Friday, June 10, 2011

Games vs. Gamers: E3 Edition

Hello, world. My name is Kate Cox, and I'm a gamer.  My 2011 obsessions are the Fallout and Mass Effect franchises, I was dedicated to MMORPG gaming for 6 years, I named my cat Guybrush, I can quote Cave Johnson speeches with the best of them, I play casual games on my PC and Android, and I'm planning to start catching up on the Deus Ex games next week so that I'm ready when Deus Ex: Human Revolution comes out this summer.

I'm also a woman.  I don't hide that one here on my own blog, but I'm stating it for the record.  I'm married to a gamer guy, but I had the games 20 years before I had him.  Gaming brought us together; he didn't "convince his girlfriend" to try it.

Why the recap of my life story?  Because apparently Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft, and others still don't believe that I actually exist, and I'm not sure how else to convince them that I do.

I hadn't been planning to write about E3 at all; the shiny new things marketing circuit isn't really my beat.  But for some reason I ended up watching the streams of all of Monday's big press conferences, and then was home sick on Tuesday and so left the TV on G4 to catch that round as well.

(Okay, I'll admit it, we all know this was the "some reason.")

Where in the last 6 months in particular I have felt very comfortable writing about games and interacting (via Twitter and this blog, among other places) with other writers and with game designers, sometimes I get one of those heavy-handed reminders that I am still neither the target demographic of these products, nor a demographic these marketers particularly care about one way or the other.  I might, they concede, occasionally use the game machine that my husband, boyfriend, father, or brother insists on keeping in the living room, but the "core" games are best kept far away from me.

And how do the big companies tell me this?  Passively and actively.  Let's look at both.

Every person on stage for the Microsoft presentation was male... up until they got to the "soft" presentations of Kinect-ready non-core and non-gaming fluff.  For Mass Effect 3 Shepard and his player are both men, but for talking to the console and asking for it to find Lego, Star Wars, and Harry Potter titles for you, you have a woman.

In addition to the actual on-stage presence, there were issues of body language.  The men were nearly all standing, and assertively (although some were focused on playing their demos).  The first woman to appear on stage was seated, and spoke on cue.  The other girls and women to appear in the Microsoft event were mainly all in the "embarrassingly awkward and pointless" half of the line-up, with the exception of the female half of the two-player Dance Central team.  (Although dance games aren't my thing, I didn't find that team's presentation awkward or unbearable, and the dancers both worked equally hard.)  The one woman to be featured alone and not speaking on others' cues was there to show how her personal style can be scanned into an XBox Live avatar.

And then of course there was the Tomb Raider preview... featuring a screaming, moaning, bound and struggling woman.  This is the best they can do for Lara Croft?  This is the woman who, for 15 years, has been the go-to example for the "chest diameter does not equal protagonist incompetence" crowd.  She was the female answer to Indiana Jones, and the inspiration for the Uncharted franchise.  And now she's reduced to half-orgasmic torture porn screaming?

Granted, I don't know that a trailer or even a gameplay demo ever speaks accurately of the entire content of a game, but my opinion of the game is certainly less than stellar so far.  With a chance to reboot the franchise and take it beyond the "boobies hurr hurr hurr" demographic and into "intelligent action-adventure gaming," they've kept at least the marketing firmly planted in "male gaze" territory.

EA was no better, as far as gender representation.  Their games look excellent (not gonna lie, pretty much drooled on myself watching the Mass Effect 3 material, even in the complete absence of FemShep) but they certainly didn't seem inclined to acknowledge that women exist.  I also don't recall much in the way of any female presence at Sony's event, though it is possible I have forgotten.  The fourth major media circus of the day can be hard to remember.

All of that said, the lack of acknowledgement that I exist isn't the worst a company can do.  It's thoughtless, and shows the male privilege that a lot of the marketers, designers, and other relevant players have, but it's not malicious.  In fact, I'm going to say it's probably still better than what Ubisoft did.

Oh, Ubisoft.  I mean, really?  I've linked a nearly-full 76-minute video there, but everything wrong with it can be summed up in two words: Mr. Caffeine.

He (real name Aaron Priceman) is apparently a personality designed to market products to us.  Not a game designer, as so many of the awkward executive speakers at E3 are, but very obviously a salesman.  This is the person Ubisoft chose to emcee and to be the voice of their 2011 and 2012 blockbuster announcements.  And what did this corporate mouthpiece say?
You see, the world of technology has changed a lot since 1986, and so has gaming.  Today, 97% of young people play video games!  40% of them?  Are women!  And 89% of them?  Are smokin' hot.  I know this, I've investigated.
Now this has made a whole new group of pick-up lines available, I'm sure you guys know, like: "Hey! Wanna come over and play my Wii?"  "We should Kinect!"  "Hey, thanks for the Sony Move!  Here, hold my joy wand."  Yes, I'm not afraid of a few dick jokes, thank you.

In the video linked above, this segment runs from roughly 12:30 - 12:40.  However, notice the edit at 12:35, where it cuts to a wide shot?  All of the references to women (and their hotness) have been edited out.

To see the original, cue up to 12:33 in this version:

I really don't know what to make of the choice to edit the remark out of the first video.  On the one hand, someone clever realized just how boneheaded and offensive it was.  On the other hand, that script made it through rehearsal, onto the teleprompter, and out of Priceman's mouth before anyone clever managed to realize just how boneheaded and offensive it was.  I am just glad that I was able to find a copy of the original.

Mr. Caffeine there was right about one thing, though, and that was just how many of us laydeez are out there.  In fact, the 2011 ESA Survey does indicate that I'm in good company, and less alone than ever.  82% of gamers are over 18.  42% are girls or women.  And 37% of us are both.

Let's recap that: nearly 40% of all video game consumers are adult women.  Boys 17 and younger represent 13% of gamers.

This leaves us with the perennial conundrum, the question at the very heart of this entire blog: Why does gaming marketing remain so heavily focused on the juvenile few, and so exclusionary toward the adult many?  Faced with a true statistic -- that we form over 40% of a potential consumer base, just as we form roughly 50% of the actual population -- Ubisoft goes the stupid route.  They could embrace us, or at least tolerate us, or try in some way to convince us to buy their games.  Instead, they brainlessly alienate us, and keep setting us aside as the other.  (And the "pickup lines" weren't even funny; his entire presentation was a crime against comedy.)

Here's a protip, Ubisoft: it's not all Peggle out our way in female territory.  Some of us like games where you shoot stuff.  Some of us really like games where you're sneaky and stab stuff.  Oh, wait!  You make one of those!

So in the future, can we maybe skip the casual sexism and go right to the gaming?  (Because that really is a fantastic trailer, I like it more every time I watch it.)  You do that, and I won't object to giving you my money.  And hey, who knows: maybe giving you more of my hard-earned US dollars will convince you I exist.  In 25 years of your illustrious history it hasn't yet, but for a gamer hope springs eternal.


  1. Well, looks like I go back to boycotting Ubisoft. After the Pool of Radiance sequel which would erase your C drive in not-especially-rare circumstances, I stopped playing anything they released for...lets throw a rough number of 7 years out there, before I decided I could stomach even buying a used game from them.

    This is as good a reason as any to scratch them off the list again...

  2. Aw HELL no.  As if we exist solely for the pleasure of another gender? 

    The whole pink box gaming thing really annoys me.  I understand that there are women who don't like video games, and hardly ever play them.  But a small (I'm arguing) subset of a bigger population does not an entire group make.  Or something.

    And if you really want to be annoyed about obvious gender bias in gaming, check out the NHL series of games.  While they're really great games, it's obvious they think the only people playing them are twentysomething males.  The games are total fantasy--the NHL--if they're smart--is never going to make me overlord of a team.  So as long as they're fantasy, why can't my little avatar in game be female? 

    Why can't I choose to play with women's hockey teams?  Women's ice hockey is the fastest growing sport, last I looked.  They have international and all-star teams in the NHL games already, so it's not like they'd need to code a different set of rules.  A few different models and some modifiers, and you've got a new team.

    Then there's the other obvious bias at work, which is how women's sports teams are viewed as novelties, not serious contenders. 

  3. Great post! That Ubisoft thing is embarrassing; glad I didn't watch the stream from their press conference.

    In other news, as a fellow Mass Effect and Jennifer Hale fan I thought you might like to hear that BioWare is working on a trailer featuring the TRUE Shepard. (See 3:30.) Even as a guy I'm usually a bit alienated by their seemingly tone-deaf marketing, so I was glad to see some progress.

    I also wanted to say that Naoko, the female dancer you mentioned, is actually Dance Central 2's lead producer! Alli, another Harmonix developer, wrote a bit about the unspoken assumption that all women at conventions must be booth babes (which assumption now probably includes "or token casual gamers"); I think it's worth calling that out when we can.

  4. (Or at least, she was DC1's lead producer...maybe someone else took over for the sequel while I wasn't looking.)

  5. The FemShep bit is disappointing.  For ME2 (and DA2) the official Bioware/EA line was that the "marketing research" compelled them to only have 1 iconic Shepard/Hawke, which naturally would be male.  I think I've read that they are compiling footage for a FemShep trailer.  Here's hoping.

  6. The FemShep trailer, to come sometime this summer, has been confirmed.  (Dan Bruno links the relevant interview in his comment above.)  I, personally, am extremely excited for it and am willing to admit that their putting a FemShep on the collector's edition is the last thing that pushed me over the edge into switching my pre-order.

    I actually have another post in the works about how interesting it is watching marketing change in response to succinct and sustained desire from the fan base.  It can and does happen.  Which makes Ubisoft's neanderthal stance all the more disappointing.

  7. I was at the PAX East panel where Alli Thrasher spoke about how booth babes devaule the presence of women devs, and I thought it was a brilliant point.  I've been directing anyone who says "booth babes aren't so bad" directly to her post, heh.

    Microsoft's event in particular seemed to have a really weird blend of development-related people and paid actors on stage.  I didn't know that Naoko was a Dance Central dev but I'm glad to hear it.  Apparently actual knowledge and talent shine through even when the presenter in question doesn't have a speaking role!

    (Also I heard about the FemShep trailer through Twitter a day or two ago and have to admit to getting all in an excited tizzy about it.  What can I say?  I've apparently become a fangirl through and through, and I'm amazed that sustained fan demand actually is helping with a gender-in-marketing issue.)

  8. Awesome.  That will teach me to skim the comments.

    I really hope ME3 is successful for Bioware along these lines.  I mean, I'm sure it will be both commercially and critically successful, but it would also be cool if something like including the female version of the protagonist gives them a measurable uptick in women/girls playing their game.

  9. honest question: should women's hockey be part of the nhl game franchise, or something entirely separate? even broader, what about (professional league) sports games in general?

    i ask not because i think that there can't (or shouldn't) be sports games starring women; it's just that i know that huge amounts of money go into licensing for prominent players and leagues. i know i for one would be thrilled to have an iteration of nba 2k__ with the option to select other leagues, a la the fifa franchise (but even broader, to include women's sports). but it's pretty expensive to do so.

    i do think that it would be a bad (business) idea to develop and market a wnba game, or a women's hockey game, as a standalone product. but i don't see why there isn't necessarily room for more leagues within the existing structure of sports games.

  10. I couldn't speak to the other sports games, because I'm really not a fan of them.  But the NHL games already have most of the European leagues.  So why not the women's leagues, too?  (And they've got a couple historic teams, too.)

  11. I gave up on trying to get game companies to understand how stupid their marketing choices were towards women a decade and a half ago. I'm even more of a gamer now and boy, sometimes, I am seriously embarrassed that I like video games. But not enough to stop playing.

  12. The WNBA would be the easiest. My (very vague) recollection is that the rules are basically International rules (which you can already choose in the main game in every NBA video game I've played). It is also a subsidiary of the NBA, so there's a well worn path to licensing there. Women's soccer could easily be included in FIFA games (unless FIFA isn't actually the relevant governing body, but I'm pretty sure they've got their tentacles into all iterations of the game everywhere). Publishers and developers already collect stats about online play, some games even do it regarding "offline play" where you're connected to an online service simultaneously (like the EA account connections in Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 It would be a trivial matter to see whether those teams were getting enough play to warrant consideration of a forked game. You wouldn't need to remake the engine (like EA ever does?) so it wouldn't be as huge an outlay as taking a dive on an entirely built-from-scratch WNBA game would be.

    In women's hockey there are significant rules differences. No checking, for one, which alone requires a significant rules change, screws up your statistical model, and requires a lot more than just reskinning. I don't personally understand why women play softball instead of baseball in this day and age, but then again that schism has never made any sense to me, especially when I'm pretty sure there were girls on my little league teams or on the teams I played against. 

  13. Before anything else: OOOOF, Ubisoft! That's pretty eff'ing sexist. I'd definitely join up a fight to force some kind of righting of that wrong.

    I'm going to play devil's advocate for a minute. The stat "40% of gamers are women" is a broad, top-line data point. That number does not average out across all genres. For example, according to Wikipedia, 74% of casual gamers are women. And read what the Zynga folks have to say about women gamers in their wheelhouse:,news-10445.html

    Point being, I have to believe that the percentage of women in the hardcore group is much lower, which is why Microsoft, EA, etc. are picking and choosing how they market each game / genre. I'm sure there's a significant number of women playing Mass Effect, but ultimately they have to pick which gender Shepherd to use and it'll be determined by the majority (and other long-term marketing goals, research, etc.). (And for what it's worth, my Shep is an ass-kicking lady. I say 'lady' because she's usually very polite ...until she's shoving people out of windows.)

    I'm not putting out there to defend any one company. I'm just offering what I think is the reason why you see what you see (again, Ubi-jackoffs aside). I don't work in gaming, but I do work in marketing. And it does suck to be so repeatedly 'minoritized' with a thing you personally love so much. Just stay vocal about representing yourself and your demographic (not to belittle your argument, I'm just using their terms), and keep comfortable enjoying these games you love no matter how their creators market them.

    (I'm going to entirely avoid the quagmire conversation that is Tomb Raider's gender empowerment vs. gender exploitation.)

    Lastly, similar to 'vote with your dollars', think about devaluing the 'en masse' E3, and put more energy in the PAX's of the world. PAX gets it (see: banning booth babes), and their people are real. E3 is such a massive commercially-driven event, I find it hard to take anything seriously beyond the very simple act of developers announcing things.

  14. Wait, you don't want to play Charm Girls 3: Return to the Mall?

  15. I've heard a lot of terrible things about Ubisoft, but this is new (and low).

  16. I find it hilarious the Ubisoft was the biggest female offender considering their self-proclaimed "pro female" stance with the Frag Dolls.

  17. I think I pretty much agree with your argument that many of these women gamers aren't buying the same games as male gamers. I did some research and posted a response (; it really looks like that since the minority of women who game frequently buy the same games as men, that there isn't a reason to target them specifically (i.e., they're already buying games).

    I do agree with Kate that I'd really like to see more "serious" games that consider females as part of their audience.

  18. I'm slowly working on a rebuttal to this idea (and the many who have expressed it to me), and it's slow because it requires a lot of research that may or may not exist.

    But the gist of what I'm working on is this: it's a bit of a chicken and egg phenomenon, right?  There are games in the past that have interested me, and that I've felt I personally need to stay the hell away from, because of implicit or explicit messages of "YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE."  And I'm someone who's obviously made the jump into being generally comfortable with participation in gamer culture.

    My mom loves the hell out of her DSi XL now that she's used to it, but that's after 20+ years of being convinced that those things (being all handheld consoles) were "just for boys," and shocked that her own adult daughter would own one.  When the message is "go away, we don't want you," I hardly find it surprising that so many girls and women go away.

  19. I just found this post via Twitter...and I'm so glad that your blog is out there! This is a great issue that bothers me on a nearly daily basis.

    Speaking of Ubisoft...the only thing I've ever really liked by them was that little cult game for the original Xbox, Beyond Good And Evil, which had a great main character who was also a (non-oversexualized) woman. It's available as a XBL download in HD now.

  20. Speaking of Frag Dolls, can someone point me to some more outside information on them?  Is there anything more to them than a marketing gimmick by Ubisoft?

    After the public blog post by one of their members that bashed the Legend of Zelda series (and the people who liked it) and extolled Assassin's Creed series as better, it left a pretty bad taste in my mouth. Even leaving out the obvious fact that Assassin's Creed is published by her sponsor and therefore there's immediate bias, bashing a game/games you admit to not even have played all the way through... Not cool.