I’m a small woman. In many ways I like this. I fit in airplane seats comfortably. I can buy kids’ t-shirts, which are always cheaper. But being small isn’t always easy. One problem that isn’t serious but is very annoying is that I am unable to comfortably play the vast majority of videogames for very long. Most controllers, computer mice, headsets and even keyboards are not designed for hands and heads as small as mine. My hands are not unnaturally small, either. They are proportional to my size (which means they are larger than those of most children and you can usually buy gloves that fit me without having to look too long). And my head is normal too. I can walk into a store and buy a hat that fits without a problem. Yet electronics remain an issue.
I have become increasingly convinced that more women need to be in the business of designing and creating videogame and computer hardware. I believe this about most electronics, actually. The reason I say this is that the vast majority of these things are designed for people with large hands and large heads and in our culture men tend to be larger than women. Since the vast majority of computer engineers are still men, I’m guessing that one part of the problem is that they are designing for themselves. What’s comfortable for me is usually not comfortable at all for my husband and what is comfortable for him is often either almost unusable for me or gives me hand cramps pretty quickly.
Now, this could also be fixed by the companies that market and sell these products realizing that women (and children and even smaller men) use their products as well and might buy more of them if they were more comfortable to use. I honestly believe that more women might game if it was easier to get smaller game controllers. I’m not saying that all women are little or that game controllers are sexist or even that women are consciously not playing because the controllers are too big for them, but I do know that I’ve met more than one woman who lists among her reasons for not enjoying videogames “they make my hands hurt”. I think it’s more an issue of the people creating and selling the products not thinking about it.
The most common reason I hear for not designing videogame electronics with smaller people in mind is that the core market for the videogame industry is young men, who by and large don’t have a problem with the size things come in now but would have issues if things were designed for smaller people. I find this argument to be kind of dumb because it is based on the assumption that you can only make things in one size. Console controllers, computer peripherals (mice, keyboards, controllers, etc.) and headsets can all be unplugged and interchanged without it making any difference to the system itself or to the game. So why couldn’t there be different sized peripherals to choose from?
It is possible to find smaller PC peripherals these days, but they are still very much in the minority (in a wall of mice at Best Buy I found two mice small enough for me and both were basic “laptop mice”). They are often of lower quality as well. I have yet to find a headset that fits my head that is of a higher quality than those I had with my discman in high school. This may have something to do with the fact that I have yet to find a headset priced over $25 that fits my head. But it is possible to at least find some options. When it comes to consoles it becomes nearly impossible. To find a smaller controller you must locate a third-party company that makes one, since none of the actual companies that make the consoles make smaller controllers, and then hope that it is both still being made and available somewhere. To get me a small XBox 360 controller, my husband had to go on eBay and pay more than $50 for one because only one company ever made any and they aren’t making them any more.
It may seem like this is a specialized concern, but it really isn’t. Women make up 50% of the potential market and children’s games come out on these platforms too. If it was easier and more comfortable for women to play, it’s likely that more would. It would also make family gaming more possible, since you could play games with your kids more easily on the same console you play Halo 3 or Mass Effect on. If consoles are more versatile, that makes them more marketable. I can imagine an X-Box 360 ad showing a guy playing an FPS with his buddies, shifting to the guy playing a cartoony adventure game with his kids and wife, shifting again to show the wife playing a puzzle game via X-Box Live with online friends and lastly shifting to the couple playing an RPG together. It could be a “build your own system” package that comes with a customizable group of controllers and a game chosen from a small selection or a push from Microsoft to show off the options their awesome peripherals give you. It won’t work if the controllers are only comfortable for the guy, though.
I also know that what I’m proposing costs more, but the potential gain could be huge. If the gaming industry really wants to reach a new segment of the market, a segment with incredible buying power and the willingness to spend a lot on entertainment if they feel it’s worth it, they need to do better than pink controllers and Pop-Cap game ports. Women are a huge potential market. HUGE. But even if you start making games for women (real games for women, not pink dress-up games), it’s not going to work if women can only play them for short periods of time before getting painful hand cramps. Think about how to take the basic building blocks of the industry – the very hardware the games are played on – and make it more accessible and fun for women. And that means not only getting more women to design the hardware, but getting more women in more shapes and sizes to play with it and give feedback.