From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Further Reflections, By Henry Jenkins

From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Further Reflections, By Henry Jenkins

This is an interesting paper by Henry Jenkins that discusses how games appeal to girls, comparing the "Games for Girls" approach of Brenda Laural at Purple Moon, with the "System Simulation" approach of Will Wright at Maxis.

Before I went to Maxis to work on The Sims with Will Wright, I worked at Interval Research. I saw the research and work that Brenda Laurel was doing on games for girls, before Purple Moon spun off from Interval. I found it very interesting and enlightened, and hoped it would be successful. It's illuminating to compare the two approaches, and I think this article makes some great points by doing that.

Girls for Games try to appeal to girls directly, at the expense of appealing to boys, because they recognize that boys and girls are interested in different things. They did a lot of real market research, and went with what it said: they chose to eat the pink pill. Brenda Laurel says that "I agreed that whatever solution the research suggested, I'd go along with. Even if it meant shipping products in pink boxes." As a company, Purple Moon wasn't successful for economic reasons (bravely trying to take on the Barbie juggernaut); but I think it was a successful experiment that was well worth doing, and there's a lot to learn from it. Like "Microsoft Bob", there was some great thought and research that went into it, but the execution was flawed and it got a bad rep from the backlash to all the hype. (It could be said that The Sims is just Bob without the productivity apps.)

Maxis's "Sim" series of games doesn't self-consciously try to appeal to either sex, but consciously tries not to turn away anyone. Maxis designed The Sims in spite of what the focus groups said -- it wouldn't have been interesting nor would it have ever shipped if its design was based on market research. Focus groups told Maxis that boys didn't like the name "Dollhouse", but they didn't predict the importance of user created content.

Just the opposite: the focus groups thought the idea of a game with downloadable plug-ins was bad, because they wanted to get the whole game at once, and weren't interested in the idea of adding pieces to it incrementally; heaven forbid having to make new content yourself! They though Maxis should do all the work to make the game fun, not the players. But it turns out that players have made much more custom content for The Sims than Maxis originally produced! Go figure.

Market research and focus groups are a double edged sword, and no substitute for the good design of a visionary like Will Wright and the other designers (many of them women) at Maxis. Ordinary users that you get in a focus group can't articulate what they want, nor can they say what would make a good game. They can usually tell you if something sucks, but even then they're sometimes wrong, since the focus groups hated The Sims. But focus groups simply aren't qualified to tell you what shade of pink to color the box in order to make the product successful, let alone how to design a good game.

Most game companies simply design games for boys, by boys, about boys, without even thinking about it. Jenkens makes the point that "We were told, for example, that no one designed games specifically for boys. I would suggest that the release of a major piece of hardware known as the game boy, suggests that the industry did identify its products along gender lines."

He makes another great point that I agree with: "I have spoken to Will Wright and others at Maxis and I am reasonably convinced that they were not directly modeling their game on the Girls Game movement products. Rather the decisions they made came out of a context where there were more female designers and more highly ranked female designers than I have seen at any other mainstream game studio. In such a context, even if there is no conscious goal of expanding the female market, the unconscious decisions made by men and women working together is likely to produce a product that is very different from one where the intuitive decisions were made by an all or predominantly male team of designers. Not surprisingly, then, The Sims has proven to be highly successful in attracting female players while at the same time, the product has expanded the range of play experiences available to boys."

The solution is to hire more women as game designers and programmers. But what disgusts me is how many male game developers who tow that line are actually sexist pigs, and only say that because they want more women around to hit on at work and at game developer conferences. I am convinced of this because of the knowing wink, nod and snicker that usually accompanies the statement "I wish there were more women in this industry" from one guy to another. It's tough being the only female in such a hostile environment. So instead of just one token female designer, game companies need to hire enough females to keep those horn dogs in line, and most importantly fire all the sexist pigs (no matter what sex they are).