Gender-Aware Pervasive Game Design
I haven’t written much about pervasive games lately, which is a bit strange since we have spent quite a lot of time during the spring with both designing and testing our most recent design experiment, Codename Heroes. As our first public tests with the game are approaching, I would like to write a bit about its design and how we plan to test it.
This game was designed to be a low-entry longterm multiplayer game directed towards a teenage audience. Most importantly, it has been designed to appeal to young women, girls.
Why would we do that in the first place? Wouldn’t girls play the same pervasive games as everyone else? Our reason could have been as simple as trying to provide a counter example. Now that pervasive games are starting to come to the market, we can note that they are pretty much designed and marketed by the same game companies that make computer and mobile games, a very male-dominated scene. But our main reason was that girls and boys live rather different lives – young girls face a set of challenges that are unique to their gender and that affect how and when they spend their spare time as well as how they move through public space (which in general is not a lot). Since pervasive games are played intermixed with everyday life, they run the risk of being inaccessible for girls unless they are designed to take their situation into account.
When designing Codename Heroes, we first took a look at ethnographic literature mapping out the lives of girls in their lower teens. (Btw, this was a rather depressing read. Either the ethnographers were intent of finding as many problems as possible or girls at this age live horrible, horrible lives.) Then, we worked with the game mechanics, in particular those that had to do with spatial and social expansion, to address some of those challenges. For example, many young girls are afraid of getting assaulted when walking alone, which makes them very restricted in how they move in everyday life. Some quests in Codename Heroes asks you to go to new places (to break confinement) but since you play in teams you never need to go there alone. Furthermore, young girls are often very dependent on their friends, for good and for ill as it creates support and group pressure at the same time. In Codename Heroes there is a mehanics of gift-giving to support trust building.
(At this point, I must stop to mention that we have no idea whether our mechanics actually have the intended effects. We know that they work as we have play-tested the game on multiple occasions, and we also know that our women players have liked the game so far. But since we haven’t run the game long-term yet, we have no idea whether the gift giving actually builds trust, for example.)
At the same time, we did not want to design a game that would appeal only to girls. Many products are styled and marketed in a way that marks them out as ‘for girls only’ – if you decorate a toy with pink ruffles you can be pretty sure that boys will not touch it with a ten foot pole. Much of our graphical design efforts have been spent on finding some kind of gender-neutral form of expression. We ended up in a soft steampunk style for props, and a rabbit icon that just might be a little bit too cuddly.
So this weekend, I did a HUGE mistake. We are running a ‘sneak preview’ of the game at the Ung’08 festival a one-hour adventure nowhere near the long-term game that Codename Heroes is designed to be. I needed to make an additional set of props for this adventure, and when shopping for material I fell in love with – you guessed it – ruffles. They weren’t pink, but they had polka dots and were absolutely lovely. So now I have a set of props with ruffles…
This gives some room for experiment. Suppose we run half of our runs with the ruffled props, and half with neutrally gendered props? Will the ruffles trip the scale and make the whole game girly? Or will the players see the game as girly even without the ruffles? Or will it matter at all – maybe the game appeals equally to both genders with and without the ruffles? My personal guess is that the ruffles will trip the scale, but that boys in particular may see the game as ‘girly’ even without them. (To be honest, there is a quest in the event that encourages some sewing as well, and that alone may be enough to trip the scales.)
Please place your bets! If we get enough players, I will be able to give the results in two weeks from now.
Back, J., Papadogoula, F.A., and Waern, A. (2012). The challenges of designing a gender-aware pervasive game. CHI Workshop on identity, performativity and HCI, Austin, Texas, May.