Brenda Gershkovitch, co-founder of Vancouver-based game development studio Silicon Sisters, spoke at Vancouver Island Univeristy in October in an open lecture. Pulling from her ten years of experience within the industry, Gershkovitch offered a feminist perspective on game design, and shone light on her studio’s decision to turn down development on the now $100 million earning game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.
Gershkovitch opened the lecture with a picture of herself as a child in the ’80s playing Frogger in the long-defunct Vancouver Island arcade, Electric Playground.
“I was the Vancouver Island Asteroids champion at 11,” Gershkovitch said.
She then shared a slide showing the prevalence of women in today’s games industry. The data claimed that less than 15% of coders and designers are women, despite the fact that between 40-60% of videogame consumers are female.
“It’s broken, just broken,” Gershkovitch says about the industry.
Gershkovitch blames specific social reasons for the disparity. When she entered the industry as CEO of Deep Fried Games in 2005, she was the only female in the 55-person team. She says it got to the point where she, as a mother of three, was surrounded by six or seven different guys sporting “MILF” t-shirts in the studio.
“There’s a correlation between who builds the game and who plays it,” Gershkovitch says.
Highlighting a shift in the mid-2000s, when videogames started being predominately about men shooting and killing other men, Gershkovitch says the games industry is “backwards.” Where other industries provide a supply to demand, the games industry “builds what it wants to build, and then maybe the market likes it.”
“It’s not that girls don’t like games; girls don’t like shitty games.”
When it came to developing School 26, her first game as Silicon Sisters, Gershkovitch says that she looked at empathy as a game mechanic. Built for an audience of younger girls who fantasize about what it may be like to socialize in high-school, School 26 focuses on social dynamics and employing empathy to help make other characters happy. The game was a sleeper hit in Saudi Arabia, with over 1.5 million downloads. Gershkovitch attributes the success to the fantasies of middle-eastern girls who wonder what North American school dynamics may be like.
When she was approached with the opportunity to build a game about Kim Kardashian in 2013, Gershkovitch says she had to turn it down because she couldn’t see the fantasy the way she could in School 26. To Gershkovitch, Kardashian, whose fame arose after a sex tape, didn’t fit in a game targeted at a young female audience. Despite this, she says she loves what was ultimately done with Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.
“[In the game, Kardashian] is the nicest person in Hollywood, the fairy godmother of Hollywood—a role model. I don’t think she is the nicest person in real life, but in this game she is.”
In the future, Gershkovitch says that game design will work towards filling the gap in the female market. She recalls Showtime’s television hit The L Word, a show watched by the entire lesbian world simply because there was nothing else for their market.
“Women love horror. When a female development team gets their hands on a horror game, I expect that would be very successful.”
For now, Silicon Sisters is working on Everlove, a series of games for mature women—essentially, interactive harlequin novels with a feminist angle. Gershkovitch says that Everlove is targeted to non-gamer women, and that the games employ a sense of beauty to attract that audience.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood made over $40 million in its first four months, and, even though parts of the game reinforce female stereotypes, Gershkovitch says that she’s glad that it “shifted the paradigm.”
“The game built trust that female branded apps and games are worth investing in,” Gershkovitch says. “Change happens if there’s money in it. And there’s money in making games for women.
“It’s a sad reality, but at least change is coming.”
This article was originally published in the Navigator Newspaper on October 21, 2015, as “VIU lecture on games industry from feminist perspective.”