Appealing To The Romantic, Empathic Gamer: A Q&A With Silicon Sisters' Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch

Posted by Jennifer Allen on August 1st, 2013
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Only last month, George Lucas spoke at a games industry event, saying that he thinks the "big game of the next five years will be a game...aimed at women and girls." For an industry still primarily focused on appealing to men, that could be quite a shift for the future. While I don't have a crystal ball to see what's to come, I reckon one source of such a game is Silicon Sisters. It's the first female-owned and run video game studio in Canada, and it's already achieved some success with high school-focused School 26 and School 26: Summer of Secrets.

Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch with co-founder, Kirsten Forbes.

Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, CEO of Silicon Sisters, was kind enough to find time in her busy schedule to discuss women gamers, empathy in games, and reveal some information on the firm's latest title, Everlore.

148apps: Empathy is a primary issue that both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg feel games need to overcome in order to progress as a medium, do you agree?
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch (BBG): I guess that depends on how you perceive progress. If amazing graphics and incredible physics are your criteria, then we are very advanced as a medium. But if, like the filmmakers mentioned, you view the ability of the storyteller to connect with their audience in a more emotional and meaningful way, then I think empathy is an important tool. And there are some games that have done that incredibly well. Playing The Walking Dead can rip your heart out. But as an industry, we have lots of room to play this out more fully in our storytelling. We also have a fairly limited repertoire of voices through which we tell stories, and that can expand and be part of the growth of our medium as well. The market is expanding and needs to expand further, and expanded voice and perspective are part of that change.

Telltale Games's The Walking Dead.

148apps: Do you think women gamers solely need empathy and romance, or is something else needed in order to encourage the female market further?
BBG: I think that women gamers are a huge and growing segment and that no one or two things can possibly define what they would like to enjoy in this medium. I think it’s parallel to other forms of entertainment like film or books. Would we think that because rom-coms exist, that means women won’t have interest in sci-fi or thrillers or animated films or historical films or documentaries? Silicon Sisters is building romance games not to limit the market, but to expand the range of choices in the market, which we feel is somewhat limited currently.

148apps: What games do you feel encapsulate empathy and romance the best at the moment?
BBG: I think Bioware is nailing a lot of this right now. So are some of the smaller more innovate indie games. I am playing a little game out of Vancouver Film School called Allie and the storytelling is terrific. As I mentioned above, the empathy and moral dilemmas in The Walking Dead or The Last of Us are really compelling. Silicon Sisters Interactive’s first title, School 26, is a game based on empathy and we’ve had more than 700,00 downloads in 30 countries. Girls ages 12-16 love that game, and empathy is the primary mechanic.

Silicon Sisters' School 26.

148apps: A recent study has found nearly half the female population already game, a marked improvement on past years. Is a game specifically designed for women really needed at this point? Does that gender divide need to be created?
BBG: This question always seems a bit weird to me. Why are we uncomfortable with games made for women or girls? (More so than with books written for women or movies targeted at women?) Why does this make us so uncomfortable? We segment markets all the time – it doesn’t mean anything beyond the idea that a market can be well served if a product is designed for them specifically, and built with them in mind. What gets my Irish up is when games are very haphazardly and disrespectfully built for women and girls – the “pink it and shrink it” model. These games are usually not designed from the ground up with that market in mind. Often, in the old days of manufactured product, these games had smaller budgets, lesser teams and were ‘guy games’ quickly re-wrapped for girls. These games often tried to reach the female audience through cheap tactics like lots of pink and throwing in a cute animal or two. That’s not game design. But games that really look for mechanics that connect with women and girls or that are designed from the very beginning with them in mind are a good thing, I think. Of course, there will always be games that appeal to both sexes and that’s great, but having segmented games isn’t a problem. It’s respectful of the audience you are trying to serve.

Forthcoming title, Everlore.

148apps: Why do you think, historically, women have been slower than men to take up gaming?
BBG: Women have always played games. Croquet, Mahjong, Poker, Cribbage, Rummy, Charades, Solitaire - you name it, women have historically enjoyed all types of games. That we have been less connected to computer-based gaming than men have is complicated and related to both who makes the product and who they make it for, as well as the endemic sexism in technology and education worldwide. Remember, women are dealing with the hangover of some pretty nasty limits to education, and it takes time for this stuff to level out.

To share an example, my Grandma was in the first class of women admitted to our provincial university, and even though she and her classmates were paying course fees, the first assignment given the female students was used to remove rocks on the playing field for the men’s sports teams. Moreover, as women’s roles have extended post WWII further into public life, our domestic responsibilities have not been equally redistributed, resulting in women generally having less free time than men. So, the fact that women haven’t been making the games, the games have not been made (historically) for a primarily female audience, and that women generally have less free time in their lives have all contributed to this medium not being equally subscribed to by men and women.

This is now all in flux. Smaller mobile games allow busy women to game anytime, anywhere—and they are. More women are entering the game development world, and men in the game development world aren’t 20 years old anymore—they’re fathers and husbands and many care deeply about creating great content for the female audience. These factors are conspiring to open gaming up to women and we are seeing the results reflected in the numbers.

Everlore's romance.

148apps: Why do you think people are so apprehensive to include romance or intimate relations in games?
BBG: I can’t speak for why other studios aren’t doing it more, but I can say it is by far the toughest thing any of our developers have experienced. Romance is difficult to deliver in gameplay, and writing intelligent romance dialogue for games is really difficult. We had a number of writers help us on this project because it was just so difficult to get the narrative to be romantic and pithy rather than flowery and long. I think we nailed it in the end, but it was a long and difficult build.

148apps: Will there be the opportunity for any same-sex relationships within Everlore?
BBG: Up until our alpha build, Rose had the ability to have a romantic relationship with her closest friend, Fendrel. However, a lesbian friend pointed out to me that having only one lesbian choice and multiple heterosexual choices felt a lot like tokenism. She had a number of helpful suggestions, all of which would have taken more time and money than we had access to. It was a difficult decision, but in the end, we removed that option.

Everlore's dialogue.

148apps: Will Everlore be relatively open for those players who might not want to follow a set path?
BBG: Everlove is all about choice. Your outcomes are based on the choices you make, and there are a host of variables and permutations in the game. This is fun because it also leads to lots of re-playability.

148apps: It's a question I long to not be relevant one day, but how have you found the industry to be for women? Is there a stigma attached to being a female dev, or does it not really matter any more?
BBG: I wish it didn’t matter, but no, that has not been my experience. I do think it has been both positive and negative though. When I was the only women in a room vying for the attention of a publishing executive, it was easy to make a lasting impression. I’m not just another t-shirt clad dude with a beard, so when I say something intelligent, the speaker is more likely to remember me because I look different. On the downside, there are days when the sexism makes you want to poke your eyes out. But all and all, most of the people in this industry are completely awesome to work with, and I love it.

One of the puzzles in Everlore.

148apps: Who do you think is the best female role model in gaming? Either in terms of someone in the industry, or a character.
BBG: There are many. I think Leigh Alexander is doing some good stuff on the journalism front. I think Anita Sarkesian is saying a lot of the hard things to say that need to be said. Jessica Tams who runs Causal Connect is amazing and does a ton for women in the industry, and she’s a PhD in computer science to boot. My business partner, Kirsten Forbes, who has been in the industry as a producer for 14 years, is an amazing role model to lots of women entering the industry, and has continuously tackled bringing high quality product to market, whether building the CSI franchise at Activision / Radical or in co-founding Silicon Sisters Interactive.

Many thanks to Brenda for answering our questions. Everlore is set for release later this month. We'll be sure to take a look at it when it does. School 26 and School 26: Summer of Secrets are out now.

iPhone Screenshots

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iPad Screenshots

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