The Bittersweetest Thing

Lead Writer of BioWare's Dragon Age game series, lover of fan tears. This is where I blog about game development, fandom, and narrative design. Anything I say here is my opinion alone.


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The Female Perspective in Game Development

I happen to be fortunate. My team of writers on Dragon Age currently consists of nine people— most of which are female. It’s reached the point that, when we consider new hires and transfers, I tend to joke “ummm, we could use some more testosterone in here…” and give a big goofy grin. Mine is probably the only department that could get away with saying something like that.

And I’m not truly serious about it, anyhow. If having such a large number of women on my team has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t lump them into one category of preferences any more than you could the guys. Yes, there are those among my female writers who are more averse to combat and more attracted to the romance plots… but, you know what? That’s equally true for the male writers. Considering there are those among the women who would be seriously put out if a plot didn’t engage in some serious bloodletting, and who roll their eyes whenever the subject of gooey romance comes up, I think it’s pretty safe to say the stereotype of a “female gamer” doesn’t exist outside of the heads of men.

Which meant I was a little surprised when I learned something new the other day.

We were sitting down to peer review a plot— a peer review being the point where a plot has had its first writing pass completed, and whoever wrote it sits down with the other writers as well as representatives from cinematic design, editing, and level art to hear critique. We’ve all read it first, and written down our thoughts, and go around the table to relate any issues we encountered.

As it happened, most of the guys went first. Typical stuff— some stuff was good, some stuff needed work, etc. etc. Then one of the female writers went, and she brought up an issue. A big issue. It had to do with a sexual situation in the plot, which she explained could easily be interpreted as a form of rape.

It wasn’t intended that way. In fact, the writer of the plot was mortified. The intention was that it come across as creepy and subverting… but authorial intention is often irrelevant, and we must always consider how what we write will be interpreted. In this case, it was not a long trip for the person playing through the plot to see what was happening at a slightly different angle, and it was no longer good-creepy. It was bad-creepy. It was discomforting and not cool at all. And this female writer was not alone. All the other women at the table nodded their heads, and had noted the same thing in their critiques. So we discussed it, changes were made, and everything was better. Crisis averted.

All good, right? That’s what these reviews are for.

Here’s the thing: after the meeting was over, it struck me how sharply divided the reviewers were on gender lines. The guys involved, all reasonable and liberal-minded fellows I assure you (including me!) all automatically took the intended viewpoint of the author and didn’t see the issue. The girls had all taken the other side of the encounter, and saw it completely differently— all of them. As soon as it was pointed out, it was obvious… but why hadn’t we seen it?

And this thought occurred as well: if this had been a team with no female perspective present, it would have gone into the game that way. Had that female writer been the lone woman, would her view have been disregarded as an over-reaction? A lone outlier? How often does that happen on game development teams, ones made up of otherwise intelligent and liberal guys who are then shocked to find out that they inadvertently offended a group that is quickly approaching half of the gaming audience?

For the girls reading that, I imagine a bunch will roll their eyes and say “well, duh, pretty damn often.” But what about the guys? Will the idea make them uncomfortable? Will they come up with excuses, or go right to hostility? Guys, particularly in game development, are a pretty privileged bunch. That’s not meant as an insult; it’s just the way it is. The teams consist primarily of white guys and (shockingly) that’s who we assume our audience is— almost exclusively. But the gaming audience is changing, just as the nature of our games is changing, and perhaps there’s value in appreciating the fact that greater female representation in game development teams has a more practical benefit than equality for equality’s sake alone.


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