What do you think game designers can be thinking?

Let’s design our games assuming no women will play. Let’s market games by using booth babes at conventions or employing girl gamers as “totty with trigger” (you’d think it was a parody but it ain’t) and oh, we’ll run ads showing dead, naked women even when the games themselves have no naked women in them. A focus group? Oh great, but remember to ban women from the focus group, because they’re women and therefore not interesting. (Fortunately, several of the men in that particular focus group spoke on behalf of their girlfriends who are also gamers.) And how about the media? When Wired does a special issue on gaming, they leave out the women – oh, except for that risquÈ sex game with the dildos. We’ll include that. (I hadn’t realised Wired was a men’s magazine. It’s my favourite to buy on flights and so on – far more interesting than Cosmopolitan or something, and more, um, relaxing than the more intellectual alternatives.)

Let’s look at the facts. Apparently 24-35 year olds are the heaviest gamers. According to a recent survey, 65% of women in this age bracket play games. Only 35% of men in the age bracket do. The survey found that women play “slightly less” console games than men and that many more women play casual games, like flash games in web browsers, solitaire or online Scrabble. They didn’t think to ask the women why they liked casual games, but assume that it’s because they’re non-violent and non-cometitive (they can’t have played many games at games.com). Great. Let’s just assume gender stereotypes instead of asking.

Interestingly, Nick Yee’s statistics from MMOGs show the same trend: while boys are clearly dominant among teenaged players, women players outnumber men for players above 23 years of age:

gender distribution among MMOG players
[edit 22/5: see Torill’s comment below, this stat doesn’t quite prove that]

So let’s see: despite the game industry marketing games almost exclusively for young men, almost twice as many women as men play games in the biggest market segment, based on age. Many of these games are casual, but even for console games, only “slightly less” women than men play. More women than men over 23 play MMOGs.

And yet the game industry continues to market and design games almost exclusively to that slim market of teenaged horny boys.

And I continue to get stupid comments from male players in WoW – “wow, I didn’t think women played games!” (Doubly idiotic since they can only see my female character and not me.)

21 thoughts on “the myth that women don’t play games

  1. Martin

    Great post, Jill! I keep wondering when the game companies are going to realise there’s a
    fortune to be made in marketing games specifically for women. It reminds me of how long it’s taken comic book companies to find out that they were (and to some extent still are) neglecting a huge segment of their readership. If they just got in on the market now, they’d be pretty much the only ones there. Remember when advertising companies discovered gay people as a target audience? That’s just 5% of the population. Gaming companies are neglecting 50% of their potential market, and that segment still games. Incredible.

  2. jokay

    Good call, Jill!! My favourite comment from a male gamer online was ‘you’re not really a woman are you? girls don’t play games.’

    Um, yeah – right!! 😉

  3. tormodh

    You’ve probably seen this before: The Escapist, issue #17. [1]

    [1] http://www.escapistmagazine.com/issue/17

  4. 100littledolls

    Thank you for the link.

    Heh, the infamous issue of The Escapist with the notorious Chris Crawford article:
    My favorite excerpt from his article: ìthe ideal game for women…would be some sort of interactive soap opera or bodice ripper, presenting the player with complex social problems as she seeks the ideal mate. Contrast this with the kind of software currently being offered to women and you can see why so little progress has been made with this group.î

    That’s right, all women just watch Days of Our Lives and read harlequinn romance novels.

  5. Mark Bernstein

    > Gaming companies are neglecting 50% of their potential market

    No, they aren’t.

    Game designers and game publishers have been trying to reach women more effectively for more then twenty years. Not all of them are idiots, either. Remember Brenda Laurel’s PURPLE MOON, anyone?

    If we’re going to study games, and if we want to be taken seriously, we really need to look more closely at the evidence and get beyond assumptions like “the people who write games are all sexist’ and “the people who market games are all idiots.” These assertions might be true, bit if you want to argue for them you need stronger evidence.

    Some research questions I think could easily be addressed (and perhaps may already have been studied: citations, anyone?) include:

    * To what extent is overt sexism in game advertising a market segmentation strategy? In particular, the stage of (pre)adolescence we used to call “latency” represents an attractive segment with significant disposable income that they can’t really spend on food, liquor, drugs, movies, cars, or travel. If you want to get these people to identify you as part of their cohort, a key message might well be “girls (or boys) have cooties”.

    * What drives the apparent desire to have more surface sexual content in games than the games really contain? To pick Jill’s example, why would you advertise dead, naked women that don’t actually appear in the game? Again, I’d look to an attempt to communicate with a transitional adolescent cohort, one that wants to assert their maturity but that doesn’t particularly want to have anything much to do with sex.

    * For years, the targetting of pre-adolescent boys by the console game industry was attributed to the retail distribution channel, especially to the Toys R Us chain and its ability to consistently populate its console game aisle with crowds of after-school preteen boys. That channel has been badly scarred in recent years by the competition between Wal-Mart and Toys R Us; can we see the effect in game design?

    * Remember the dating games a couple of years back? They came out in the wake of The Sims, to great fanfare and much newspaper tittering. Nothing happened; we couldn’t get anyone to review the Playboy game for TEKKA. How about a study of this failed genre — and why it seems to have gone nowhere.

    * My friend Krasnick says, “Apparent sexual content and sexism in current games is simply a transgressive marker, an assertion that this game is for KIDS LIKE US and not for old fogies like parents and Congressmen. It has nothing to do with sex, it’s just a scheme for pushing away the grownups.” True or false? If false, how would you demonstrate its falsity, as opposed to asserting it?

  6. Elin

    Mark…. I am not sure if you remember, but Purple Moon was a children’s game, and even if it was, since it is a game of the past, it is not part of what is being marketed today. There, however, lots of current games for girls. Nancy Drew etc. But girls do grow up now and then. Apart from the Sims, where are the games that are marketed to women?

    I’ve been subscribing to a few game journals the past years. I don’t think you need a lot of evidence to be able to make a blog statement like what Jill did. Open a game journal and look at the ads – you’ll immediately see that women are not a target group. I think we have to be careful to point fingers to what is being expressed at blogs. Jill’s blog is a research blog, but that shouldn’t mean that she can’t write in a tone of a frustrated woman who feels let down by the industry. Blogs are conversations. Also, Wal-Mart and Toys R Us are also american chains. There are game developers outside the US as well! I think it makes sense to raise that question on a local basis, but I doubt it makes sense on a global level.

    Just my two kroner~!

  7. Jill

    Mark, I wrote “the game industry continues to market and design games almost exclusively to that slim market of teenaged horny boys” – ALMOST exclusively. Your research questions are interesting, but I think they miss the point of my post a bit. I don’t want to research this issue – I want to spread awareness of it and I want to complain at the way I feel marginalised as a gamer, both by the dominant marketing strategies and further by a good deal of society including male gamers I meet in gameworlds. I agree that the marketers may WANT to alienate adults and women because they see the teenage market as their primary market, but I think it’s a foolish idea, and that it’s fascinating that women and adults despite this are gamers. And I think it’s a big problem that society assumes women don’t like gaming.

    Martin, when I first read your comment I thought you meant women would need separate games to men – I don’t think that’s actually what you meant, but it reminded me of a hilarious description in Brenda Laurel’s book Utopian Entrepreneur (a book about her attempts to design games for girls, which was successful for a while but ultimately lost funding). She writes about working n the game industry in the early nineties:

    Traditional marketing wisdom in industry held that girls weren’t a viable segment. In fact, they wouldn’t even constitute a niche market. Everyone knew that girls simply didn’t like computer games and wouldn’t play them. Examples would be trotted out as proof.
    My favorite was Barbie published in 1985 by Epyx for the Commodore 64. Barbie was at the mall, shopping for the right outfit to wear on her date with Ken. Now, “everyone knows” that girls aren’t good at shooting games, so the designers reasoned that the game should make it easier for them. The brilliant solution: make projectiles that move slowly. And so it was decided that the action component of the game would consist of throwing marshmallows. “You see,” the game execs would say, “they did everything right, but sales were dismal.” Therefore you can’t sell computer games to girls. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

  8. Marlen

    Jill – I think it would be hard to refute that the industry, as a whole, does a pretty lousy job of marketing to women, and for the most part even marginalizes and alienates them. However, once you mave into the realm of marketing strategies and PR and sales figures, its important to be careful about making claims about marketing demographics. Everyone at this point knows that women are a major part of the MMO community, comprise a significant if not majority portion of online “flash” type gaming, and are drawn to particular PC games – such as the SIMS in larger numbers than men.

    The most proper conclusion then is – if I’m going to market a MMORPG, an free online game site, or a particular type of Simulation which has broader appeal – such as the Sims or SimCity – my marketing should be non-gender specific, or at least multi-faceted, and by no means alienating to women.

    I think the industry has mostly picked up on this.

    However, the console market is absolutely dominated by male teenagers and young men. And E3 is dominated by the console market. I’ve attended E3s as a reporter. The vast majority of press there are men. The vast majority of the executives present are men. And the major new stories are about Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. There are PC games, and many are hyped up – but the show is about the next-gen consoles and games. So the vast majority of the readership looking for E3 stories are men.

    So perhaps I’m just a capitalist cynic, but wouldn’t it make sense to focus advertising on the core demographic. I mean, morally, this may not be proper – but I’m rather certain morality isn’t what drives these companies. If market trends reversed, and women became the primary purchasers of next-gen consoles and console games, I would certainly expect the marketing to shift.

    Is it possible then that these are just distinct markets with mostly distinct demographics?

  9. 100littledolls

    If you just focus on the core demographic and advertise solely to them, doesn’t it all just become self-fullfiling? Of course people won’t feel inclined towards something that says “this is for them, and not for you.”

    And doesn’t the Wii strike you as Nintendo’s attempt to reach beyond the core demographic?

  10. Mark Bernstein

    It is easy to fool yourself into thinking that all the people in all the game companies are idiots. Quoting Martin again:

    > Gaming companies are neglecting 50% of their potential market, and that segment still games. Incredible.

    Some bright people have tried very hard over the years to develop games and marketing strategies that address other demographic segments. Observers can, I think, adopt two stances on this:

    a) All these efforts were inept, or stupid, or in bad faith. We should deplore them; and that’s all we really can say.

    b) These efforts failed; we should understand exactly how and why.

    I submit that any effort at understanding the phenomenon has to take into account market segmentation strategies, distribution, and the purchase cycle.

    When game advertising marginalizes adults and women, we can adopt two stances:

    a) The creators of this advertising are inept, and have allowed their personal feelings about adults or women to interfere with the goal of their work. Their employers, moreover, are sufficiently ignorant that they don’t notice this and cannot measure its effects on their revenues.

    b) The creators of advertising, and their employers, are generally adept and skilled, and are pursuing strategies that seek to maximize revenues.

    Again, when the observed strategies seem patently unsound and idiotic, I think it makes sense to find out exactly what the creators think they’re doing, what they’re attempting and why. This might not coincide with their stated rationale, of course; we all know about the intentional fallacy. But we have tools for doing this.

  11. Jill

    I don’t think anyone’s arguing that everyone in the game industry is an idiot. I pointed out many ways in which the dominant marketing of games confirms the general assumption in society that women are not gamers. Other marketing strategies do exist, though they haven’t yet been as influential. As 100littledolls points out in her comment above, the marketing of Wii, Nintendo’s new game console, might be an example.

    To be honest, I’m more interested in raising people’s awareness that women play games than in trying to understand marketing departments in the game industry.

  12. Tony

    Hi Jill and others.
    To look at from a different perspective, I am not a horny teenage boy, nor do I play games very much. Does this make me effeminate in the didgital World?

  13. Jill

    Tony, given the statistics I cited show that men and women play almost equally, I don’t really see the point of your question? I’m not sure I understand it, really. Are you saying you feel castrated by marketing that excludes you from its view of masculinity?

  14. Jesper Juul

    Your first sentence says “What do you think game designers can be thinking?”
    As an occasional game designer, I believe the term here is “othering”, so let’s not get into that.

    But I think you underestimate how many people in the world would like to make a few billion dollars by designing games for women.
    The reality is that it isn’t particularly easy to design a game for any specific group (most games don’t make their money back), and especially not for a new target group.
    I sure wouldn’t mind the money, would you?

  15. Martin

    Goodness, no. I don’t think women would need separate games (at least, not exclusively so), I haven’t thought that since my team got its ass *completely* whupped in CounterStrike by an all-girl team back in 2001. My comment was pretty offhand, expressing that I’ve made the same thoughts myself without actually looking at the figures. I was just trying to say, as Mark does in his straw-man argument about the two stances, that I just do not understand why effective strategies for this have not been found. And it does seem, when you read gaming magasines, as though nobody is working on it.

  16. Elin

    Tony, I think your issue is entirely a separate one from what Jill is talking about. Gameplaying is not interesting to all, and perhaps you’re one of them.

    Jesper.. if they ARE wanting to tap into this… what do you think is holding them back? Surely you must see they’re not tapping into it at this stage. I think Jill is talking about the marketing aspect as much as the design of games. I’m not playing WOW only because packaging and marketing doesn’t convince me that this is something for me. Reading Jill’s game post however, have made me want to be part of it. I too want to tell stories and win competions.. but there is no marketing directed at women like me and my interests, is there? WOW seems like a very versatile game when people tell me about it. Their marketing doesn’t send me this message.

  17. Computer Science Teacher

    The Myth That Women Don’t Play Games…

    One of the things I hear from computer science teachers from time to time is that games turn girls off……

  18. MissusJ

    It seems to me that game companies (and sometimes marketers) reach gaming WOMEN the best when they are willing to try anything. Gaming GIRLS can be caught up in a franchise (Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, maybe even Pokemon) or a character’s face (Nancy Drew, Mary-Kate and Ashley, etc.), but WOMEN… we seem to want something more “outside the box”.

    Example: The Sega Dreamcast. Sega is willing to do anything to succeed so that they will stay in the console manufacturing market, and what do they try?? Everything. Most of the music games that people are loving so much now (Guitar Hero, perhaps even DDR) have ancestors on the Dreamcast (Samba de Amigo, Space Channel 5). And those are games I would recommend to other women, or to men who wanted something their girlfriends/wives could play too. The Dreamcast also gave us the uber-unique Typing of the Dead, where those typing classes became good for shooting zombies- and was just absurd enough to work.

    Only Nintendo has been willing to leave the box enough to attempt to reach non-stereotypical gamers the way Sega did in their twilight years. They have kept prices low, attempted new designs for controllers and consoles, and fought to do things in a way that entertains the whole family*. And go figure, they are considered a third wheel in the conflict between Microsoft and Sony. Microsoft advances things in the direction of computers, and Sony (so I’m told about this year’s E3) is left trying to ape everyone at once.

    This is not to say that gaming WOMEN won’t play more stereotypical games- I make great cannon fodder in a game of multiplayer Halo, and enjoy it. I enjoy RPGs when I have the time, and watch my husband play regularly- much better than Desperate Housewives for entertainment! In fact, I do wish that there were more cooperative games we could play together.

    I used to work in a game store within a mall. I’ve seen it in action- the girlfriend is following along behind the boyfriend who is looking for something in particular. She’s rather tense, but bored at the same time- she looks at her watch as her eyes start to glaze over. The store is rather utilitarian- bland walls, hanging pictures, weird looking action figures, slightly blaring demo units… and cases after cases after boxes of things she does not understand. There are no clothes here, no books to browse, and it’s not made to make her comfortable. It’s either bland or bright, no in between, no coziness, and all she wants is out- preferably to the card store next door. At least there’s stuffed animals there. She is only there to let her boyfriend satisfy his little itch and get something that is only going to compete with her… on the way to the next store she wants to visit.

    Either that, or little short pregnant me was going up to African-American guys a foot taller than I and having to tell them we were out of the Dukes of Hazzard game. I kid you not. I’m still scratching my head over it.

    *Which has been a goal of Nintendo all along, seeing as the (8-bit) Nintendo Entertainment System was called the “Famicom” or “Family Computer” in Japan. So it’s not a cliche for them.

  19. torill

    Jill, I quoted this in another context, and somebody immediately pointed out that the graph you show from Nick Yee doesn’t really say that there are more women than men playing MMOGs when they become older, but that the majority of female gamers are older than the majority of male gamers.

    Not that it is a big deal, as you have other numbers showing that a lot of women play games, but it may give a wrong representation of the demographics in MMOGs, as the other study you cite shows that women play more casual games, and that is the group who pushes the percentages up to such a high level.

  20. Jill

    Oops. You’re right, Torill. I guess I’m not really a statistician, huh?

    The other survey claimed that women play “slightly less” console games than men and a lot more casual games. In the BBC report on gaming in the UK from ages 6-65 (Boing boing for some reason pasting the PDF link in here crashes the server (huh?) so just click on via boingboing)

    Contrary to popular belief, the gender split between gamers is fairly even across all age groups. Although female gamers never overtake their male counterpart, the figures are particularly even in the youngest and oldest gaming groups. Between the ages of 16-35 the ratio of males to females is slightly higher, but the stereotype of a large gender gap in gamers – in any age group – is untrue.

    Females and males do however display some different prefer- ences in gaming categories. Simulations and MMOGs perform equally well with males and females, while RPGs and Strategy fare only marginally better with males. Females then show strong approval for Music/Dance, Puzzles/Board/Quiz, and Classic games. Males show strong approval for Action- Adventure, Racing, Sports, and First Person Shooters. Simula- tions and MMOGs seem to be key to attracting audiences of both genders equally: Sports and Shooting category games generally hold the lowest appeal for females, although it should be noted that this doesn’t mean they have no appeal: 12% of females play First Person Shooters.

  21. […] In the realm of business and politics, the problem with women is about the question of power. In a normal everyday setting, this problem digivolves into a question of intelligence. In many places, there exists denial that women can do certain things. For my generation, it can easily been seen in video games. The stereotype being that few to no women play them and if any do, it is either that they cannot play with men as their abilities are inferiour or that they should be playing a game that better suits their interests. Of course this isn’t true. […]

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