Game Rant recently had the opportunity to interview Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch who, along with business partner and Kirsten Forbes, founded Silicon Sisters Interactive, a Vancouver-based gaming development studio that designs and markets handheld videogames for women, made by women. School 26 is the studio’s debut title and focuses on social interaction and high school antics.
Gershkovitch is certainly no gaming noob. Her adventures in the industry date back to 2005 when she was entrusted with all the business aspects of EA breakaway Deep Fried Entertainment, which created games for Sega and Take Two Interactive. Meanwhile, Forbes was also working on her gaming mogul cred as an Executive Producer at Radical Entertainment. In 2010, the two of them joined forces to conquer an emerging and often misunderstood market: the casual female gamer. After extensive market analysis and careful trend research, the newly-formed Silicon Sisters Interactive decided to focus its knowledge, technology, and craft on quality titles that apply traditional gaming mechanics to social networking features, and create products with real-life relevance for casual female gamers.
Their debut title, School 26, is an iOS mobile game designed for the iPhone, iPad and Android, and geared towards teens and tweens. Players are required to navigate the treacherous waters of high school cliques in order to establish meaningful friendships. You play Kate, a girl whose new age-y nomadic parents have moved her from 25 different schools. Tired of change, Kate must make enough friends in School 26 so that she won’t be forced to relocate yet again. Your weapons of choice: empathy, effective communication, and social problem-solving skills.
The game places you in different scenarios in which classmates ask for your advice regarding various social conundrums. In order to establish yourself as a worthy friend, it is important that the player listen carefully to the other character’s problems, follow their emotional queues, and react accordingly. Your compassion and finesse at handling the tricky scenarios and the he said/she said situations will be the key to your success. The game is sprinkled with tarot card games and puzzles to ease the awkwardness of your new-found friendships. Completing the games successfully will help nurture the budding seeds of alliance. And, true, while assault rifles and blazing plasma launchers may seem cooler and more to the point, the fragile intricacies of teenage social engineering are an elusive skill that only an enlightened few will ever master. In other words, it wouldn’t kill you to try.
So we asked Gershkovitch to answer our shy and awkward questions about the birds and the bees in gaming, the challenges and opportunities that a lucrative female market represents to the industry, its truths, its myths, its future… and more importantly, do girls really want to date gamers?
Game Rant: What initially drew you to this industry?
Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch: I’ve always enjoyed games, right back to when I used to spend my babysitting money in the arcade. When I was looking to move out of the Health Care industry and wanting to do something more entrepreneurial, I looked at both the game industry and the film industry in Vancouver. I felt a stronger affiliation with games, and chose to join a start up working on handheld games for the launch of the DS and PSP.
GR: When did it dawn on you that you wanted to start this company, take on this mission of gender equality in the gaming marketplace, and corner the female market?
BBG: I’ve wanted to build games for women and girls for a really long time. Now just seems the appropriate time to make this move given the expansion of the market that is occurring due to smartphones, tablets, the ease of PC gaming, and casual and social games.
GR: Can the female gamer market be, in fact, cornered?
BBG: First, female gamers — that is the “killer betties” who are already playing core titles — are not our target market. They are enjoying the games that are already being built, so there is no need to deliver product for them. It’s the non-gamer female population, or the girl or woman gamer who uses her iPad or PC to play Facebook or online games but doesn’t have a strong, high quality offering just for her. These gals are our market. But I don’t think there is one market here — there are many. Women and girls are very diverse, and we hope to offer a range of unique female-oriented games that offer something different and of high quality, designed specifically for their interests and preferences.
GR: Do you have plans to engage the “core” audience at some point?
BBG: We’d love to, but for now, that market has access to some pretty great games, so it’s the under-served market that we’re most interested in serving. Also, when you look at business models, entering the core space is an extremely risky and expensive proposition.
GR: In your opinion, what draws females to gaming?
BBG: Females are diverse and make up many different groups and subsets, so the reasons females game are broad and different for different people. The reason a “Frag doll” Xbox champ games is likely not the same reason my mom plays Farmville. But, if I were to name a few draws, I’d include escaping, relaxing, dating, and socializing with friends. Games can provide amazing creative outlets. I think “killer betties” game to kick some ass and to not let the guys have all the fun!
At casual connect last summer, there was a panel of women who were consumers of casual and social games and they spoke about how games fit into their lives. They used them as stress relief, and as escapes. Some women and girls game to be social. I really noticed this in Japan. Girls in coffee shops will all cluster together to play a multiplayer game on their DS. Even though they could play it in separate locations, they all wanted to be together playing. I thought that was really interesting, and I’m pretty sure the guys were not doing the same thing.
We did an interview with a teen blog called “myYearbook.com” and the number of girls who said they got into gaming to meet guys blew me away. I hadn’t even thought of that. These are 14 or 15 year-old girls who know that if they kick some multiplayer ass in Brotherhood they are going to impress the hottie in their socials class. Pretty funny. I can’t criticize though — I remember working on cars with my dad and learning the ropes in order to impress a car guy I worked with. Teenage-hood is all about social currency.
GR: Is gaming feminism’s newest frontier?
BBG: I think there is an argument to be made there, but that’s not my argument. My view is less philosophical and more business focused. I see our studio addressing a market opening and because we are women game execs with years of experience, we have a bit of an advantage in addressing that niche. Movies, games, literature, and broadcast are where society tells its stories and culture is formed. If women don’t tell their stories in these mediums, we’re not taking part in forming culture. That somehow seems wrong to me.
GR: What qualities constitute a “female game” versus one designed for a male?
BBG: There is some research into what women and men look for in their gaming experience and how that differs, but it’s not as easy as “this is what males like, this is what females like.” We’ve read a ton of research and are using it to inform our game design, and trying to develop game mechanics that specifically connect with how women game.
GR: Did anything in particular surprise you during your research regarding gender distinctions in the gaming consumption arena?
BBG: I remember reading an explanation of how women have a strong capacity to visually sort through clutter and find items. I thought it was fascinating. Generally speaking, this is something that women are better at than men, and I thought it was particularly interesting considering the success of hidden object (HO) games with the female audience, and that most men that I know hate HO games. How many times have I heard my husband or one of my sons in front of the fridge, “Where is the mustard?” and I can look over and find it immediately? Turns out, this is neurobiological [advantage]. There have been quite a few “ah-ha” moments like that in our research.
GR: What are the other gaming studios overlooking?
BBG: I think the gaming studios need more senior women in decision-making roles. I’m not talking peripheral decisions making like marketing and HR, but high-level decisions in design, greenlighting, and product planning. That’s the only way we are really going to open up this market.
GR: What is your opinion on current video game trends regarding the portrayal of females? Any female characters interest you or stand out?
BBG: This is a really interesting topic. I’ve read what a lot of younger women have written on this topic, and it’s interesting to note that there is no “one view” of whether scantily-clad disproportionate women are a good thing or a bad thing. Some women like to play as a sex object and find it empowering. Each to their own, I say. For me, it turns me off a game. I like cool women, women that I’d like to know in real life. Like Kate or Faith from Mirror’s Edge. I think if I had time to play a big game right now, I’d likely play a Bioware title. They seem to be doing a great job of creating amazing female characters and compelling game play. I know they have quite a few women in their studio and I think it is coming across in their products.
GR: Tell us about School 26.
BBG: School 26 was a collaborative effort that started out as a social worker game and grew into a game focused on the social skills girls master in high school. We’re really excited with how it turned out, and everyone in the demographic it is designed for who has played has really enjoyed it. It’s a unique game — rather than iterating on other products, we went back to the drawing board and created a unique mechanic that allowed us to get the gameplay we were looking for.
GR: Is this social problem-solving game the kind of title Silicon Sisters Interactive will focus on?
BBG: Silicon Sisters wants to deliver games to various segments in the female market and this is our offering for girls 12-16. Our next title will be for women my age (mid-forties), and it’s an irreverent Facebook game.
GR: Do you consider violence and competition as qualities that appeal strictly to male gamers?
BBG: The research tells us that women are less drawn to violent games than men are. We tend to be turned off by violence. Like everything though, you take a risk when you talk in generalities. There are gals out there who really love violent games, and there is nothing wrong with that. I think that women are very competitive, but we are also highly social. Some of the research shows that girls are much more likely to want to bring a friends along on a gaming adventure than boys are.
GR: Will you continue to design strictly for a female audience or eventually create more “gender-neutral” content?
BBG: We will continue to design games by women and girls for women and girls.
GR: Do you think your studio’s success will be so definitive that we will begin to see any female character in a video game that has regular-sized breasts?
BBG: I’d love it if we had that degree of influence, but I don’t think that is how that change will come about. In my opinion, as more women enter the games industry and rise to decision-making roles, we’ll see characters that have a broader appeal than the range of stereotypes most often seen in gaming today. As is most often the case, the market will drive change, I think.
The foregoing interview was conducted by our contributor @LaNerdista. You can follow Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch and Kirsten Forbe’s exploits at @SiliconSisters.
School 26 is currently available for iPhone, iPad and Android.