2001-01-11: Men Are From Quake, Women Are From Ultima

Men Are From Quake, Women Are From Ultima


This article originally appeared in the New York Times, available on the web here.

EVERY month or so Heather Crouch's husband, Si, used to bring home a new computer game, and she considered it one of her "wifely duties" to watch as he set it up and started killing monsters. After 15 minutes or so, she would walk away. But one day Si Crouch brought home a game called Ultima Online, and from the first moment Heather saw it, she was hooked.

That was three years ago. Since then, a new genre of multiplayer Internet game has been born, one that is drawing female players in surprising numbers to a pastime that had been dominated by men. The games are set in medieval towns with a knights-in- armor flavor, but characters are not limited to fighting, as in more traditional computer games. They can also chat, buy and sell items like food and weapons, run businesses or make friends and go exploring.

"What women are finding so interesting about these games is that they provide a sense of community and social structure that you don't see in other games," said Patricia Pizer, a lead designer at Turbine Entertainment Software, which developed and regularly updates the Microsoft game Asheron's Call.

In real life Heather Crouch is a 30-year- old stay-at-home mother of two in Austin, Tex. In Ultima Online, she is the leader of a merchants' association in which about 100 other players participate. "I've never been into hack and slash," she said. "It's the relationships that've kept me in."

Officials at the companies that make the three most popular games - Ultima Online, from Origin Systems; Asheron's Call; and EverQuest, from Sony - said they did not design the games with women in mind and have been surprised at the response. The game companies do not officially monitor sex ratios, and since male players can create female characters and vice versa, there is no accurate way to judge how many women and girls are playing. But based on the number of women who participate at fan sites, volunteer to become official guides within the games and attend real-life player gatherings, officials at the three game companies informally estimate that at least 20 to 30 percent of players are women.

A survey conducted last month by PC Data Online showed that slightly more women than men play online games and that women tend to prefer less violent games like gambling, card games and puzzles. Sean Wargo, a senior analyst at PC Data, said that 20 percent of the players of shoot-'em-up games are women, while 23 percent of the players of role-playing games are women. But Mr. Wargo said that the survey categories were broad and that he believed that the number of women playing the subset of role-playing games that includes Ultima Online, EverQuest and Asheron's Call may be larger.

Among the signs is a blossoming of women's fan sites. And in response to requests from female players, Asheron's Call endowed its characters with two new abilities: curtsying and wearing dresses, according to Dave Namerow, the online community manager at Turbine Entertainment. Female players enjoy hunting and fighting in the games, though many say they tire of those activities faster than men do. "There's only so many times you can kill the beast," remarked Kim Gonzalez, 30, an Asheron's Call player from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

Although the games are booming, with more than 600,000 people worldwide paying $10 a month to play, their appeal to women may be the most important aspect of their success. Computer gaming is a $7 billion annual business, but industry leaders have been keenly aware that half their potential market - women and girls - has been only partially tapped. "The gateway for getting women into gaming is going to be through these role-playing games," said Gordon Wrinn of Sony Online Entertainment, which produces EverQuest.

The games are alternate realities, available 24 hours a day, and the average player is logging on for at least 20 hours a week. Players each create a screen character, choosing its sex and profession and giving it a name, and they experience the game through those alter egos, which they control from their keyboards. Their characters can communicate with one another through typed messages.

While the characters in traditional computer games tend to be fighters, here players choose from a variety of professions - tailor, chef, blacksmith, carpenter - and then devote hours to building their skills and strengths. Characters can steal from and even kill one another, but they can also be law-abiding artisans or shop owners.

The rulebooks are sketchy, so experienced players often act as mentors to newcomers. "You're not competing necessarily against other people," said Carly Staehlin of Origin Systems. "You're all engaged in an experience together."

That sense of community can extend beyond the game into real life (in gamer lingo, RL). Romances and friendships born in the game sometimes cross over to the real world, and the formation of other meaningful relationships is common. Nancy Boone, 51, an EverQuest player from Corsicana, Tex., said she knew a lonely 13-year-old Canadian girl in the game who received long-distance help with her homework from adult players. And when an experienced EverQuest player recently died, a memorial service held within the game was "attended" by hundreds of people. "It takes your breath away," said Sharon Morris, 31, an EverQuest player from Bedford, England. "It really is a real community."

Women and men both hold leadership roles in the games, heading local governments, military alliances and other groups. What most distinguishes women players, game developers say, is that they use their imaginations to push the limits of the games, pioneering ingenious new kinds of player contacts. "There have been emergent behaviors from women that are really kind of fascinating," said Ms. Pizer, at Turbine. "Women are seeing openings for social interactions that the game designers didn't necessarily plan on."

Some characters played by women band together as informal "fashion police," taunting characters who are badly dressed. Other women team up to help new players by handing out gold pieces, weapons and advice.

Women have also started innovative businesses. Laurence Valette, 35, of Versailles, France, operates an interior design firm within Ultima Online. Like any real-life decorator, Ms. Valette's character tries to accommodate her clients' wishes, however odd they may be. When an evil character told her he wanted his tower to be "frightening, though not vulgar," she adopted a black-and-red palette and made judicious use of skulls as decorative elements.

Another female player founded a theater company in Ultima Online that has staged several full-length performances, including "A Christmas Carol" and "The Wizard of Oz," that are acted out by players' screen aliases. To move the performances along briskly, players don't type their lines in real time but rather paste them in advance into text boxes. Costumes and props are improvised from the limited items available in the game; Scrooge's tombstone, for example, was a stack of ingots. The plays have been successful, with up to 50 players logging on to watch. "It's virtual, but at the same time it's the real thing," said the director, Jeanni Hall, 32, of Odenton, Md. "The energy I commit to this is equal or more than I would commit to a real play."

Douglas Rushkoff, the author of several books on Internet culture, said that because women tend to be excluded from positions of power in real life, they are drawn to cybercommunities where they can make an impact. "These are games where women can be included and can sense that the world itself is conforming to their vision of it," he said.

It's a two-way equation. Not only do women alter the games; the experience of playing can change women's lives. Erinn Duce, 20, of Sacramento, Calif., works for a small nonprofit agency that helps disabled homeless people, but in EverQuest she plays the notorious Mistress Ezra, who is prone to looting and killing. Ms. Duce said she is shy by nature but that the freedom she feels in the game has changed her. "I've become more vocal, more outgoing," she said. "There's less stress in my life."

For Val Massey, the transformation was even more pronounced. Not long ago, Ms. Massey, who is 36 and lives in Austin, Tex., was in an abusive marriage and had no job, few skills and an ailing grandmother to care for. But, in Ultima Online, Ms. Massey played a successful businesswoman, a character she named Martha Stewart, who got rich selling box dinners and catering parties. Other players knew her by reputation and respected her. "It gave me a sense of self-worth," she said, "and the confidence to try to better my situation." Ms. Massey befriended a male player, first in the game, then in real life, and ultimately left her husband to marry him.

Experiences like those come as no surprise to Mark Pesce, creator of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language, or VRML, and author of "The Playful World." "We call them games," he said, "but it's actually a rehearsal for reality."