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Free-Form Games Are Crushing Gamer Stereotypes

What's the first thing you see in your mind when you hear the word "gamer"?



What’s the first thing you see in your mind when you hear that word? I won’t hold it against you if it’s the stereotypical image: A slack-jawed teenage boy with controller in hand, illuminated on one side by the blue-white glow of an LED panel, leaning lazily over a coffee table covered with chip crumbs and half-full soda bottles. There are probably the remnants of a frozen pizza somewhere in there, too, right?

This has never been a true representation of the gaming populace. It is, indeed, a stereotype — from the very incarnation of the person to the food selection that no dietician would ever recommend. Young gamers are not all bad eaters and, more relevant to the topic at hand, they’re not exclusively boys. The tides are shifting, and girls are getting into the action, picking up useful knowledge and helping shape the future along the way.

Technology is getting cheaper, faster, more portable, and more mind-blowingly futuristic by the day. And it’s getting into the hands of a wider swath of humanity than ever before — and opening the floodgates to future engineers, software developers and game designers, who are discovering their own interest in technology when they’re young. People are getting involved.

But it’s not just that technology is getting into girls’ hands, and making them think, “This is cool. How was this made? I would love an app that would [insert result here].” It’s that the technology is in their hands, and there are interesting and accessible things to do with it — right now. That includes making their own games and sharing them in the cloud with other gamers around the world. Writing a website about a personal hobby. Coding a basic Web application that does some trivial task — if only because it’s a fun exercise and experiment.

Gaming — especially that of the online, social variety — may be the most fascinating space in terms of the changing tech demographic. While social gaming once invoked dismissive snap judgments of managing a cute virtual farm — and other such casual diversions from everyday life — there are much more stimulating and engaging things happening today. Now, you can make your own game or world using platforms like Minecraft (which lets very young people learn to interact with technology and be creative); Scratch (a more teaching-oriented programming application); and my own company, Roblox (a platform for building and sharing 3-D multiplayer games). There are myriad opportunities to create genuinely fun stuff with technology, and there are fewer barriers to entry.

We’ve seen it at Roblox. Sure, the majority of our audience consists of teenage boys, but there is a not-insignificant number of girls making their way up the ranks and learning the art of computer programming with Lua as they climb. It’s part of the fun — part of the progression from player to creator.

The power to create softens the “theme” of any game. And, with enough freedom, players have the power to create their own themes (usually within some predetermined aesthetic). That means that a game can essentially cater to anyone who’s interested in the idea of making their own stuff. No matter who you are, you will tend to gravitate toward content that suits your tastes and preferences. Offering power means you’re less likely to dismiss a game for having an uninteresting theme.

And content creation can expand the lifespan of a game so much that it’s a worthy consideration for any projection about the future of online gaming. Think about Team Fortress 2. Released in 2007, it still has a strong core player base. That’s partly due to Valve’s smart maintenance of the game and engaging content additions, but also because of its player-driven economy (in which user-created content plays a big role), with fresh goods being added all the time. Six and a half years later, it’s still going strong — at the time of this writing, the game had peaked for the day at 75,000+ concurrent players. Most games can only hope for that sort of longevity.

Of course, there will always be targeted blockbuster titles with multimillion-dollar production budgets, and that’s great. Those games are exciting experiences, and often boundary-pushing from a technological standpoint. On the other end of the spectrum, there looks to be no end in sight for mobile games that players can experience and enjoy in a matter of five minutes. But user-generated content and free-form games, where players make their own narratives and their own content, have to be a consideration for the industry’s future. After all, most gaming companies want lots of players — and lots of loyal players, at that.

While the proliferation of technology is a big reason that young girls and boys are picking up the basics, it’s the effort of forward-thinking tech and gaming companies that is empowering young people to leverage this technology. Not only are open-ended platforms lowering the barrier to entry to gaming and technology, they’re also helping young people pick up valuable technology skills from an early age as they create their own content. The gaming populace is changing, becoming more diverse. The industry needs to adapt with it.

Brad Justus is vice president of brand experience of Roblox, an interactive platform and environment for indie gaming development. Reach him @Roblox.

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