“Here’s an interesting idea: we need more romance novelists making video games.”

This is the bold opening line of Collin Roswell’s piece from The Escapist, “A Risk of Romance,” on the evolution (or lack thereof) of the video game industry. He brings up two major points: first, the experimentation of publishers of romance novels should be emulated by leading video game publishers; second, video game developers should be encouraged to team up with novelists to include more romantic storylines in games, which may open up gaming to a demographic that is currently underserved: women. “If video game publishers want to extend their reach beyond the standard 18- to 34-year-old male demographic, they might want to form development teams with fewer gamers and more romance novelists,” writes Roswell.

The idea has begun to circulate throughout the gaming world. But will introducing romantic narratives be enough to draw women into gaming? And if so, what kind of games would this encourage? Is forcing video game evolution worth it?

Industry Innovation

Roswell’s article isn’t so trite as to suggest that just adding romance to games will attract women to the industry.

For one, Roswell contends that the business model for the publishers of romance novels has more than a cosmetic similarity to gaming companies. “You have high output with frequent, addictive variations on the same theme. You have episodic content. You have nimble adaptation to changing technology,” Roswell writes.

The romance novel industry is certainly a tempting model for game developers, since romance is big business. A recent New York Times article estimated that romance novels make up over 50 per cent of paperbacks sold in North America—outselling all other fiction genres and bringing in increased earnings for publishers, while sales in general adult fiction are declining. Part of this success is attributed to the people at Harlequin Enterprises, the largest publisher of romance novels worldwide, who have been lauded for their willingness to innovate within the book-publishing industry.

Harlequin has always been something of a leader in finding new revenue streams. It was the first major publisher to offer all of its new titles as e-books available for download online. Among its other initiatives, it has recently developed mobile applications for women, hosts romance blogs, offers digital-only short stories and free novels for download, and participates in a partnership with NASCAR to produce racing-themed romances. As ludicrous as the pairing may sound, the line has proved popular with readers.

More to the point, romance novel readers have started to come around to the idea of using technology to interact with stories. This is most prevalent in Japan, where Harlequin’s On the Go mobile application—which makes content portable as a digital graphic novel for readers—is popular. The findings suggest that women, who are almost exclusively the consumers of romantic fiction, are not only an underserved market for other media, but are willing to use technology in conjunction with older media.

“It certainly seems like a wise area for game developers to pursue,” says Borut Pfeifer, a freelance game developer and former AI at Electronic Arts, the largest developer in North America. “There’s a lot of gamers of both genders that have significant others and would like to play with them on a romantic date. They may play together normally, but being able to do so while enjoying a romantic moment could only enhance a couple’s playing together.”

Perhaps this isn’t such a brave new world for romance, or gaming, after all.

Men are from Mars?

Then again, at least a couple people in the romance and gaming communities have a problem with the theory that you need more romantic storylines in order to appeal to a female demographic.

New York Times bestselling romance novelist Laura Kinsale, for one, has led the charge against “romanticizing” gaming.

“I think it’s the wrong way to ‘bring women’ into games,” Kinsale notes in a recent blog post. “The right way is to appeal to the things women enjoy—social frameworks, co-operation instead of competition, creativity within an environment, and attachment.”

In Kinsale’s estimation, what developers should be asking is “what goal does the game provide the player? Do male and female players respond to different goals, or respond differently to the same goals? What’s the payoff? A happy ending for a first-person shooter game is killing the boss. Is there any other possible way to make the player feel whole and satisfied? If
the player is female, is [there] another angle?”

“Why separate women gamers into an uber-feminine ghetto?” asks Ashleigh Gardner, a self-declared feminist gamer. “As a female gamer, I don’t want to play games that have been deemed ‘for girls.’ I just want to see my own views and experiences represented in the games I play.”

There is also a prominent argument that expanding the appeal of video games beyond the short swath of women who are already playing them is impossible.

“Men and women are different when it comes to what appeals to them,” notes Jessica Grierson, another prolific female gamer.

“It’s not what the video game is about. Video games in general have more male players because men are visually stimulated.”

Indeed, a recent study by the Stanford University School of Medicine found that the mesocorticolimbic centre of the brain—associated with the experience of reward and addiction—is much more active among men playing video games than for women doing the same. The Stanford study concluded that the circuity of male brains is organized differently than that of females, thus explaining the
difference in how men and women will respond to the particular challenges and rewards of gaming.

“I think creating games for women is a waste of time,” agrees Grierson.

Game Dates

Even if Kinsale and Stanford Univeristy are right, the thought experiment that Roswell’s original piece elicits is an enticing one nonetheless: what would a “romantic” video game for women look like?

“Just as I roll my eyes at dishonest romance in other media—film, literature, music—so I roll my eyes at it in games,” says Andrew Gardner, a recent U of T grad and burgeoning game developer. “Video games are already moving away from the uber-macho, and while I think there’s still room to go, I think it’s gotta happen naturally, through artistry, not artificially through marketing and stereotypes.”

Pfeifer believes that a game can be romantic without falling into the old tropes of television soap operas.

“To me the most interesting definition of a ‘romantic game’ is a game meant to encourage romance between two players,” says Pfeifer. “In other words, this would be a game you could play on a date with someone as an alternative to another romantic activity, like seeing a [romantic] movie.”

When it comes to developing such games, Pfeifer notes, “It’s not that challenging to feature interesting co-operative play.”

Storylines where gamers have to face complicated challenges together could be inherently romantic. It’s just that most women aren’t good enough at gaming yet to make it viable, says Pfeifer.

“It’s more that the variety and types of activities need to be appealing to players with very different skill levels. The problem is most co-op games don’t deal well with players of different skill levels. Balancing co-operation, competition, style, and different skill levels are the hardest challenges to making a romantic game.”

But others still think that maybe video games will never be the right media for this kind of interaction.

“Perhaps romance works well either through contact between real humans, or as a vicarious narrative, but not in between,” Roswell concedes. “Perhaps—more so than most other feelings—romance is about surrendering control to some very basic emotional forces, and this only works if you’re either immersed in it totally, when it’s your real life, or when a story you have no control over plays you like an instrument, any great movie, book, you name it.

“Games can’t do either: they’re not your real emotional life (unless you’re interacting with someone using the game as a medium), yet they almost always have to let you keep some element of control, because otherwise they wouldn’t be games. This works great for a whole bunch of things, from kinetic thrills to puzzles, but maybe not for the big R—or, for that matter, death, grief, and genuine horror.”

“I don’t agree with romance being introduced,” says Mike MacKinnon, a third-year U of T student, and self-described recovering gamer.

“I think the way tech has gone, it’s eliminating the need for human contact,” he says, comparing the prospect of romantic games to the often life-ruining isolation of World of Warcraft. “This would just add to that—people will use it as a surrogate for human contact.”

Perhaps women don’t want to have it the same as men in this domain, after all.

Regardless, what happens next in game development may challenge many assumptions. And if romantic games are a success, it will change our total perception of what gaming, and a gamer, can be.