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GDC 2012: Dealing With Gender Issues In Games—And Game Development

Posted on March 5, 2012 AT 03:19pm

“I just assumed that once you had a team that’s diverse, the magic would happen, and you’d have this perfectly-balanced outflow, and gender issues and race issues would just disappear. Wow—was I wrong.”

Those words came from Mia Consalvo, a Games Researcher from Concordia University who talked about the work her and her development team did on Eksa: Isle of the Wisekind during her GDC 2012 panel titled “Gendering a Game: Strategies for Team and Content Management in Student-based Game Design.”

The goal for Eksa was to create a game which could explore how social interaction can be made to be more meaningful for players of social network games—no matter their age, race, or gender. Consalvo explained that—as the product owner—she worked hard with Game Director Sara Verrilli to put together a diverse staff of student programmers and artists. The thought was that—with a staff that was equally balanced between male and female students—the types of gender issues that typically crop up in game development wouldn’t occur for Eksa. As we already know, however, that assumption was wrong.

This was the crux of Consalvo’s presentation: That even if diversity exists in the types of people brought onto a game project, natural subconscious decisions can crop up which undermine that diversity. Consalvo explained how, for example, the art staff—just by nature—worked on creating assets for male characters and NPCs first, which meant when time-sensitive presentations for the game were needed, they often featured male representation exclusively.

Problems even showed through in the targeting of the game. Consalvo noted that the plan from the start was to have Eksa target both male and female players equally, but that she found conversation about the player during the process of creating the game almost always referred to this supposed player as “he”.

Why is all of this important? Because if—during the creation process—a game’s development team is not always reminding themselves of the diversity of the end player base that particular game is targeting, it can be very easy for elements to slip into the game that then actively work to alienate said player base.

There was also one other element to Consalvo’s presentation that I found very interesting—the discussion about how important character representation and customization can be. For some, the choice of aspects such as character gender, or the greater ability for deeper character customization, may seem like little more than a nice additional option. For other potential players—especially those who are female, or a part of other minority groups in gaming—those options can make a world of difference in being able to connect with and enjoy a particular game.

“Most of the research that I’ve done and that I’ve seen has focused on games with an active avatar in the world, and for 90% of women, it’s incredibly important to have that choice—even if it’s a binary choice between this version and that version,” Consalvo told me when I asked her about the idea that character choice can be just as major of a factor in games where you don’t see your character as it can be in those where you do.

“Obviously, players like that customization, and you’re right [about that importance]—even in games like Skyrim, where I take forever to customize this character that I never see again. You know, unless I click out to third-person view, and am like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what she looks like!’”

Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got started via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as can realistically be crammed in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk Eric on Twitter: @Eric_EGM. Meet the rest of the crew.

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