Thursday, April 30, 2009

Action-Packed Short-Form Games: An Ideal Date?

In this article, writer and game designer Sande Chen suggests that action-packed short-form games are ideal for dating and also might be a great way to get teenage girls interested in games.

At GDC 2005 and GDC 2006, as co-founders of the non-profit, Girls in Games, Inc., Michelle Sorger and I conducted the popular "Attracting Women to Game Development" roundtables, which focused on recruitment and retention of women in the game industry. One comment during a discussion about bringing games into the lives of teenage girls has intrigued me over the years: a suggestion that the industry create 2 - 3 hour narrative-based games that teenage boys and girls could enjoy together, akin to going out to the movies.

Young girls, according to research, are enthralled by video games just as much as young boys, but in their teenage years, girls' interests typically turn to issues dealing with dating and socialization. Video games just like any type of sciences or maths are commonly viewed as interests for females who are socially awkward and undesirable. Therefore, girls veer away from the very subjects that could make them employable in the video game industry years from now. For years, people have said the issue is not that young female college freshmen are not interested in computer programming, but that teenage and middle school girls are not interested in computer programming. We're wasting our efforts if we devote all our energies to the college level.

But by transporting video games into the realm of social interaction and dating, the act of playing a video game become socially acceptable to teenage girls. It becomes part of the dating ritual, like going to a club or a movie. But what sort of short-form game would be appropriate for a date? And how would that dynamic be?

Normally, when boys and girls play video games together, boys end up playing the game. This has been noted in several studies of games used in educational settings. There are many explanations for this: girls typically are not video game literate and girls' play patterns differ from boys. Noah Falstein in a GDC 2009 session noted that when girls play, one takes the steering wheel while the others crowd around and give comments. For girls, no particular person is in control whereas boys are continually jockeying for control of the controller. Moreover, girls are not comfortable playing a game without knowing exactly how everything works. As Sheri Graner Ray has often stated, even back in the arcade age, a boy was playing the game while a girl stood watching.

However, I would posit that while girls' lack of controller dominance may discourage educational theorists who would want girls to participate (and learn) from games, this is perfectly OK in a social setting. No girl wants the possibility of failure in front of boy and repeated failure only leads to frustration. As casual game developers know, the more a casual player fails at a game, the more likely she is to stop playing the game. Moreover, when considering gender play patterns, it simply follows that a boy playing the game and a girl watching is a normal situation. And a girl's lack of controller dominance does not mean that she is not enjoying the game.

Anecdotally speaking, when a couple of game designers and I went through Gears of War 2 in one sitting, I was quite happy to let the guys go through the game because I knew they could get through it faster. Yet, I felt like I was participating because at choice points, I could voice my opinion, yelling "Right, Right!" or "No, Left!" when we drove over the frozen lakes. Normally, I find it silly to yell when I watch DVDs with friends, but because this game was interactive, I could participate in that way.

I might add that I typically do not enjoy action flicks on the wide screen. I have even fallen asleep during a Vin Diesel film because of the lack of deep characterization. So, it is somewhat surprising to me that I have come to this conclusion that action-packed short-form games would be ideal date material. Simply, in my experience, no other genre of games seemed to be right for this purpose. I have played Braid with the same guys and even though I used the controller with others commenting to me, a puzzle game is simply too slow-paced and furthermore, does not deliver a satisfying shared experience at 2 - 3 hours. I have found the same to be true for RPGs, which often meander and have a slow build-up.

Scientists have said that in the science of love, increased adrenaline output is part of falling in love, which is why television matchmakers try to hook couples up by giving them exciting dates like race car driving or bungee jumping. Fast-paced action games, if at 2 - 3 hours, incite adrenaline and are spectacles to watch. The narratives, while they could be better, are straightforward and usually on rails like a movie. To top it off, if the couple had something like the Rez trance vibrator, then every time the boy blew away demon-alien hybrids, the girl would receive a happy jolt. However, that's not for first-date hijinks!

So what do you think? Should video games be part of the dating ritual?

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She writes about women's issues in the game industry at DameDev.

2 comments:

Alan Jack said...

I actually had a very similar idea recently, after a (slightly shameful) foray into the world of online dating.

After a while, I shared a lovely evening - getting-to-know-you chat over some wine and dinner, followed by cuddling up on the sofa to watch/discuss our favourite TV shows - without ever actually meeting the other person. The whole thing was done through MSN.

(for the record, I did meet her later, and she was NOT the confused 40 year old man I'm assuming you all think she was!)

It made me wonder if perhaps there's a market for an online dating site that actually let you experience a virtual date with someone - a private chat room while a romantic movie plays, perhaps, or doing a virtual jigsaw together - perhaps even some simple carnival-style games.

I certainly know a few guys who wish they could experience this kind of "old fashioned" nice dating without the messy trouble of actually having to talk to a woman face-to-face.

Sande said...

More comments for this article can be found at http://tinyurl.com/cerg99 - Sande