Series Info...Engines of Creation #3:

Separate but Equal?

by Dave Rickey
June 1, 2003

Just when I think I have a terminal case of Writer's Block, the good folks over at Waterthread come through with a little inspiration. It's only tangentially related to the topic of this column, but it is one of those bit that just begs for me to try and write it.

The immediate source of inspiration was the current flamewar between Waterthread and Game Girls over an article Megyn wrote many weeks ago about, what else, "Gaming Girls". It's certainly an interesting cast of characters, and the fact that most of the Waterthread side of it is also female just adds a nice touch of irony.

Don't get me wrong, I grew up the only male in a household full of women, read my sisters' books ("Are you there God, it's me, Margaret", dog stories, horse stories) because they were most of what was available, did all of this during the 70's when feminism and equal rights was actually about something, I'm about as indoctrinated in female equality as I could get and still have a sperm count (I realize it says something that I find myself forced to use a castration metaphor). Men and women are equal.

But not equivalent, for all that the purist feminist doctrine says otherwise. Equal but different may be civil rights heresy, but for gender relations, what else can it be? Trying (and failing) to deal with that unfortunate reality has dominated gender politics for the last two decades, with no end in sight. And as I find myself considering how to make games that are more appealing to women, I can't avoid wrestling with the reflexes of thought my indoctrination has left me with. Because you can't get very far thinking about that question before you start to throw around cliches and stereotypes with the best of the chauvinists.

Women are more likely to be interested in trade skills, more likely to play "Support" classes, more likely to be interested in playing "dress up" with texture and dye options. Men are more like to play pure combat classes, more likely to engage in PvP, more likely to engage in grief play for the sheer joy of being a pain in the ass. Men think operationally, looking for lines of attack and tactical advantage, women think logistically, analyzing the whole situation and trying to prepare for all eventualities. Men lead from in front, women stand back from the battle and hold together the community.

Even in an environment where gender presentation is a matter of opinion, a simple matter of choice, and everyone is fully aware of it, people still overwhelmingly choose avatars of their own gender, and treat each other as if they actually were the gender of their avatars even though they know that it isn't necessarily so. Raph Koster is fond of saying that if you're a male and you want an education in what it's like to be a woman, try running around in a sexy female avatar for a while. You'll get free stuff, and more suggestive comments (ranging from subtle to crude) than you can imagine. And Professor Edward Castranova has established that even in a virtual environment where the differences are strictly visual and social, female avatars are worth 10% less on the open market than male. All of this adds up to quite a damning indictment of *something*, the question is of what? Are the differences between men and women truly hardwired into human nature, in spite of any and all efforts to the contrary? Or are we still living in an inherently patriarchal society, being conditioned to force men and women into different roles, and then devalue those of women?

At this point, I'd have to say the answer to both questions is probably "Yes". Men and women are different, but not all of those differences are built in. Or, at least, they aren't built into all of us. We're all born into the world with predispositions, neither blank slates nor automatons. In the broad range of human behaviors, men and women represent overlapping bell curves, the fact that for any categorization you can find counterexamples doesn't change the fact that most will fall into categories of behavior that can be broadly labelled as typical of one sex or another. And as an industry, we cannot afford to ignore the categories, or let ourselves be uncomfortable with designing for who the customer actually *is*, rather than what ideology would lend itself to. So where does that leave us?

Trying to figure out what makes women tick. Sure, no man has ever had any trouble with that. And it's not any help to ask the women, either, they don't seem to be able to explain it. Of course, that assumes that the designer is male, but then almost all of us are. And development shops of all women (Purple Moon, etc.) haven't seemed to fare much better. What's going on here? It's not that women don't play these games, or games in general, The Sims had a largely female audience, TSO appears to be likewise, and for all the the polls continually show a 10-15% female population in the rest of the MMO's, anecdotal evidence would indicate more. It's not that we can't make games that appeal to women, it's that we can't seem to do it on purpose.

What is it that women want from these games? Are we so afraid of confronting the differences between men and women that we can't really ask that question because we're afraid of the answers? Is it really possible that women tend to want to play tradesmen, healers, and focus on the social side of the games, and we can attract them by building up these systems? Are women really supportive, social, consensus builders, and men really combative, aggressive, conquerors? Can we hope to answer these questions when we are told that even asking them is inappropriate in a modern world?

In the end, I have to leave the debate where I picked it up: lost and confused, with a great deal of mutual incomprehension. The battle of the sexes will continue, Vive le Differance!

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