That’s the question under investigation in the “Alien Game” article by Heeter and group. To answer the question, they conducted a three-year study with 5th and 8th graders through the Space Pioneer Learning Adventures (SPLA) summer camp. For the first part of the study, the kids were assigned the task of “inventing a space-related educational game that would motivate ‘kids just like you’ to want to become space scientists.” So, what kinds of games would they design? According to Denner and Campe, in “What Games Made by Girls Can Tell Us” girl games traditionally have “character-centered plots, dealt with friendship issues and social relationships, and featured brightly colored graphics.”And boys? They like adventure games. Heeter and group found that of the 8 SPLA games designed all except one were adventure games. Although this flies in the face of previous research, it just seems silly to me to think that girls, or boys, would invent anything other than an adventure game to “motivate kids…to become space scientists.” Perhaps if they hadn’t been so constrained with the design objective, they would have designed a completely different game.

Another interesting finding from the study was that girls consider having both girls and boys playing their game, while boys only think of boys playing theirs. Furthermore, boys offer fewer opportunities for female avatars. One boy group offered 2 female avatars that were “noted to have the characteristic of being ‘bad tempered.’ One was a bad-tempered female robot and the other a bad-tempered alien female kangaroo/boxer from Saturn.”

The second part of the study explored the question, “Do players prefer to play games designed by the same gender?” Game promos developed from the students’ designs in part one were shown to another group of students. After viewing it, “they answered questions about that promo, including how fun they thought the game would be to play and whether they thought the game was for girls, for boys, or equally for both girls and boys.” And the results were….3 of the 4 girl designed games were favored by girls, likewise 3 of the 4 boy designed games were preferred by boys. The girl games featured more original content whereas the boy games were plays on games they already own (i.e. Halo).

How much to extrapolate from this? Heeter et al. says, “…boys play more commercial games than girls, and gaming experience influences the type of games they make. It is a closed, self-perpetuating cycle.” Yes, so more girls have to play games, thus design games, so more girls will design games. And while they are designing the games they may as well take high level administrative roles. From there the “crunch time” that plagues the industry according to Consalvo in “Crunched by Passion: Women Game Developers and Workplace Challenges,” can be remedied. Yeah, yeah, these things take time, I know….

A little experiment of my own… I Googled “game design and girls” and my top three results were Dress Up games. The fourth linked to a study at Michigan State University from 2003 that sought to see if girls and boys designed games differently. Results after that were makeover games and nail games. The most exciting result was, yep, you guessed it, another study! Troubling ‘Games for Girls‘: Notes from the Edge of Game Design. Mary Flanagan from the Digital Games Research Association in 2005. The aim… to build a multi-user game for middle school girls called RAPUNSEL.

Some good points (that we haven’t already considered)…

1.”Attempting to create something for ‘girls’ as a category obviously navigates a dangerous border zone between personal, specific, lived experience, and generalization. ‘Girls’ are as diverse in their interests, abilities, and tastes as any other category of people (e.g. ‘students’ or ‘the French’). ”

2. “On a national scale across the U.S. in early 2005, games such as the Sims II and the Internet based game Neopets prevail with the target democraphic.” [Nothing surprising there.] “Locally, design partners disclose different preferences. For many of the 11-13 year old girls we were working with as design partners in the RAPUNSEL research, most girls have never heard of Neopets, and favorite games include Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto.” [So that’s new. I think this speaks to our issues with the typical small scale studies that tend to focus on one socioeconomic/racial group. There is so much left unaccounted for. This study looks at inner city African American girls and tastes/interests are very different.] 

3. Last point, many girls (in this study anyway) prefer “masculine” or violent games. But why and how are they actually playing the game? Very differently from boys it turns out. What do girls like to do when playing GTA? The girls say “just drive” or “wanted to just help people.” In first person shooters they go off on their own to see what their bodies can do. Yes, playing differently, but still playing the games and enjoying them. This also brings up the question of if they had other games at their disposal would they choose different types of games. It’s hard to say, but Flanagan did note that the girls thought violence and fighting should be in any good computer game.