A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, my best friend and I made regular work of saving the universe. Our girlfriends would stand back admiringly as we fought off alien hordes and earned our place among Galaga’s elite pilots. Video gaming was, quite simply, a boy’s world. Girls would peek through the door of our clubhouse, but didn’t seem to care much about stepping through the door. How times have changed. The setting is no longer the neon spectacle of video arcades, but homes that double as shrines to the digital age in which we live. And instead of looking over my shoulder as my fingers dart across a gamepad, my wife schools me in Toca Race Driver 2 and snorts derisively as I send the Prince of Persia plummeting to another untimely death. “No, that’s not what happened,” she’ll say mockingly, echoing the Prince’s words.
So what did happen? When did the clubhouse become co-ed? The simple, albeit wrong, answer is that game makers succeeded in deliberately tapping into the female demographic. A few years ago, around the time Lara Croft changed the face of interactive entertainment forever, you could hear the buzz emanating from big publishing houses: We need to get more women playing games. But how?
That wasn’t an easy question to answer, because at the time, the industry was predominantly made up of males. (It still is, though to a lesser degree.) What’s more, the market for female consumers was unproven territory. Like Lara Croft tiptoeing across a rickety limb suspended over lava, companies faced the daunting prospects of creating games that appealed to women and then coming up with the marketing techniques needed to get the registers ringing.
Rather than go out on a limb, however, publishers and developers played it safe, relying on broad generalizations regarding the differences between men and women rather than probing deeper. Women, for example, were thought to prefer the relaxed pace of puzzle solving to the frenzied aesthetic of virtual combat. Moreover, companies initially thought the inclusion of more female avatars in games would do the trick, although in this case, they were afraid of alienating their proven audience, so retail boxes and the entertainment within began sporting a lot of girls in leather bikinis. Finally, drawing on the commonly perceived interests of women in general, games began featuring elements of interpersonal relations and romance. After all, what’s truer about the world in which we live than the notion that men love guns and women love flowers?
However, as researchers probed deeper, they found a lot of individual differences that questioned reliance on these categories. For instance, Mia Consalvo, Ph.D. of Ohio University's School of Telecommunications found in her studies that women who play games frequently like a broad range of genres and actually enjoy competition and fast-paced action. In addition, women who play games for longer periods of time and increase their skills become interested in exploring different genres, including multiplayer titles, which offer both competition and collaboration.
Consalvo says the selection of female characters points to another miscalculation by game makers: while women certainly like avatars that are sexy and intelligent, they’re tired of having over-sexualized characters as their primary option. The biggest indicator that the games industry is trying too hard to attract females, however, is the relationship sim, Singles: Flirt Up Your Life. One screenshot released shows a woman wrapped in the arms of a man, her face aglow at the prospect of romance. You’d almost expect a quiz, not unlike those found in countless women’s magazines, to pop up during the course of game asking how compatible the player and his or her mate are.
So if game makers should scrap the ideas that women dislike complex controls and prefer puzzle solving to destruction, and accept that adding female avatars and romance to their titles won’t necessarily attract women, what’s left? Simply what the industry has been doing all along to attract more girls.
Almost without meaning to, publishers produced the female market through the development of casual and online titles. Sites such as Yahoo! have attracted huge numbers of adult women by drawing on their experiences playing card and board games. Consalvo says the ease of learning these offerings, their inexpensive nature and the growth of the Internet all helped to stimulate this growth. It’s proof that if women see content they like, they’ll arrive in droves. It’s important to remember, however, that this aspect of the industry is being framed as “casual” rather than “female.”
Anna Larke, a senior game designer at Argonaut, says the game industry doesn’t need to specifically address women, as there are plenty of titles out there that appeal to both genders. The Sims wasn’t created to lure females, even though it ultimately attracted a lot of girls, as well as guys, who hadn’t played many releases. Instead, the popularity of EA’s people sim boils down to it being a brilliant and accessible product. In other words, women will play anything, from Far Cry to Vice City, as long as it’s good.
Larke also says “pink games,” as interactive entertainment for girls is called in some circles, might actually do more harm than good, as they reinforce the stereotype that women don’t play games, and the ones that do need specially tailored offerings. The industry should simply recognize that people have different tastes, regardless of their gender, and move forward with the goal of making good products for everyone.
Publishers and developers also need to move toward greater inclusiveness. Perhaps the greatest division exists in the console market, which, if most gaming magazines and E3 are any indication, is still clinging to the boy’s club ideal. (Games don’t have to become politically correct to appeal to women, just contain fewer stereotypes.) Two things would help make this happen and expand the market at the same time: One, more advertisements in magazines for girls and women, and two, more female designers and executives working in the industry. The team that created The Sims, for example, included numerous women. As they bring their talents and insight to the industry, more players will follow.