To feel secure. To feel safe. To feel a sense of control. The comfort of knowing that certain efforts will yield certain results. Do good, get good in return. Predictability. Affirmation. A modicum of recognition, a genuine expression of gratitude and appreciation. The satisfaction of a job well done. Love. And all this can be yours for $19.95. All this from a game.
Gosh, in print that sounds so sexist, and it is, it’s sexist to believe that only women want these things, because men want them too. They just won’t admit it, won’t express it, or go about obtaining them in different ways. All humans want to feel safe, and empowered and recognized. But this is not about all humans. This is about a certain segment of humans, the growing body of consumers who actually buy casual games, and specifically, those who continue to buy those overtly feminine, cloyingly girly, plate-spinner/task-management offerings that seem to be bullet-proof – immune to such market forces as the product life cycle and genre fatigue. Casual gamers can’t seem to get enough of running beauty parlors, clothing boutiques and strange hotels.
The success of games like Belle’s Beauty Boutique and Paradise Pet Salon make sense of course. These are bright, happy games that generally conform to the realities they represent. The same goes for the recent spate of fashion-themed offerings, games that are so remarkably similar that it seems reasonable to conclude their designers are tapping each other’s phones. But what these games have in common is a focus on a central female character trying to maintain control of a chaotic environment. Sound familiar? These games are metaphors for what male game developers perceive to be the lives of their target demographic.
In these games you juggle priorities, you multitask, you attempt to string together a series of actions designed to save you time and effort. You develop a routine. You invent little strategies. And that’s how you get through your day. The game is life. It is life in miniature, distilled down to its elemental core. But it’s more colorful and shinier. It’s cleaner. Simpler. And its outcome is ensured. In these games you rise from your humble beginnings and actually achieve your goals. It all works out in the end, and the end is tidy and happy. Just like a Hollywood movie. A chick-flick actually. If this was 1948 instead of 2008 we might even call these dame games.
These types of casual games are the digital equivalent of chick flicks. I don’t mean this in a pejorative way. I don’t mean to disparage women by using this term, or attempting to distill their basic needs down to pop philosophies and Seinfeldian observations. I happen to like chick flicks. Because I, too, want things to work out for the heroine. I want the good gal to get the good guy. I want the romantic version of dating and courtship to endure. I want to believe that good intentions matter and that we can all realize our dreams.
My point here is that of course women want these things. Who wouldn’t? And of course these games are designed to give them, the market’s primary customer, a vicarious, pared down, digital version of the chick-flick; though in this case the romance aspect of the plot is replaced with some version of retail success. In these games it’s not Gal gets Guy, it’s Gal gets Paid. (or, Gal derives satisfaction and warm fuzzies from personal growth and achievement).
But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Men want that too. I’ve spoken to many male casual gamers. I’ve interviewed and observed them in focus groups. A lot of men play these so-called girly games. And I suspect it’s for the same reasons that women do. The games are light and fun and develop a certain play rhythm that’s very sticky. They are also optimistic and, to a degree, moralistic. They tend to reaffirm what we believe about ourselves. They reinforce a certain can-do attitude and, as that wildly popular phenomenon The Secret will tell you, just a little positive thinking can go a long way.
So why aren’t there games like Sally’s Salon and Jane’s Hotel for men? Why hasn’t some clever game development team from the other side of the fence, the core game studios, created Bob’s Garage or Dale’s Pit-Stop Paradise? Why aren’t men pandered to as shamelessly as women? If you think about it, it’s insulting. Not just to women (who, according to casual game developers are obsessed with hair-do’s, cake baking and running boutiques) but to men. There are plenty of girly games to chose from, but nothing equally as sexist for us guys. Where are the macho games? Well, they’re everywhere. Just look at Halo and Ghost Recon and Deer Hunter.
I say all this silliness to make a point. What women casual gamers really want is what all casual gamers really want. They want great games. Great games are developed with their target audience clearly in mind. That audience is increasingly male, and I’d be willing to bet that a game that was not designed by men strictly based on their skewed perceptions of what women want would do very well. Clearly, women should be part of the process of designing games for women.
I’d like to see men and women working together to design and produce games for people. I’d like to see collaborative efforts, design teams specifically set up for this purpose. I know, you’ve heard this before. But the developers are either not listening or don’t care. The next big breakthrough game will come from a small design team, perhaps just one man and one woman. How can I be so sure? Well, because the last big breakthrough game came from just such a team. That team is called Last Day of Work. The game of course was Virtual Villagers. I rest my case.