Gaming Below the Radar

Gaming Below the Radar
Games of a Fairer Sex

Bonnie Ruberg | 13 Dec 2005 11:02
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But maybe that's the way it should be. Maybe they really are different.

After all, why should we step in and label these girls as gamers when they don't even think of themselves that way? Every girl I know who loves girl games hates mainstream titles. My aforementioned twenty-something friend won't even pick up the controller for party games, though she has a gamer boyfriend and a number of gamer friends. What she loves, honestly, are the ponies - in whatever form they decide to present themselves.

Perhaps that's why most girl games are merely regurgitated licenses, because that's what young girls are looking for; not an arresting gameplay experience. These girls don't "mature" into liking quality games; they just stop playing. They grow up and grow out of whatever media franchise attracted them to games in the first place. It's a pessimistic thought, but one that seems more and more like a reality in the face of contemporary games for girls.

If there is hope for successful girl games - for creating quality products and gaining the respect of the mainstream industry - it comes in defying expectations. Innovation, usually passed over in the creation of girl games, is "absolutely necessary," says Kelley, "even more so than with stereotypical 'boys games,' because the innovation needs to go way beyond graphics. Girls sure don't need a more realistic alien invasion shooter (though arguably, neither do boys). Creating games that could be more interesting to girls will take some challenging and fascinating technology leaps that will make games more interesting for all kinds of people."

Here and there, developers are indeed successfully testing the boundaries of girl games. Her Interactive, for example, which has designed girl-oriented software since 1995, and has worked with Simon & Schuster since 1997 on the award-winning Nancy Drew series, is pushing to neutralize stereotypical gender representation. Sheri Hargus, Chief Technology Officer at Her Interactive, explains a mission parallel to that of a mainstream designer: "Girls like cool new features as much as boys... We are always looking for ways to innovate within the context of enhancing the gameplay experience." The hard work seems to have paid off; says Hargus, "We receive enormous amounts of fan mail about the games." And fans aren't the only ones who recognize the importance of Her Interactive's mission. When asked about the response they've gotten from the rest of the video game community, Hargus says, "We are now seen as a major player in understanding how to make intelligent games that appeal to females." Even the Nancy Drew box art stands out in the crowd. It promises a genuine mystery, no pink necessary.

Her Interactive provides just one example of how game for girls can be both enjoyable and constructive. Will more girl games be successful in the future? As Kelley points out, success can be measured in a number of ways, but "for everyone, it's knowing that people are out there enjoying what you made, and having it touch their lives."

Bonnie Ruberg is a video game journalist specializing in gender and sexuality in games and gaming communities. She also runs a blog, Heroine Sheik, dedicated to such issues. Most recently, her work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Gamasutra, and Slashdot Games.

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