An Open Letter to Game Developers

Or, how you’re killing your own business, alienating most of the population, and making yourselves irrelevant.

I am a gamer. I’ve been one all my life — from Memory and Hungry Hippos as a pre-schooler through Oregon Trail and Zork in elementary school, to D&D and GURPS in middle school and beyond. I had a brief flirtation with White Wolf in college, LARPed, role-played, got heavily into re-enactment, lost whole vacations to CRPGs and still keep Baldur’s Gate on my iPad.

I love games. They inspire my creativity and even when I was in the Candyland stage of development, I made up stories — proto-fanfic — about my games.

The last game I bought was a tower-defense game called Kingdom Rush that is pretty much only for casual use, when I’m waiting for something and don’t want to get sucked into a book. I just can’t be arsed to contribute to an industry that doesn’t take me seriously.

There was a renaissance of gaming in the late 90s and early 2000s, when growing companies were producing cooperative, detailed and well-scripted games for 1-6 players. Bioware was the leader of the pack, with Baldur’s Gate and its sequels, Planescape, Icewind Dale, then Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Diablo from Blizzard, the Elder Scrolls Chronicles from Bethesda, and a whole host of other games filled the free hours of a lot of women in my circle. The games were somewhat safe spaces — there was blood and guts and gore, but if we played with others, we knew who they were, and we didn’t have to play in an environment of strangers.

Then three things happened. First Person Shooters in the form of Doom, Quake and Halo became Hot New Things; consoles went on-line, and MMORPGS launched. At the same time, the web democratized — message boards, blogs and social media became platforms to which marketing paid attention, and at first, that made sense. The people who were likely to be chatting at or on a game-specific board were probably the most technologically savvy, wealthy and connected 1% of the target market.

Then the disasters: game companies went public or got bought by publicly traded corporations and internet speech got much more universal and cheap. A publicly traded game company has the same responsibility to its stockholders as a publicly traded widget company — to maximize the quarterly profits for the stockholders. That means taking minimal risks and producing the same known money spinner rather than innovating. Thus, while in 2000, there were 465 computer games produced, of which 21% were small-group cooperative play environments, in 2013, there were 3750 games of which >1% were cooperative.

At the same time, the growth of MMORPGS allowed thousands if not millions of people to play together, and the worst instincts of some people went somewhat viral. Games were no longer a safe space at all for anyone who wasn’t born wearing rhino-hide armor. It was no longer possible to come home from a day of listening to the jerk from procurement edge around the line between jerk and sexual harassment, put on the game and blast away at six dozen orcs while imagining them wearing jerk’s face. Now the jerk and all of zir spiritual cousins were in the game, and they weren’t skirting the edge. We lost the escapism.

Some of us just learned to deal with it. We formed women-only clans, or we disguised ourselves and went into the digital closet. We turned off chat or only played old games over and over and over. We learned to mod those old games so that we had something new to play.

We also learned to deal with the griefers because they exist and some people just thrive on the smell of their own drama. But at the same time, the griefers found the newly cheap, newly being-paid-attention-to message boards and started posting.

Here’s the thing with griefers and a certain subset of gamers: they talk big, but they don’t follow through. I’ve seen more posts taking umbrage with some aspect of $NGame (often a very small aspect) which ends with “I will never buy this!” But if one follows their threads, they’ve clearly bought in.

That’s just a thing with gamers that the marketing divisions of the now publicly traded game dev companies doesn’t seem to comprehend. I was a teenager when I realized that gamers (and this was in the P&P days, when gamers would collect at the gaming store) complain because it’s a form of social grooming and it gives people who may not have great social skills a place to find commonality and commiseration. It’s a way to open conversations and practice having conversations. It’s also a very teenage thing, since even in geek culture, being an enthusiast is a bit suspect. (You’re allowed to be a fan, but gushing must be tempered with despair that $N got ruined by $Y.) It’s not the most pleasant aspect of gamer culture, but it’s not like football culture doesn’t have the same fan/whine. There’s nothing like a bad call in an important game to get football fans going. A bad season or even a terrible loss doesn’t result in the fans abandoning the sport — and the NFL understands this. Game Marketers: please catch up.

Same is actually true with computer gaming (including consoles, online, casual). People who are fans will likely shell out for the game and will likely keep coming back as long as they’re not being actively insulted or abused.

And that last line is why women are so very annoyed with the industry right now. (And why a lot of GenX male gamers are annoyed.) The griefers can be safely ignored — if they complain that $NGame has too many female characters or too much magic or not enough levitiating boobs and chainmail bikinis, they’re probably just engaging in their socially inept form of social grooming and will pony up eventually. Having gender parity in characters and in costuming doesn’t hurt the griefers. Lacking it does hurt the female and allied audience, and then we go away. We STOP paying money for shit that hurts us and take up something else. Like etextiles or fan-fic or cat-vacuuming.

My partner bought Tera, hoping for a new game. He played two hours and stopped because, “it feels like furry pedophilia porn.” He’s quit WoW because he doesn’t like the environment — he often plays female characters and really hates getting sexually harassed. We’d love to have a small-group environment like we once had with NWN and BG where we can play together, but that doesn’t exist anymore.

Gaming is both an art and an entertainment industry, and a mass-market platform. By catering to the fan-whine segment of the gaming audience, the industry is self-limiting to that tiny segment. Most of us who play games play the games, we don’t spend 70 hours a week on a message board. Every message on a message board, every blog post, is time not spent playing. The fact that a game like Baldur’s Gate, which is more than a decade old, is still gaining user-generated content, mods, hacks, still has cooperative online play AND has a 75% female audience says that there is a market for games with strong story lines and gender parity. Give us good visuals, cooperative play and music and you’ll have a customer base.

I’m not still playing Baldur’s Gate entirely because I love it. I do love the game, but I’ve got nothing to move on to. Which makes no sense — it was an incredibly successful franchise. It fits into other incredibly successful fictional fantasy ‘verses. The opportunity is totally there. My money is on the table, game publishers. Please take it.

Build small environment games. Build for cooperative play — families play together. Build gender parity. Pay for good scripts. Invest in story. It’s easy to get women to take gaming seriously. Don’t insult us.

2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Game Developers

  1. >My money is on the table, game publishers. Please take it.

    Except, apparently it isn’t, since you say you haven’t bought any games since, and there ARE plenty of female-inclusive games out there, especially among indies. Do games not count if they’re not released by the absolute biggest publishers with the absolute biggest marketing budget?

    Those are the publishers who care the least about you. It’s the smaller developers, the ones who are trying new things, the ones not hemmed in by shareholder forecasts and marketing divisions, who desperately need your support to survive.

    1. Point me at them. I’d love to, but there’s a vicious cycle at work, too — the game reviewers I once relied upon for a limited level of curation have moved on to other gigs, the sheer amount of press has gotten overwhelming because the volume of production has increased, and the signal to noise ratio keeps rising. (In part because the major companies are producing so much noise that even signal boosting by the indie fans no longer breaks through.) Got one link? That’s all I’m asking.

      And the big companies do need the fix, too– they have a nasty tendency to buy any indie that becomes slightly successful, strip mine it, and stop doing whatever it was that made the indie a success. (That’s how Black Isle died, after all…)

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