How to Make Video Games for Girls
Developers, publishers, and marketing professionals, take heed.
Sex is okay, but don’t forget sexual agency
It’s impossible to talk about sexual agency in video games without bringing up Bayonetta. The Bayonetta games are flirtatious to put it nicely, with the titular star (excuse the pun) basically orgasming to destroy angels and other heavenly foes. The developers at Platinum Games have dressed her up in tight little Princess Peach and Samus Aran outfits, and they don’t restrain themselves when it comes to showing up-close camera shots of her backside and cleavage as she winks lustily at the player and sucks on lollipops.
I adore her.
It’s over-the-top, but the great thing about Bayonetta is that she has spirit. She delights in teasing friends and enemies alike, but that’s where it stops. She doesn’t hesitate to dish out the pain or remind a scornful character who’s in charge. That’s something Lara Croft as a sex icon never quite accomplished for all her flirting and witty British banter—not that it was her fault.
Bayonetta embraces her sexuality and the power and confidence it brings her. It’s not a device made to bring her down in subservience to the player or other characters. That’s what makes her different from the countless other female game characters who are the butt of sexual jokes—prostitutes to be used and beaten (and killed, in the case of games like Grand Theft Auto) or women to be slept with as objects to game completion (like with The Witcher‘s collectable “romance” cards).
For the love of god, acknowledge gender pronouns!
I remember playing the action-RPG Dungeon Hunter 4 on iOS and balking. Even though I could play as a female hero, the game’s characters in no way acknowledged my gender.
That probably explains why I got a little too excited when I made a female character in Bungie’s first-person shooter Destiny and she actually sounded feminine when she ran around and did things.
Then again, you can by all means ignore gender—if you’re willing to write a human character. “FemShep” in Mass Effect 2 was a lazy gender-swap (at least BioWare got the pronouns down), but she’s one of the most popular heroines in gaming. That laziness worked in the game’s favor: Her character qualities came to the forefront rather than her gender.
Not every female character has to be motherly or feminine or—whew, boy—emotional. As with the case of Samus in Metroid: Other M, this too often results in a stereotypical, problematic, or otherwise degrading portrayal rather than a positive one. We could really just use more female characters who kick ass, plain and simple.
Don’t dumb down the gameplay
Sometimes when you try too hard to make a game for girls, you get carried away with the pink and frills and start to think of girls as fragile things who can’t solve a math problem, let alone understand your gameplay.
That’s what happened with Super Princess Peach for Nintendo DS. It’s a game that I’ve talked about on The Mary Sue before, and while it has its good and bad aspects, I did take offense to how insultingly easy the gameplay was. Super Mario might be viewed as a kid-friendly series, but that doesn’t mean it’s a cinch to play. Trying looking at the posts on the Miiverse next time you gear up Super Mario 3D World.
Super Princess Peach doesn’t give players a chance to figure out how to defeat its bosses. It simply tells them. Give girls more credit, okay? You could treat them like they might cry and throw your game down if they can’t crack your puzzles, or you could encourage them to keep trying so they experience the satisfaction of knowing they can overcome a difficult challenge. (Basically, why people play insanely hard and stressful games like Dark Souls.)
Trust me, they can do it. I played tough games in elementary school, and that was back before I discovered GameFAQs.
A little flair is okay (just don’t go overboard)
I’ve been joking about it throughout this entire article, but yes, some girls do like the color pink, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just don’t assume we all love the color pink.
I like smashing bad guys in the face and blowing stuff up as much as I enjoy decorating my house and personalizing my character in Animal Crossing. Girls do like to customize (or “accessorize,” if you want to get fancy), but I also think everyone likes doing that. I don’t know why hats would be so popular (and profitable) in Valve’s Team Fortress 2 if that weren’t the case.
Story and good characters always help
Even if your game doesn’t feature many female characters and you stay far, far away from the pink, you can still make a game that girls will want to play.
When I think back on the games I love most, I recall role-playing games like Final Fantasy X, action-adventure games like Uncharted, and platformers like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. But I also think of Silent Hill 2, which is a horror game designed to make you feel uncomfortable and isolated.
All of these games share one thing in common: characters. And not just any characters. Characters with “character”—with human feelings and emotions. Desires and needs and fears. Well, maybe not so much Crash Bandicoot—he’s just waiting for a good nap once he’s done saving the world—but he had personality, all right. Remember that victory dance?
Humor helps. And speaking of that …
Don’t actively offend us
Humor is all well and good, but not when you use gender or sex as a vehicle to accomplish it.
The world has enough dirty, low-brow jokes made at someone’s expense. Good storytelling commands a more refined talent. For humor to be well-served, it needs to be relevant to the game world and personal enough to bring players closer to the characters.
I’m reminded of Kid Icarus: Uprising, which my boyfriend is playing on the 3DS right now. While I’m typing away, he’s laughing at the banter between Pit and Palutena. I don’t need to follow the story to know it’s good. I can overhear the dialogue, and it’s energetic and funny and interesting.
Too many games use female characters as a joke. While I love the indie game Spelunky, I’m not so hot on the fact that I throw a damsel at cave walls and enemies until she’s unconscious and bruised and then expect her to kiss me to restore my health.
Anytime you make jokes at the cost of real people—for their religious beliefs, sexual orientations, gender, or political values—you risk alienating them. Video games are a highly visual medium. Sexism and other offenses don’t need to be blatantly stated for us to see that it’s inherent in a game. We find evidence in the prostitutes on the virtual streets, in the female characters with their chests bared, and in the characters’ treatment of each other.
Making a game for girls isn’t all that hard. You just have to make a game for people.
Stephanie Carmichael writes about video games, comics, and books when she’s not helping teachers and students have fun together with Classcraft, an educational RPG. Find her on her blog or on Twitter.
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