I have in my possession several books on game development and game creation. Honestly, I rarely read most of them, but recently I’ve made some inroads in my pile of unread or half read books. There’s a pandemic on, after all.

A discovery I did make that made me both sad and a tiny bit upset is Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design. While the book does have some good points – primarily that it encourages designers to focus their games by looking at them through lenses – it also does the one thing I totally hate when books do. It talks about what games women play, and how to appeal to female gamers. Granted there are new editions of this book out there that aren’t as bad, but the chapter is still in the book.

Why does this make me angry? First of all, just having the chapter in the book others women as gamers. This suggests that out of 400+ pages, about 6 of those pages apply to females.

Ferengi male saying females...

In other words – while Schell does his (?) best to point both to what “males” and “females” want out of a game, by making this statement on 6 pages, he (?) is saying that there aren’t just different types of players who appreciate different kinds of games, he’s saying “women are special, really, they’re not like other gamers. Please continue believing there’s a distinguishable difference between men and women playing games, and that that difference is gender related”.

As expected, Schell divides men and women according to recognizable stereotypes. Men enjoy mastery, competition, destruction, spatial puzzles and trial and error.

Women enjoy emotion, real world connections, nurturing, dialogue and verbal puzzles and learning by example.

Apparently, aside from appreciating tutorials (which, by the way, all players do if the tutorials are done right) women are also better at – wait for it – multitasking. Which is also not true. No one is good at multitasking.

An image of Batman and Robin with the caption Holy gender stereotype, batman!

If you think this reads as a gender stereotype laundry list, you would be correct. The entirety of 6 pages, six whole pages in a book of 400+ pages recount just about every stereotype you’ve ever heard about women who play games. Thank you for cementing those biases firmly in your presumably male readers minds, Mr. Schell.

As I pointed out earlier, I did pick up a later edition of the book. The chapter is still there, but the obvious stereotypes are gone. In the latest edition they’re only implied.

I’m going to make some of you sad by bringing up Raph Koster’s book “A Theory of Fun”. While the book is indeed fun, and a good book for game developers, I heartily recommend ditching pages 104 to 111, primarily because Koster uses Simon Baron-Cohen’s research to distinguish between male and female brains. Cordelia Fine has totally eviscerated the idea of gendering brains in her book “Delusions of Gender”.

While I could write exactly what Cordelia Fine writes in her book about Baron-Cohen’s research, I will instead emphasise what Koster himself points out, with an addendum. A lot of our behaviors are dependent on socialisation and cultural expectations. Women are expected to be empathetic. Men are expected to be systematic. Now tell me what we as a society value most? Emotions or being rational? Huh. I thought so.

As far as I understand it, Baron-Cohen’s research was based on data that was self-reported. One of the very well known issues with self-reported data is that it is biased, or can be biased. So, if women are told from the moment they’re born that they’re supposed to be empathetic, what do you think the results of a self-reported survey will be?

In other words, a sprinkle of skepticism may come in handy. Unsurprisingly, Schell builds a lot of his arguments on Raph Koster’s book. Another complication in the world of game development. We have a tendency – even in production – to build on each others ideas, especially if those ideas suit us. It is known as confirmation bias.

“Ha”, you say “what makes you think you’re free of confirmation bias!?” Well nothing. I obviously have an agenda, and I’m finding information to support my hypothesis, but so does Schell and Koster, and just about every gatekeeper out there.

My motivation for writing these posts, and pointing out these issues, is also a bit more sympathetic than gatekeeping. I want gaming, game development and the gaming culture open to everyone. While that may be Koster’s and Schell’s motivation as well, the way it’s handled in the books might lead to the opposite result. Exclusion.

Even in a book such as “Challenges for Game Designers” the divide between men and women pop up. I would however argue that “Challenges for Game Designers” is infinitely better at not stereotyping either gender. One of the challenges even has the potential to whack the biases out of game developers. I heartily recommend the challenge Gears for Girls and the deliverable of a convincing discussion of target market, including why certain styles or features would fit that target. Involve actual women in the discussion. Their responses might surprise you.1

What Brenda Romero and Ian Schreiber does a lot better than Schell and Koster is to not make assumptions. They’re clearly stating that you need to do research. You need data. Schell’s list is just a bunch of assumptions drawn from gender stereotypes.

The stereotypes pop up in book after book, though. Just as Schell dedicated the entirety of six whole pages to reinforcing gender stereotypes, a character design book from 21 Draw spends one out of 12 chapters on how to draw women. One would assume that a book dedicated to character design would include women all over, but apparently there’s a trick to drawing women that appears to be mostly about butts and breasts. There’s also this interesting chapter in “The Character Designer” that sort of puts a spotlight on the fact that apparently even shapes are sexist. Like using squares to make, and I quote, “a female character feel strong, independent, or disciplined” (yes, squares are male), while a circle can be yesd to make “a male character feel kind, soft, happy or weak”. (yes, circles are female). Basically what the book says is that women are weak, dependent and undisciplined until they get “maled up” with squares, and men can be “femaled down” with circles. Talk about attributing characteristics in a stereotypical way.

I know people rarely read books on stuff nowadays, I’m probably one of the last remaining dinosaurs who do, but my point is that by perpetuating the othering of women (oh, you’re a female? You get six pages of stereotypes, or maybe a chapter if it’s illustrated so I can see some tits & ass) we are keeping the gatekeeping alive. If I was a game design student, heck, if I was just generally interested in games, reading a book that separates me from other gamers by calling out gender stereotypes tells me straight away that I don’t belong there. These aren’t the only books in my bookshelves that do this. I have dozens of books that all suffer from variations on “what women want” or the measly chapter included that other us and stereotype us, or as in Erik Bethke’s book “Game Development and Production” talk about how passionate game developers need to be in order to fit in.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Most of those books are written by men, presumably for men. The good books are co-written by men and women, or just women. In a way I understand why this keeps happening. Men need something that distinguishes them, and usually what defines a man is what a man is not, in other words, a woman.

Gaming, to some, is the last outpost of male enjoyment. It’s part of the “boys will be boys” identity that releases men from being breadwinners and working and serious. “Boys and their toys”, right? But women, and other marginalised people, are making inroads into gaming space, changing the way gaming looks and more importantly, we’re dissolving the gamer identity by not accepting elitist bullshit and gatekeeping.

Image of the shark from jaws lunging up on a boat, saying "not all men".

In the same way that feminism threatens (some) men, the dissolution of the gamer identity as the bullied underdog is threatening (some) other men. And so we get authors that clearly divide men and women through defining what women are. In this instance what type of gamers they are.

This in turn pisses off a blogger with a fairly close circuit of readers to the point where she spends an evening trying to understand why we need such designations. We are all gamers, after all.

  1. I’m what’s known as a camper. It doesn’t matter that everyone hates me. I live and (often) die by a well placed headshot. Mmmm…. headshots…