Women in Games Talks Rescues, Romance and Lara Croft at EA Panel

Videogames, unlike many forms of art, are usually titled for what they are.

In Super Mario World, Mario does super things in another world. In the Legend of Zelda games, we can expect Zelda to appear, be taken hostage, and raise the stakes for Link. In Grand Theft Auto, the player steals cars.

So it was hoped that on Wednesday night that the eight panelists united by EA would fulfill the request of the title “Rescuing the Video Game Industry: Women and Children First?” and answer some of the questions implied by that title. At my estimate, I counted four questions in that title.

First, whether the video game industry needs rescuing. Second, whether the industry can be rescued if it does. Third, if enough games are produced that target women and children, will this be enough to ward off the danger?

And finally, if this industry is going down, what priority should we make preserving the games that women and children are enjoying? Eventually, those questions did arise, after a very spirited discussion about the role of and for women in this industry.

The EA facility was as beautiful as ever as it hosted this event. Just over 150 people attended the event, and Uber’s involvement meant that the driveway was peppered with Town Cars at the night’s end. Many of the attendees were students and fresh graduates, and true to the evening’s theme, about 70% of the audience was female.

The panelists hailed from all the disciplines required to create a blockbuster game. Three Jennifers formed one half of the panel: Jennifer Hepler, a senior writer at BioWare, Jennifer Jansen, a Professor of Pedagogy and Technology and game researcher nonpareil, and the evening’s moderator, Jennifer Donahoe, who found herself the devil’s advocate as the marketer of the group. Cathy Roiter, from Her Interactive, Sandy Spangler of Acronym and Laura Mae Brown, a monetization manager at EA filled out the night’s roster.

After a late start, the panel began to a full house. By the end of the hour, little new ground had been broken—but the existing terrain was tilled enough to bring out some gems of truth.

The industry needs to target non-gamers; many non-gamers are women and young girls. The emergence of the smartphone as gaming’s ripest market has removed the barrier to entry for many potential gamers who might not buy a PS3 or an Xbox 360.

Non-gamers can be turned into gamers in either two ways—through nurturing the hobby from childhood, or through attracting them with a suitably alluring title, despite the testosterone heavy gamer culture. The existing marketing environment has much to do with their reluctance to try out games—but whether or not there’s sufficient merit in changing it was the cause of some real debate.

Hepler and Donahoe found themselves at odds over that quandary. Donahoe’s party line position that companies must—and will—focus on their core demographic in order to promote their AAA titles above the competition’s was diametrically opposed to Hepler, who argued that there are plenty of blockbuster titles—particularly the Dragon Age franchise, of which she’s a senior writer—that could appeal to the Vampire Diaries demographic of young women who love angst and romance.

There’s something to be said for the fact that these women can talk about things other than their existence in the industry as women. They can talk about how much they love the industry, how they only wish they had more time to play the competition’s titles.

And when the question of what women want in games is broached, Jansen can tell 150 people that “Freud can handle that one” and that “A good game is a good game to enthusiastic applause. There’s much to be enthusiastic about: we are on the verge of a whole new definition of the industry. The conversation was lively in its reflection of that.

Finally, the title of the debate came up as a question. Spangler fielded the question succinctly.

“The gaming industry has been around long enough that it’s maxed itself out in terms of its audience and its potential, one thing that’s come up is we’re in this Renaissance where there’s so many new platforms, types of games, new players, and that’s going to be a huge shot in the arm. I know that from reading a lot of blogs and comments that there are a lot of hardcore gamers who are angry about that. They’re afraid that the games that they love to play are going to become entirely casual and social and everyone’ll be Farmville-ing forever. As long as there are millions of people willing to spend money on deep, epic, 60 hour hardcore titles, they will keep being made. But I think that having a bigger audience and having more kinds of gamers out there can only be a good thing.”

But the other questions raised by the audience proved the need for more events like this.

“Some games, like Tomb Raider, get really targeted for sexism, and others like Lollipop Chainsaw get no backlash from the feminist community—how can we pick our battles?”

“Men spend time on games and not with actual people, and women in games are with big tits, and that raises men’s expectations and hinders their social lives. Do you think games can be used to shape better relationships between men and women?”

“BioWare relationships are SO not what you should base your real life romances on,” Hepler despaired, to laughter. “I don’t have an answer, but I thought people would laugh at that.”

“I’m the kind of girl who PREFERS Lollipop Chainsaw, and I don’t know about the bad stuff in the media, but I prefer the new backstory for Lara Croft because before she was just some rich girl and now, because of the rape, it’s like she’s a weak woman who becomes strong, so do you think it’s more important to have a REAL character or a FEMALE character in a game?”

“Maybe boys should just make games for boys and women should make games for women?” 

Thankfully “Hell no” came out before the question could even be finished—but it was still asked.

And as long as questions like that are still asked, there’ll still be a need for panels like this one. Considering what a delight it was to attend, that’s not the worst thing in the world.