Women, and realism vs. abstraction

Maybe half a dozen times in my life I’ve tried to get videogame-virgin lady friends into videogaming.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the more the graphics tend towards photorealism, the more my lady friends tend to expect the environment to behave realistically, and basically think it’s lame when the game doesn’t behave according to a real-world ruleset.

Tiny sample set I know, but bear with me :)

Now for a digression: as a musician, I’m very aware of how forms of modern electronic dance music that start off with clubs full of boys and girls tend to get “harder” as time goes on, alienating the girls, and ending up with the unfortunate spectacle of mosh pits full of sweaty guys.

What typically happens is that an abstraction takes hold, usually nowadays at the bass end where there’s a tendency towards “demonic” sounds, partly because demonic sound-mangling gets easier and easier as time goes on, with the tools available, and music programmers try and push the envelope. This abstraction then takes over the whole of the musical form, like a virus, and this moves the music away from a more (if you will excuse the pun) rounded form, where there’s a balance between the elements of bass and drums, midline and topline (or between certain kinds of timbre). Yes, the music can have very hard elements, but when those hard elements take over the whole musical form, and start to have nothing softer to contrast against, that’s when it loses the girls. It stops being sexy.

It strikes me as a possibility that there’s been something analogous going on with videogames, only with videogames, it’s been “hard” and “abstracted” from the beginning.

IOW, females are effectively coming across a fully-formed videogaming mosh pit, and, unsurprisingly, finding it unsexy and unattractive, because highly abstracted. It looks like a closed club because unless you’re already familiar with the abstractions, they’re impenetrable. In that context, it’s rarer for girls to get into it - not unheard of or impossible, of course, but I suspect that many female gamers are from gamer families, so they’ve grown up with those abstractions.

This leads to the possibility that if more videogames (especially with the advent of photorealism) were more like simulations, using the ruleset of reality as we know it (only foreshortened, compressed, etc., rather than abstracted-away-from - and with the addition of rayguns and magic, etc.) you might get a more even balance, and have the videogaming club rocking with an equal proportion of sweaty gents and sweaty ladies.

Another way to look at it: perhaps because of the technological limitations on videogames as they’ve grown up, their rulesets have been heavily abstracted from reality, into little self-contained rulesets, the genealogy of which you have to be already familiar with, and like. As a videogamer, you know that you won’t be able to do realistic thing X, because you’re familiar with the limitations and tropes of gaming up to that point.

But as technology progresses, surely abstracted rulesets are less and less necessary, and the rules can more and more approach a (sweetened, easier-to-be-successful-and-heroic-in) instinctively understandable form of reality, and therefore easier to pick up for someone not previously “in the know”?

Dunno just some fots, hopefully food for brain dumps and micro-dissertations from some of you working designers here! Obviously one major motivation for thinking about this subject should be that there’s gold in them thar’ hills. I suspect I’ll be told that technological/economic limitations are still in the way of realistic simulation, for the most part :)

(This was also partly motivated by that Gabe Newell lecture where he mentioned in passing that they’d tried realistic rules for one of their games but found that “realism sucks”. That got me thinking: I really wonder about that - surely a primary advantage of realism is that understanding of the real world is more or less ingrained and doesn’t have to be learnt afresh for each game? But maybe that advantage doesn’t loom very large in the greater scheme of things, when balanced against other, largely pragmatic factors?)

It could just be that the more ‘realistic’ the game is the more it is targeted towards what publishers view as their ‘core’ demographic, drooling dude-bros who barely have the brain cells and motor function to masturbate.

If I understand what you are saying correctly, is that today the barrier to entry for a woman is higher than it has been in the past due to the gaming conventions gamers are assumed to already know.

If that is correct then I would counter that there are a lot more female gamers today then there have been in the past. I do not have any hard statistical data to back this up, only personal experience.

Simply said, I know a fair number of female gamers today where as 15 years ago I didn’t know any.

I don’t think it’s a barrier of entry for women so much as it’s a barrier of entry for older non-gamers. People who have no experience with games will see photo realistic graphics and think it operates like the real world when it doesn’t.

The disconnect between realistic graphics and unrealistic gameplay can certainly be an issue, but sometimes it’s simply a mechanical problem. A new player might not realize you’re supposed to use the right analog stick to rotate the camera, for example, and I know a lot of people who (regardless of age or gender) just can’t consistently input a quarter-circle in a fighting game. (They then refuse to spend a few minutes practicing the input so they can play properly, because they think gameplay shouldn’t be more complicated than “press button to do thing”; this is a mental issue that applies to longtime players just as much as new ones.)

In the same vein, people with poor hand-eye coordination aren’t usually going to be very good at anything except turn-based games, and even then, a QTE could trip them up pretty badly.

As the parent of a hardcore gamer daughter, in my exprience it’s prior exposure to playing games, not gender or preference for realism, that is the barrier of entry.

I have male and female friends who are my age but didn’t grow up with games or computers; consequently, they’re unable to connect the actions they’re performing with their hands and the results of those actions on a screen. It makes playing games, even with simple controls, frustratingly difficult for them. For other friends who played games when they were young, it’s second nature to pick up a controller and understand how the game reacts to your button presses.

My wife can’t play games at all on a console; even navigating Netflix with a controller is tough for her. She likes iPhone games because the input is usually right on top of the game’s output.

I think fewer girls were bought computers or game consoles, and for them, playing games as women is insurmountably hard. That’s probably changing though, which is good.

Hmm, good post. I was about to object that I myself got into games quite late (with Doom) and hadn’t seen anything in them prior to that, yet I’ve been a hardcore gamer ever since. But when I reflect, I realize that I did indeed have some facility with a computer prior to that, in the sense that I was used to making music on computers (early music sequencers on the Atari - and the Atari had a pretty solid m/k implementation); plus as a musician, I guess I was already used to doing fiddly things with my fingers.

Doom is 20 years old. Whaddya gotta do to get gamer cred around here?

I think that’s definitely a factor. The longer you are past your formative years, the less likely you are to appreciate something as abstracted as a modern AAA game like Far Cry 3, CoD, or Assassin’s Creed. Easy-to-grasp stuff (ex. match 3 iPad games) is far more approachable at any age.

I have heard the same thing about comics, you either learn to enjoy them while you are young, or they will be outside your ability to appreciate them as an adult.

It’s got nothing to with gender and everything to do with the amount of exposure to the genre.

Try showing a video game to an older person who grew up without them and never played them before. They will obsess over what are, to gamers, the strangest things (“How do I talk to this person?” “You have to click on them.” “You mean I have to touch them? … Wait, why am I running so fast? Real people can’t run that fast. This is crazy!”) They haven’t bought into the conventions of the genre, so they question every single thing.

On the other hand, they won’t blink twice at the rules of, say, Monopoly, even though those rules are even more bizarre and arbitrary. (Why does merely stopping for a moment on someone’s property force you to pay rent to them? Why are you condemned to eternally perform laps on a loop, and what does that have to do with the real estate market of a 1920s resort town?) That’s because they’ve bought into the genre.

Same thing with sports. Is, say, curling, when viewed from the perspective of the proverbial man from Mars, a bizarre and arbitrary waste of time? Yes, yes it is.

… and so are baseball, and soccer, and tennis. They only have meaning because we choose to bring meaning to them. And if you haven’t been brought up in it, it’s much, much harder to do that.

Maybe you are not introducing them to games that might actually like. I’ve found it relatively easy to introduce non-gamers into gaming… by basing my choices on what I think they will like, not just my interests.

I think this sounds like a reasonable argument about some things, but I don’t think you’re right in the case of videogames, nor do I really think that gender has anything to do with it inherently. Universal Leader mentions something more cultural and I’m inclined to agree with him.

By the way, the current electronic sound is not driving away females. It’s a rough barrier of entry for anyone, but that’s to be expected, most people who have not already liked electronic music isn’t going to suddenly want to get into a dubstep concert.

Wobbleland 2011 - aside from obvious cleavage shots for promotional purposes, feel free to pause and count an almost 50% female attendance (and of course turn down the sound if you don’t like dubstep).

Oh I love dubstep, but I’m old enough to have observed several musical styles following the pattern I outlined.

That’s not to say that sometimes the trends don’t reverse - but when they do, I think it’s partly as a result of djs themselves noticing the trend and trying to get a better balance of male and female in the club (in which case you have transitional forms). They know that the money follows the girls, and that clubs forget their essential function as courting venues at their peril. There’s nothing sadder than a well-known club turning from a popular, sexy venue into a male mosh pit, and I’ve seen that happen a few times :)

It’s true, I did see that once, it was in the 90s at a small venue that booked a lot of punk rock bands. Well, they drifted more and more into hardcore territory which introduced mosh pits which pretty much drove away the gender-neutral punk rock crowd and was “taken over” by the predominantly male mosh pits.

Show us a picture of a broken cassette drive that you own. More creds if it still works.

Semi-on-topic: My cred was that old, and I recall encountering a hump dealing with playstation and dreamcast controllers, from PC mouse and keyboard. I chalk this up to an exposure issue as well. It doesn’t explain the male/female divide alone, because I think there are lots more cultural barriers in the way.

I agree with those who point out the barrier is not gender, but exposure. I know as a male gamer, there are some game genres that I am not conversant in (WoW, RTS, …)

Here is my point of observation. I do alot of sim racing. Not racing games, but sims. I have a racing seat with FF wheel and big display. To get around a circuit, you must drive the car like you would in real life. In other words, it meets the photorealistic requirements desribed by gurugeorge. When people visit my house, many want to try this out. Nearly all, games and non-gamers, male and female, make the same mistakes the first time. They blast into the first corner with no braking and smack a wall. Then they spin the car wildly because they are flooring the gas. Next corner, another wall smack.

A few. Very few, drive the first lap cautiously despite the game giving them realistic reactions.

But driving a racing car is hardly within the orbit of most peoples’ experience!

i.e. driving a racing car surely does have a “realistic ruleset” that people acquainted with them come to intuitively understand, but the uninitiated won’t have that sense.

When I say “realistic ruleset” I mean things like how normal medium-sized objects react to our interactions (our sense of “folk physics”, etc.) - things that everyone is familiar with. Also “folk psychology” (how would NPCs react if you stole from them, etc.).

(Compare and contrast: most people have as little experience with magic or dragons as with driving racing cars - but even there, there are conventions that most people would be familiar with from a wider field than videogames (books, films).)

Or even from an American perspective.

No clue if this is a meaningful anecdote, but my dear mother is in her 50s, and until recently never managed to play anything beyond Popcap games. She’d try out FPSes and such and just never get them. They blew her mind.

Well, there is one game that she’s very much gotten into, and it’s something I never fathomed: Portal. She said that it all “makes sense” and isn’t complicated beyond understanding what would happen IRL given the couple of special rules applied.

Also, she likes it because she thinks it increases her neural plasticity.