Updating the Bechdel Test for video games

If you are not familiar with the Bechdel Test, it is a simple test to apply to films; (i) there must be at least two women in it, (ii) who talk to each other, (iii) about something besides a man.

Many films still fail this test, though it was made popular back in 1985. The test only goes as far to look at the visibility of women in film, and to examine that they are defined by more than their relationship to a man. It doesn’t examine how the women are portrayed and a film that passes the test may in no way be a feminist film. It’s simplicity is both it’s strength and it’s weakness.

I’m interested in how this could be applied to the context of video games. But in order for it to work I think there needs to be some changes. So here is my version:

(i)There must be a female character with whom you can interact, (ii) who doesn’t need rescuing, (iii) and isn’t a prostitute.

Such a test comes with the assumption that there are gendered characters within the game. Some games, such as Flow or Space Invaders, do not have any characters of gender.

Samus Aran from Metroid

Samus Aran from Metroid by Ivan Flores

Conversation vs. Interaction

In film, the story is conveyed to a passive audience primarily through the dialogue of the cast. But in gaming, the game is defined by interactions that the player controls. Whether it is shooting, fighting, flying, walking or talking, different games draw on different actions, but it is the the player that performs these actions.

So in creating a test suitable for video games, I am less concerned about women talking to each other, but rather the actions performed to, with or by them. As it’s through these actions that we experience the game. Read More

GameCity 6

Another amazing GameCity, we are in year six now and I’ve attended every year in some form or other. Each year the festival grows and develops in new and interesting ways and this year was no exception. There is no other event like this one, it offers a unique experience to explore and celebrate games, playing, art and their cultural significance. As such it draws a diverse audience from all over and it is these amazing people that really make GameCity the highlight of my year.

So here are some of my highlights and feelings about this year:

Journey and Robin Hunicke

Robin Hunicke presents the development of Journey at GameCity

One of the most profound moments in GameCity history was when Robin played Flower in the arcade behind the Council House, then her talk on creative minds in the same year inspired this blog post. So I was elated to hear she was joining us again this year to play Journey, the latest game from That Game Company.

This year we had beanbags in preparation, with the addition of consoles set up around the tent to play along. Given the collaborative nature of Journey this seemed a great idea and was a natural progression from observer to participant.

Beforehand Robin spoke of the process of creating a game that allowed and encouraged co-operative play, and how to encourage the desired behaviour, instead of griefing and competitive play, so often found online. I always enjoy this insight into the design of the user experience in games. Read More

Games Based Learning: Alice Taylor

Alice Taylor, Commissioning Editor for Channel 4 (and Wonderland blog) talked recently at Game Based Learning, looking at how gaming enables Channel 4 to engage with their target audience of 14 to 19 year old. But also looks at how gaming mechanisms can be used to engage large numbers with an educational agenda.

Video of Alice Taylor

To see the full selection of videos go the the Games Based Learning forum. I’d also recommend Matt Mason’s talk on pirating and how it adds value to the original, touching on how game modding evolved.

Ada Lovelace Day: Robin Hunicke

This year I was really sad to see that the Women in Gaming conference has been cancelled due to low delegate numbers. I am an avid gamer and I think the games industry is sometimes behind other areas of technology, where it could really benefit from getting more women involved in games development. Often women go for the human focused areas of development, such as user experience or copyright, which are often sadly overlooked in games development. Instead there are a steady stream of churned out games like Imagine Babies and its ilk, lacking original gameplay and creativity. While I am glad that the games industry is finally realising gamers are girls and women too and I value a diverse set of games to choose from, I don’t think it all needs to be Barbie dolls and toy soldiers in electronic form. Obviously this isn’t just due to a lack of women, but by cultural stereotypes and an industry that has increasingly large budgets and monolithic development houses. Independant games development however still have a wealth of opportunity.

There are however some amazing women involved in games development, one of whom is Robin Hunicke who is a games designer and producer. While at EA she worked on My Sims and Boom Blocks and their sequels before recently moving to ThatGameCompany, who developed the truly awesome Flower. She combines this with academic study on Artificial Intelligence and Video Games, building bridges between the theory and the application. Her research on dynamic difficulty examines different techniques for representing and reasoning about uncertainty, to see how these approaches can be extended and combined to create flexible interactive experiences that adjust on the fly.

Robin Huckine and her cat Mika

I was lucky enough to see Robin talk at Gamecity last year and she spoke about how in order to be a better game designer you need to do much more than play games that you need to look outwards and experience as much of life a possible, reading and travelling. I think this is great advice no matter what your role, especially where you want to explore creativity. She also spoke passionately about using sketchbooks to capture ideas, to allow you to externalise ideas, and as creative people to capture ideas and work through some concepts, something which has definitely been true in my experience.

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One of the things I’d like to thank Robin for is her focus on making games accessible to a wider audience in creative ways that doesn’t just mean making games easy (and boring). Games like Boom Blocks use complicated physics engines and while it is really easy to get to grips with the gameplay, through the intuitive wii remote and game responsiveness. It doesn’t isolate gamers by being easy or hard, but very cleverly has levels which can be played at a diverse set of skill levels, providing enough of a challenge to keep the most hardcore gamer engaged. It is highly sociable, being a game that begs to be played with friends and one I always get out to play with the non-gamers who come to visit. In addition it allows me to share levels I’ve created online with my friends. All of this adds up to a very accessible and sociable experience that is quite different from most games on the market. I think this a real reflection of the kind of gameplay that should be encouraged in game development when they are looking to widen their appeal.

She said in her letter to Kotaku about her move to ThatGameCompany:

“All my work is united by a single thread. I want to reach new people, with new experiences, via the medium of games and the language of game design.”

Robin’s second area of research also reinforces this, by examining how to evolve game narratives to the next level. Something that I think is essential to help broaden the appeal of gaming and for games to engage their users and to really find its feet as an art form in its own right. She says on her website:

“I’m also interested in how notions of fate, meaning and consequence can be communicated via video games. I believe that consequence is the key to expanding their narrative repertoire – for without consequence, actions have no weight and choices can do little more than satisfy our basest instincts and curiosities.”

I think a great example of this is seeing how Robin moved the Sims franchise along with the MySims release. If you look at the original Sims games you spent your time trying to manage your time between needing a wee and going to work to allow you to buy more stuff for your house. MySims made it less about this sort of capitalist aspiration and more sociable, focusing on developing relationships and creating things to give away, to support a mayor who needs to attract more people to his town. I think one of the things we can learn from the success of Facebook is that if you want to engage a female audience in your games that to make it sociable is a really great way to do it.

Let’s hope we see more people like Robin in the games industry, working as advocates for the indie games industry, as well as growing appreciation for the more user focused aspects such as writers and user experience designers. I highly recommend her UX2009 presentation which really shows how she has exposed the UX role within games development. Thanks Robin.

Ada Lovelace Day: Molly E. Holzschlag

If you are reading this then you are probably already aware of Ada Lovelace Day, but just in case; it is a day dedicated to blogging about women we admire in technology:

I'm choosing to write about Molly E. Holzschlag, and why I admire her. (Disclaimer: fangirl moments are therefore to be expected).

Molly Holzschlag

I've been working with the web for all of my professional career and it became very clear, very quickly that web standards were fundamental in making writing code easier, while more importantly being necessary to create an open and accessible web that was capable of what we hoped and imagined it could do. Although she doesn't know it Molly has been with me every step of my journey, writing about best practice and web standards, shaping the way I and many others work. I started way back with a HTML and CSS textbook and A List Apart and WaSP.

Molly was leader of WaSP (Web Standards Project) from early 2004 through to the end of 2006 and in that time drove real change by recognising that it is not enough to be evangelical about your subject, you need to make connections with and influence those that create the tools and the code inorder to affect the change you want. She helped build relations with Macromedia to influence the tool that web designers were using, and connections with Microsoft to help improve the browser that most people were using. Coming from a history of hacking Dreamweaver to try and force it to write valid XHTML while struggling with browser inconsistencies, it was good to know someone was talking to these corporate giants and refusing to be ignored.

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In 2007 Molly worked with Microsoft to help try and improve web standards support in IE, which filled me with hope despite the mammoth task; anyone who has worked in a large organisation will know they are difficult beasts to change. But she was never afraid to ask the awkward questions even to the man at the top: http://molly.com/2006/12/14/who-questions-bill-gates-commitment-to-web-standards/

Last month she moved to Opera, which I can only imagine to be a complete change and I look forward to seeing what work comes out from that, when she can achieve so much in the face of such adversity I really have to wonder what might be done in a company that offers support for those ideals.

However the reason I admire Molly goes beyond her hard work with web standards, it is also about her ability to build connections; her openess and honesty that comes across online. She doesn't fall into the traps of just code samples (although these have their place), single-minded ranting or blindly insisting that everything worked well, but has an ability to see the bigger picture and to enlighten us in such a way that motivates us to join her in trying to make the web better. Thanks Molly.

But Molly isn't the only woman I admire working in technology although she may be among the most renowned, so I'd like to take this chance to give a bit of recognition to a few others as well:

  • Beatriz Stollnitz (nee Costa) – Part of Microsoft's WPF team, and the go to gal on Databinding. Also a lovely person who was kind enough to let me pick her brainss at TechEd 2006.
  • Sarah Blow – Founder of Girl Geek Dinners and developer. Has always been supportive and helpful in my quest to get Girl Geek Dinners in Nottingham up and running again.
  • Leah Culver – developer at Six Apart, but one of the few female technical speakers I've seen at a conference, thanks in part to her work on Pownce with Kevin Rose.
  • Jo Stray – I've worked with Jo for sometime now and her indepth understanding of usability has been a great guiding compass for me.
  • Susan Hallam – A fountain of knowledge about all things SEO.
  • Aleks Krotoski – Games journalist at the Guardian, but it was her work on Bits many moons ago that had the most impact on me personally, as I realised that girl gamers were more prolific than I knew and they were smart and entertaining too.
  • Jemima Kiss – Tech and media journalist at the Guardian and prolific twitterer, she has an understanding of the web and an ability to write about it coherently and convincingly.
  • Nichola Musgrove – The first designer I worked with, when I was just starting out, she was a great mentor.
  • Amanda Gaynor – One of the few women developers I've had the priveledge of working with. Her enthusasm for her subject and her compassion make me honoured to also have her as a friend.
  • Alice Taylor – By day she is the Commissioning Editor for Education at Channel 4, but I have followed Alice more for her fellow game girl status and her ability to blog about the way gaming influences a wider culture, especially crafty gamers. It might be niche, but it's my niche.
  • Leisa Reichelt – I first heard Leisa talk at FOWA about ambient intimacy which beautifully described the changing way in which we interact, but more than that her work and approach have informed my own, especially in regards to her enthusiasm for agile user centred design.
  • Danah Boyd – Writes about the social side of the web, particularly in regards to teenagers. Some very interesting and well informed writing.
  • Emma Jane – The woman to speak to about anything front end Drupal based.
  • Jean Baird – A photgrapher, but single-handedly responsible for getting me interested in semantics, back in 1999, way before I'd even heard of the Semantic Web.

My Top 5 Feminist Games

Feminist is such a loaded word I almost didn't use it in my title. But really it is about equality nothing more and nothing less, so I think it is appropriate for what I want to write about. I want to take a look at some of my favourite games, that also managed to handle gameplay related gender in a new way or that made me think, hopefully both.

Portal

This game is amazing, it also happens to have an all female cast, but this is no Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball or the Newton defying girls therein, our heroine wears an asexual orange jumpsuit. It is a FPS games, so you aren't aware of your gender in the game at first, but most FPS games have male protagonists if not an all male cast and involve lots of shooting and killing. In portal you don't shoot bullets, but large portal holes which seems almost so obviously pseudo-sexual as to be crass, and perhaps would be if they weren't such a beautiful and fundamental part of what makes this game outstanding; it shifts the aim of the game from killing your opponents to outwitting the AI that has you trapped. Ultimately any game that offers cake as a reward knows exactly which of my buttons to press.

Primal

Primal turns the traditional Mario plot on it's head. At the beginning of the game Lewis is abducted, and it is up to his girlfriend and our heroine Jen to find him and rescue him. Not afraid to kick ass Jen literally morphs into a formidable warrior across the course of the story and thanks to some great voice acting from Hudson Leick and Andreas Katsulas and a descent script we get a much more well rounded character than someone like Samus from the Meteoroid Prime series. The game is based over a series of elemental worlds that thematically support the Gaia hypothesis, named after a Greek mother goddess. Also there is a yin yang relationship between order and chaos throughout the game.

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Tomb Raider

Much has been written about Lara Croft, but the original game was great fun and ground breaking. Released in 1996, a year after TV's female action hero Xena: Warrior Princess hit the screen, gaming saw it's first female lead, one that would give Indiana Jones a run for his money. Unfortunately the Tomb Raider series has failed to develop significantly enough to retain it's leading status in gaming culture, we have seen Lara's exaggerated figure fall foul of ridiculous physical design changes that pander to the fan-boy pin-up fantasy, rather than any real character development. Even the latest instalment which takes some interesting lessons from Assassin's Creed in terms of character movement falls short of the innovative seen in Mirror's Edge.

Screen shot of Jade from Beyond Good and Evil
Jade in Beyond Good and Evil

Beyond Good & Evil

In Beyond Good and Evil, Jade is our main character, but we also see female characters in positions of power throughout the game. In the game, although you can use martial art skills and a Dai-jo stick your main tool is a camera to collect information, document creatures, solve puzzles and ultimately to look for the truth. The story is also interesting because it deals with a corrupt government and notions of the freedom of the press. The characters are well developed and the subtlety of Jade's character is offset by Double-H who is an archetypal masculine hero with a code of honour and a preference for brute force solutions, but he's not dislikeable.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Dreamfall is a sequel, but since I haven't played the original I shall not comment on it. I really enjoyed this game, mostly because of the depth of the plot and the characters in the story. It has obvious comparisons to Beyond Good and Evil; our main heroine is also 20 years old, street smart and trying to crack open a massive conspiracy. April Ryan, the character from the original game, also appears in Dreamfall, but Zoe Castillo is our primary character, who is searching for her missing boyfriend in a similar fashion to Primal and who also travels across multiple worlds to reach her goal. The story also examines themes of religious fanaticism through the third character that you play in the game; Kian Alvane who's faith in his Azadi rulers offers him a means to justify his acts of violence.

So there it is my top five, there are however a few games that deserve an honourable mention; Urban Chaos, released in 1999 was a game with a black woman, Darci Stern, as the main character. However gameplay was lacking and I never finished it, so I can't include it on my list. It was also filled with hookers as Darci was a cop who's task it was to clean up the streets. But nearly ten years later and there is still a very real lack of black female characters in games, all the women in my list are light skinned and dark haired, to the point where it has almost become its own stereotype. Only in Beyond Good and Evil is her ethnicity vague, and while I have seen Jade being described as a black female character, to my mind it is ambiguous rather than explicit. Sexuality is also marginalised, with very few examples of lead characters being explicitly gay. Fear Effect is one game where there is a lesbian relationship alluded to, but since I've not played it I can't comment on its portrayal. Most games are passive about same sex relationships, such as RPG games that allow the gamer to decide, for example The Sims or Fable 2. Jade Empire allowed you to play from a selection of set male and female characters, which can romance different male and female characters depending on your gender, however even with the set characters it is at the gamer's discretion.

Another lacking representation of women in games is in age. Old women just don't exist in games as far as I can tell, and certainly not as primary characters. If there is an old woman she will often take a narrative role, such as in Fable 2, but even then age isn't explicit. Given that older women gamers is a huge growing market, I wonder if this will change as casual gaming becomes even bigger. But I imagine as with other media, where women over fifty seem to disappear as though consumed in a modern day Logan's Run, it will take some time for this to be addressed. Second Life may have unleashed a plethora of virtual furries but few want to play as old people, after all no-one likes to think about getting old.

With the increasing flexibility of RPG characters or gaming avatars and the increase in MMOGs, perhaps we will see this change on-line first. We can use these tools to create change and to challenge our own expectations of our gaming experiences.

Evolution of a Girl Gamer

I have been gaming for all of my life; Space Invaders was released in the same year I was born. I’ve been thinking back about not only how the technology has changed but how my gaming habits have also changed. What started with playing arcade tables in pubs and evolved through to Rock Band on an Xbox360.

My early and only console gaming for a long time was Wizard of Wor and Space Invaders on an old Atari 2600. When we got an Amstrad CPC with only one game; a dodgy flight simulator that took three times longer to load on cassette than I could ever make the game last, I taught myself BASIC instead and sealed my geek fate.

This was the start of my PC gaming habits; we got a 386 and discovered Duke Nukem and Prince of Persia back when they were still 2D platform games, shortly followed by Wolfenstein3D and then Duke Nukem 3D.

From then on I was predominantly a PC gamer, only managing to grab the odd game on console when babysitting or at a friend’s house. Mostly I enjoyed the odd point and click adventure game, especially if it was an Eric Idol voiced Rincewind set in the Discworld.

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My uni years were filled with Unreal Tournament and Tekken 3. This was the first time I remember my gender being significant to my gaming, as I would enjoy going to LAN parties and surprising the lads. It wasn’t until much later that the notion of being a “girl gamer” as opposed to being a “gamer” really came into being. Even when I watched Bits religiously each week and loved it, it was more from the realisation that there were other women out there with the same passion for gaming as me, than some notion of being different from other gamers.

However recently with Nintendo’s success at marketing to the mainstream and female audience with casual gaming, a new notion of “girl gamer”or has evolved, with a stigma attached to it, as though not a ‘proper’ gamer.

As games have evolved, so have the games I play. I play less FPS games now; especially as the many titles focus on being war sims. Over time I’ve enjoyed titles like Fallout, Black and White (despite bugs) and Evolva. Then as I got into console gaming I’ve enjoyed a diversity of games including Katamari Damacy, Psychonauts, Burnout and Guitar Hero. Many of these titles might be considered “girl gamer” titles, so despite my passion for gaming, because I don’t play CoD4 I’m not considered a “hardcore gamer” irrespective of the time and diversity of the games I play. There is an atmosphere that some how girls can’t be ‘proper’ gamers, as they don’t like the ‘right’ games.

For me this shows that the games industry still has some way to go to understand what makes a successful game for their female audience, perhaps due to the lack of women in games development. It seems to come almost as surprise to some developers that their games are successful with women aswell as men, where as there are still games released like My Horse & Me that are so gender stereotypical as to be laughable, but at least now there is a diversity of games available.