Giant Robots and Inherent Dudeliness

I’ve been thinking about a recent Sexist Beatdown column by Sady Doyle and Amanda Hess. Short version: women get excluded from certain subcultures, and this is a Bad Thing.

As the developer of GearHead, I want women to feel comfortable and welcome in this space. The game belongs to you as much as it does to anyone else. As far as I know we haven’t had any major problems in the community, but I also know enough to know that I wouldn’t necessarily know if we did.

There’s a much smaller gender divide between the bug reports/feature requests I get via email and the participation on the forum. As far as I know, most of the active forum members are men. The email I get regarding GearHead is closer to a 60/40 men/women split.

Why is it important? First off, because excluding people from something they enjoy just because of their gender/color/creed/etc is a terrible thing to do. Second, because having women participate in the community will provide additional perspectives and help the game develop in ways which appeal to both women and men. Third, having women actively participating in the community will make it seem less like a boys-only club, thereby encouraging more women to participate.

So what can be done about it? Good question. If you’re a woman who plays GearHead, I’d like to hear your opinions.

9 Responses to “Giant Robots and Inherent Dudeliness”

  1. Blue_Screen Says:

    If the game can gain appeal from both men and women on a nearly equal level, I must say that this game had done quite an accomplishment!

    From Joseph Hewitt’s post, I am reading that the forum had a majority of a specific group despite the fact that the forum was not designed for a boys-only club. Removing the gender information in the forum profiles sounds like a good idea for equal opportunity, but removal may prove to deny/ignore a problem. As for the game itself, I hope the graphics will not get erased.

  2. Anne Says:

    As just one user, don’t take my own opinions as representing a whole gender. But I wasn’t even aware the forum had a gender setting, so the numbers there may not be representative.

    As for whether the game and community make me feel comfortable, well, there’s obviously nothing completely offputting or I wouldn’t still be here. But overall the game’s pretty reasonable. There’s one portrait that really make me go “ew” – por_f_ladi_mischa(AC-).png – but really, the standard clothing for female characters in SF/fantasy video games is pretty horrible. And the presence of a fair number of practically-dressed female portraits (e.g. por_f_starseid(A-Y).png or por_f_comicvikki(J-Y).png) helps make the revealing ones seem like fashion choices rather than the way the game’s designers want all women to dress.

    As for the game’s workings, the game’s almost complete gender blindness is mostly a good thing; mechanics are as likely to be female as male just because the game doesn’t care. In some games this can feel like the game treats everyone as male, but I think GearHead just comes off as gender-neutral.

    Of course, GearHead doesn’t stand alone – it appeals to fans of giant robot anime and roguelike games, so to the extent those cultures are male-dominated, GearHead starts at a disadvantage.

  3. Joseph Hewitt Says:

    There isn’t a gender option on the forum, which is why I said “As far as I know…” above. I’m just estimating the difference based on the members whose gender I know from outside the forum (which I’ll admit is not a very scientific way of doing things). It may very well be that there is no problem. In any case I think it’s good to talk about these things.

    Anne- The portraits are one of my big concerns. The question for portrait artists should be “Who do you want to be?”, but all too often changes to “What do you want to see?”. I’ll add the Mischa portrait to the list of portraits to be replaced.

  4. Anne Says:

    Actually, the Mischa portrait could probably be fixed by filling in the gaps, so that rather than skin they showed one of the other basic colors, making it just a rather odd dress.

    The problem with “who do you want to be”, in a way, is exactly the gender-neutrality: the fact that you’re female and revealingly dressed doesn’t actually affect the game any, so players might as well choose who they want to look at. I don’t really have any suggestions on a good way to fix this; in principle one could put some sexism into the game – that is, obnoxious people who treat men and women differently. I’m not sure how to make that work in a non-unpleasant way. Even making opposite-sex romance a bigger part of the plot might help – the dudez who just want a sexy portrait aren’t likely to be keen on romancing that handsome doctor…

  5. Anne Says:

    One idea does occur to me – it might give the game slightly more flavour if there were male names and female names. That is, the name generator would be passed some information about the person whose name it was generating. In fact, one could have it select from one of several algorithms based on the person’s faction or city of origin, so that someone’s name might sound like they came from Luna, or Cayley Rock, or whatever. This would make characters more distinct and cities more distinct, and would in-game be explained by the cities having different founding populations and cultures. The weirder ones would be explained as the results of utopian social engineering (say) or extreme fashion.

    As for the actual algorithms, well, I have a few ideas:

    * Random first/last names from a recent US Census (available online in the public domain, with frequencies)
    * Same from an *old* census, e.g., 1800
    * Names from a particular other language
    * Names from the writings of a particular author (e.g. Shakespeare, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Gibson – obviously choose one with lots of names that are listed in computer-readable form)
    * Selected dictionary words, e.g. adjective adjective noun – Wet Green Gold
    * Dictionary words from another language, possibly an invented one (e.g. Esperanto, Lojban, Elvish)
    * Names of stars or astronomical objects (free lists almost certainly available) – Sirius, Algol, Betelgeuse
    * Markov chain generators (probability of the next character being an ‘a’ is based on the last n characters) drawn from text or names in some language
    * Random syllable assemblers

    Anyway, the idea is to make the characters seem a little less uniform. Exceptions are always reasonable, of course – someone can have changed factions, moved cities, or had imaginative parents. To get back on-topic, choosing female and male names according to some rule might help make gender a more visible feature of the world without being negative about it.

  6. Ladi Says:

    As the portrait artist behind the offending Mischa portrait, even I’m going “what was I thinking?” over her clothing. A new one of her in a different outfit has already been done and I’ll be posting it in the forums shortly.

  7. Anne Says:

    Thanks Ladi! Looking at the list, I see you’ve drawn a number of my favourite portraits – even that one is nice, apart from the clothing…

  8. Joseph Hewitt Says:

    Anne- I’ve experimented a bit with a gender/region-influenced name generator, but didn’t manage to get anything sensible. The program has to tread a careful line between making sure names are readable and making sure that names don’t repeat too often. Since the GH2 name generator tends a bit too much towards the “nonrepeating but unreadable” side of the balance, I’ll probably be reworking it some time in the future.

    Ladi- I look forward to seeing it!

  9. Anne Says:

    Joseph – for non-repeating, why not just keep a list of all names generated, stored in the savegame? Then a new name gets checked against the list and retried until you get a new one. As for gender distinction, I don’t know how the current one works (and I don’t know how painful string manipulation is in Pascal), but keeping a list of endings for male names and a list of endings for female names might be enough.

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