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The Case for Co-Op: Can Better Multiplayer Bring More Women Into Gaming?

Essay

 

Think about it. You’re playing on a private server, which means you eliminate the possibility of harassment. A private server also gives a new gamer the freedom to learn and make mistakes without having strangers laugh at them (something that is doubly disheartening if you’re already trying to get past the notion that girls suck at games). Since the co-op is non-competitive, female players get to fall into their natural groove of solving problems together. If you expand beyond FPSs to include more adventure games and RPGs, you satisfy the need for immersive stories. The icing on the cake is that any quibbles devs may have about not catering enough to the male audience don’t apply here. It’s just co-op. It’s the same co-op that I’ve discussed with my male gamer friends time and again, without gender ever entering into the equation.

I think it’s kind of perfect.

By this point, some of you may be thinking that such co-op games already exist, though in small number. Borderlands, for example, is a hybrid FPS-RPG. It’s totally non-competitive, it’s reliant on teamwork, and it tells a story. Purely in terms of gameplay, Borderlands meets all the needs that I’ve outlined. Other games fit the bill as well. Torchlight II seems like it will satisfy all of the welcoming co-op criteria, particularly since you can choose your character’s gender. The puzzle-solving robots of Portal 2 are also right on track. However, games like those probably aren’t going to get a lot of new women to jump on board. Even though the gameplay is appealing, you’ve still got another obstacle to tackle: getting girls to buy games in the first place. Part of that hurdle rests on narrative issues and gender representation (I’m looking at you, Borderlands), but you also have to factor in decades of being conditioned to believe that heroes and video games are for boys. That’s a big psychological wall to break through. Furthermore, if you’re talking about someone who has never played games beyond Facebook or iPhone apps, asking her to shell out forty to sixty bucks for an activity she’s never tried is asking a lot – even more so if a console purchase is involved.

Never fear, developers. You’ve got an army of ladies ready to do the ambassadorial work for you. Who are they, you ask? Why, women like me.

I already game. I’ve been doing it for most of my life. I spend a fair amount of my hard-earned cash on it. I would absolutely love to get more of my female friends to do it with me. The trouble is finding a good entry-level game. Let’s use my good friend Meg as an example. Meg’s not a gamer, but she does enjoy sci-fi and fantasy. I know that Meg would love the stories of my favorite RPGs, but she’s never going to buy one on her own, no matter how much I refuse to shut up about them. See, I could easily share stuff like Buffy and Star Trek with her. We would order pizza for season finales, and pass the Kleenex box back and forth during Very Special Episodes. I can’t do that with a single-player RPG. Since she doesn’t game herself, it’d prove a bit intimidating without somebody there to walk her through it. But nobody likes a backseat gamer, and I don’t want to her to be my captive audience, either. I want us to have a shared experience.

So why not introduce Meg to online gaming? Let me tell you right now, there is no way that I would bring Meg into something like Team Fortress 2 or WoW right off the bat, even though I’ve made good friends and had great times in those games. The people I have brought into those games were gamers already. Meg’s a smart cookie, and she could pick up a complicated game real quick, but I’m hesitant to use such a public forum as her first training ground. To put it bluntly, gamers can be assholes, and I don’t want my friend’s inaugural gaming experience to be a crash course in griefing.

In short, I need a comfortable, friendly venue in which to share gaming with her. You might call it a “private server.”

Let’s say there was a game that had all the stuff gamers love – intricate combat, challenging boss fights, customizable characters – as well as the means to play through a good story with friends. Let’s say that I bought the game and it came with a trial pass. I know exactly what I’d say to someone like Meg.

“Hey, I know you haven’t really gamed before, but it’s our game night this Thursday and we’d love to have you along. It’d just be you, me and a couple of my buddies. I think you’d really dig the story, and we’re all happy to show you the ropes. We’re just going to go slow and have a good time.”

I’m pretty darn sure she’d play. I bet a lot of other ladies would accept an offer like that, too.

I’m not saying co-op is a catch-all solution, and neither do I think it should be a ubiquitous feature. There are plenty of genres and titles that are awesome as they are. But I do think it’s a fairly simple addition that could create some really promising opportunities. If the goal is to get more women in the door, then we need to start opening as many doors as possible.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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