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And That's Terrible

Game Developer Had to Specifically Request That Focus Groups Include Women

If a lot of the pushback against feminist critique of video games, or even the simple assertion that women enjoy playing games and so maybe a studio should consider them to be a valuable demographic, contains a core misconception, it is that the people calling for better representation in the games industry and in the female characters in games think that every man in the industry is an evil women-hating jerk. I mean, come on, those guys have mothers, wives, sisters, and female friends! They don’t hate women!

In fact, if the folks who were responsible for problematic portrayals of female characters or poor representation of real women in games industry were doing it all purely deliberately, it’d probably be a lot easier to fix. The reality is that a lot of this stuff is far more subtle than that, and the sad fact remains that all of us are capable of having noble or even neutral intentions while still overlooking the subtle ways in which we’re contributing to a stereotype, operating on a false assumption, or missing out on a different but important perspective. Case in point, some of the things the creators of The Last of Us have mentioned lately.

We last heard from developer Naughty Dog when The Last of Us scriptwriter Neil Druckmann and voice actress Ashley Johnson discussed the state of female characters in the industry, and Druckmann mentioned that he’d encountered marketing talk that recommended that Ellie, the game’s co-lead, be pushed to the back of the box art, lest her presence on the front lead to lower sales. Since the game purports to focus at least as much on strangers Ellie and Joel forging a parent/child relationship over their travels as it does shooting and stealth mechanics in a post-apocalyptic America, Naughty Dog insisted.

In a recent interview with The Escapist, Druckmann talked more about the odd hurdles Naughty Dog found between them and trying to make a more gender equitable video game. In this case, they discovered that the company they hired to do market testing weren’t planning on including any women in their focus groups… until it was specifically requested.

Another aspect that influences how a game is promoted is focus-testing. Players are rounded up and are asked to view materials and answer some quantitative and qualitative questions about it. My big surprise during this process is that the research group wasn’t planning on focus-testing female gamers – it’s something we had to specifically request. I hope this is a relic of the past that will soon go away.

So here we see a pretty serious effect of how the assumption “women don’t play video games” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we assume that women don’t play, then we’ll never ask them what they think of a game, and it becomes far more likely that we’ll create a game that presents gender in a limited way, from a limited perspective, or even an offensive one. And then women will be less likely to enjoy playing our game, but that’s all right, because we know that women don’t play games anyway.

It’s clear that not asking women about the quality of a video game is a habit for this company, likely something they’ve been doing for so long that it’s simply accepted as routine. Is that evil? No. Is it lazy, shortsighted, and wrong? Yes.

(via Gamasutra.)

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  • Anonymous

    In before “but picking focus-group members on the basis of gender is discrimination too!”

  • Sara Sakana

    And MRAs slithering out from under their fedoras to ever so helpfully mansplain that video games are made for BOYS so it doesn’t really matter what us silly wimmenz think anyway…

  • Ashe P. Samuels

    In before ‘Ugh, you get a female co-lead and you’re still not happy! You guys aren’t satisfied with ANYTHING, are you?!’

  • Anonymous

    Don’t you know our brains are just wired differently? In hunter-gatherer societies, women picked berries and men played video games. Cold hard science, baby.

  • Alana Deckert

    “I mean, come on, those guys have mothers, wives, sisters, and female friends! They don’t hate women!” I agree with the article otherwise, but do you think misogynists DON’T have those? :V That’s like saying “White people have black coworkers, friends, and peers! They aren’t racist!” when it’s demonstrably true that white people can be racist shits regardless of how many non-white peeps are around them.

  • Ashe P. Samuels

    I read those sentences as distinctly sarcastic, seeing as that’s the very common phrase touted by casual ignorants and conscious bigots alike.

  • Alana Deckert

    Ahhh, Poe’s Law! I have heard such arguments enough from people who should know better that I managed to not catch any parody or sarcasm in the argument here. XD Whoops!

  • Ashe P. Samuels

    Hahaha! I go through the same thing. These things are said so often and with such genuine conviction, it’s hard to tell when someone isn’t serious for once!

  • Jill Harness

    I’m on the mailing list for a few focus group companies and every time they need gamers,it has been limited to males. I can’t tell you how frustrated every time I see that. But you know, us womenfolk can’t possibly have an opinion on games -heck, we probably couldn’t even turn the machine on.

  • Sarah Nuckolls

    Ya know what… even if I didn’t already have a strong fondness for the kind of quality and fun in the games Naughty Dog releases I think I’d buy “The Last of Us” because of how purposeful they’ve been in making a game with the story they WANTED and not what stagnant ideas in the industry keep telling them to do.instead. Also it looks like a fantastically interesting game that promises some excellent character development that is frequently lacking in games.

  • Jason Enright


    First off great article. This is a game I’m really excited for, and my wife who has just started playing games regularly (she’s obsessed with skyrim) is also really excited for it.

    I was wondering if any of you have picked up the comic prequel from Dark Horse. I just picked up issue 1 last night. It was awesome! Neil Druckman (the game’s scriptwriter) co-wrote it with Faith Erin Hicks who also illustrated it, and Rachelle Rosenberg handled the colors. It focuses on the backstory of Ellie, the young female protagonist, and features another young woman as an older girl sorta showing Ellie the ropes. Clearly, Ellie can hold her own in the comic, so I don’t know why anybody would think she couldn’t hold her own in the game.
    I haven’t seen much gameplay but I hope in the game you get to play as both Ellie and the grown-up guy who is on the game cover. Does anybody know if this is true?

  • Mark Matson

    What, that’s ridiculous. I can imagine not mentioning gender and ending up with all male groups due to various reasons, but to explicitly exclude women makes no sense at all. That really is inching towards “evil”.

  • Axey

    Me too, adding it to my list!

  • Margaret

    This is just a great example of why focus groups can be terrible. I’m sure some marketing manager had pages and pages of stats that said only guys bought videogames. Instead of thinking “hey, there’s this untapped group out there! Let’s talk to them” they just went with the status quo. Talking to consumers can be really great for innovation/new thinking/product development, but you have to talk to the right ones.

    I do a lot of consumer research and honestly my first reaction was “they need better screeners.”