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How The Boom Of Female Video Game Players Is Changing Gaming Development

Are female developers nailing it?
Are female developers nailing it?
Jürgen Hoffmann

HAMBURG - Irina Galtsova has to concentrate on what she’s doing. If she makes a mistake, the inhabitants of Bonga Island won’t be able to plant any more palm trees, go fishing, or make pottery. Plus she could ruin the fun for hundreds of thousands of women who love the computer game she designs.

The 29 year-old is a developer for the Hamburg-based computer gaming company Intenium. On average, the company puts a new game on the market every two days. The firm, which employs 90 people – of which 18 are women – is one of the largest games providers for female players. In its studios in Hamburg and Kaliningrad, Russia, games are specially developed for women who constitute a rapidly growing target group. Of the 25 million Germans who regularly play computer games, 11 million are women, according to the German Trade Association of Interactive Entertainment Software (BIU).

In games that are targeted for women – like Alamandi, Lady Popular, Farmerama or Bonga Online – fighting and shooting have been replaced by flirting and craft-making, and players play with and not against each other. The goal is to find solutions to puzzles and crimes -- and things are created instead of destroyed. The main priority is for the games to offer relaxation and distraction.

From Bigpoint and Wooga to Zynga, nearly all gaming companies employ men to create digital worlds. Women are the exception on development teams. At least right now – because gaming companies are actively looking to recruit women. "We need a female influence on development teams," says Christina Barleben, a freelance game designer in Berlin. She intends to open her own studio.

Maximilian Schenk, the BIU general manager, agrees that women are needed in the field: "Women know better what other women want and what business models will work best for them." Male developers also realize their limitations when it comes to projecting themselves into a “female universe,” as Arne Blumenberg of the Goodgame Studios in Hamburg puts it. Being able to do that is essential to develop products for the target group. To get inspiration the 27 year-old spends a lot of time talking to female colleagues, looking at women’s magazines, and watching TV and movies. "It’s not about making everything pink,” he’s realized.

According to the BIU, up until now women have accounted for less than 20% in the sector. The demand for more women developers is there, but there are too few available in Germany -- so many companies including Intenium hire abroad.

Russian-born Irina Galtsova, who has been a computer geek since her school days, has been on the Intenium payroll for six years. She designs banners, produces graphics, mixes electronic colors, develops characters, and draws whole game worlds on the screen. She’s also involved in coming up with ideas for products. Before signing on with the Hamburg company, she studied graphic design for two years in St Petersburg and Moscow.

A female punch

There is no ideal way to train for this job. Some have backgrounds in computer science or communications, but at the end of the day what’s really needed is technical ability paired with visual talent – and empathy. "Most games for women carry a strong emotional punch, they’re designed to touch a nerve," says Galtsova. "A female developer might understand how to do that better." While male developers working on women’s games ask women on the team for their input, there is otherwise no difference between male and female employees. The qualified designer says she feels accepted: "I don’t have to fight for recognition, I’m always heard. We make decisions together."

Anton Denisov, who heads Intenium’s development department, says the women – there are two other women developers besides Galtsova – bring added value: "Many things in the world of computers that are routine for programmers are questioned by female colleagues. Which is good, because it prevents the kind of issues in games for women that would otherwise cause women players to lose interest in the game and stop playing." Developing a game is in any case team work: "Just having a great idea isn’t enough, you need a group of people who can transform it into a game."

Also at Intenium is 31 year-old Alla Khramtsova from Russia. She has been with the company for five years and markets the games that Galtsova develops. With her two university degrees in English and economics, and having studied in the U.S., she is a boon for the company – highly-educated women are difficult to get in the games sector.

Yet work in the industry is exciting and multi-faceted; a lot of different steps are involvedbefore a game is ready for release. First the “creatives” come up with themes that are attractive to women, which may include topics like travel or gardening, and sketch out a scenario or plot. As the team discusses it, the idea grows on a kind of virtual blackboard. Then the graphic designers put together some mood pictures, which for women’s games are usually in soft colors.

Landscapes are idyllic, clothes are brightly colored, and sounds are less harsh and the pace slower than in men’s games. A player has to be able to grasp what the game is all about quickly. "Women tend to react spontaneously," says Galtsova. "That’s why the look of a game has to be pleasing; you hook – or lose – a player in the first minute." And if the player stays? "To keep a woman playing, she has to like the graphics but the feelings she’s experiencing while playing have to be positive too. It’s a very fine line. You can’t calculate it. You can only sense it."

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