Virtual reality

Women As Guides For Empathetic Design In Virtual Reality

Woman playing a VR game - Women as Guides for Empathetic Design in Virtual Reality
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Gaming is usually not considered a ladies’ activity. Even in the name – a female gamer is not known as a gamer but a “gamer girl.” While this bias permeated early virtual reality communities, the accessibility of new devices and an uptick in women jumping into virtual reality for fitness, immersive experiences, and an opportunity to escape, are changing the dynamic.

While we are still a long way from being crucial to the core conversation versus needing additional consideration, we are getting closer as more women continue to engage with VR every year. This trend can also be attributed to female developers in addition to the increasing number of women gamers.

Empathetic Design in VR Is Here to Stay

Perhaps it’s women’s innate empathy driving the current rise of women in social gaming, building communities to support and interact with each other. This has accelerated VR adoption as a tool to connect and engage versus challenge. Possibly exacerbated by the challenges of socialization and meeting other, like-minded people in the real world. This growing trend is apparent to any developer engaged in their community.

See Also: Tamara Shogaolu Talks About the Power and Struggle of Black Women in Extended Reality

The term “empathetic design” is joining the gaming lexicon alongside accessibility and representation in a way that promotes thoughtfulness and player experience. It is driven by women who want to see themselves, their experiences, and their interactions reflected in the games they play. This is a clever tool for engaging audiences. These women are just waiting for an opportunity to share what they want to see in their metaverse and virtual reality experiences.

With the explosion of the billion-dollar VR market, wider adoption of headsets, and a desire to connect in virtual worlds, ’empathetic design’ is now a valued user acquisition tool.

Creating Safe Virtual Reality Spaces for Women

The women in the “Oculus Quest Ladies” group, which is 20 thousand members strong, frequently cite the ability to explore and engage safely as what drew them to virtual reality. As a member, it feels like an exclusive club that I can belong to just because I’m female (which is a rare experience, even in 2022). I see women being welcomed and their opinions sought and validated on my feed. This increases engagement and drives empathetic experience forward.

Another reason women in VR are on the rise is environments that offer real-world interaction with tools that ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. My company surveyed our female players about their experience in virtual reality and found that of the 1000+ women engaging in VR, 46% said that another player has made them uncomfortable while in VR because of the actions of their avatar.

While not yet a standard practice, moderation tools can be a selling point like any other game feature. While not the sexiest, revenue-driving opportunity, women we’ve surveyed rank safety and moderation as the second most important feature set in a game (falling just behind Intuitive Controls and surpassing even In-Game Content).

Traditionally, women have played as male or androgynous characters in multiplayer games or avoided VOIP (where one’s natural voice is heard) to avoid harassment. Intuitive ways to block, mute, and vanish problematic party members add a sense of safety while allowing any player to create an avatar that expresses their individuality and total immersion in their experience.

The Importance of Inclusivity in VR Gaming

In our survey, the emergence of lifestyle and fitness content is cited as the main driver for women’s VR adoption. This replication of real-world experiences in virtual reality is increasingly catering to all types of players. From the “sweaty 1v1 challenger” to players just looking for a casual way to unwind and engage. One player recently shared a story of a bowling game paused for a few impromptu rounds of hide-and-seek!

See Also: Best VR Fitness Games

Game developers should be deliberate and purposeful about being inclusive, particularly when it comes to the player experience. While some players want interactable features to add a layer of silliness to their experience, others just want to play the game without distractions. The key is to be thoughtful when designing a feature for a specific player type. I suggest that developers design for the target audience, without detracting from the experience of others.

One idea to encourage inclusivity and discourage negative behavior is to, at the beginning of each game, consider having a consistent female voice advocating for things that matter in games. I often witness female voices leverage community feedback and experiences in tandem with personal opinion in their feedback.

Design for Every Type of Player

In our previously mentioned survey, 42% of respondents shared they were turned off by a game that lacked content they felt was designed for them. We found that when we added more female-centric elements (designed by women), females playing the game increased. I hope to see supporting data continue to emerge as VR analytics improve, that quantifies the value of considering and even catering to a female player base.

While the lion’s share of the women we’ve spoken to purchased the device for themselves, 10% bought their headset for the purpose of connecting with friends and family. Their go-to games tend to be led by sports games, rhythm games, and social experiences.

Almost 80% of respondents said they turn on their VR headsets at least once a week, while only 75% consider themselves gamers. When we asked women with whom they play in virtual reality, 50% played with family and 40% with real-life friends, while 42% also played with friends they met through VR gaming, whether in-game or in VR communities.

I hope the industry pays attention and won’t think of empathetic, female-driven design as a “nice to have” or a backlog item. It’s becoming crystal clear that when we, game developers, weave empathetic design into the DNA of our games, it’s a win for everyone.

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About the Guest Author(s)


Lauren Koester

Lauren Koester is Head of Marketing at ForeVR Games. In this role, she oversees all PR, community, support, and all ads and marketing efforts as the company grows its game portfolio. A senior game and tech marketer passionate about building gaming communities and elevating marketing, Koester’s previous experience includes roles at Amazon, Microsoft, Xbox, and Unity Technologies.


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