The women behind the sci-fi adventure ‘Revolution 60’ work for gender parity

Todd Martens
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Early in the sci-fi mobile game “Revolution 60,” one character is essentially rendered brain-dead. Our heroine, Holiday, frets over what she’ll tell the fiance of her immobilized pal.

Maybe, one of the other space-flying shipmates wisecracks, the boy back home isn’t so hot on personality.

Doubtful, as being reduced to mere eye candy would likely be seen as a fate worse than death for the four women at the core of “Revolution 60” — and for the two women who founded the company that created the game.

Released in late July for iPhones and iPads, Giant Spacekat’s “Revolution 60” is a pocket-sized game that dreams big, ambitiously attempting to marry a complex narrative and fully drawn characters with pick-up-and-play accessibility.

That’s not its only mission. Developed by a Boston-based team of four led by Giant Spacekat’s head of development, Brianna Wu, the four female characters of “Revolution 60” also bring a little gender parity to video games, an entertainment medium where the gruff male hero has long been the norm.

But if it’s no secret that the gun-driven mainstream game industry has over-emphasized testosterone, Wu says that during the three-year development period for “Revolution 60” she learned there may be some differences in the way men and women approach games.

Much of it comes down to rhythm.

Taking cues from “Charlie’s Angels,” “Revolution 60” has a retro-futuristic look that sends players on a save-the-world mission to regain control of an orbital weapons system. The four female operatives who drive the game could be characters on “The Jetsons,” if that animated series had regularly featured secret agents lifted from a 1960s go-go dance video.

The story comes first in “Revolution 60,” and a large part of the game has players following visual cues to drive the plot and conversations. It’s fast, as the game (free for the first 45 minutes or so and then $5.99 to complete) could likely be solved in a few hours one afternoon. The story is pushed along by swiping, tapping and tracing prompts on the touch screen, and is interspersed with fight scenes.

The battles rely less on reflexes and more on pattern recognition. When conflict arises, the screen shifts to a grid, and the sprightly Holiday, outfitted in a form-fitting green-and-white uniform, moves around the screen more like a dancer than an assassin. The player is the choreographer, directing Holiday when to dash left or right, or when to strike with a simple tap.

The action sequences shifted dramatically during the development of the game, a process Wu says was honed by making a concerted effort to include female players in the game-testing process.

“We got our game testers back and the list was 90% men.... Meaning it was only men who were going to be giving their opinion on the game and shaping the changes we would make to the game,” Wu says via phone. “I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ If you look at the market, it is a fact that half of all players out there are women.”

The most recent data from the Entertainment Software Assn., an industry trade group, estimates that 48% of dedicated game players are women. And yet the top-10-selling video games of 2013 were dominated by franchises that largely emphasized male aggression, be it “Grand Theft Auto,” “Call of Duty,” “Assassin’s Creed” or “Battlefield.”

More indie-minded developers, however, are gradually bringing diversity to the industry. Some of the most striking games of 2014 are those that deviate from the norm, be it the wayfaring princess and shape-shifting world of “Monument Valley” or the flame-haired singer whose life is stolen from her in the sci-fi noir of “Transistor.”

These games stand out in part because their main characters stray from convention, but so do their game play mechanics. Wu notes that testing “Revolution 60” with a diverse crop of potential players — men, women, serious gamers and even those who rarely played games — altered the design philosophy for the young developers (Spacekat team members are all in their early to mid-30s).

“It shifted the type of game we’re making — radically shifted,” Wu says of “Revolution 60,” which cost close to half a million to develop. “I remember one play-test where this guy comes in and he’s ‘bam-bam-bam-bam-bam.’ He was moving as fast as he could on the iPad. It was like, ‘Attack!’

“Women,” on the other hand, Wu says, “generally liked something that was a little more methodical, that was more rhythm-based, that rewarded pattern recognition. We split the difference between those two. That’s just an example of women having a different kind of awareness — that women needed to be represented in game-testing.”

Wu, a self-taught game engineer who studied journalism and worked throughout her 20s in various political roles (fundraising, door-to-door polling, etc.), has become an outspoken proponent on bringing more female voices to the game industry — a task she says is sometimes made more difficult by a persistent boy’s club mentality.

“I haven’t been out to my car at night by myself since January 2nd,” she wrote in an article for the game site Polygon, detailing the daily harassment she and her peers have faced. While much of the harassment comes anonymously and online, some of it includes graphic and racist threats.

“There’s this assumption that if you’re a woman in the industry you cannot be an engineer,” she says on the phone. “It’s the harassment I get online daily. I could never have guessed how much rape threats and violence would be a part of my job. It’s astonishing.”

It’s also continuing to shape how Wu and Giant Spacekat’s co-founder/lead animator Amanda Stenquist Warner think about games. In “Revolution 60,” for instance, the women are tall, thin and their features are, well, accentuated.

“There’s this sense out there from men who play games that women want characters that are kid-safe or de-sexualized. I completely don’t get it,” Wu says. “Our women are attractive and strong but we don’t have the camera linger on different parts of their body.”

Going forward, however, Wu says there will likely be changes. “Revolution 60” is planned to be a trilogy, and she says she’s received feedback that “women out there were thirsting for more representative body types.”

She’s listening, because that’s one segment of her audience that can’t be alienated. To make her point, she notes that Stenquist Warner recently had a daughter.

“I don’t want her to grow up in a society where there’s all these messages that girls can’t be engineers or girls can’t play video games,”Wu says. “It’s ridiculous. If we change that even a little bit for her, it’s really important. It’s worth fighting for. We’ll end with the utopian note.”

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