Programmers Say Video Games Need Female Perspective

By GREG SANDOVALThe Associated Press
Tara Teich enjoys nothing more than slipping into the role of a female video-game character.
But the 26-year-old software programmer gets annoyed by the appearance of such digital alter egos as the busty tomb raider Lara Croft or the belly-baring Wu the Lotus Blossom of "Jade Empire."
Do not even get her started on the thong-bikini babes that the male gunmen win as prizes in "Grand Theft Auto," which was sent to stores with hidden sex scenes left embedded on the discs by programmers.
Rockstar Games belatedly took responsibility for the scenes last week after the industry's ratings board re-rated the game "Adults Only."
"I wish they were wearing more clothes," said Teich, a lifelong game enthusiast who now helps create games. Why, she asked, must women in video games always look like Las Vegas showgirls?
Tammy Yap, a game programmer for six years, once asked that of a colleague – after all, the skimpy clothing and exaggerated body parts might offend some women, she told him. His response, she said:
"What difference does it make? Women don't play video games."
The data on who plays games are consistent. Men account for 70 percent of the players of games written for consoles, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox and Sony Corp.'s PlayStation2, said Schelley Olhava, an analyst with the research group IDC.
"Those numbers have changed little in the past seven years," said Olhava, whose company is part of Boston's International Data Group.
Women could be a rich area for growth if the $10 billion video-game industry figures out what games they want. But their point of view often goes unheard.
"There's no question that we need more diversity," said Justin Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association. "We're saying that we need to grow the business and broaden the audience and yet the game creators are still mostly young white males."
It is not just about good intentions. The decision by the Entertainment Software Rating Board to require an "Adults Only" rating for "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" could cost Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., Rockstar's parent company, more than $50 million this quarter alone.
Controversy over the amount of sex and violence in video games has raged for years. With games rated "M" for mature proving to be reliable top sellers, the industry has become synonymous with blood-spattered shootouts and voluptuous vixens. With such a reputation, it is not easy to attract female job candidates, insiders say.
While Olhava said 10 percent of all software engineers in the technology industry are women, that figure is just 4 percent in the video-game field, Della Rocca said.
"I've never worked with another woman programmer," said Yap, 28, who has been at three companies in six years.
She said she likes her male co-workers at Midway Home Entertainment Inc. in San Diego, but "sometimes it gets lonely."
Video-game companies might remain a man's world for years to come.
In May, the University of Derby in Great Britain launched a game-programming course with financial backing from Microsoft. All 106 applicants were male.
At the University of Southern California's school of engineering, it is not unusual to see classes in video-game programming without a single female student, said Anthony Borquez, director of education for USC's Integrated Media Systems Center.
"The perception is that video games are just shoot-em-ups with half-naked women running around," Borquez said. "A lot of women think that there isn't much video-game content for them."
Marketing efforts by the software companies seem to reinforce that perception, Yap said.
"Game magazines have women wearing bikinis on the cover," she said. "They are obviously targeting men. There's nothing wrong with that, but that approach isn't going to attract many women."
Born in Singapore, Yap began writing software code at the age of 10, and grew up playing games from a more innocent era, such as Lode Runner, Burger Time and Pac-Man.
After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was approached by several large game makers but thought of getting out of the business. Being the only woman in her department made her self-conscious.
"Sometimes I felt like I had to prove myself," she said.
said Teich, who works for Mad Doc Software LLC in Lawrence, Mass.: "I think you need a certain temperament. In some ways you are in a guys' club ... you've got to be able to take your share of joking."
Teich and Yap say the industry doesn't have to be so male-oriented. They cite the success of "The Sims," a decidedly nonviolent role-playing game, as proof that tapping into the women's market means big bucks.
Redwood City, Calif.-based Electronic Arts Inc. has sold more than 54 million units of the Sims, generating more than $1 billion in sales since it launched in 2000. It's the best-selling PC game of all time, and about 55 percent of the buyers were women, said EA spokeswoman Tammy Schachter.
She also notes that there were more women on the Sims' development team than on most of EA's video games.
There are signs that companies are trying harder. The game developers' association holds seminars to discuss the issues of female recruitment and retention. Electronic Arts, which endowed a chair at USC for the study of interactive entertainment in February, sponsors a scholarship for female high school students to attend a computer programming camp at the school.
Last year, the summer camp failed to attract a single female. This year, eight of the 28 students are young women.
"We're definitely very motivated to find more ways to get women into the industry," Schachter said. "This is part of a plan to build out the talent pipeline over the long term. This is not something we can solve overnight."

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