If you haven’t seen the YouTube series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’ by sister-brother duo Ashly and Anthony Burch, I recommend taking a look (NB, it tends to employ language and jokes that are not appropriate for children or the workplace). This episode on “girl games” got me thinking: what makes a game suitable for female players? What games belong on that list?
To begin, let’s define what “girl games” might mean. I see two potential interpretations:
- Games designed specifically to be marketed to girls or women.
- Games designed to offer an inclusive experience to girls or women.
For the first interpretation, see this terrific article on Polygon for a look at the history of video game marketing. Despite unisex beginnings, the industry decided to push women to the margins of the gaming world, where casual games would lie in wait; boys and men got most of the narratives and explorable worlds. In this post, though, I’ll focus on the second interpretation.
Many game genres — racing games, strategy world builders, puzzles, et al. — have some inherent gender-neutrality because of a lack of individual protagonist-type characters. There’s nothing in Tetris, for example, that specifically excludes women, and although I’m not going to talk about these games here, it is important to remember that we have them. But many games do exclude women in some way, without male players like those parodied in the HAWP episode above having to explicitly shut female players down. Absence of female characters is one way this happens; oversexualization is another. Casting female NPCs as prizes, sex objects, and throwaway stereotypes is yet another. All of these tactics send women the message that they were not considered as players when the game was designed. They are, instead, decoration for the enjoyment of the intended players (men).
Now, on to inclusivity.
If a game offers playable characters and half of them are women (not one out of six), that’s inclusive. If female characters’ body types either are customizable or show variation, that’s inclusive. If female characters are dressed appropriately for the actions they will be performing, that’s inclusive. If a game features a female protagonist and the story isn’t about being female, that’s inclusive — for men, because men should get to play, too.
Here are a few examples of games that fall short:
- Divinity: Original Sin
I like Divinity. William and I play it together and we enjoy the excellent combat mechanics. But it’s a constant source of annoyance for me that my female character has to be wearing high-heeled adventure boots all the time. Many, many RPGs have this problem.
- Mark of the Ninja
In Mark of the Ninja, there’s a female ninja character, but she isn’t playable. You can only play as the male ninja. Why? Many games offer a male protagonist but no female protagonist, but Mark of the Ninja goes the extra mile of recording voice acting and animating all the moves for the female character that you don’t get to play.
- Child of Light
I enjoyed Child of Light, but it is very girly. You play a princess, all of the major characters are princesses or queens or fairies, and there’s a lot of beautiful hair and jewelry. While I’m not entirely opposed to the existence of games that are about girliness, these games exclude male players like the pink aisle at the toy store. What I’m looking for is inclusivity to female players, not exclusivity to men.
What are the games that come through for me? Here’s a handful that I’ve enjoyed, where I felt the design respected and included female players:
I blogged about Armello recently, so I’ll keep this brief. Half the playable characters are female, and they are all interesting, different, and appropriately dressed for the game.
Magicka is a unique game in many respects. For me, the spellcasting mechanics are its most original feature and the one that makes it worth playing. Magicka sidesteps the gender question by never showing characters’ faces. All characters are dressed in the same shapeless robes.
- Dungeon of the Endless
Playable characters abound in Dungeon of the Endless. Most of them are strange, they are well-differentiated, and the super-pixellated art style makes wardrobe a non-issue.
Shelter is an interesting game where you play a wild animal mother protecting her young. In this scenario, it’s important that the protagonist be female and not male, but the game sells the experience as one of nature and survival rather than one exclusively of maternity.
- Crusader Kings
Like one of my favorite games, Mount & Blade, Crusader Kings is about medieval history, not medieval fantasy, but much more exhaustive, with a long-term strategic focus. It doesn’t sugarcoat the disadvantages faced by women in centuries past: play as a female character, and expect the game to be much more difficult. Though there are fewer options for female characters, they do crop up (you play a dynasty rather than a single person), and the game gives you a sense of the historical factors that make it difficult for women to hold powerful offices.
- Mount & Blade
I can’t ignore Mount & Blade here, even though I’ve already lauded its many qualities, because its character generation doesn’t just let you change gender and skin/hair color. Change the shape of each of your facial features to look like any human you please, and even change the age of your character if you don’t care to be perpetually 25.
When a game’s design is inclusive to women, I notice, and I enjoy it more. I hope the industry continues to move towards inclusivity, with more exciting female characters and fewer adventure heels. Not only does this bring women into the rich world of video games, but it helps foster cultural respect for women by depicting them as interesting individuals whose characterization is as nuanced, and whose roles are as varied, as those of men.
What games make you feel included?