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volume 1, issue 23

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Guest Editorial:
Why Don't More Women Play Computer Games?



By Kenn Hoekstra



A Nice Little Story...

Why donít more women play computer games? That is a question Iíve been giving a great deal of thought recently. Why, you ask? Well hereís a little storyÖ

Iím sitting in my office one night and I hear stirring in the next room. Dan Kramer, one of the programmers for Soldier of Fortune, is sitting down at his computer with his lovely wife and running through the setup routines for Quake II.

"This is what you do, Dan?" she asks.

"Yep. This is what I do. Sit down." She sits down at his computer and he starts up the game.

The opening scene plays out and the game begins. A bit sheepishly, Danís wife maneuvers the Quake marine through the first level of the game, her hands shaking noticeably.

"Whatís wrong?" Dan asks.

"Iím scared," she says, raising her voice slightly.

"What?" he asks incredulously. "Youíre not scared, youíre a marine! Youíre tough! Youíre fearless! Your whole platoon was wiped out and youíre the only one left. If youíre scared, whoís going to make these bastards pay?" I chuckled internally at this gritty assessment of the situation, but continued to observe in silence.

"Okay. Iím fearless," she stated as she rejoined the game. The first Strogg appeared and she blew it straight to hell in a glorious shower of bloody giblets. She jumped at the destruction of her enemy. And then came the smileÖshe was hooked.

Is this all it takes to get women to play games? I think it really is that simple. So what is the problem, then?

Assessing the Problem...

Statistics show that the "average gamer" is a male between the ages of 14 and 35 and itís that particular demographic that comprises the "target audience" of most PC games released on the market today. Why is this? After much consideration, I determined that the problem isnít with the games, itís with computers themselves:

Until Recently, Computers Have Been Considered "Toys For Boys" Ė When I was growing up, I saw tons of childrenís educational commercials on Saturday mornings for these "computer doohickeys" that could do super cool things. I saw these commercials when I was watching cartoon shows like The Incredible Hulk, SpiderĖMan and his Amazing Friends, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. When I was forced to watch Strawberry Shortcake or The Smurfs with my female cousin, I didnít see a single commercial for these computers. Why? Iím not really sure. I guess I could write my Masterís thesis on the old stereotype about women excelling in the humanities and men excelling in math and science, but Iím not going to bore you with that right now. The fact is, someone who marketed the early computers figured that targeting young boys would be a good place to start. It appears that the strategy workedÖ

Until Recently, Women Have Had Very Little Exposure To Computers Ė If you are my age (25) or older, you probably didnít have wide access to computers in the classroom. If you didnít get a chance to learn in the classroom, you had to buy a computer and learn for yourself. But if you didnít KNOW about computers, how could you buy one and teach yourself to use it? This all goes back to my earlier marketing assessment. Computers werenít advertised to women and women have only had access to them in the classroom for about ten years now. So if they didnít know much about them from advertisements and they didnít get to see them in school, how were they to learn? Ask their creepy cousin who picks his nose, talks about "cooties" and chases frogs in the backyard? I donít think soÖ

Resistance to Change Ė My parents wanted nothing to do with computers. My older sisters didnít either. They grew up without them and they did just fine, so why get one now? That was the mentality a lot of people had in the eighties and early nineties. So if I am a twenty-five year old woman with no exposure to computers through advertising as a child and no opportunity to learn about them in the classroom, do I have a use for or an interest in buying Quake II? UmÖno. And THAT is a big reason why women donít play games.

What Can Be Done?

Fortunately, a lot of the problems I mentioned are taking care of themselves:

- Computer advertisements and television commercials are showing women using computers and playing games alongside their male counterparts. The stigma of women using computers is starting to disappearÖslowly, but surely.

- Educational reforms have put computers in nearly every classroom because of the increasing demand for computer use in the job market. Women are getting the exposure they need at an early age to take the fear out of using computers. Necessity is the greatest reason for change, donít you agree?

- There will always be great resistance to change, but the fact is that people ARE changing. My parents recently joined the computer age to help manage their finances and their farm. My sister Carmen is learning to use a computer to help with her charting responsibilities as a Registered Nurse. My sister Lee Ann is teaching young children about computers in her classroom in Atlanta and my sister Kelly called me this week to ask my advice about her first computer purchase to help her and her husbandís business. Her exact words? "We were talking about it and we decided it was time to join the nineties before the nineties are over."

So if the first step in getting more women to play computer games is to get them to actually USE computers, I think the first step is being taken.

From a games standpoint, there is still a long way to go. I have seen a lot of positive growth in the industry in recent years and I think we can expect to see even more growth in the future.

Things I have seen that are making a difference:

- The increasing popularity of the Internet is providing new forums and venues for women to learn about and experience computer games online. Online gaming services allow women to play games anytime and anywhere for recreational purposes.

- Gaming news and informational sites like GameGirlz and BostonChick that are targeted at women gamers are helping to provide gaming resources and a sense of community for female game players.

- Appealing female characters are starting to appear in games. SOME attempts in recent years have been overtly sexist or unflattering, but the sense that I get is that new games are going to have a strong, positive female element in them.

- Developers and publishers alike are recognizing the growing number of women playing games and planning their titles, advertisements and marketing strategies accordingly.

- The Quake community is inspiring female clans and mod groups and is providing a medium for women to join men in the multiplayer ring and kick their asses soundly.

Women are fast becoming a force to be reckoned with in the gaming community. It is my hope that these trends continue and that the number of women gamers continues to grow. If we can fully eliminate the fear associated with computers and the stigma surrounding women and computers, we can finally move forward and start making more games that appeal to both men and women. Now THAT is something to look forward to.

In Conclusion...

If you think Iím crazy at this point, hereís what I have personally witnessed at Raven: Rob Gee (Heretic II Artist and Soldier of Fortune Animator) plays computer games with his wife and he is teaching his six year old daughter how to use their computer at home. Pat Lipo (Heretic II Lead Programmer) plays games with his wife Sandi on the PC and on their console systems at home. James Monroe (Lead Programmer on Project 3) plays Age of Empires against the Raven crew right alongside his wife, Ann. Chris Foster (Lead Level Designer on Project 3) introduced his friend Kellie to Caesar III and now she plays it more than he does! I already told you about Dan Kramer and his wife. The list goes on and onÖ

I have taken it upon myself to teach my significant other, Michele, how to play Sony PlayStation games. We are starting out slowly with games like Tetris and Monopoly, but I have no doubt that she will be kicking my ass at Tekken in no time. Learning about and playing games has made her a lot more accepting of the time and effort that goes into making one. I donít think sheíll ever be thrilled at the concept of 16-hour work days or 7 day work weeks, but sheís getting there. :)

I truly believe that the number of female gamers is going to skyrocket in the next five to ten years and Iím excited to be a part of it. Iím going to continue to do my part as a developer and as a gamer to ensure that women are fairly represented in games and in the gaming community and given the same opportunities to play and enjoy computer games as men are. Are you willing to do your part to help? I sure hope so. The first step has already been taken and more often than not, the first step is the hardest.

  - Kenn Hoekstra is a game designer at Raven Software.


Credits: Guest Editorial logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. This Guest Editorial is © 1999 Kenn Hoekstra. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited and not nice.