Girls don't like gamebooks. Is this posit true?
The answer, of course, is no. But if this is (of course) the answer, why are there so few female gamebook enthusiasts within the community? Go to any Facebook group (OSGR, Fighting Fantasy and Other Gamebooks, Lone Wolf Gamebooks etc) and you'll find an overwhelming majority of members are male. Doesn't this clearly suggest that the answer (of course) is that girls very clearly do not like gamebooks?
No. It doesn't. Let's take a look at why I maintain that girls do, in fact, like gamebooks.
Let's start with conventional fiction. Were I to suggest that there are fewer female readers than male I would doubtless be making a claim that is not just wrong but pretty idiotic. I'm not sure of the exact percentages, but we can assume that the balance is fairly even. Both male and female readers exist and they exist in such equal numbers that identifying the exact difference would be futile. Were I to hazard a guess I'd even say there are more female readers in the world than males, but it doesn't really matter. You get my point.
There are, without a doubt, certain genres which female readers prefer. We could easily focus on the specifically female-centric authors (Adele Parks, Laura Marshall, Amanda Prowse etc) whose books tend to be about relationships, the inner city struggles of 30 something women and so on and so forth and which are marketed directly at, and are read mostly by women. But this is kind of disingenuous because books like these are merely the mirror image of authors like Chris Ryan, Robert White or David Baldacci who write novels about manly men, SAS soldiers and rip roaring bloke fiction. Both sides of fiction exist purely because authors tend to specialise, either deliberately or unconsciously (when, for example, they write for their own tastes).
There are a world of books enjoyed by both men and women alike. I know as many die-hard female Tolkien fans as I know male Tolkien fans. Dan Brown, whose writing could easily be misconstrued as male-adventure fantasy, is as popular with female readers as males. Philip Pullman, Ken Follett - these are all writers whose work has universal appeal. I might also mention books like The Hunger Games, or Divergent, both of which are as fascinating to boys as they are to girls (and despite the protagonists being female, make no mistake that these series were marketed at both the male and female teen reader market).
In September 2017, shortly after launching my Woven Paths gamebook Malice From the Middle Vale, I ran a Facebook ad campaign targetting males, aged 15 to 50, focusing on fans of RPGs, gamebooks and fantasy fiction. My first campaign of this sort, it was an experiment to see if boosted posts on Facebook are cost effective. The results were, however, more interesting to me as an illustration of the female gamebook market.
Why? Because of 1042 men reached by the campaign, 48 were engaged (meaning they clicked through, took a look, liked the post and maybe even commented). Yet, despite targetting males specifically, 13 female members of Facebook were also exposed to the post. Of these, 2 engaged.
In other words, looking at these figures relatively speaking, 4.6% of males were engaged, compared with a whopping 15.38% of females. Bet you weren't expecting that eh?
So what's going on with gamebooks? Why does this seem to be such a male oriented hobby when the figures seem to suggest that this isn't necessarily an inevitable or obvious state of affairs.
I think the answer lies partly in the history of gamebooks. The old school generation targeted by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson were school-age boys with no exceptions over the course of 59 books. This was the 80s, when gender roles were still 'a thing'. Men worked, women made homes, men liked fighting and football and girls liked horses and baking cakes. None of this was particularly true when scrutinised, but generally seemed to be the accepted truth. There are some cringing examples of the gamebook industry of the time attempting to pander to this modality of thought, the Choose Your Own Adventure series being guilty in quite a few instances, and the Starlight Adventures being another noteable example probably best forgotten.
When you render the architecture of a Thing, that architecture defines how the Thing is perceived. If you don't update the architecture, perceptions remain the same. And if times change and former perceptions are no longer necessary or appropriate, perceptions of your architecture do not automatically change with the times.
The results of my ad campaign and other research which I'm steadily engaged in suggest that there's a hunger in the female readership for the gamebook format. So let's look at how this can be addressed.
What we don't need is a series of gamebooks about boys, high school prom, horses and other outmoded ideas which are more about the male assumption of 'what girls like' than the actual reality of 'what girls like'. Yes, there is a demographic for this sort of story, but it's not the only demographic and it's not even the largest demographic. Comparatively speaking, over the past decade, a great deal more girls have been heavily inspired and influenced by vampires, werewolves, bow hunting heroines, bloodthirsty arenas, wizards and rebel insurgents fighting the system than have been inspired by horses, ballet, the colour pink and [insert additional stereotypical assumptions on what girls like here].
In short, female readers love adventure, they love thrills and daring-do. They love all the things that we boys like, but they like one other thing a little bit more than us and that's emotional engagement. If you look closely at Twilight, Harry Potter, Divergent, Hunger Games and so on, you'll see a singular running thread which is emotional engagement with the plot. Plots within these films are driven by character, not by the adventure alone. Without Katniss Everdeen's unconditional love for her sister, there would be no Hunger Games. Without Four's undying love for Tris there would be no Divergent (without his protection, she would have died early in the first book). Without the love of his parents, Harry Potter would have perished as a baby at the hands of Voldemort. I can't comment on Twilight because I haven't read it, but I'm confident there's a deep emotional bond in there, without which the books would not exist.
Male readers don't dislike this aspect of fiction. Sometimes it makes us a little uncomfortable perhaps - particularly if we're of the old school generation. But that's why men are from Mars and women are from Venus. The lesson to take away is not that girls and boys like different things, but that the gamebook architecture is currently missing a single, vital ingredient. Emotional engagement and plot driven by the central character rather than the outerlying railroad of the story.
In writing Woven Paths I introduced the relationship between the reader (the Scythe-Bearer) and their brother Mop. Without the Scythe-Bearer's unconditional love for Mop, there would be no Malice From the Middle Vale. The book simply wouldn't exist. The book remains an adventurous romp of the Fighting Fantasy variety, with the reader battling enemies, fighting through dungeons and facing off against big bads, but my hope is that there's also a certain level of emotional investment.
So the opening gambit, as you can clearly see, is not true. Girls like the idea of gamebooks, but the gamebook format currently lacks a necessary ingredient and only writers within the current industry can change that. It doesn't require unicorn riding fairy princesses. It doesn't require gender neutral phraseology. It just requires some emotional connection and eyes wide open to the fact that both men and women love to read and that gamebooks are books like any other. No big mystery.