This was the third talk of the day, held by Heidi McDonald who had the same sort of starry eyed view on BioWare games as I had. The talk focused mainly on her research about romance in games.

Heidi McDonald – Narrative Design for Inclusiveness

First of all, McDonald made it clear what the talk was and wasn’t about. She spoke briefly about hooking up in World of Warcraft and also pointed out that this was not about that. Rather the talk focused on single player RPGs. She brought up a lot of BioWare titles, since BioWare is by far the most advanced developer focussing on romance in games.

Why study this?
McDonald wanted to learn about player motivation and behaviour – Dragon Age romance, is it really important and do players like it?

She started thinking about her own gaming behaviour, asked a few others about the same thing and found out that there is a connection between romance in games and player behaviour, we do want to make connections with non player characters, even though these characters are not “real people”.

Heidi made a survey using survey monkey and got a little bit over five hundred respondents. She pointed out that none of this was particularly scientific, but that she had support from both her own company and BioWare.

The numbers she found were the following among the respondents.
60% female
74% straight
55% romantically attached

So the typical respondent was a 21 yr old female romantically attached to a partner.

70% played same sex characters and 30% played gender different to themselves but those 30% were mostly male. However many females have no problem having same sex relationships in games.

McDonald then went on to talk about something called identity tourism – a term coined by Lisa Nakamura. In Nakamura’s view, identity tourism can be harmful and negative, because you represent yourself as someone you’re not. But when you remove the recipient, i.e. the human being on the other end of the screen, identity tourism can be a good thing.

Games can be a safe space to play around with gender and sexual identity, and it would be a positive thing to include more romances, specifically in single player role-playing games since it increases understanding and tolerance.

Romances add depth to gameplay, it’s entertaining, connection to the NPC, relatedness and emotionally stimulating. It’s an important part of the game, even though it isn’t the first priority of the game.

There is however a disconnect between what you would be attracted to in a game character and what you would be attracted to in a real person. In game narrative you have to write both sides of a conversation. We make the choices that we want from the options we are given.

Carolyn Kaufman – The Writer’s Guide to Psychology
Jason VandenBerghe – 5 domains of play.

The writing process
* Character development
* Interactive component
* Player perspective
* Story construction
* Ending
BioWare is on the right path, but they are not perfect. They also need to work on some areas. We need female characters to be less disposable (Ashley) and more self reliant (Morrigan)

Character perspective
Not using universally -hated descriptors
Gratifying endings

People like to experiment
Romance is important


My comments

I think, being one of those people who actually like romance in games, that McDonald is on the right track. Having a safe space to explore your own sexuality and/ or gender identity is a positive thing to my mind.

However, despite my love for the BioWare games catalogue, I would have wanted something more concrete, something to sink my teeth into. How do I write Alistair or Fenris? How do I create a character that is better and more faceted than Cart or Kaidan? She touched briefly on the characteristics of such a character in her talk but I would have liked to see a more in depth description of the outcome rather than the research process.