A game designer breaks down the cycle that keeps geek culture unwelcoming to women. By Anjin Anhut (Game Designer)
So, there is this story making the rounds where Paul Dini on a podcast explains why execs do not want female viewers for their super hero shows. There’s a link in the resources below. But the gist of it is, basically, "Girls do not buy our merchandise." Sounds horrible right? People are shocked! Yeah, well, it’s worse then you think.
Here is the reasoning that drives execs and marketers to pro-actively exclude women from their audiences and to pro-actively encourage a culture in which women do not feel welcome.
This is why we can’t have nice things… or can we?
Target Group Optimization
Imagine for a couple of paragraphs that you manufacture your own range of candy bars and now plan to sell them. And I’m a marketing guy consulting you on how to market that candy bar successfully.
You are willing to spend $100 on marketing. This money goes into designing a brand, brand communication and into buying ad space in magazines, on TV and on websites. You market your candy bar equally to men and women. So, you spent $50 on each group.
Now, once the ads are out there, we track the response.
Let’s say the tracking data now says that 80% of men bought the candy bar after the ads went live. But it also says that only 20% of women bought it. This means from the $50 you spent on men, $40 actually increased revenue, only $10 wasted. When it comes to women, only $10 made you sell candy bars, while $40 has been wasted. Overall $50 of advertising worked, the other $50 didn’t.
What do you do with you next $100?
Are you going to spend your $100 equally on men and women again? Are you willingly wasting $50 again? Or are you spending those dollars exclusively on reaching more men, so that the 80% positive response yields you $80 of successful advertising, while only $20 goes to waste?
Why would you settle for 50% returns, when you could just exclude women and get 80%?
And how about we find out what kind of men are responsible for that pesky missing 20%. Is it men from lower income groups? Is it men with certain ethnicities? Who is not buying our stuff and wouldn’t it make sense to exclude them as well, so we get even closer to the optimum 100% returns?
Yes, excluding people based on demographic data makes sense to a lot of people in marketing. It’s considered a best practice and it actually is a pretty reliable way of increasing profit margins. And it is the least risky way of doing business. Spend your money where you get the most in return.
Step two: Once we have our finely tuned audience, how can we get them to individually spend more money on our candy bars?
Sure, with each iteration of marketing efforts, we kick more people out who do not respond in a satisfying way, but we also need to improve the revenue we get from each of our target group customers individually. And it also would be great if some of the people we kicked out, would feel compelled to join the ingroup and change their behavior in favor of our profit. How do we do that? This is pretty easy, actually.
This is what you do in marketing. You do not sell the product, you sell the image of what it means to buy the product. You establish a narrative which says that buying your candy bar makes you awesome, while those who are not buying it (women) are inferior.
Often you don’t even have to establish this narrative yourself. You can piggyback on already prevalent concepts about men and women or what it means to be a "hardcore" candy bar eater in contrast to those "casual" candy bar eaters. As a bonus, you will also culturally reinforce those prevalent ideas at the same time, strengthening your narrative.
And the best part is, once your strategy – excluding women and telling men they are superior – yields good results, other candy companies can now look at your data and follow in your footsteps. Because if it works for you, why should it not work for them? A win for the whole industry. I mean, marketers are doing this for decades now, there already is so much sales data on "working" sexism, we just need to pick our poison.
Expanding the Audience
Let’s remember, there originally was like 20% of women who initially bought our candy bar, right? How do we get those potential customers back into the game? Their money is as valuable as anybody’s.
There is one thing we cannot do. We can’t make our candy bar gender inclusive. Why? Because this would mean that we would have to scramble our carefully sorted target audience again and it would mean that we would have to abandon our successful "men are better than women" messaging. We would have to go back to square one, pretend to not know what we know. The solution here is simple again…
This minimizes the risk, because it allows us to optimize our female target demographic and our pro female messaging, without having to fiddle with what works for the men. Special segregated color coding (pinkification) or specially segregated spaces and language will make sure that nobody confuses the female sub-brand with the original main brand. Why is that visible segregation important?
For once, if the female-oriented brand does not sell enough, we can just flush the whole thing, without damaging the original main brand. Also keeping women segregated allows the "men are superior to women" narrative to stay strong, since we would not want to have anybody think that both brands are interchangeable.
If we get women to understand that they deserve less respect because they aren’t the type of person who buys our candy bar, guess what they will want to buy to feel less disrespected? Yes, they will buy our candy bar, because now there is one for them.
And this is where it comes really handy to exploit already prevalent social ideas about men and women in our advertising. To be clear, this means riding piggyback on the sexism that is already out there. Also coming in handy is the fact that other industries and our competitors are looking at the same sales data we do, and therefore are using the same sexist messaging we do. That all is useful to us because the popularity and widespread visibility of the sexist ideas we are selling, lends credibility to them.
Let’s burn marketers or what?
Okay, I will now stop doing the marketing guy voice. For the rest of the article, I’m Anjin again. We will now look at the things above a bit more critically.
Is this really what marketers do? Do they really purposely exclude women and then also go ahead and push sexist ideas? Yes, they do. Because it works. It’s best practice. I mean, it’s cynical, sure. But that is capitalism. Capitalism is cynical. It is what marketers often MUST do – if they like it or not – because the people in power, meaning the people with the money, demand that they get as much positive returns as possible on each dollar they spend.
Of course not all marketers do that. There are a lot of products out there that are gender inclusive and also advertised in a gender inclusive way. And when it comes to best practices in general, many people really don’t give a crap and do their own thing. This needs to be acknowledged and supported. These people are marketers as well and they are doing a great job.
Also, even when it comes to the marketers who use sexist messaging, most of them are probably not thinking that they do any harm with it. I mean, this is how marketing has been done for decades now -- this is how it is taught in marketing schools. And often euphemisms prevent marketers from recognizing how sexist their messaging actually is. Sure, they need to wake the f**k up, but there is often no malintent.
Many companies would love to be more gender inclusive than they now are. But they are already so neck deep in their previously established male-centric image, that they don’t see how. There is a good argument to be made, that once you got yourself a predominantly male audience that it is fiscal suicide to suddenly start to include women as well. It’s hard and super risky to break from what works for you, even if you have the best of intention AND actually understand the problem.
This article is not here to beat up on people, it’s here to beat up on cynical practices and harmful systems.
Okay, so basically this is what happens:
Let’s check on some examples of how that manifests in current geek culture:
- Geek media long ago has decide to optimize towards a straight cis male mostly white audience. This means most content of geek media, the way geek media is advertised, and also geek media related merchandise are all catering to that target audience. Leading to very few properties with female protagonists or the idea that female models in multiplayer are too expensive.
- To optimize the messaging for their target audiences – meaning making them feel superior to anybody else – they sell male power fantasies, with few to no strong women. They make women obtainable like objects and present women as sexually available, dependent on men and needy by sexualizing them.
- Secondary outlets (websites, print magazines, TV shows and such) about geek stuff – if depending on advertising revenue – need to actively avoid getting a too gender diverse an audience. Simply because publishers of geek media are hesitant to buy ads in spaces where the potential viewer is too much likely to be a woman, since women are not their target.
- Conventions need to be careful about how they implement anti-harassment policies or if they prohibit exploitative marketing (like booth babes), if they are dependent on big name publishers. Because publishers need conventions to be a welcoming space for their target audience, meaning men who respond to sexual objectification of women and who dig the idea that they are superior to women.
- When outlets allow for gated content, meaning that publishers can decide if the ads they buy will be shown only to specific demographics, women will not get to see a lot of content that might be interesting to them, even though they decided to hang consume the same outlets.
The list is longer and some of the points above have many sub-forms of their own, but you get the idea. It is a huge network of self-perpetuating bullshit and self-fulfilling prophecies. It poisons everything and is biased towards confirming itself.
Why Do Women Deserve This?
I’d say they don’t. But wasn’t the whole point that women did not spend enough on geek media, so they were excluded in response? Well, that, kind of, is the logic behind it. The sales data shows poor results with women, so why even bother with them? If they aren’t interested, screw ‘em, let’s get some butt on that box art, right?
It’s not that simple. The thing is that sales data shows how women responded to geek-related marketing, but not why. Excluding and exploiting women, so you can sell more stuff to men, while it might be financially sensible, is a social outrage. This systemic grand-scale reinforcement of gender segregation and sexism would only be justifiable if there would be something inherent to women that makes them like geek media less than men do. …if there would be some truth to the sexist ideas, which are perpetuated here.
There never was a moment in the history of geek media, when geek media was advertised equally to men and women and there never was a moment in the history of geek media, when it was equally culturally acceptable to be interested in geek stuff for men and women.
Women never ever got as much marketing attention as men have and women always have been treated as an oddity in geek culture, with all the barriers that come with that. There never was a time, when toy cars and robots and construction toys have been made equally accessible to little boys and girls. The same goes for safe spaces and tech education.
In short: There never was a time in geek culture in which women had equal access. So why do we pretend that they should have yielded equal returns but somehow failed to do it?
The cycle did not start with women, who for some reason decided to not dig geek media or who lacked the comprehensive ability to get into it. It started decades ago, with men, who decided, that what they had to sell was not for women – for whatever reason, not all of them nice – and then used the sales data they have caused to confirm for themselves, that they have been right to exclude women in the first place.
Modern geek marketing needs to understand that they are stuck in a hole and need to stop digging, despite what the data says. They need to stop being scared by female geeks and embrace them.
So, Basically We Are F****d?
So far, this articles says "It makes totally sense to exclude women and to spread sexist messages, because it works." Does this mean we are f*****d? Does this mean, as long as companies want to make profit, women will get thrown under the bus by everyone?
Disruptive Innovation is a term that describes, when a company or an individual creator decides to something, that goes against common best practices and succeeds. This goes for products and for business models as well.
When creators can sense a demand for something new, an untapped potential, and they have the guts to go for it, despite the risk, then they have a chance of disrupting the market. A good example is the iPhone. Have a look what then Microsoft CEO Steven Ballmer thought about it:
Yeah, makes no business sense at all. I mean really, who would buy a phone for 500 dollars, which doesn’t even have buttons, I mean, c’mon. LOL.
Or look at Minecraft, this game exploded without conforming to any popular game genre at the time, looking like nothing out there and with basically no marketing effort at all. The people were ready for it, but nobody in the market knew it. Everyone was baffled.
Basing your marketing decisions on previous sales data – like I did when consulting the candy bar manufacturer – is a way to increase short-term revenue and minimize risk. But it is also always just looking to the past for answers. It is an approach, that treats innovation as a potential problem. It’s conservative, not progressive. And it is only a matter of time before audiences are saturated (bubble) or when it gets replaced by something unexpected (disruptive innovation).
Disruptive innovation needs two things to work: Opportunity and people with the necessary drive to go for it. We create opportunity by being vocal. We voice our frustration with how things currently are and progressive marketers will see an unsatisfied customer base. We go out and show them what we want, through fan fiction, armor fixes and independently produced content, and progressive marketers will see a demand. We have to keep being visible.
We also have to be supportive towards those who dare to go against market wisdom. I know, nobody deserves credit for not being an asshole. But looking at the business incentives compelling people to stay an asshole, every company or outlet who decides to get more gender inclusive, to risk it or to accept losses for it, could deal with a little support on that.
But most importantly, we have to got the backs of those who are driven. They will face a lot of backlash and rejection from the establishment and from the pampered male demographic, both seeing their way of doing things challenged and rejected, reacting with hostility. We need to encourage the young game makers and artists and provide safe spaces and resources for those creators, who have been pushed to the margins because of their gender , race, sexual orientation or views.
This post originally appeared on How Not to Suck at Game Design. About the blogger: Anjin (@anjinanhut) is a self-taught art director and designer from Berlin Germany. He is co-founder of his own game company, does freelance work in the realm of games, comics, film and advertising, and teaches classes in game design and concept art.