Explaining disconnect between women, video games

It's not that women don't understand games, it's that games don't understand women, female game designer says.

SAN FRANCISCO--It's not that women don't understand video games, it's that video games don't understand women.

Or so says Sheri Graner Ray, a game designer for the last 16 years, a veteran of Sony Online Entertainment and the Cartoon Network, and a keynote speaker at the Sex in Video Games conference, held here Thursday and Friday.

In her address, Ray, author of the book "Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market" and a longtime spokeswoman for female gamers, offered up an explanation as to why women make up less than 10 percent of the gaming population.

Most video games, Ray argues, are like bad boyfriends--they're too involved with their own male sexuality to even try to crack the female sexual code.

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Video: Sex, games and videotape
Visitors find hot stuff at the Sex in Videogames conference.

Ray pointed to your typical video game heroine: overly endowed, highly sexualized, all but naked.

But "male characters are just as exaggerated as female characters, and women just need to get over it, right?" Ray asked.

Well... not exactly.

While it's true that both male and female characters display the common heroic traits of being young, strong, virile and fertile, Ray said, only the female characters display physical traits humans get when they're ready for sex: partially open mouths with large red lips, heavy eyelids (or "bedroom eyes").

The female characters are also dressed in sexually explicit clothing and placed in sexual poses, whereas the male characters aren't.

These "sex object" images aren't going to appeal to the average female gamer, Ray said.

As part of her presentation, Ray included a slide of some half-dressed, highly sexualized and anatomically perfect male Calvin Klein models.

"Who would be willing to play a character that looks like this?" she asked.

Not surprisingly, in a largely male room, only a few women raised their hands.

But simply sexualizing the male characters wouldn't necessarily do the trick, Ray implied. The fact is, she said, female gamers are concerned with more than just exciting visuals and flashy surfaces.

"Don't trivialize the importance of the emotional experience," she said: Video games need to provide a way for women to have a deeper experience with the characters.

Video game companies that truly want to market to female gamers will provide a way for players to become acquainted with their characters, Ray said, even allowing for an emotional attachment to develop. She suggested that some games could feature an interview section in the tradition of magazines like Seventeen and Tiger Beat, which run photos of teen idols alongside short Q&A sections that reveal casual details: hobbies, tastes and quirks.

In the long run, Ray said, female gamers need more than just action to stay involved, and to illustrate her point, she told of a seminar at which she watched a 13-year-old girl excel at a popular game. Instead of continuing to advance to higher levels, the girl soon got bored and quit playing.

When Ray asked why, the girl said, "I pulled his heart out once, why do I need to do it again?"

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