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Developer Perspectives: Less Bias Means More Money

Column By Sanya Weathers on May 18, 2012

I had a consulting gig once where I made suggestions on ways to make a game more female-friendly, without upsetting the intended core audience of young males. (Bias in game design - racial, sexual, gender, whatever - is bad for business. Yes, business. This is not a discussion of political correctness, or a plea for justice. It's all about the money.)

When you're about to spend tens of millions of dollars of someone else's money, you normally identify your "ideal customer," and use what you know about that customer to inform all of your decisions. This doesn't have to be a cold-blooded exercise in focus grouping. For plenty of creative types, the audience is "people like me." That's fine. Good design only means extrapolating that into every decision.

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Do people like you mind microtransactions? How long do people like you play in any given game session? Do people like you have good reflexes? Are people like you cynical and self-deprecating enough to appreciate snarky comments from the computer regarding your gaming prowess? In other words, knowing your target audience affects the tone of the game, the business decisions you make, the pace, the typical time investment per task, and the design.

You've got to nail your target, really hit your ideal customer right in the gizzard, if you want to build a solid fan base. But if you want your game to go mass market, you can't do that at the expense of people who are not your ideal customer but nevertheless have money to spend. It's a subtle balancing act, and avoiding turnoffs isn't as simple as "don't be offensive."

Thousands of words have been written on specific actions to take - don't write the text assuming the reader is a particular gender, offer a wide variety of options when it comes to clothing, don't make all the bad guys a particular race, etc - but if you don't know why you're doing those things, you're going to get tangled up in a situation not covered by your reading.

Talking about bias to developers can be delicate. It can too easily sound like "you're a biased jerk," when the fact is most people aren't consciously biased at all. And the solution is about inclusive content, not about changing the basic design or even the designers themselves.

Last weekend, I was supervising a group of kids playing a game of Chutes and Ladders. When I really looked at the classic board game, I saw essentially an illustrated and simplified version of my former gig - the designers even bent over backwards to avoid bias as my client had done.  And the kids playing it were reacting to the bias, even though none of them were old enough to read.

If you're interested in learning to detect blind spots, read on. I'm using the example for gender bias, but this works with all types. Substitute in your own terms.

Note: Before combing through and making improvements, finish the content. There's no point in trying to create anything original and interesting with your editing hat on.

But when you're done, look at it all. Break it down into gender-specific blocks. Who is more active? Who is playing the lead role in a given exchange?

Chutes and Ladders breakdown: 8 female protagonists, 12 male. Positive bias: Male.

Evaluate the content for positive and negative interactions. If you have more content for cats than you do for dogs, but the cats are consistently portrayed negatively, you did it wrong. This, by the way, is the thing I see most often. Developers are told to put more "girl stuff" in, and without direction while vaguely resenting the implication, the added content is either offensively stereotypical or depicts the females in negative ways. When the developer is bending over backwards to show a lack of gender bias, the negative added content is piled onto the men. Either way, it shows.

C&L: Four ladders each for both male and female characters. Females have three chutes, males have seven. Positive bias: Female.

Or is it? When you evaluate content for negativity, you also have to look at the consequences. A "bad" choice in an RPG leads to loss of faction, perhaps a loss of experience. How much faction/exp loss is a good way to evaluate how negative the designer thought the choice really was.

C&L: Female negative choices result in the loss of 43, 38, and 20 squares. Male negative choices result in the loss of 63, 21, 20, 20, 10, 4, and 3 squares. Female average loss = 33.6 squares. Male average loss = 20.1 squares. Positive bias ("boys will be boys"): Male.

Consider the effects of positive choices. What typically earns the best rewards?

C&L: Female positive choices (excluding the final positive choice, which features both a male and a female protagonist and a gain of 20 squares) result in the gain of 37, 21, 16 and 10 squares.  Female average gain = 21 squares.  Male choices result in the gain of 56, 22, 20, and 8 squares. Male average gain = 26.5. Positive bias: Male.

Beyond consequences, consider what types of activities your characters are doing to gain rewards or punishments. The saying "actions speak louder than words" applies here. What types of activities are being suggested by NPCs? What are the implications of those choices?

C&L: All female activities involve cleaning (indoors), nurturing, or food. Cleaning up a mess is either the punishment or the "good deed" required for a reward. Rewards are uniformly passive. Male activities are more difficult to summarize because they reflect a wide range of options. Male chores are outdoors. The male characters are daring and active, whether the choice was good or bad - climbing, jumping, skating, running. Male good deeds involve bravery and honesty. Positive bias: Male.

Finally, it helps to watch people consuming the content. How do the users react? How long do they play? Are they engaged, or do they grow bored quickly? Are they excited, or are they running through the motions?

C&L: I'm not going to pretend one group of preschoolers is representational, but it sure was interesting watching both male and female players try to cheat in order to land on both the male chutes ("jumping barefoot in puddles is fun") and the male ladders ("I want to go to the circus"), and complain that girl stuff was boring.

As you can see, it's no one thing. It's a pattern, one you can't miss when you step back. The next time you log into your MMO of choice, pay attention to the content. Do the female NPCs give the gather-herbs quests while the male NPCs send you out on kill quests? Do the light skinned characters have all the funny lines/best stories/meaningful roles in epic quest lines? Are there any disfigured/disabled NPCs at all?

No modern MMO has any bias in character creation (whether in stats or size). Bias, where it exists, is in the content and done with no intention on the part of the designer.

I think you'll find that the most successful games cater to their target audience, but provide plenty of opportunity for people beyond the target demographic to see those like themselves as active, engaged, vibrant heroes of the game world. But you tell me - what do you see when you play your game of choice?

Sanya Weathers / I''ve been complaining about video games for fifteen years. Fifteen years, people. In internet years, I''m not just old, I''m DEAD.

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