What do women want in a game? What they don't want, Magnus Bergsson of EVE Online developer CCP says, is to be spaceships. They want to be people, he said in a recent interview.
If you're an atypical gaming female like me, it's easy to let a knee-jerk reaction get the best of you and make you want to call him a misogynist or sexist, but if you have that reaction then you need to remember one thing: Magnus Bergsson isn't talking about you. He's talking about your average woman, and you know what? He's right.
Granted, his rather unscientific method of showing his game to "lots of girls" and developing a hypothesis based on that isn't going to be proving any demographic studies any time soon, but we know the truth, ladies, and we can't deny it: those of us who like to shoot things are a minority within our own gender, and there's no sense in jumping to the shaky conclusion that when someone says you don't want to be a spaceship they're actually saying that you're somehow inferior.
Bergsson's statement might initially come off as a sweeping sexist generalization, but it's a generalization that has some basis in reality, and the immediate assumption that it's sexist is more our own projections on what we deem to be "girly" and "manly" in video games. Women and men are different creatures, and on average, excepting the odd few like myself, most women prefer their games to be centered around one or more of the following gameplay mechanics: exploration, simulation, socialization, and evolution.
Of these mechanics, only socialization has an inherent gender bias. When we think of "girly" games we tend toward a visual representation of the term: cute art, pastel colors. Evolution, simulation, and exploration, however, are all mechanics that are commonly enjoyed by players of both genders. The difference is that women on average tend to place more of their enjoyment on these mechanics as the main gameplay, while men tend to see these as a means to an end that usually involves other goals: visceral action-oriented gameplay, strategy, or stats-centric roleplaying.
So the question isn't, "is this generalization true?" The question is, "why does this generalization ring true?" I'd like to put forth three possible answers to that question.
1. It isn't the gameplay that prevents women from enjoying hardcore games, it's the art and presentation.
Pick any game off the shelf and you can reduce it to an abstract set of gameplay rules in a generic environment. Shooters aren't shooters because they're bloody and violent; they're shooters because some kind of projectile weapon is fired at a target to eliminate it. Nerf Arena Blast is just as much of a shooter as Soldier of Fortune; the former is a far more abstract form of the genre than the bloody and more violent latter.
The most common reaction that women have when asked if they want to play a game like Soldier of Fortune is distaste for the level of violence, the gore, and the clearly testosterone-driven tone of the art. If, however, the shooter were made more abstract, its violent imagery removed, would women then be able to get past the barrier the art style put in front of them and enjoy the game for its adrenaline-driven, hunter-and-prey gameplay?
2. Women are not introduced to these types of games at the early age that boys typically are.
The most common method by which women are introduced to video games, it seems, is via a college boyfriend or a husband. By then the concept of the video game as a strictly male pastime has been ingrained, and if they've been introduced to them at all it wasn't until they met boys who owned them. It seems that girls are rarely seen by their parents as a primary user of video games, only ever coming to it as a secondary user through a brother or a male friend. Kid's video games offer a wide range of styles and gameplay that, for a young girl, could very well provide a better basis for an open mind about experiencing different types of gameplay that they've been told fall into the "boys' game" category.
3. Women are simply hardwired for social- and exploration-based entertainment, and men are hardwired for visceral, adrenaline-based entertainment.
As much as modern society tries to rank the sexes as the same in ever category, let's face it: men and women are different. Our brains approach problems and puzzles in different ways; why not accept then that women and men tend to enjoy different types of gameplay experiences with different reward paths?
This last question points to the heart of the issue. Too often we resort to trying to figure out what a "girly" game is, and both men and women have an immediate negative reaction to the label "girly game" -- both genders view it as separate and unequal.
But the type of games that women on the whole tend to enjoy don't have gameplay that is inherently inferior; it's merely different. Again, women tend to enjoy games that involve exploration, socialization, simulation, and evolution. This is a perfectly valid set of gameplay characteristics that have no inherent gender bias, we've simply associated games that have them (like The Sims) as being "girly."
The industry is finally moving from a position in which women weren't worth catering to at all to a position in which they're at least interested in finding out what makes us tick gaming-interesting-wise. And so if you're a woman it's a good time to be a gamer. But let's hope they deepen their focus and start looking into the whys as well as the hows.