Designing Women


Video games are pretty much a male domain.

According to a 2000 industry report, less than 30 percent of the people who play Nintendo, Sony Play Station and computer games are female.

The explanation, say some analysts, can be traced to gender trends in the industry employment.

"Take a look at most design teams," said Henry Jenkins, director of Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leading authority on video games in this country. "It's a bunch of men sitting around designing the games that they want to play and by and large they have."

Only 10 percent to 15 percent of those in the International Game Developers Association are women, according to Jason Della Rocca, program director for the San Francisco-based trade group. And few are executives. Most are in areas such as graphics, not product creation.

But this fastest-growing segment of the entertainment industry – where in 2003 U.S. consumers spent over $7 billion on software alone – may be on the verge of change.

Five female software executives and educators, a tiny minority in the video-game industry, have banded together. Last week, in Austin, Texas, they held the first women's gaming conference and created a steering committee on women in video gaming.

Although they have not yet named themselves and have no base of operations, they have a well-defined objective: to coax more women to join their male-dominated ranks.

"For the longest time games were exclusively a fantasy space for men," said Mia Consalvo, assistant professor of telecommunications at Ohio University in Athens, who is a member of the steering committee. "And the people playing games were playing with what they wanted in a fantasy character: an ork, an elf, or a scantily clad woman. We are trying to get the industry to break out of that mold and for that we need to bring in new people, especially women."

In addition to creating networking and mentoring opportunities for young women, the group is designing a scholarship program. Next fall it plans to send one aspiring female designer to the Guildhall digital education program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The scholarship, to be awarded this spring for next fall, will cover the school's $37,000 tuition for the 18-month long program.

Object of the Game

The object is not to induce more girls to sit around fixedly staring at video monitors or computer screens.

The Entertainment Software Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., reported that half of all Americans – or 145 million people – play video games, either with a console or on a computer. Thirty-nine percent of them are female.

Even though far fewer girls than boys are playing electronic games, millions of girls are playing. Given that, the goal of these software executives and educators is to encourage better recreational content for girls.

As onlooking adults have often worried among themselves, current games – such as Grand Theft Auto 3 and BMXXX, to name a few – include violence toward women. Women in these action-and-adventure fantasy scripts show a great deal of skin, wear short shorts and midriff tops. Playboy-like massive bust lines are the norm.

Even the bionic Lara Croft, the shapely action star of Tomb Raider, is not actually a role model for girls, according to Celia Pearce, a game designer and research manager for the Arts Layer at Cal-(IT)2 at the University of California, Irvine.

"Lara Croft was meant for boys," said Pearce. "She wears combat lingerie, leather thongs and bikinis to fight. There was even a plug-in," she said, referring to an electronic game accessory, "that you could download on-line, called Nude Raider, that would take the clothes of Lara and allow you to play the game with her naked."

Another game, Leisure Suit Larry, is about a male college student who is obsessed with sexual conquest. Here's the sales pitch on the game's web site: "Follow Larry's hilarious exploits and misadventures in the wackiest college story ever. Updated for the 21st century with 3D graphics, engaging real-time conversations, and a fully realized college campus, Larry is back to give gamers some lovin'. Remember, it's not about who you impress, but who you get to undress!"

Addressing Work-Life Balance

Last week the U.S. Labor Department recognized what many writers and researchers have long maintained: that working women do far more household work than working men. It's an issue that the women say they will address.

"There is always a work-life balance for women in the workplace and especially in this industry," said Laura Fryer, director of the Advanced Technology Group at Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, Wash., and another member of the five-woman steering committee. "People who work with video games are passionate and often work very long hours for extended periods of time. We hope to deal with these complex problems and talk about how we can help each other as women and create a good work-life balance."

MIT's Jenkins added that the initiative is bound to benefit the industry, where strong growth is concentrated in sports and action games for the young male market.

Market research has found that females enjoy games that feature cooperative play, communication skills and solid story lines. The Sims, for instance, is the only game that sells as well to females as to males. It lets players simulate the creation of a family and a community.

"You go to a design conference," said Jenkins, "and ask them why they don't have more games with a story line or have a romance intrigue [and] they say, 'Well, I don't want that in a game.' So as long as we're seeing game-design teams that have all these men playing the kinds of games that they want to play, we'll see stunted growth in the industry."

Because game creation required highly technical programming, it started off in the 1980s and 1990s as the province of males, who were more prone to having those skills. Now that the technical end of the industry has become more standardized, however, competition is heating up around music, art and design – areas where women are well equipped to participate and compete.

"Content is the future of the game industry and the technical will be less important," said Microsoft's Fryer. "In using a comparison to film, we've been building the camera for a long time and now we need story writers, artists, producers and less programming skills. These are all jobs that women have found rewarding."

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