There’s been a lot of pixel-ink spilled lately on the subject of women in gaming art. I’d like to take a slightly different tack on that subject. Instead of discussing how not to market to women, I’d like to take a look at how some industries successfully market to women.
As a recap from Anna Kreider’s article on sexism in gaming art, here are two examples of how not to market to women. And here are two examples of cover art from industries who have made women not just the cornerstone of their business, but pretty much the entirety of it.
Now, some are going to jerk their knees and demand that there’s no significant difference. This isn’t true. There are differences, and though subtle, they are vital. It goes beyond just context. Remove the words and branding, and you can still see these differences, if you’re looking for them.
Heck, you probably see them even if you don’t. If you’ve been a member of Western Civilization long enough, you can see pretty clearly that the second set of pictures are coded as “targeted at women” while the first pair are clearly coded as “targeted at men (who probably haven’t been getting’ any recently).” In both cases, the artist is assuming a heterosexual audience with an interest in the erotic, but not going so far as to cross the line into the pornographic.
What intrigues me is how the coding is achieved. The most obvious technique is the deformation of female bodies in an almost cubist attempt to show “all the good parts” in a single image. This sort of thing is blatantly coded as “targeted at men.” Likewise, poses of groups that send “couple signals” (two characters touching or focused on each other in a non-antagonistic way) are nearly always coded as “targeted at women.”
There are tons of other techniques for coding art either way. Artists know this stuff, either overtly or subconsciously, and can turn it off and on in their work as needed. It’s much, much more than the figures chosen, but includes colors, composition, focus, and mood.
Obviously, if you want to attract a female audience, you put art coded towards women on the cover. Only if you do that, most men won’t touch it with their old-school ten-foot-poles. While a woman openly reading something coded as male by its cover art might garner a second look, but little more, a man reading something coded as female causes discomfort and confusion. Gender-bending in that direction is often the focus of comedy while going the other way hasn’t been part of the comedic repertoire much since Shakespeare gave us Twelfth Night.
So here’s where things get interesting: can we mix-and-match our coding? Can you compose a piece that signals as “targeted at men” to the guys and “targeted at women” to the gals? Is it possible to invite the women without sending the men running for the hills in the cultural climate we have today. I’d like to think the answer is yes, especially considering how subtle some of this coding is. But I have to admit I really don’t understand the techniques at even a surface level yet. Mastering this sort of thing is going to require a deft hand by someone who really understands this stuff. I think this was a first good stab, but we need more if we’re going to make women actually feel invited to the RPG clubhouse.