From a programming perspective, binary is embedded in the way developers make video games. But beyond the 1s and 0s of coding itself, for a long time another kind of binary has been imposed onto the game design, genre labels, and industry marketing: gender.
Generally speaking, masculinity has defined design in mainstream and “hardcore” games — while femininity has been sequestered to games labeled as more niche or “casual” (though there are obvious exceptions). More and more, creators are challenging the gendered assumptions of traditional design loops, to deliver experiences that defy gendered genres and ultimately invite more people to play.
Feminine or femme game design is the next frontier for more gender-inclusivity in video games.
Take Kitfox’s upcoming Boyfriend Dungeon, for one, a “shack and slash” dungeon crawler and dating sim where you romance your swords. Or, in the AAA space, there’s Naughty Dog’s 2014 Last of Us DLC Left Behind, which translated much of the original game’s action-horror gameplay into girlhood play experiences. That included repurposing stealth mechanics for hide-and-seek and even turning combat into a friendly competition for the title of “brickmaster.”
But the list of games that fit this category are increasingly numerous and gaining widespread popularity: Skullgirls, Harvest Moon, and Portal are just a few of the OG classics. More recently there’s also Super Krush K.O., River City Girls, Thatgamecompany’s Sky, Sayonara Wild Hearts, Wattam, Love Conquers All’s Get in the Car Loser!, Star Maid Games’ Cibele and We Met in May. Even Animal Crossing, though a longstanding franchise, recently rose to the top as the game everyone was playing for hundreds upon hundreds of hours. It left a far greater impact on overall gaming culture than Doom: Eternal, which released on the same day and embodies the traditionally hyper-masculine hardcore game design that typically dominates the mainstream.
Whether through aesthetic or gameplay, what all these titles embrace is a turn toward more femme or feminine-oriented game design — or rather, a shift away from the presumptions of traditionally masculine gameplay loops. By combining the hardcore with the casual, the feminine with the masculine, and thinking outside those boxes entirely, creators are opening players up to a world of new experiences that go beyond limiting binaries.
For years, discussions around gender-inclusivity in video games have revolved around women’s representation. To its credit, the industry made concerted efforts to do better, releasing games with more numerous, diverse, and fully realized women protagonists, characters, and narrative themes.
But in an interactive medium, visibility through representation is only part of the diversity battle.
The next frontier to more gender-inclusive video game culture comes down to creating different types of play experiences that question the fundamental assumptions embedded in game design theory.
What even is feminine game design?
To be clear, what we’re advocating for isn’t a wholesale shift from masculine to feminine game design. We’re also not suggesting that there’s a dichotomy in design approaches defined by strict gender stereotypes in opposition to each other.
“Most of us have both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ energy in different aspects of ourselves, different contexts. We’ve prioritized the masculine so much, it’s unbalanced. It would nourish everyone to get more balance,” said Brie Code, previously a lead AI programmer on the Assassin’s Creed franchise as well as Child of Light, and a vocal . Now, she’s CEO of , a startup focused on companion AI and relationship-building technology.
While terms like masculine and feminine design are admittedly imperfect, they are useful for identifying the unconscious biases of a medium that’s overwhelmingly been designed by men.
“Women and feminine people have often been excluded from game design theory and the psychological research that underpinned it,” Code explained. That’s why she started TRU LUV in the first place, believing that the games industry was missing out on interesting innovations by not having more marginalized identities shaping the design process. Sure enough, she was right.
“We’re making design curves that create connection and compassion rather than competition or dominance,” she said.
The fundamental design philosophy that Code rejects most comes down to how designers think about “flow.” That’s the psychological term describing states of heightened engagement and immersion — that feeling of blissful hyper-focus you get from playing games. Triggering flow in players is a staple of , but ideas around what kinds of gameplay inspire flow have been very limited.
“A classic game design assumption is that the designer creates these flow states through experiences of rising tension — experiences that become more and more challenging or more and more dangerous over time,” said Code. “This sense of shock or challenge or danger uses the player’s fight-or-flight response to hold the player inflow and instinctively creates a desire to win.”
That flight-or-fight and easy-to-hard challenge game loop define an overwhelming majority of video games, from Tetris to, well, Doom.
But here’s the thing: Not everyone responds in the same way to stress-fueled fight-or-flight triggers, Code said. “About half of people are more inclined to have a different response to stress, called the tend-and-befriend response.”
Coined by a , the tend-and-befriend response taps a different instinct, like, “the desire to take care, connect, and find solutions that work for everyone,” Code said. At TRU LUV, they’ve found 150 alternative ways to achieving flow that doesn’t rely on the standard easy-to-hard stress model. Instead, they lean into the tend-and-befriend response through interactions centered around going from messy-to-tidy, awkward-to-smooth, disconnected-to-connected.
If you doubt whether or not you’d be into that kinda thing, then ask yourself why you spend hours picking weeds, planting flowers, talking to villagers, and terraforming your Animal Crossing island.
“Our design curves create connection and compassion rather than competition or dominance,” Code said. “We create game AI that encourages psychological development, collaboration, and co-creation.”
Ultimately, it’s the difference between a design that targets a player’s instinct toward fear versus compassion. Neither is inherently better or worse, but both are essential to expressing a fuller scope of human experiences.
Bending gendered genre games
Feminine design isn’t by any means a new thing or even all that radical, either. It’s actually thrived in other countries like Japan. Animal Crossing is a particularly fruitful example since, like many Japanese games, it’s grounded in domesticity and pro-social behavior while not being coded as “for girls.”
“Gender is a socially constructed concept, and what is masculine in one culture is feminine in another,” said Code.
“I’m lucky because I’m old enough to remember the games industry before the tropes were so solidified.”
Generally, the Japanese video game market has sustained a much healthier demographic balance and relationship toward female players, with extremely popular gender-specific genres like otome romance games, as well as less hypermasculine marketing around mainstream games. Meanwhile, in America, dividing games into gendered categories , a desperate attempt at target marketing to offset the 1983 industry crash.
“I’m lucky because I’m old enough to remember the games industry before the tropes were so solidified, so I can more easily think outside of them,” said Code. “But it still took over 15 years in the industry for me to trust my gut feeling that something could be different.”
In Japan, female players have an abundance of diverse play experiences to pick from. So it’s no mystery why Japanese games and creators remain one of the biggest sources for gender-inclusive mainstream games around the world, with Nintendo’s slate, the Perona franchise, and more artsy titles like Journey and Funomena’s Wattam. It’s also probably why all of the younger women designers we talked to pointed to inspirations from the Japanese games they played growing up.
“In the West, ’90s marketing poured gasoline on top of all the stereotypes and sexualized everything. So suddenly, people like you and me who were totally comfortable playing on the NES reached the PS2 era and were like, ‘Wait where did our games go? Why are you telling me I’m not supposed to like this game? Why is this ad aggressively shutting me out?'” said Tanya Short, lead designer of Boyfriend Dungeon.
Another designer, Nina Freeman (who the author of this article knows socially), even recreated her real-life girlhood experiences of playing Final Fantasy Online in her own game, called Cibele. In Cibele, you essentially play as Freeman herself, playing an MMO (massively multiplayer online) game as a young girl. The combat is largely glossed over, grounding you instead of in the online romance the protagonist develops with another player.
But Freeman also pointed to the oft-forgotten influences of , theorizing that girly dress-up games lay the groundwork for elaborate character customization that’s become a mainstay in many dudebro games, from Fortnite to Mass Effect. Mass Effect not only has one of the most robust characters customization mechanics but also (let’s be real) is mostly a romance game that uses space fights for a backdrop.
“Girl games always existed, but they’re left in the margins of conversations about game design history. Then their mechanics get wrapped up in combat games where tough people act out very masculine power fantasies,” she said. “Mass Effect, in particular, feels super performatively masculine on the surface, but below it, it’s this feminine dress-up dating sim.”
JRPGs (Japanese role-playing games) was a central influence for Christine Love too, a co-creator of the lesbian road trip game Get in the Car, Loser! While Love is known for her visual novels (which are typically perceived as “girl” games), her latest adds classic RPG group battle combat mechanics. Notably, though, unlike nearly every other RPG, the protagonist of her game is the group’s healer character.
“Female characters always get pigeonholed into being the healers. But making her the protagonist reframes that trope. It’s a statement. Because instead of the focus being on the person with a big sword, it’s actually the character who gives everyone else support,” said Love. “She’s the one the party depends on most. If it weren’t for the healer, everyone else would be dead in that first fight, and there’d be no game at all.”
That’s the thing about genre-bending games that supposedly only appeal to certain demographics: All those labels are kind of bullshit.
“A lot of the people who played my visual novels weren’t necessarily part of the visual novel audience. They were just people interested in trying something new,” said Love, referring to Ladykiller in a Bind, an erotic romantic comedy that boasts some of the most in-depth and inclusive sex and dating mechanics in video games.
“That’s always one of the perils of these rigid genre demographic categories: It just doesn’t hold up,” said Love. “The gendered genres aren’t really in opposition to each other, and actually work well together. Like, what’s wrong with hardcore combat that also has a very sincere emotional narrative core?”
Yet still, Tanya Short said, publishers and platforms like Steam (the biggest online marketplace for PC games) present many obstacles for games that don’t fit into neat demographic genre molds.
“It’s a bit of a strange place to be in, when you feel like you’re making something actually more inclusive than the average Steam game, yet you’re being told you should target a niche,” said Short.
“That’s also part of why it’s so hard to define what ‘feminine’ game design is. Because masculinity has been limited to such a narrow definition by iterative, exploitive video game marketing and commercialization cycles, almost anything that falls outside of its very narrow definitions automatically, by contrast, feels feminine,” she said.
Ultimately, Short sees Boyfriend Dungeon not as any specific genre but simply as the kind of game she wanted to play her whole life.
“It just came out of wanting to make a game that I wish had existed for me. Because I felt unwelcome by so many of the games I really loved,” she said.
That’s what all these women designers said about their games: No one else was making stuff for them, so they just made it themselves.
Going beyond the binary in game design
The oversaturation of hypermasculinity in game design doesn’t only affect femme players and creators. The whole culture is missing out on half of what it means to be human.
“There’s a lot of really interesting design opportunities to be found in the lives of women and girls,” said Freeman.
Short agreed, adding that by losing more feminine-oriented play experiences that attract femme players, we also get caught in a vicious cycle of not inspiring more feminine designers.
“It just came out of wanting to make a game that I wish had existed for me.”
“It’s absolutely holding the art form back, not welcoming every possible person we could to be interested in making games,” she said. “Professionally, I’d just like to see more human experiences expressed through the medium I love.”
While Code is hopeful, she also recognized just how long it’s taken the industry to wake up to the opportunities in more gender-inclusive design. Sheri Graner Ray ignited the conversation with her book Gender Inclusive Game Design all the way back in 2004, while Code has been actively giving talks and consulting on the topic since 2015.
“But the idea is only just beginning to take hold now — and even then, when most people talk about tend-and-befriend in games, they’re still only talking about aesthetics rather than the gamification curve itself,” she said. “So, things change slowly. But they do change.”
One promising indication of change is that many of the recent games with feminine design — like Sayonara Wild Hearts, an endless runner about a girl in the throes of heartbreak that’s drenched in a femme punk-pop aesthetic — were made by men. It’s a good sign when feminine design principles start cropping up in the work of not only marginalized creators but the culture’s dominant creators, too.
“You’re already seeing moves toward a more healthy market that supports different kinds of gender expressions, whether in its players or developers. But I think the bigger question is, will [these new games] ever be seen as legitimate as the strictly masculine games of yesteryear?” Short asked.
We’ve seen this before, with several different waves of women players getting courted to play more games through innovative new design experiences, she pointed out. Back in 2014, when women players outnumbered men. But it was mostly mobile games, which, for some reason, “didn’t count” as “real games” (whatever the hell that means). Before that, it was tons of women playing on PC — but they were only playing Myst and The Sims, so they weren’t “real gamers” back then either.
“The more diverse the game markets get, the more fiercely the gatekeepers fight to keep what they see as their territory. And unfortunately, those gatekeepers aren’t just players. They are alive and well throughout the games industry,” Short said. Whether its designers, publishers, marketers, or reviewers, “Even if they’re people who don’t consciously feel threatened, they still curate according to their personal tastes. So we don’t just need more gender equality in players and developers. We need different tastemakers to see a real cultural change.”
Feminine game design has already done so much to enrich video games for everyone. The least we could do is play some awesome games to support its place as a mainstay of mainstream gaming.