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With $116bn of annual revenues, the global video games sector is three times as large as cinemas, according to analysts Newzoo. Yet, there is a perception problem around games.
Media discussion of video games often focuses on violence, gambling or addiction. Many people are put off by these kinds of games. Masculine power fantasies — often a feature of this medium — are not for everyone. For many people, violence and stress are simply uninteresting.
Yet video games can also be spaces for healing, for learning or for connecting with others. I know from my own experiences that interactivity has the power to provide more visceral insight than books or film. Creating games that focus on these aspects could win over new audiences. However, the industry is still largely missing this opportunity.
Lack of diversity in the games industry has led us here. One of my creative directors once told me he wouldn’t put women in our game because it was set in “a time of men”. The games industry is certainly a place of men: only 22 per cent of developers worldwide identify as women. These numbers fall further in creative roles: 10 per cent in game design, 11 per cent in visual arts, 10 per cent in audio and 5 per cent in programming.
Game design theory has been largely written by men and assumes a fight-or-flight response to stress. Most games use frustration to stress the player, then give them chances to win a zero-sum game. However, a study published in 2000 from the University of California, Los Angeles defines a second human stress response, common but little known or studied, called tend-and-befriend. This response may be more prevalent in women.
In 2004, game designer Sheri Graner Ray observed in her book Gender Inclusive Game Design that women tend to like “scenarios that provide mutually beneficial solutions to socially significant situations”. Opportunities for care and connection do exist in video games, but they are often considered the side content.
Tend-and-befriend shows us that mutually beneficial outcomes are as rewarding as winning a fight. This hints at ways to design more interesting video games. Personality psychology and the work done by iThrive, a non-profit body that explores links between positive psychology and games, suggest other possible reward frameworks.
Game distribution and marketing channels are also a challenge. Game consoles and the most popular platform for PC games, Steam, generally come across as masculine and geeky. Virtual and augmented reality are also starting to be seen the same way. Mobile game stores are less skewed but have other challenges. The mobile games industry is focused on A/B testing, metrics and addictive mechanics, rather than meaningful, insightful experiences. It has taught a world of mobile players that games are shallow time-wasters. Designing games for new audiences means not only questioning game design theory but also creating new marketing channels. That’s OK.
The studio Funomena is countering stereotypes developing around emerging games platforms. While most VR and AR games rely on adrenalin, Funomena is exploring innovative ways to engage and reach players. One of its games, Luna, a VR fairytale about recovering from a mistake, is being shown at museums such as the Exploratorium in San Francisco. “So many women would come out of the headset in tears and say they’d never experienced anything so beautiful and calming . . . that was when we knew we had something special,” says chief executive Robin Hunicke. “[We are] growing our audience and brand slowly, patiently — and with care.” I am taking a similar approach with my studio.
I also look at the approach of Star Stable, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) on PC for girls aged around 10-14, in which players care for horses and go on mysterious adventures together.
When the team began development, they were told that creating a PC game for girls was a terrible idea. “Serious gaming entertainment for girls simply did not exist,” says Taina Malén, chief marketing officer at Star Stable Entertainment. The game launched in Sweden in 2011 to an audience of 11 players but now has more than 14m registered players all over the world.
Star Stable made innovative design decisions and bypassed the usual distribution channels by working directly with players. The team updates the game weekly in response to feedback from its community. “We’ve made this game together with our fans over the years,” says Ms Malén.
“The first impression [for gamers and reviewers] can sometimes be that it’s just a horse game,” she continues. “Most players come back for the adventure and the social part. She shares stories of girls “making friends for life”.
“What we do is just the beginning,” says Ms Malén. Girls today are creative, tech-savvy and engaged consumers looking for new ways to interact online. “It is so much fun to be part of this future, building a platform for girls in tech,” she says. I agree. It is also a substantial business opportunity.
Brie Code is chief executive and creative director of games studio Tru Luv. Tru Luv’s first tiny app, BreatheLuv, was recently released on the App Store. Previously, Code was a lead programmer at Ubisoft on ‘Child of Light’ and three ‘Assassin’s Creed’ games