausto-Sterling, 2000; Laqueur, 1990; Gould, 1991).

Of course, one of the difficulties around this issue as it relates to Graner Ray’s book is she isn’t always entirely clear if she is relying on hard biological & evolutionary theories to explain phenomena or a more nuanced social construction of gender approach. Indeed, there are passages where she definitely nods to the ways gendered behavior is learned (as when little girls take fewer risks – and come to associate reticence with femininity – because they are not encouraged to venture out and even prohibited from doing so). Certainly more work needs to be done on bringing to the forefront the ways such behaviors are inculcated from a very young age. My concern here is that Graner Ray paints a bit too homogenous picture of what constitutes femininity or masculinity. This was also a problem that the earlier “pink games” movement got tangled up in (and it’s certainly a long running debate in feminist scholarship). The suggestion becomes that what women want are things like richer narrative structures (stories), indirect competition, “safer” less risky play environments, no violence, and more collaboration & socialization. While it is certainly the case that some women want some of these things, the underlying premise that this form of femininity is generalizable has been challenged by those whose work points to a diversity of constructions and performances of gender across class, race & ethnicity, socio-economic position, nationality, sexual orientation, and age. There has, for example, far too long been a conflation around age difference whereby research findings based on girls is extrapolated to grown women. This needs to be challenged. How people understand and perform their gender, not to mention the social meanings and contexts it is produced within, change across the life-cycle. What gender feels and looks like for a 12 year old middle-class white girl, what constitutes “fun” and attractive play, might be very different for a 45 year old lesbian latina (for more on the debates around the social construction of gender see Butler, 1990; Kerber et.al, 1986; Lorber & Farrell, 1991). It is of course not that we can’t talk about difference, but we must use categories in more reflective, sophisticated ways. “Women” and “men” may simply not get us far enough. We need more radical, more complex, and therefore more illuminating, slices for understanding identity and experience. Of course, this approach may very well call into question the holy grail-like idea that there is a magic formula to produce a one-size-fits-all game that will please everyone.

Ultimately underlying these critiques is my concern that in framing the issue of inclusivity as primarily around gender difference (narrowly defined) we do a disservice to 1) the heterogeneity & flexibility of gender, 2) the powerful structural and institutional considerations at work in the production of gender, and 3) a more broad-based challenge for innovative and progressive design. It strikes me that much of what Graner Ray proposes is simply good for developers to pursue in general. In the same way we should be wary of writing off women who prefer violent games as anomalies, I suspect there is a much broader audience of men and boys who’ve yet to find a home in computer games. Graner Ray certainly points to important structural and institutional considerations that shape who makes games and I would suggest that rather than formulating difference along the lines of cognition, biology, or creative (and not in the good sense!) stories about the evolution of the species, we would be much better served by looking at things like marketing, access, pricing structures, and the ways technologies & gaming spaces get gendered (for more on these subjects see, for example, Bryce & Rutter, 2002; Kerr, 2003; Schott & Horrell, 2000; Schott, 2004; Yates & Littleton, 1999). This is something Graner Ray points to and I think it’s one of the stronger arguments she makes.

Ultimately the call for more interesting, more progressive, more inclusive game design is something we need for the good of all players. Games based on innovative structures and more expansive imaginations of who their players are will be the ones that push the medium forward. Graner Ray’s book is a timely and much needed intervention, raising important issues the industry must face up to. While she primarily frames the issue of gender inclusiveness as important to commercial viability, it is also the case that the broader notion of diversity and progressive design goes to the heart of creating computer games as a sustainable cultural form.

References

Bleier, R. (1984). Science and Gender: A Critique of Biology and Its Theories of Women. New York: Pergamon Press.

– (ed.) (1986). Feminist Approaches to Science. New York: Pergamon Press.

Bryce, J. & Rutter, J. (2002). “Killing Like a Girl: Gendered Gaming and Girl Gamers’ Visability” in CGDC Conference Proceedings, F. Mayra (ed.). Tampere: Tampere University Press.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Cassell, J and Jenkins, H. (eds) (1998). From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (1985, revised ed. 1992). The Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men. New York, Basic Books.

– (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Gould, S.J. (1980). The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. New York: W.W. Norton.

– (1991). “The Birth of the Two-Sex World,” The New York Review of Books, v.38, n.11, 13 June.

– (1996). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton.

Hager, L. (ed.) (1997). Women in Human Evolution. London: Routledge.

Kerber, L.K., Greeno, C.G., Maccoby, E.E., Luria, Z., Stack, C.B., and Gilligan, C. (1986). “On In a Different Voice: An Interdisciplinary Forum,” Signs, Winter issue.

Kerr, A. (2003). “Women Just Want to Have Fun: A Study of Adult Female Players of Digital Games” in Level Up Conference Proceedings, M. Copier & J. Raessens (eds.). Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht.

Krotoski, A. (2004). “Chicks and Joysticks: An Exploration of Women and Gaming.” UK: Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association.

Laqueur, T. (1990). Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Laurel, B. (2001). Utopian Entrepreneur. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Longino, H.E. (1990). Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lorber, J. & Farrell, S.A. (eds.) (1991). The Social Construction of Gender. Newbury Park: Sage.

Schott, G.R. (2004). “’For Men’: Examining Female Reactions to Nintendo’s Marketing for GameBoy Advance SP” New Zealand Game Developers Conference Paper.

Schott, G.R. & Horrell, K.R. (2000). “Girl Gamers and Their Relationship with the Gaming Culture,” Convergence, v.6, n.4.

Tavris, C. (1992). The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster.

Taylor, T.L. (2003). “Multiple Pleasures: Women and Online Gaming,” Convergence, v.9, n.1.

Washburn, S.L. & Lancaster, C.S. (1968). “The Evolution of Hunting” in R. Lee and I. DeVore (eds.) Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine.

Yates, S.J. & Littleton, K. (1999). “Understanding Computer Game Cultures: A Situated Approach,” Information, Communication & Society, 2:4.

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