Self-Fulfilling Disappointment

Shae Tiann -- Gallente renegade, Gurista. Threat level: Taranis.
Shae Tiann — Gallente renegade, Gurista. Destroys ships for fun.

In 2010, I was moderately known as a blogger writing about EVE Online; those of us seen as “regulars” with decent writing skills were loosely known as the Blog Pack. One of our number, CrazyKinux, ran a monthly event known as the Blog Banter, where a subject would be chosen for all of us to venture opinions about.

I rarely participated in these unless the topic was of enough personal interest that I could contribute a couple thousand words. One in particular was a topic which made me just roll my eyes: the question of “How can we get more women to play EVE?”

EVE has an extraordinarily low percentage of female players for an MMO; an estimated 4% of EVE accounts are known to be registered to women, while most other MMOs average 25% or more. There are a number of theories as to why this might be, from the competitiveness of the game to the lack of a human-like character one can use to interact with the game world.

So anyway, I initially had no intention of getting involved in that particular Blog Banter. I’d heard it all before, how the game ought to be changed to appeal more to women; as far as I was concerned, most of those proposals were more likely to drive myself and a majority of the existing women subscribers AWAY from the game if they were ever given serious screentime.

But then I browsed a few of the responses, and the sheer volume of stupid just blew my mind. Some of the comments made during the course of the responses were so outrageously clueless that… I couldn’t stay silent. I just couldn’t. Something had to be said.

So I wrote this in response to the responses. It got a lot of the right attention, and a bit of the wrong attention, and I felt my point had been made, particularly here:

In order for a person to enjoy playing games, they have to WANT to play them in the first place.

Four years later, and I still firmly believe it is true that the people who are aware of a game’s existence and do not play it, are simply not interested in getting to know the material further.

But the bigger picture is still being left out. What about the people who might be interested, if only they knew the game was there to be played?

Responsible adults; yes, we are.
Responsible adults; yes, we are.

We live in a world where the overwhelming majority of the under-50 population are gamers. They might not consider themselves gamers, but whether your entertainment of choice is Angry Birds on your phone, a round of Trivial Pursuit with your family, Netrunner over a pint at your local, or Halo on a console, it’s still a game and you still qualify. There’s a good pdf resource here with demographic comparisons. Playing games is no longer the venue of nerdy loners, it is an indelible aspect of modern life and can be found in nearly every country in the world regardless of its development level.

And this is why it’s not just annoying but outright disgraceful to see, in 2014, people still saying “There are no women on the internet” and “Girls don’t play this game”. Because there are women online — quite openly and obviously — and we do play those games. Some of us helped make those games. And yet, we live in a world where a male developer can tell a female developer, who has played the game since its early days, “you are not the target demographic”.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The impression that women are not proportionally represented online is directly fed by marketing for online content which not just ignores but actively excludes women, which is in turn run by people who have bought into the idea that women don’t use online or game content. It’s an unfortunate, circular cycle. It is also long dead; a fossilised relic of a bygone era, a zombie mantra clinging desperately to a world that has moved on.

Part of this is the result of standard marketing technique — if your initial campaign grabs 40 out of 50 representatives of Demographic 1, and 20 out of 50 from Demographic 2, it is patently more cost-effective to go after that last 20% of Demographic 1 than it is to try for the remaining 60% of Demographic 2. The problem, however, is that an additional 20% of Demographic 2 is potentially also interested, but thanks to standard marketing technique, a full 60% of that demographic is getting ignored.

Source. I wouldn’t be caught dead reading something that looks like this.

In 2014, I still hear the same infantilising suggestions as I did at EIEF back in 2007 about getting women interested in games. Pastel colours! Dating sims! Let them decorate stuff!

Here’s a totally crazy, insane concept; it might be a little tough to grasp, but give it a chance. What if… no, really, just suppose that companies’ marketing approached women as if they were sensible adults willing to spend money on your product just the way it is? No changes to the product. No content added or modified to “cater” to the demographic. Just… modify the marketing approach.

I know, crazy, right? It’s so utterly off the standard approach, it might as well be popping in through a wardrobe from Narnia. I’ll give you a moment to recover your sensibilities.

Look. In our example marketing test, 40% of Demographic 2 likes your product the way it is, and another 20% might be interested in it if you just approached them the right way. The remaining 40% wouldn’t be interested in any case, and offering to change the product to appeal to that 40% is going to utterly drive the initial 60% away (and possibly a substantial chunk of Demographic 1 in the process). That’s clearly the wrong direction to go; so why do so many people — people who really ought to know better — make these proposals?

Is it a joke? A way of saying, “Do you really want women in your game? Because we’d have to add dress-up games and pink paint, and you don’t really want that, do you? We didn’t think so”? That’s almost worse than these proposals being serious.

I’d like to make a suggestion that can fix all of this:

Revise your target demographic.

What kind of audience are you targeting with your game? Trekkies? Adrenaline junkies? Lovecraft fiends? The kind of people who will spend New Year’s Eve watching the entire Lord of the Rings Extended Edition with their friends, or the sort who prefer to go paintballing for an afternoon?

What kind of gameplay are you offering? Suspense? Shooter? Roleplaying? Can the player accomplish a goal within half an hour, or would it require the entire evening?

How complex is the content? Is it straightforward, or does it require abstract thinking to work through it?

And please, please, stop using exclusionary tactics. “We only want certain types of players” is the wrong mentality — I saw this enough at the office, and while I will agree that certain types of people will not be a good match for certain games, it’s not up to the developers to actively enforce it. Let the player decide for themself whether they’re the type of player who will enjoy your game — don’t drive them away before they’ve had a chance to at least consider it.

You never know when a new demographic will surprise you.