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At this point, I need to cover my butt against the picky-picky natterers who will point out that there are some men who are better at social reasoning than some women. Yes, of course that's true. But social reasoning is the skill that most differentiates women from men. In spelling, arithmetic, cooking or any of a thousand other skills, women and men are closely matched, but when it comes to social reasoning, the advantage women enjoy is greater than any other advantage they possess. Thus, women are highly motivated to exercise and develop their social reasoning skills.
We should therefore expect that modern women might well want to exploit this talent in their entertainment. And in fact that turns out to be the case. The classic female mass entertainments are the soap opera and the bodice-ripper. In each of these, women face intense and intricate social conflicts requiring elevated social reasoning. In every case, it's the protagonist's special insight into people that carries the day. It's not the size of her breasts, how many antelopes she can kill, how many berries she can collect or how much money she can acquire. It's her social skills that make her the heroine, the champion, the role model.
To offer a prime example, consider Pride & Prejudice. Elizabeth faces the most delicate and difficult social obstacles in developing and weighing her marital options against her own feelings. Other women around her make mistakes and marry the wrong men, but Elizabeth navigates her way though the jungle of English society as well as the uncertainties of her own emotions to a happy conclusion: marriage to the ideal partner.
All this leads to a suggestion for what might work for women in games: social reasoning. The ideal game for women, according to this simplified model, would be some sort of interactive soap opera or bodice ripper, presenting the player with complex social problems as she seeks the ideal mate. Contrast this with the kind of software currently being offered to women and you can see why so little progress has been made with this group.
I close by reminding the reader that this is a greatly simplified representation of a complex subject. Human behavior is not reducible to linear equations, and we will never build a correct working model of human mental life. I have offered a simplistic representation of some concepts from evolutionary psychology that can provide useful insight into the problems that game designers face in creating games for women. Insight, not solutions. Ideas, not answers. The reader who takes this material with the grain of salt it deserves should derive some benefit from this essay. Game designers interested in following up on this should consult any of the many works available on evolutionary psychology:
The Mating Mind, by Geoffrey Miller (Magnificent!)
The Prehistory of Sex, by Timothy Taylor (Solid)
Why is Sex Fun? by Jared Diamond (short and sweet)
The Descent of Woman, The Descent of the Child and The Scars of Evolution by Elaine Morgan (provocative)
Mother Nature by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (magisterial)
The Moral Animal by Robert Wright (best overall introduction to evolutionary psychology)
Chris Crawford has created 15 published games and 5 published books. He founded the Game Developers' Conference. He is now working on interactive storytelling.