Ask anyone to describe a hardcore gamer and the image that comes to mind is probably that of a geeky, teenaged, socially awkward male who spends countless hours locked in his bedroom.
The notion, however, that men alone rule the gaming realm is as outdated as the Atari 2600. Men, women and children alike have answered the call to play. While the gaming industry has long tailored its approach to gaming for young men and boys, women and girls have been largely left out.
“A large part of it is legacy perceptions. People have highlighted the male teenage gamer for so long they are becoming blind to other markets,” Kimberly Unger, chief executive officer of Bushi-go, a mobile and handheld games developer startup, told TechNewsWorld. “It is easy, safe, fast and a guaranteed money maker to target than the 18- to 34-[year-old] audience. The female market is harder to quantify, harder to guarantee and from a business standpoint a much riskier thing to rely on.”
The Female Issue
That isn’t to say that no games have been developed with the other half of the human race in mind. However, women and girls have not been as strong a focus for game developers. Women, the common wisdom goes, are more interested in casual games and will not spend the money on consoles, gaming PCs or games. Although that may have been true at some point in the past, it is not necessarily the case now.
“Gaming is in a state of transition,” Judy Leedom Tyrer, a network engineer at Red Storm Entertainment, told TechNewsWorld. Five years ago, she said, women were generally more casual gamers and the gaming industry focused more heavily on men. “But as women get increasingly comfortable with the technology, no longer viewing computers as something boy geeks play with, and as the industry expands beyond its core demographic, both are changing.
“Women are getting more interested in a wider variety of games, and the gaming industry is trying to expand its market to include far more diversity,” she added.
Sixty-five percent of U.S. households play computer or video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The average gamer is 35 years old and has been playing video games for 13 years. Though only one out of four gamers is under 18, nearly half who play video games are between 18 and 49.
In addition, 40 percent of all gamers are women. In fact, the ESA noted that women over the age of 18 represent nearly twice as much of the gamer population, than do boys age 17 or younger.
In the world of online and wireless games, 44 percent of gamers are female, according to the ESA. Casual games account for almost half of the online games played the most often.
“Many of my female friends play crosswords, ‘Soduku,’ ‘Zuma,’ ‘JewelQuest’ and other casual games on a regular basis,” Robyn Tippins, a community manager at Yahoo Developer Network, told TechNewsWorld.
Are Male Gamers Different From Female Gamers?
However, that’s not all they play. Another commonly held myth — that female gamers are primarily only interested in casual games — is also out of date.
“The only difference is that women typically spend less time in a single sitting playing than their male counterparts,” said Phaedra Boinodiris, chief executive officer of WomenGamers.com.
Interests can vary greatly among all gamers, according to Laurie Morgan, a Game Art and Design student at Westwood College Online.
“It is true that women have been excluded and discouraged from playing games for many years, but that has little to do with their actual interest in games. All gamers enjoy a variety of games, from easy to intense play, at varying times and for varying reasons. The style of game a person will be drawn to is no more defined by gender than preference for cars or dolls,” she told TechNewsWorld.
In her “gaming obsession,” Tippins, for instance, goes through cycles.
“I’ll go a few weeks spending hours at a time on an RPG (role-playing game) or FPS (first-person shooter), then I’ll only play casual games on-and-off for a few weeks,” she explained.
As the popularity of online games has increased, so too has the industry’s focus on casual gamers.
“With the influx of mobile games, handheld games, casual game portals, casual MMOs (massive multiplayer online games), online Web games, and social games, the game industry is definitely looking to reach casual players,” Sande Chen, writer and game designer, told TechNewsWorld.
The success of the Nintendo Wii has largely helped to dispel misconceptions about who games and who does not. The console has highlighted the fact that women are a significant and still growing demographic in the gaming world.
“I consider myself to be a core gamer, but the Wii has very attractive elements to me on all fronts. It has games I can play with my non-core friends, it crosses all kinds of age boundaries — and not just in the ’12-year-old-reflexes-beat-34-year-old-wisdom’ style,” noted Unger.
“It really makes gaming a group extravaganza, rather than something a teenager does locked in their parents’ basement with a CRT monitor — see, even I have those legacy perceptions ingrained in my psyche” she added.
As the industry becomes more inclusive toward female gamers, it runs the risk of getting caught up in designing “girlie” games. What women do not need are more buxom, nearly naked female characters who represent little more than either male character types with more curves and skimpier outfits or giggling, flirtatious and silly airheads, Tippin pointed out.
“Female game characters are sad caricatures of females, and they do a gross injustice to the women playing these games,” she said.
Some tailoring may be necessary, though as the responsibilities of work and family grow, female gamers of a certain age — just like their male counterparts — are more reluctant to spend hours “wasting time,” Tyrer noted.
“Games that hook into real life more will broaden the market tremendously. Games like ‘Wii Fit’ [and] ‘Rock Band’ all explore the connection between ‘time wasted’ playing a game and ‘time used productively’ playing a game,” she said.
“A game that lets me feel like I’ve accomplished something worth doing, rather than just another cool sword dropped in [‘World of Warcraft’], appeals a lot more to me. And I need games that don’t involve quite the time sink that so many traditional games do,” she continued.
Women Power Up
Bringing more women into the industry is also a key factor to improving gaming choices for women, said Tyrer.
“We need to convince girls that programming is fun, computer graphics are fun, and that there is an industry here waiting for their input. We need more qualified women in the job market so there are women available to hire. I think the studios are very open to hiring women. There just aren’t enough out there looking for work,” she said.
However, Tyrer does not believe that focusing exclusively on the female market is necessarily the best way to draw in more women as both players and creators. Rather, the focus should be on what interests people, regardless of gender.
“We need to focus on areas of interest. Many of [women’s] interests are shared by men. If we look at what interests people could be served by gaming, then we would get further faster,” she concluded.
Trying to quantify half the population is part of the problem. Ms. Tryer nailed it at the end when she said, "Rather, the focus should be on what interests people, regardless of gender." Just keep developing games that are engaging and keep welcoming developers from all walks of life. People of all walks of life will want to play!