Electronic Gaming Monthly: Designing Women [1998]

Designing Women 

Date: September 1998

Author: Lauren Fielder

Source: Electronic Gaming Monthly, issue 110, pp.131-133.

And you thought women didn’t dig video games. Turns out they’ve been building them for years. Strange, considering all the times their male fellow gamers have snapped…

Not every girl dreams of being a video game cheerleader, dressing the side of an arcade machine like a single, weary curtain while her boyfriend lays Heihachi and Law to rest. Nor does every girl dream of becoming the screen-borne leather-clad miscreant or dismantled damsel in distress. Yet these images seem to be the available female time slots in prime-time gaming. Months of research and a bit of industry temperature taking, however, say that behind just about every good game, there’s a woman.
But making that know hasn’t been easy, as in spite of the surprising number of female developers who’ve emerged on the scene – matched with the lukewarm media coverage of the issue in the past – men still hold the majority voice in the game industry. And nobody knows this better than the women who are developing the games we play. EGM spoke with several of the prominent names producing, programming, designing and conceptualizing console and arcade titles, in hopes of finding out why it’s taken so damn long for women to join this circus. In the ned we found that perhaps it’s true that the old, set-in-its-ways gaming-development beast is finally kicing its gender flu – and that Lara Croft has absolutely nothing to do with it.
First of all, women have been aboard for years – even predating Pac-Man. When Carla Meninsky was a programmer, designer and group leader for Atari from 1979 to 1984, she was one of the few women in the industry. “When I first started,” she explained, “most of the developers were electrical engineering majors, some had advanced degrees. They were some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever worked with and not your typical engineering-nerd types, either. But there was a stigma attached. The other two women in the field at the time were constantly hearing, ‘Why don’t you get a real job?’ from their friends and spouses. For a woman with an advanced degree, it was hard to justify why you were spending your life contributing to the delinquency of minors.”
Perhaps figuring out where the stigma originated is the first step. “Video games started out with a stigma,” Meninsky said. “When video games first came out, they were placed in bars—typically a male hangout— and they were games of skill that relied on fast reactions. Without the practice and the ‘tricks’ it was impossible for you to win. Atari even had a requirement that forced the games to get dramatically harder after 90 seconds of play. What woman is going to hang out in a bar all day just to get good at video games?”
But long before the days of 32- andd 64-Bit systems, companies recognized that the untapped female market presented opportunities and wanted to explore any way to improve sales. Meninsky was approached, on occasion, by the CEO of Atari, who spoke with her about creating women’s titles, such as shopping and socializing games. According to Meninsky, this showed a complete lack of understanding what women wanted in games.
Meninsky left her last industry position, programming and designing 3D game engines for Electronic Arts, a year ago to start her own company, RLO Consulting, in which she provides 3D graphics consulting. She suggested that, ultimately, perhaps the best way for women to get ahead in this industry is to blaze their own trails.
One such trailblazer is Joanna Alexander of Zombie VR Studios, a Seattle-based development house that’s notably about 30 percent female. Alexander and partner Mark Long started the company in 1991, and three years later producer Linley Storm joined the staff. Storm and Alexander credit philosophical likeness to the remarkable number of women on their development teams, and, likewise, to understanding women and games.
EGM asked them what they think women want from games. “I think a lot of women, when they enter a game, want to come away with something,” said Alexander. “Either an understanding, or the satisfaction of solving something or acquiring some kind of new skill. And even though they’re not looking for educational games, one that’s more contemplative, more intellectual, is much better received by women than the twitch-factor ones.”
But aside from the wants of developers and game consumers, there are other factors involved. The gaming press is largely male. Yet the public relations side of the game industry is largely female, and the products are generally marketed to, and packaged for, a male audience. Storm has her own philosophy on this. “I think people still assume men are making all of the decisions,” she explained, “all of the important ones.”
Alexander agrees. “This misplaced belief is really at the heart of a lot of what you see in the game meetings, and in the general flavor of the whole community,” she said. But the decision maker at OddWorld Inhabitants (developer of Abe’s Oddysee) is CEO Sherry McKenna. McKenna spent years in the Hollywood special effects industry, and though her partner, Lorne Lanning, had gone crazy when he spun her a yarn about his video game “concept.” But when he promised superior image quality and storytelling, the Oddworld Quintology was born.

Coming from the movie business, McKenna’s experiences are not the same as many of the video games programmers, designers and producers we’ve interviewed, but admittedly, she says, “It’s not called a man’s world for nothing.” According to McKenna, her first game, Abe’s Oddysee, garnered double the standard female sales figures for the Sony PlayStation when it came out. So McKenna seemingly tapped into something. Her recipe, simply, was to “Make the games taste good.”
McKenna’s solid beliefs against animal testing, and for healthful living were hand-sewn into the Abe’s Oddysee framework. However, McKenna believes the cure to everything is communication, and that is quite obviously the key element of gameplay within her titles.
But what really makes the Abe series interesting, is its broad appeal—notably the big “something” game companies are reaching for, and perhaps the reason the industry is becoming more accepting of female developers. Not only did the title attract a lot of female players; it attracted just as many males. EGM asked McKenna what the recipe was. “If you want to shoot down everything [in Abe’s Oddysee], you could go ahead and do it,” she said. “We weren’t going to stop you—this is a game. However, we won’t reward you for doing it. And you don’t get to beat the game.”
Expounding on the character’s appeal, McKenna said, “We want you to empathize with Abe. We want you to care for him. When I look at Lara Croft, and everyone’s saying how enlightened this game is, I say, ‘Are you serious?’ What are we crazy? Not only is Lara in shorts that are so tight and carrying these big, ridiculous breasts, she shoots every endangered animal on the planet, and we reward her for it. We say, ‘That’s really cool. What a great game this is!’ There is an innate caring about women. Why? It simply goes back to our species. If we care about the character, we realize that there’s a purpose.”
McKenna believes women and girls will play games if the purpose is distinct. But regarding the survival of women in the game industry, she said, “As long as we single ourselves out by creating great games with great content, we’ll be accepted. If we want to single ourselves out just because we’re women, then we shouldn’t expect to be taken seriously by anyone other than other women.”

Sherry McKenna