Women in Games

Twenty-four years ago, Pac-Man was the hit game. It was pretty primitive by today’s standards: about 600v by 400h by eight colors and was, of course, a pure 2-D game. By any technical measurement, today’s games are thousands of times superior to Pac-Man. But in one regard, nothing has changed. When somebody decided to build a woman’s version of Pac-Man, the best they could come up with was giving Pac-Man a sex-change operation by putting a bow on his head and calling him “Ms. Pac-Man.” Nowadays, the best we can come up with for women in gaming is giving them pink guns. Whoop-de-doo.

I have long since given up participating in discussions on women in gaming. The games industry is so out of touch, such discussions are a waste of perfectly good electrons. When Microsoft wanted to publicize an event for women at a Game Developers’ Conference a few years back, they splashed around banners showing a woman in a low-cut dress. Some people just don’t get it.

I’m going to offer a fresh approach to the problem, coming at it from a completely different angle: evolutionary psychology. This field is about 20 years old, and much exciting progress has been made in the years since it was established. The basic idea behind evolutionary psychology is we can learn something about modern human psychology by studying the evolutionary forces that shaped the minds of our ancestors. For example, early simians were frequently preyed upon by snakes. These days, snakes don’t eat people. In fact, more people in America die from toy related accidents every year than from snakebites. Despite this, people don’t freak out when you put a toy in their laps, but they do freak out when you put a snake on them. Our fear of snakes is in our genes.

Unfortunately, the field is often attacked by dogmatic fools who think evolutionary psychology amounts to some kind of genetic determinism. They claim fear of snakes is some sort of cultural artifact, and that if only our culture stopped teaching people that snakes are fearsome, nobody would be afraid of snakes. A careful, scholarly analysis of this claim, based on experimental evidence and thorough review of the literature – as well as common experience – forces us to only one conclusion: This claim is complete crap.

Human choices arise from three layered sources. At the bottom lies our physical condition: We eat because we are hungry, not because we have been taught by our parents to eat. In the middle lies our genetic heritage: We like meat because of our genetic makeup. On top of these is our cultural upbringing: Some cultures like to eat pig meat, while others don’t. Our behavior is driven by all three forces, with the cultural element dominating in a great many situations – but not all.

So, let’s examine gender differences in terms of human evolution. The very first point to establish is that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. For the last 3 million years, our ancestors lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. This civilized urban lifestyle that we now live is a 6,000 year veneer on top of 3 million years of hunter-gatherer life – less than 0.2% of our ancestry. That urbane gentleman you saw this morning reading the New York Times; a blink ago he was a skinny, naked hunter prowling through the bush. His mind has been fine-tuned over millions of years to do that job well. The elegant young woman you saw striding across the parking lot this morning; blink your eyes and she’s on her haunches, gnawing on a bit of edible root she just clawed out of the soil with her fingers. Her mind has been similarly shaped by evolution.

So, what forces shaped these minds? More to our point, what different forces acted on men and women differently during hunter-gatherer times?

The biggest difference was men were hunters and women were gatherers. This gender specialization did not arise because of some male conspiracy to dominate women or some other nastiness. It was the natural, inevitable result of a basic physical difference between men and women: Women have breasts and men don’t. Because women have breasts, they’re the ones who have to feed the babies, and to feed the babies, you have to stay close to the babies.

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Human babies are truly pathetic creatures: They can’t walk, they can’t care for themselves, and they are completely dependent upon their mothers for the first two or three years of their lives. A mother carrying a fifteen-pound squalling baby is not going to be as successful stalking prey as a man. If the mother puts the baby down to stalk prey, the baby will get eaten by something else.

Another problem is women can’t run as well as men. This has nothing to do with cultural upbringing and everything to do with the female pelvis. The male pelvis is well-structured for the efficient operation of the leg muscles. But the female pelvis has been subject to a more powerful selection effect: death in childbirth. Men don’t die in childbirth; women do, and over the millennia lots of women have. Women die in childbirth because the birth canal is too narrow for the head of the baby. Women with a narrow pelvis had a greater chance of dying in childbirth, but women with a wide pelvis had a higher survival rate. Thus, over millions of years, the female pelvis spread wide, which is good for childbirth but lousy for running.

At this point, there’s always some twit who points out that there are some women who can run faster than some men. Indeed so, but noting an exception to a generalization does not disprove the generalization; it establishes only that the generalization is not an absolute law. There are a handful of genetically odd women who lack breasts, but we don’t quibble about them when discussing the role of breasts in female function, do we?

Running fast and long is an important factor in successful hunting. Since human females couldn’t do this, they weren’t well-suited for hunting. Instead, females specialized in gathering and child-rearing. Thus, the overall hunter-gatherer lifestyle worked like this: Hominids operated in troops of 20 to 50 individuals. They would set up a temporary camp near a source of water. The old, the infirm and the young would remain at the camp. The fit females would spread over the immediate vicinity, gathering nuts, berries, grain, roots, fruit; anything edible. Most of the food they would find was low in nutritional value, but they made up for it in volume.

The men would set out on long hunts. For most of human history, hunting was not carried out with bows and arrows or even spears; it was done with rocks. The hunter would creep up on his prey and hurl a rock at it. Of course, rocks seldom kill an animal outright. Most of the time, the best the hunter could hope for was a hit that might slightly injure the prey, who would run off. Then the hunter would set out in pursuit, which might take several hours. With luck, the hunter would get a second opportunity to bean the prey, which would result in further injury and another flight. The process would be repeated for hours – or, in the case of larger prey, days – and often failed. But when it succeeded, the hunter hit the jackpot. The meat in a 40 pound gazelle would provide a feast for everybody. If he failed, the hunter would return home for a meal of roots and berries.

Let us now consider the specializations required of the hunter to succeed in his efforts. Three talents are needed:

  1. The ability to throw rocks powerfully and with accuracy.
  2. The ability to pursue the prey over long distances.
  3. The wit to figure out where the prey went.

If we were to whisk a young hunter-gatherer male out of the remote past into the present, dress him up in whatever the current uniform of youth happens to be and plunk him down in front of a videogame console, what kind of entertainment would he prefer? Something that he is optimized for, of course. It would be something in which he throws rocks powerfully and accurately at prey. Guns do that very well. He would also want to track his prey over a large spatial map, involving all manner of interesting problems in spatial analysis. Lastly, he’d want something challenging his ability to analyze and anticipate prey behavior. Golly gee, sounds just like a shooter, doesn’t it?

So, this evolutionary psychology stuff isn’t total balderdash. It does a decent job of predicting the kind of play that young males would prefer. Our next problem is to figure out what kind of play females would prefer. To do this, we must identify the specializations forced upon ancestral women.

Hunter-gatherer women did not succeed primarily because of their gathering skills. One of their primary tasks was raising children because, as I wrote earlier, they’re the ones with the breast milk. There were many skills required to survive in those days, but one skill that was especially important for females (and not so important for males) was social reasoning. The sad truth, as any modern mother can tell you, is a single mother cannot easily cope with the huge task of raising children alone. Even with all the conveniences of modern life, it’s still an onerous job. Imagine just how much more difficult it must have been a hundred thousand years ago, when life was more precarious. A woman back then needed a lot of support to raise her children. Fortunately, she could recruit that support in a number of ways.

The first source of support was her own mother. Although the average life expectancy back then was only in the twenties, if you made it to adulthood, you stood a good chance of living to a ripe old age of 40, or even 50. This raised an interesting theoretical problem for evolutionary theory: Why did women continue to live after they aged after fertility? If she couldn’t make babies, why did she continue to live, consuming valuable resources that could be devoted to her descendants? Would this not comprise a selection effect against living beyond menopause? One answer, it turns out, was that older women play a vitally important part in the upbringing of children: They’re the grannies. Mom could go off gathering nuts, roots and berries while granny took care of the kids. Granny might not be strong, but she could mind the kids adequately. Her contribution freed up Mom to provide more nutrition for the kids.

The second source of support came from the other women in the little hunter-gatherer band. They had learned that, by pooling their efforts, they could provide better care for their children. A daycare center operated by grannies with one or two lactating mothers on hand could take care of the kids and leave all the healthy young mothers free to gather food. But to make this work, the women had to cooperate. Each babysitting mother had to provide suck to every infant in need; how was an absent mother to know whether her own children were getting their fair share? This required trust, cooperation and effective manipulation of the complex social structure of the female group.

The third source of support was the father. In those days, fatherhood was less secure than it is now. It was impossible for any man to know for certain if any given child was his own. It was not difficult for a woman to obtain fertilization from the guy with the best genes, while obtaining nutritional support from a lesser stud, fooling the cuckold into thinking the child his own. Men who fell for such tricks soon had their genes removed from the gene pool, leaving behind only those men who went to great lengths to ascertain the true paternity of the children they were supporting. This led to the common male obsession with the fidelity of his wife that we see so often today. From the woman’s point of view, the problem was to manipulate the male into supporting her children, mostly by convincing him that the kids really were his.

Thus, women had strong selection pressures for their social skills in manipulating the social relationships in their clans. Over the millennia, women were selected for the gene pool based on their ability to mobilize the most nutritional support for their children. Modern-day descendants of these women are highly skilled in sensing the subtle moods of others, calculating their motivations, and determining the best means of turning this understanding to their own advantage. The overall collection of skills is called “social reasoning,” and that’s what women excel in.

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.

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