Ladies’ (and Gentlemen’s) Night

Today I wanted to talk about making gender inclusive games. I don’t want to talk about making games specifically for girls or women. Instead, I want to talk about making games that everyone can enjoy, independent of gender. I think a lot of game designers start their games with this goal in mind, but make easily avoidable mistakes that make it very difficult for women to enjoy their games. So, I wanted to go over some of these mistakes in hopes of preventing others from making them.

But before that, a couple of caveats!

First, I’m not a woman. I’ve never claimed to be, and I’m not going to start now. That means my perspective on these issues is from the outside. This is an issue I’ve thought about a lot, but obviously women would have a better grasp of this, since they experience it first hand. If any women readers would like to chime in and let me know if I got anything wrong (or right!), please feel free!

Second, I’m going to be making some sweeping generalizations here. Please keep in mind that I don’t believe all women are exactly the same. As I’ve discussed before, it’s kind of a necessary evil to try to generalize about people when you’re making games (or really anything) for large audiences, and this is a perfect example. The important thing is to remember what you’re doing, and to keep in mind that even though you’re generalizing about a group of people, each person in the class is unique, and none will fit the idealized version you’re using. In this case, I’ll be making broad generalizations about girls and women, but I honestly don’t believe that all of these generalizations actually pertain to any one actual person, and I also believe there are many women who will not fit into any of these generalizations.

Finally, I’m going to use the second person pronoun a lot in this post, but I’m mostly assuming that the reader is a man. It’s not because I want to imply that no women would want to create gender neutral games–it’s that I assume most already have a much better grasp on these issues than men do! In our society, men are the default, and I think women are used to adopting a man’s perspective on issues a lot more than men are used to adopting a woman’s perspective. I don’t think this is a good thing… I think that’s just the way it is. But, that also means that men are the ones who need help with this sort of thing, so this post will mostly be addressing them. That said, I hope women can read and appreciate it, and I really would love to hear their perspective on the issue!

Alright, with that out of the way, let’s get to it. What can you do to make your game appealing to both men and women?

 Female Characters are not Objects

I know that games like Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda have taught you that women in games are pretty much the same as any other treasure–something to save from the bad guy. They don’t really do anything, other than get kidnapped, call for help, and get rescued.

The funny thing is that a lot of women apparently didn’t play those games. They’re less interested in female characters as objects, and more interested with female characters with personalities and actual agency. They want strong female characters that don’t need male characters to take care of them.

This one is really easy to fix. Make some of your main characters women. Make your protagonist a woman. Give your hero a goal other than saving a woman, or at least give that woman some agency and personality, saving herself while your hero helps. Whatever you do, make sure you have some female characters that have more going on than being vulnerable and needing help.

Female Characters are not Sex Objects

For all of the amazing improvements in graphics over the decades of game development, there is one area where game artists just can’t seem to mimic reality very well: female anatomy. Rather than basing female characters’ proportions on real people, the artists seem to instead prefer to base the size of various body parts on how much time adolescent boys spend looking at those parts.

Clothing is another major issue. While male characters are often covered head to toe in extravagant armor, female characters usually wear as little clothing as possible to still have a “Teen” rating. Why would a female character wear a chain mail bikini? The only reason I can think of is to get teenage boys to buy the game.

It’s not limited to in game characters, either. The sad truth is that at many game conferences, there are fewer women working on games than there are “booth babes”, scantily clad women there to lure men to booths like sirens. In my view, this is a huge embarrassment for the game industry, showing its immaturity and lack of class.

Women don’t want to be constantly exposed to over-sexualized bodies. It makes them insecure about their own perfectly normal bodies. It makes them worry about the creepy thoughts other players might be thinking about them. In other words, it makes them uncomfortable and distracts them from the game experience.

When you have a woman character in your game, give her a personality and some talents. But also make sure she’s wearing something reasonable and isn’t 90% boobs. There is a time and a place for exaggerated female forms, and it’s when you have a character that is explicitly sex manifested. Most characters shouldn’t fall into this category, so their bodies should resemble actual people.

Avoid Gratuitous Violence

Given the state of game mechanics and genres out there, it’s going to be difficult to avoid violence altogether. I don’t think avoiding violence altogether is necessary, but I think that excessive, graphic violence will turn off a lot of women from your game. So, what can you do to make sure the violence in your game doesn’t deter women from trying it?

First, make sure the violence isn’t overly graphic or explicit. If you have a budget for effects, don’t pour 75% of it into blood splatters. Don’t zoom in every time a character gets a bone broken or a limb severed. In fact, avoid broken bones and severed limbs altogether. Violence is a fact of the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s in your face all the time.

Second, make it matter. One of the problems people have with violence in games is that it desensitizes people to violence because it’s such a casual part of a play experience. If you’re going to include violence in a game, make it more than that. Don’t allow it to be anonymous–give the characters to suffer and cause violence names, personalities, and make them acknowledge and react to the violence. Don’t make violence normal or expected.

Finally, don’t include violence unless you’re going to make a statement about violence. A lot of people in the real world suffer from violence every day. Take the opportunity to address that. Don’t include violence without taking a stand on the issue, because if you don’t, you’ll be implicitly condoning it.

Allow for Non-Aggressive Strategies

You should really just be doing this anyway, but make sure there are multiple viable strategies in your game. People have different personalities and preferences, and like to approach problems from different vantage points. It’s a broad generalization, but I believe that women tend to prefer non-aggressive strategies. Instead, they would rather build to win, or be creative or sneaky. Give them (and your men players, who also have different preferences) those options.

When people play games, they’re expressing their personalities. Don’t force them to express someone else’s personality, especially if that other personality might be unattractive to them.

Include Cooperative Elements

Just like people have different play styles, they also play games for different reasons. Some people *coughmecough* play games to match wits against other people, treating games as an intellectual competition. Some people really don’t like this, though. They want to play games to hang out with friends, or to express their creativity, or for an excuse to just get a little silly.

Cooperative elements allow for teamwork and shared accomplishments, which are much more appealing to a lot of people. Honestly, I feel like cooperative elements should be included in way more games, since it allows people of radically different skill levels to enjoy a game together, when a competitive experience would be unappealing for everyone in those circumstances. Cooperative games may not allow hyper analytical and competitive players to fully enjoy themselves, but it will allow a huge swath of players to enjoy themselves in a safe environment that a purely competitive game wouldn’t allow.

Avoid Sexism

Alright, this one should probably go without saying, but don’t be offensive in your games. Sexism is the obvious one, but really, being offensive in any way is a good way to turn off a lot of people. Racism, homophobic language or gestures–really, anything that could put down any class of people will cause many people to have a negative response to your game.

I’m not saying you can’t have characters that present these perspectives. Just make sure your game as a whole doesn’t come off as being sexist or racist or whatever. And if you do include characters with these view points, include it like you would violence–tastefully, and with a purpose.

All Together Now

You might have read this and understood all of my suggestions, and still come out wondering, “why should I care?”. Well, if the whole expanding your player base and therefore your profits thing isn’t convincing enough, maybe you will appreciate a social obligation argument.

We live in a world where women have equal rights to men, but that doesn’t mean that things are equal. Thousands of years of inequality has left a framework where women make less money for doing the same work, are more vulnerable to harassment and violence, and feel unwelcome in many communities. I’m sorry to say that computer science in general and games specifically are some of the worst offenders in this regard. Many men don’t even realize that they’re creating an environment which makes women uncomfortable and drives them away.

I personally like the idea of a society in which women and men are equal, which is why I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to strive to make welcoming, non-hostile environments. This doesn’t mean we can’t joke around and have fun, and it really doesn’t mean we can’t talk about this kind of stuff. It means that when you’re making decisions, think about each other. Maybe the difference between one quart of blood and one gallon of blood per death doesn’t make a difference to you, but there are people who do care, so err on the side of being inclusive.

Eh, who am I kidding… If you don’t care about increasing your game’s fan base, why would you care about all that social justice stuff?

That’s all I have for today. I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve left out, and also plenty I got wrong, since this is all coming from a man’s perspective. If you have any thoughts, I encourage you to leave a comment, or email me if you prefer (teale|at|nothingsacredgames|dot|com). Until next time!

Updated June 25, 2012: Big thanks to my friend Pete Olsen of for helping me keep the gender language correct in this post.

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  1. Most excellent article. This is something that is always brought up but never addressed, and it steams me something fierce. Unfortunately, I can say that gaming conventions aren’t alone in their use of ‘booth babes’ as most companies of the male-dominated industries out there (which, again unfortunately is most of them) put out requests to hire 18- to 29-year-old women to welcome visitors to their booths at trade shows and conventions. It’s a pretty gross practice, and should be abolished for most industries (I say ‘most’ because there are plenty of industries where having a young adult — male or female — showing off the product is actually be relevant).

    Sadly, I must come clean on a couple of games that I love…

    1. The first is Mall of Horror. In Mall of Horror, you have three characters to keep alive, and these characters are based on stereotypes from zombie movies: the shifty dude with the gun, the bruiser, and the cheer leader that never stops screaming. Ugh. I love the game. I think the mechanics are great, and anyone who plays seems to have a lot of fun when they do. But it really bothers me that the only character with a negative in-game effect is the female, and because she has a negative in-game effect, if you can keep her alive (read: protect her like one would a Peach or a Zelda) she is worth the most points at the end of the game. I love the idea that one character is worth more points because they’re harder to keep alive, but making that the only girl character in the game? Not okay. The mechanics don’t even need that character to be female. So, Mall of Horror, strike one. Don’t do it again. Now on to the second embarrassing game that I love…

    2. Mortal Kombat. Yeah, you read that correctly. That fighting game where there’s more blood and violence than can really be digested, and more scantily clad women than probably exist in reality. What can I say other than, “I think the fighting mechanics are awesome and I thing the violence is outrageous.” I admit, the violence in that game really appeals to me (probably because it is so over the top and not casual at all), and I certainly cannot say that the game doesn’t glorify violence, because let’s face it, the violence is one of the bullet points on the game box in the store. I despise the way they portray women in the game though, and it has always been a point of contention for me when considering whether or not to pick it up.

    Anyway, Teale, I think your six points above are crucial and should be followed whenever possible by game designers. I for one will put forth the effort to make that the case with all Enchanted Beard Press games in the future.

    Thanks for helping to save the world.

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