"Where's My Crazy Hot Guy?" A Female Designer On Women and Videogames

More female videogamers are grabbing the controller this year, according to a report released yesterday by the  industry-tracking group NPD. The Gamer Augmentation 2009 report revealed that 28 percent of all console videogamers (those who play games on platforms like Wii, Playstation, and XBox) are now female, up from 23 percent last year. Less substantial research suggests that even more PC gamers are female, with  a Nielsen study indicating that women make up 50 percent of those who play videogames on a computer. 

Despite the increasing number of women embracing videogames, companies continue to ignore female players. Videogame site IGN recently ran a contest open only to males, offering a trip to Comic Con (in the face of online outrage, IGN opened the contest to women). Many female gamers felt further marginalized after the print version of Electronic Gaming Monthly folded and Dennis Publishing sent the men’s magazine Maxim to subscribers as a replacement.

These are just some of the most recent affronts to women gamers in the industry. Despite their increasingly strong presence, it appears that the only women game companies seem to be interested in are the scantily clad digital ones writhing on screens in games like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance.

NEWSWEEK's Johannah Cornblatt talked to award-winning game designer Brenda Brathwaite about the progress that female developers and players have made in recent years, as well as the challenges they still face. Brathwaite, a 27-year veteran of the gaming industry, is a professor of game development and interactive design at the Savannah College of Art and Design and serves on the board of the International Game Developers Association. She was named one of the top 20 most influential women in the game industry by Gamasutra.com last year. A self-proclaimed “fighter not lover,” Brathwaite envisions a world of gaming where both men and women are welcome—and where the sex appeal extends to both scantily clad male and female characters. 

What do you think caused the percentage of female gamers to rise by five points over the past year?
The Wii is partly responsible. But I would certainly give some credit to MMOs [massively multiplayer online games]. I know plenty of couples that play World of Warcraft together.

What do the report’s numbers not tell us?
When we look at games overall, the majority of gamers are women in their forties eating up casual games. The console is just one platform.

Do you ever feel discriminated against as a female gamer?
I was just at Best Buy blowing my budget on all the latest games. I go in and someone says, “Wow your husband is going to be so happy.” That actually happens to me frequently when I go into stores.

What about as a female game developer?

As a developer, I have personally never experienced any kind of sexism. All in all, I would say that my experience hasn’t been that the industry is this incredibly sexist place. I find that it’s growing and evolving.

What’s changed for female gamers over the past decade?

I’m excited about the female market because social networking is big now. And females are awesome on social-networking sites, which is really the next space for online games. Furthermore, more and more women are becoming game designers. There was a time literally, within this decade, when I knew every single female game designer out there. Personally. Nowadays, I will meet many women who are designers. That’s crazy exciting. We are growing.

What’s currently your favorite game?
The Civilization series. I’m in a committed relationship with Civilization Revolution.

What about your husband?
My husband doesn’t care for games.

And the kids? Do you see a difference in how your daughters and son respond to games?
I’ve also noticed that my son couldn’t care less about games. But my daughters love them. My 8-year-old absolutely wants to be a game designer. So I have this weird, reversed household.

Many female gamers took offense earlier this year when the print version of Electronic Gaming Monthly folded and subscribers received the racy men’s magazine Maxim as a substitute. What’s your take on the controversy?
Every time that something stupid like this happens, I worry that there are women out there who say I don’t want to work in this industry because it’s a sexist place. I want them to understand that the game industry is the best place on the planet to work. I feel so thrilled to be part of it. While idiotic things happen here, they happen in many other industries.

How could game designers attract more female players?

It’s a question of what you put in games that deliberately excludes players. Am I making my game about do you want to take over the universe and kick someone’s ass? Then I’m probably pushing them [women] away. I know companies want to attract the female player more. I see them actively hiring consultants to explore the female market. That’s exciting. It shows that they’re really taking this market very seriously.

What advice would you give to aspiring female game designers?
We would tell an artist if you want to be an artist, go to a museum. If you want to be a game designer, play games. You want to stuff your head with games. Take notes on the games that you play. Join the IGDA [International Game Developers Association]. Start following female game developers and asking them questions on Twitter.

What’s the most sexist game out there?
In Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, one of the women looks completely like a stripper.
Do I consider celebrating the beauty of a form sexist? No. What I consider is sexist is when you don’t provide the same thing for people who appreciate the other gender. Where’s my crazy hot guy that I want to look at? I wish there were a little more of that.

So you like sexy leads in games?
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have sexy women in games—as long as you provide the option. If I don’t want to run around in my thong in the dungeon, please let me run around in something else.