designing for "the other"

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As I work on my proposal for ETCon, I find myself thinking about the seemingly obvious--and yet often ignored--idea that it's very hard to design something to appeal to a foreign mindset (foreign as in "the other" as opposed to national boundaries).

That reminded me of Tim Burke's recent post "Software Industry Needs More Greedy Capitalists, Part XVIII," which is a great riff on the problems with games intended for kids, particularly girls:

One of the other places where this strange aversion to profit emerges is attempts to design games aimed at other target demographics besides 18-34 year old middle-class males. It shows with games for girls, which make a Barbie dressed in a pink ballet costume look like the epitome of a cross-over toy. You could take nine-tenths of the games designed explicitly for girls and put a splash-screen disclaimer at the initial load: "CAUTION: This game has been designed by men who are not entirely certain what a 'girl' is. They were furnished with blueprints that suggested that certain colors and themes are useful, and several pictures of actual 'girls'. Care should be taken in the playing of this game by actual girls: this game may or may not have anything to do with their ideas about what would be fun to do in a computer game".

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Kids’ Software from AKMA’s Random Thoughts on September 24, 2003 11:34 AM

Liz and Kevin (permalinks blogspotted, scroll to Sept. 22), pointing to Tim Burke, hit the nail on the head (and Kevin confesses his complicity) when they indict the deplorable condition of software for kids. All three of our children have taken to com... Read More


while i completely agree with you that design for the 'other' or for the 'subaltern' is a something that needs investigated and pushed forth, i argue that the mass-market ideology rules that out to some extent. don't you think?

I don't think it does rule it out, not in the least. In fact, I think this is one of the old myths of modernization theory in its leftist form, that global capitalism would inevitably homogenize its consumer markets and be implacably hostile to difference. As a general rule, the opposite is true: consumer capitalism not only embraces difference but often invents it. (We could get into a different kind of argument about 'real' difference and 'constructed' difference, but that's another discussion.)

This is even true in most mass-culture production: there's money in niches and subcultures just as there is in the mass-culture mainstream, and TV, books, films all avidly rush to fill the gap.

Software of all kinds is the big exception, on multiple fronts. Even as it become ubiquitous in both work and play, the software and computing industries stubbornly resist (for the most part) designing for their "other", which can be as general as "anybody who isn't entirely proficient with computers" or as specific as "girls and women" or "small children" or "non-geek men".

I think that's actually terribly interesting, and I think it really does tell you that whether viewed from the left or the right, the proposition that capitalism relentlessly seeks to maximize profit is just not quite right. It tells you something about how the sociology of a business or industry is at least as important as its economic positioning.

I recently had to rewrite my bio for an American audience and was so stuck: in Norway you're supposed to play yourself down and be strictly factual, in America I think people are a lot more, shall we say, positive, in the way they present themselves and each other. Don't get me wrong, I think this is in most ways a wonderful characteristic, but it's almost impossible to fake it. I have no way of knowing whether I'm laying it on too thick or too thin.

Next I got to write a bio to go with a bunch of Americans with whom I'm sharing a panel proposal, but the proposal's going to a European conference. Self-representation is SO hard!

And yes, cultural differences are hard to cross.

Tim, I agree. I continue to be baffled by the software/gaming industry apparent inability to recognize the value in designing products for those outside of the existing user base (which looks astonishingly like those in the industry...quelle surprise!).

A bit of a tangent but provoked by the line "designing for the other".

I believe, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf is associated with RIT.

Does that have an impact on the local environment in which questions of culture and design arise in and around Rochester?

Regarding the original quotation. Why is it that game companies run by women (like GirlGames or Purple Moon) that have tried to make girl-oriented games have failed so badly, and in fact the awful dress-barbie games made by men seem to keep selling year after year?


In fact, not all "Barbie" games have sold well. This site has a nice discussion of the issue:

"Perhaps the least understood development in software for girls was the enormous late �90s success of Mattel�s Barbie Fashion Designer software. Regardless of how you feel about Barbie, this software title sold more copies than any other piece of �girls� software ever. The industry observed the breakthrough sales of this product and wrongly attributed its success to the fact that Barbie was on the box. This simply is not true.

There has been unsuccessful Barbie software on the market for nearly twenty years and there were other Barbie titles next to Fashion Designer. So, why did FD sell so well? I would argue that its commercial success had far less to do with Barbie than with constructionism. Barbie Fashion Designer allowed girls an opportunity to use their computers to make something cool � in this case clothes you could design, print and dress your doll in. Constructionism trumps even Barbie. This is a lesson we would do well to heed."

One could also point out that one of the best-selling games of all times, The Sims, had a development team that included women _and_ men.

As to the failure of companies like GirlGames and Purple Moon, that's a fairly complex issue, which in part relates back to financial backing. I'd also argue, however, that "all girl" teams are as hobbled as "all boy" teams when it comes to balanced and well-thought-out development.

while, I agree that there are niche markets that can be exploited, but i don't think that the software industry and in particular the distribution mechanisms for computer games make that a valued strategy. the whole game is about capturing the big market, making the big kill, etc. etc. realizing the game of the market etc.

i have been in many computer game stores in my life and i must say that i can't remember finding or seeing any game that was a 'top seller' that was oriented toward the other, they are all aimed at the hegemonic conception of the gamer, 17-30 year old male, etc. Childrens games are usually, worse, hidden toward the back of the store or are sold outside of the 'hot atmosphere' of the computer game store with its neon lights and colored boxes, etc.

they are sold in the toy or book section of a walmart or target, which sort of moots the point of the other.....

well i'm rambling, but there is quite a bit of work to be done on this aspect of the game industry. I think they recognize it, but i don't think any other part of the software industry is any better. ever try to write in Arabic in windows....?

I think Liz is spot-on about Barbie software: the one piece that sold incredibly well, sold well because it's a good game.

Though that's not required, it's true. You can also sell software fairly well the way that mainstream mass culture does, simply by pushing units. And sometimes, "design for the other" in gaming succeeds even if the product kind of blows: Deer Hunter is a terrifically successful computer game in terms of sales, but it's a crude, almost primitive shooter in its design.

In this case, it succeeds because it is literally the only thing occupying its niche: a game for guys who have computers but who have never played a game that presents itself in a recognizable cultural form and with a fairly simple design. Some girl-games do the same.

The failure of GirlGames and Purple Moon is both more complex and simpler than all of this--some of it is tied into the whole story of the dot-com bubble, and some of it into peculiarities of the individual cases.

But also I'd suggest that anyone who sets out to "design for the other" as an altruistic or political gesture, as a kind of gift or recuperative gesture, is going to fail even worse than the male geek designer who normally only makes games for male geeks but who has been assigned to make a game for someone else. That's the kind of impulse that produces turgid, repellant stuff that has had all the fun and joy sucked out of it and that functions as a caricature. It's especially deadly when it comes to children's games: the absolute worst are the ones that have been designed by someone whose main ambition is to be socially responsible and "educational". Then come the horribly licensed properties.

The curious thing for me as I said in that piece is just that game designers don't just rework existing 3d engines slightly to simplify the controls and remove combat and scary elements and create a kind of "exploratory game" for very young children, basically something like a Half-Life or Morrowind mod. Part of the answer may be that only a male geek gamer Dad (or female geek gamer Mom) would understand why a toddler might enjoy that: the mass market appeal is not evident, and non-gamer parents might regard such a thing as bad or corrupting.

But that's kids, whose road to consumerism is paved through parents, at least at first. There are other "others" to software, and they've got their own money and ability to spend. No one in the industry seems interested in them, either--and in many cases, they're a VASTLY larger audience than the people presently being catered to, a huge latent pool of demand.

Liz, my mail to you is bouncing.

- Adina

Interesting topic with analogies in other markets. The mainstream music business insists on manufacturing hits for teen audiences, despite the fact that there is a huge underserved market of adults. It's not just about the rational pursuit of profit -- industries develop cultural habits that are hard to break.

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