Lady gamers level up

With more women playing video games, a Vancouver startup hopes to cash in.

Given the attention paid to macho shooters such as Call of Duty and Halo, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the video-game industry is still a man’s world. But a new Canadian company is hoping to change that perception. Silicon Sisters, Canada’s first female-owned and -operated videogame agency, opened up shop in Vancouver last month. Founded by industry veterans Kirsten Forbes and Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, the agency plans to create video games for a primarily female audience. “All our sisters are playing, so it’s got to be easier to make games for them,” says Forbes.

What that doesn’t mean is “pinkifying” games — a term used when developers add female characters or pink armour to traditional “male” games. “We’re focusing less on genres like first-person shooter,” says Forbes, who’s keeping mum about the two games they’re currently developing. “We’re focusing on mechanics, the little things.”

Forbes cites research by Sheri Graner Ray, author of the industry book Gender Inclusive Game Design, which found that wired-up male gamers felt their hearts pumping during games with combat and explosions. “Women get that feeling in a similar way from emotional and tactile stimuli,” says Forbes. “That’s what we’re trying to find — the things that tickle [the female] brain.”

While a few women have climbed the ranks at Canadian-based publishing houses such as Ubisoft, games for systems like the PS3 and Xbox 360 are still primarily designed for a male audience. “There are simply fewer women doing it,” says Forbes of developing video games. Since developers and animators tend to work on games that they would like to play, this leaves a gap in games for women.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, women make up 40% of the gaming audience. But while it is tempting to assume that women are interested in a different gaming experience than men, the reality is a bit more complicated. “Lots of women play games that men never thought they would,” says Forbes. She says there’s also been a noted increase in “Killer Betties” — hard-core women gamers that play games like Grand Theft Auto and Assassins Creed.

Emma Westecott, professor of game design at the Ontario College of Art and Design, says it’s key for the industry to broaden its horizons when it comes to games for women. “The game industry needs to continue trying to better understand its players, and as a result of this dialogue we’ll see different types of game experience making it to market,” she says.

But Tami Quiring, a representative of the Women in Games organization, says that games truly developed for women are hard to come by. “I do like puzzles, stories and good characters, but I also like combat and mayhem,” she says. “I’d like to see a game from Silicon Sisters that fits the AAA hard-core market, but is centred around female involvement. It’d be great if the hero was female, and not built like Lara Croft. But if they make games like Farmville, then I won’t play.”