The Do’s and Don’ts of Designing Gender-Neutral Games and Apps

As designers and developers, we decide who uses our creations. Defining and developing for your target audience is one of the key elements in a successful app or game. But when the target audience is equally male and female, care must be taken to appeal to both genders without alienating either or making either one feel uncomfortable.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Phoenix, where 8,000 women and men in tech roles gathered for three days of technical sessions, professional development, and networking. Technical sessions spanned topics including human computer interaction, graphics, healthcare, and the immensely popular internet of things, and given the nature of the conference, many of the sessions were geared specifically towards women and equality in technology. Inspired by a presentation by Shahnaz Kamberi of Devry University, who spoke at the Grace Hopper Celebration about her research in creating a game to increase girls' interest in programming, here are the do's and don'ts of designing gender-neutral games and apps.



DO use colour palettes not associated with either gender. Oranges, teals, greens and yellows are safe neutrals, and if you use colours from the red or blue families, go for navies and crimsons instead of cyans and cherries. Brown, tan and beige are also safe.

DON'T compose your colour palette entirely of pastels or primaries. From a very young age we are conditioned to associate pastel colours with women and primary colours with men. And unless you're taking an ironic stance with a pastel-coloured camo for your shooter game, using a neutral colour palette will broaden your audience significantly.



DO allow the user to choose their protagonist - think Temple Run, which provides the user with male and female characters. Remember that games tell stories, and users who identify with their characters are often more invested in their game experience. If that's not quite right for your game or app, another great approach is to use characters with ambiguous gender. Think about Plants vs. Zombies, Angry Birds, and Cut the Rope: all three games feature characters with ambiguous genders, and all three have been successful enough to have expanded beyond their initial storyline into franchises.

DON'T make all the characters in the game the same gender, or choose character genders based on the job they have in the game. For example, making a game with male thugs and female captives is a great way to typecast your characters and make your female audience uncomfortable. Similarly, making a spa app that mainly uses images of women can make your male audience feel less welcome. If you switch up the gender roles or make an effort to include both women and men in various roles, your game or app will stand out and be more appealing to all.



DO include content for both genders. This doesn't mean only using content that applies to both, but rather using equal amounts of content relevant to each gender. A good example of this is the MSN Health and Fitness app, which combines a personal diet and cardio tracker with fitness, nutrition and medical articles. While some articles are specifically tailored to the male or female physique, the overall look and feel of the app is gender neutral and inclusive.

DON'T use a damsel in distress plotline, whether or not the gender roles are reversed. One of the findings presented by Kamberi was that the girls who played her game, which featured a female protagonist rescuing her male friend, did not like the fact that the game had them "chasing a boy." It's best to avoid pitting one gender against the other or putting one gender in a position of power over the other.


If you have any more do's, don'ts, or thoughts about designing gender neutral apps and games, let us know in the comments below or tweet us @cdndevs.



Sage Franch is a Technical Evangelist at Microsoft and blogger at Trendy Techie. Tweet her at @theTrendyTechie to share your thoughts!

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