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EDITORIAL - What Women Want (From Gaming)
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posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
date posted: 12:00 AM Thu Jul 4th, 2002
last revision: 12:00 AM Thu Jul 4th, 2002

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By Monica Hafer

During the Nintendo press conference at E3, my mind began to wander somewhere that I'm sure they never intended; I began to think about? my mother. It all started during a promotional commercial for their new title, Animal Crossing, in which we see several seconds of humorous footage where a crazed-looking mother has stolen her child's GBA and is sitting at the kitchen table playing while her child attempts to wrest it from her grasp. I couldn't help but recall the stolen hours that my mother had spent on games such as Space Invaders and Legend of Zelda, Tomb Raider and Riven. These were seemingly decadent hours that I'm sure my father thought could have been spent more productively. But as I remember, her gaming was no less earnest than that of her offspring, and I believe she had no less (dare I say it?) fun.

I continued this line of thinking during the general media briefing put on by the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA). I was especially interested by some of the statistics they had gathered which show that women are a smaller percentage of game players (28% console gamers, 38% PC) and yet are a much greater percent of the game buying populace (55% PC, 46% console). It is then a fairly obvious assumption that women are purchasing games for people besides themselves (children, spouses, male friends, etc.). The IDSA followed up by showing that 62% of the people who have been playing games for less than a year are women. This, they feel, is "concrete evidence that more and more women are being drawn to games." However, as I look around, I can't say that I feel like the market is changing much to help attract adult women.

Lest some of you dismiss me as a femi-nazi, let me say that there are parts of the gaming industry that are doing everything right. There are more titles that are gender neutral and do a great job of making me feel welcome. Take Tony Hawk Pro-Skater 4. It features Elissa Steamer, one of the few female skaters in the real world, we can make female characters, and we are allowed to play them without being force-fed women skaters with gravity defying breasts and barely-there clothes. This game doesn't really get marketed to women, but I feel at home popping it into my PS2. There are also great strides being taken to make children's titles gender inclusive (Mario, Spyro, Star Fox, and more), although most of the titles are still marketed more toward young boys than girls (unless you look at the Barbie and Mary-Kate and Ashley titles). And while there have been some improvements, there is still an unserved populace waiting to be invited to play?adult women.

I personally began playing games because I had an older male sibling, and when my parents first brought home the Atari, it was meant as a present for both of us. I have many fond memories from this time, and it isn't as though I got tired of the gaming industry. It just seemed as though the marketers forgot that I was there. How can kids know what they want if advertisers don't tell them what's hot, new and must-have? My discretionary dollars were supposed to be spent on makeup and teen-magazines, and if I bought a videogame, I was considered not just a geek, but an aberration of nature (and the marketplace). Games were no longer picked up for me as gifts, and my groups of friends who were boys now treated this territory as "no girls allowed male bonding turf." And even at E3, where almost everyone there is a gaming freak, I had booth attendants hesitate to turn the controller over to me. Maybe they couldn't believe there was a woman gamer at E3, or maybe they're just afraid of women in general. "I'm dying to play this game," my psyche screamed, "and I'm a good player. It's OK to let me have a turn?" Suddenly I am a child again, desperately wanting to be a part of the cool world that is gaming, yet the industry doesn't seem to want me.

Young girls are now considered a marketable demographic, and hopefully they will not have to go through the things women my age did to be able to play videogames. Bless the almighty dollar for that, at least. But I find that the industry as a whole still does not see adult women as a gaming target. Yet, if the statistics are correct, women are buying games en masse, just not envisioning themselves as viable "gamers." Countless people cite the studies that show women prefer puzzle games, and, of course, suggest that this would explain why women just don't game as much (only so many puzzle games available, etc.). But I began to question the inferences of that statistic and instead ask, "What do women really want from gaming?"

During E3, I was lucky enough to encounter Ashley Bushore (Associate Producer of Myst III) at the Ubi Soft booth and seek her input on this very important question. She believes that women gamers are just as varied as men, and that there are just as many women who want to blow up things (myself included) as there are puzzle gamers. However, she felt that there were three things that women looked for consistently in a game. "I think," she said, "[that] women go for beauty (aesthetics), quality, intuitive interface, and solid game play." Does that sound radically different than what men want? Not really. We then began to ponder where the distinctions might lie.

The first idea to come to the fore was the possibility that women tend to have less discretionary time that they feel they can devote to games. Why? Perhaps because having time to play may not be seen as important for women as it is for men (clothes to wash, lunches to fix, time to game?whoa?who said anything about that?). Or perhaps women don't see gaming as an option for relaxation because it is not marketed to them as an option (relaxation for women is a bubble-bath, a juicy Harlequin, shopping, or extra housework, right?). I also tend to think that the idea of quality, intuitive interface is also an issue because women need to be able to pick up a game and have initial, successful feedback so they feel they aren't wasting their time, and so they aren't frustrated with their abilities (which, in turn, would lower their gaming esteem and self-concept); maybe they haven't yet had time to hone their videogame reflexes. Men may not realize that seeing oneself as a "gamer" is something that women have to work at . . . it is not an inherent idea (nay, right!) that we are given by the gaming industry.

Finally, something else that Ashley Bushore said stuck in my memory. She mentioned that she has a female friend in the industry who, like me, appreciates what many might call "manly" titles (HALO, etc.) and who is in a position where her feedback on game quality would be exceptionally important. However, this feedback is rarely solicited because she is not the targeted demographic for that type of game (and therefore, cannot have anything important to add, right?). If women are not seen as prospective players, why would their feedback be important? Why would anyone even ask what women want? The industry as a whole needs to realize that women want to be included. There are many who are just waiting for an invite. And if that isn't enough to persuade marketers and developers alike, consider that women have more discretionary money to spend right now than at any other time in history.

Those of us who have already been at the edges of this party have great ideas to share and this influx can only stimulate the growth of the industry. We don't require that all games view us as the primary demographic, nor do we necessarily want the sex and mayhem be taken out of all games. We are not prudes. Anyone who believes that women are not capable of the more prurient interests has probably never seen a group of women at a Chippendales show. Granted, there may have to be equal opportunity ogling involved for us. At E3, I wouldn't have minded seeing some men in the X-men booth, or some games where package size is as important as "realistic breast movement." But equal debauchery is really not the issue either. There are just as many varied desires for women as there are for men. Adult women just want to be seen as an important market worthy of attention and to feel that our feedback is important as well. It is less an idea of changing the games that we play than having an industry realize that we are here, that we matter, and that we desperately want someone to hand us a controller.