What Do Women Game Designers Want?

IN CHARACTER - A longtime game player, Denise Fulton of Ion Storm in Austin, Tex., is an executive producer overseeing a new installment in the Deus Ex series.

Carol Whaley for The New York Times

IN CHARACTER - A longtime game player, Denise Fulton of Ion Storm in Austin, Tex., is an executive producer overseeing a new installment in the Deus Ex series.


Published: October 14, 2004




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They Collaborate, Socialize and Borrow Clothes (October 14, 2004)




Computer and Video Games


Virtual Reality (Computers)

Ion Storm


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Annie Marie Musselman for The New York Times

LEADER - Laura Fryer, an executive producer at Microsoft, supervises a group that develops Xbox games.


DENISE FULTON spent much of her childhood playing computer games. At 8, while growing up in Ohio, she was already playing Zork, Adventure and other text-based games. And the fascination continued into her adult years.

So it is not surprising that today Ms. Fulton, 34, is an executive producer at Ion Storm, a video game company in Austin, Tex., where she is overseeing the next installment in the popular Deus Ex series.

The surprising part is how rare Ms. Fulton is. Behind the computer screen, as in front of it, video games are a man's world.

Informal estimates put the percentage of women in the industry at around 10 percent, and even then, most tend to be in jobs in customer service, marketing and quality assurance. Relatively few women work as game designers and producers, and even fewer are programmers.

"It's not so much that women look at the industry and discard the idea," said Sheri Graner Ray, a senior game designer at Sony Online Entertainment. "It's that the game industry just never even comes up on their radar."

The reason has to do with a truism about the computer game industry. Those who work in the industry tend to enter their jobs as avid gamers. And playing video games, especially those loaded with graphic violence, has been a male pursuit. According to the NPD Group, a market research firm based in New York, some 81 percent of video-game players are male.

"It's a chicken-or-egg thing," said Ms. Fulton, who sees a lot of résumés in her job, almost all from men. "If more women were playing games, they might get interested in games as a medium and might choose to pursue that as a career. But it's still stigmatized as a boy thing."

Now, though, manufacturers are starting to think about making games that are more appealing to women, like the Sims, a role-playing game that is viewed as one of the most popular games among women.

"Do women not play games because the games that are out there are designed for men, or is it just that women really don't like computer games?" said Elizabeth Sweedyk, an assistant professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. "My guess is they don't like the games that are out there."

Manufacturers understand there is a huge untapped portion of the market. "They've realized they have to appeal to women," said David Riley, senior manager at NPD. And as more games are marketed to, and played by, girls and women, more women eventually may end up choosing a career in the industry.

Until then, though, people like Ms. Fulton, and like Nicky Robinson, a programmer, will be the exceptions.

Ms. Robinson, 44, is accustomed to being one of few female programmers who works on games. She grew up playing board games of all kinds and then, in ninth grade, was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons, the role-playing fantasy game that used dice, pen and paper. "That completely captured my imagination," Ms. Robinson said. College led to Rogue, a dungeons-and-dragons-type adventure game played on a computer.

She entered the game industry when she was 23, and has worked on more than a dozen games through the years, including some unequivocally male-oriented titles like Battle Tanx and Army Men.

Ms. Robinson said she felt an obligation to make games more appealing to women. To that end, she said, she has worked to make the user interfaces more intuitive. "I personally loathe interfaces that are cluttered," she said. "I've heard this as a common complaint from women."

Ms. Robinson also dislikes the atmosphere at some game companies. There are the constant sports metaphors she has heard used in the course of developing and shipping products, for instance. "Does everything need to be expressed in terms of 'fourth and goal?' " she asked. "How about a nice literary allusion?"

Then, she said, there is the testosterone-fueled attitude among upper management that she believes pervades many game software companies. "They all have to prove that they are tougher and more macho than the guys in the other department or at the other company," she said.

Now Ms. Robinson is director of technology at LimeLife, in Menlo Park, Calif., whose goal is to make mobile phone applications especially for women. Ms. Robinson had the chance to air some of her frustrations last month in Austin at the Women's Game Conference, held in conjunction with a more broader industry gathering, the Austin Game Conference.



Steve Teicher


Digital Media Division


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