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It’s a big topic in today’s gaming world. More and more women are playing videogames in 2010, but the mainstream perception is that they only play so-called casual games like FarmVille or Bejeweled. While statistics do slant that way, one female game designer believes that if a game is good, and it hits on a few specific gameplay levels, then that game can transcend the typical “girl game.” Jennifer Canada began her gaming life in a similar fashion, starting with more casual games and then graduating to MMOGs and finally a career making AAA titles at Insomniac Games. I saw her panel at GDC in San Francisco about garnering the female gamer audience and after discovering that her office was literally across the street from mine in Durham, N.C., we planned to meet to discuss her design ideas in more detail.

Perhaps it is Canada’s unique background that has informed her game design. She grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, and didn’t play a lot of games until much later in life. “I had a Gameboy but I barely played it,” she said. “I didn’t have any friends who played games. I actually didn’t start playing games until college.” That’s where she lost a lot of time that she should have spent studying. At first it was a real time strategy game called Lords of Magic that drew her attention but she soon graduated to nefarious activities in The Sims.

“I basically spent most of my time cheating so that I could build houses,” she said with a laugh. “After that, it was Dark Age of Camelot. After those three [games], I was hooked.”

DAOC was a pretty hardcore PvP-based MMOG. How did she get involved with a game like that after the carebear activities of The Sims? “I think it was because it felt like you were really there. I just loved the sense of being in a location, and that was what, when I eventually played WoW what I really loved about it,” Canada said.

For her undergraduate degree, she actually began as a classical voice major, before settling on political science at Rice University in Houston, TX. Then she heard about the Guildhall at SMU, in nearby Dallas, which began offering coursework in game design in 2003. “I heard about the Guildhall. I was lucky, that it was such a good program, because I didn’t know anything about it,” she said. Canada was actually in the second graduating class, before the school was even accredited as a Masters program.

“When I finished, it was just a certificate,” she said. “Their plan was always to let people who graduated before it was available as a Masters to come back and finish their thesis.” She received her certificate in 2005, but she began her thesis, which is necessary to receive a Masters degree, in 2007 when the Guildhall was able to start offering them. She had already known what her topic would be, Canada just had to put in the work into completing it. The idea of female gamers is very important to her, for obvious reasons.

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“When I was at the Guildhall, there were 2 girls out of a hundred guys,” she said. “So I knew I could have that topic to myself. I think there’s a lot of focus on how girls are different gamers than guys, I just really think that they are similar in a lot of ways. You can never generalize a whole gender, you can certainly find trends, but if you look at what’s going on now with social games, all you hear is ‘Women like this, and women like that.’ But when you’re talking about girls that play mainstream console titles versus girls that play Bejeweled and Facebook games, they’re different types of gamers. It’s a lot easier to generalize and say what the social gamer girl is going to like vs. the mainstream gamer girl.”

The title of her thesis was “Gender-Related Gaming Considerations: A Practical Exploration” which you can peruse here if you are interested, all 545 pages of it. To prove that in-game variables can be used to appeal to females in mainstream games just as much as the casual titles, Canada created a short story using the editor in Oblivion. This was no small feat and it took her about 250 hours. “I had to learn Oblivion to do this, I had literally never touched it before,” she said. Over the course of that time, Canada wrote and designed a story that utilized the specific strategies of how to write with the female audience in mind: detailed backstory, atypical female characters, in-game relationships, moral complexity, non-violent action, flexibility of choices, and a meaningful victory.

The level was called Mirei of Estrel. Mirei was the wise-woman in the village of Estrel, but long ago, she was unable to save the mayor’s daughter from fever and she was banished from the town. She left behind a husband and daughter, but Mirei remained on the outskirts of the village. The story involves girls who are being kidnapped, and Mirei, now middle-aged, soon discovers that her estranged daughter is one of them.

After the level was done, Canada hosted it at several sites including the main Oblivion site, Evil Avatar, RPG Watch, and Ironlore. It’s also available here on her website if you’d like to try it out for yourself. She made sure not to telegraph that the Mirei was being used in a thesis about female gamers, only that it offered original gameplay. Unfortunately, it was difficult for her to get females to download the level. “I’d find another website, another forum that will get me some more responses. Then I’d put it up there and get fifty more guys,” she said. She even posted at womengamers.com and was basically ignored there.

Still, she was able to get a decent cross-section of gamers to play through the hour-long Mirei and answer the questions to a survey she created. She then tallied all of that data and presented the results on her thesis, at the Game Developers Conference and at the Triangle Game Conference this week. When I heard Canada present the data, though, I was a little concerned with her survey methodology. She explained that she learned a lot during the whole process.

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“There’s no doubt that the results I was seeing can most strongly be applied to: if you played this level, this is what you liked. In terms of saying this is what you are going to like in every game, these results might indicate but they certainly don’t prove it. My hope is that other people will repeat this line of research. I’d love to see someone do something in Half-Life or Unreal to draw in people with different backgrounds,” Canada said.

But she did want to point out that men responded very well to the level, even the short description that she posted on gaming forums. “I did say that this mod has a lot of choices, I want to see what you pick, and it’s about gameplay preferences. And on the forums, all of the guys were like, ‘ooh choice, choice, choice, that sounds awesome, I want to play that,'” Canada said.

At the Triangle Game Conference, my colleague Allison Harn attended Canada’s panel and she said that it was her favorite talk of the conference. The audience was mostly male, but Harn was especially swayed by the amount of guys who admitted to enjoying the facets of games that Canada presented, such as atypical characters and possible non-violent actions. The results from Canada’s survey seemed to be representative of a lot of the gamers in the room at TGC, as well as the developers I overheard discussing the panel at GDC, such as Warren Spector.

To me, the kind of anecdotal evidence that she collected meant more than the statistics. Canada didn’t have time in her presentation to highlight these quotes, but she was able to provide some of them for me. One guy said that the character of, “Mirei had a well developed sense of time and place. This made her, and the mod, more grounded in its storyline.” Another male gamer said, “I liked your ability to make complex moral decisions. The adversaries weren’t pointlessly evil and irrational, and so your decision to help them (at a cost to yourself) is meaningful.” Finally, a male gamer wrote that “I liked how the mod offers different choices to the player, from the different possible answers in conversation to the various ways to tackle the central and secondary conflict. The emotional side is an added bonus.”

These thoughts were echoed by females in Canada’s survey, but perhaps because I am male myself, I took special interest in the fact that the very aspects of gaming that were geared towards women, actually were things that appealed to males as well. Perhaps the greatest evidence of all for Canada’s thesis that AAA games can appeal to both genders by using these tenets, was that so many of today’s best-selling and most renowned games use them. Games like Uncharted 2 and Dragon Age already offer a detailed backstory, atypical female characters, in-game relationships, moral complexity, non-violent action, flexibility of choices, and a meaningful victory.

That, more than anything, proves Jennifer Canada’s thesis.

Additional reporting by Allison Harn.

Greg Tito would like there to be more female gamers that aren’t on GameCrush.com.

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