Women are players, too

June 2, 2004

BY MISHA DAVENPORT Staff Reporter

Back in the '80s, the golden Atari age of video gaming, the average gamer was profiled as a pimply-faced teenage boy, playing either a PC or video game console in his parents' finished basement.

A lot has changed since then. According to a study recently released by the Entertainment Software Association, computer and video game sales topped $7 billion in the United States alone last year and 39 percent of all gamers are women.

But someone keeps hitting reset. Despite a growing number of female gamers, the stereotype of the male teen gamer prevails, influencing how a game is designed, how it is marketed and even how it is played. The video game industry and culture is still very much a boy's club filled with bullets, blood and broads.

"Respect is definitely an issue," says Laura Foy, one of two female co-hosts of "G4TV.com" on the cable channel G4techTV.

Despite two years co-hosting the show as well as her extensive background as a video game journalist and years as a game player, Foy -- like fellow co-host Tina Wood -- is still regarded by many viewers first and foremost as eye candy, if comments posted on various Web sites are any indication.

No one -- however -- seems to be discussing the physical attributes of Foy and Wood's male co-host, Scot Rubin. Never mind that both Foy and Wood are as knowledgeable as Rubin and hold their own on the unscripted show, despite viewers routinely calling into the show to try and stump them.

"We are constantly questioned by hard-core, male gamers," Foy says. "They find it hard to believe we're both girls and gamers."

Female heroes who stand out among the guys

When it comes to video game characters, it's still pretty much a man's world.

Some female characters have managed to move to the forefront, though. Here are five of our favorite female video game heroes, in no particular order:

MS. PAC-MAN
Namco's Ms. Pac-Man debuted in U.S. arcades in 1981 -- the first female video game hero. Though she featured better graphics and game play than her male counterpart, she's never been given her due. Props to the Ms.

YUNA
When she isn't saving the world in Square Enix's "Final Fantasy X" and "Final Fantasy X-2," Yuna is something of a career gal with her job as a pop singer. Take that, "American Idol."

JILL VALENTINE
Whether it's zombies in Capcom's "Resident Evil" series or men who just can't commit, Jill is independent-minded and can't be bothered.

LARA CROFT
No damsel in distress here. Eidos' popular character from the "Tomb Raider" series is much more than just a D cup, she's a smart, feisty, independently wealthy archeologist.

SAMUS ARAN
From defeating space pirates to destroying Mother Brain and the rest of the Metroids in Nintendo's "Metroid" franchise, Aran shows she's one gal who really knows how to have a ball.

Games women possibly play

Women are a neglected group of video game consumers and the industry says they've never officially surveyed them to see what games they are playing. Here's five games that industry insiders say they suspect women play (in no particular order):

  • EverQuest (Sony, PC)
  • The Sims (EA, PC/consoles)
  • Max Payne 2 (Rock Star Games, PC/consoles)
  • Final Fantasy X-2 (Square-Enix, PlayStation 2)
  • Animal Crossing (Nintendo, GameCube)

Games Women Play

And here are five games that women gamers told us they play:

  • Halo (Microsoft, PC and Xbox)
  • Dead or Alive 3 (Tecmo, Xbox)
  • Metroid Prime (Nintendo, GameCube)
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rock Star Games, PlayStation 2/Xbox)

Tomb Raider (Eidos, PlayStation 2)

 

In a case of put up or shut up, producers recently assembled the video game equivalent of Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs. In a recent segment, Wood challenged a male viewer in a death match round of "Halo." And much like King did some 30 years ago, Wood slaughtered her male opponent -- literally beating the pants off him by claiming a pair of his boxer shorts as a trophy.

"Had he beat me, it wouldn't have been that humiliating. Everyone was expecting the guy to win.

And because I did win, it's validated me as a gamer," Wood says.

What was no doubt particularly insulting is that "Halo" is a first-person shooter, which many assume would have little appeal for women. It happens to be Wood's favorite game. Foy dismisses the notion that there are such things as girl games.

Though the video game industry is often compared to the movie industry, there is a suspicious absence of anything resembling the "chick flick." In fact, companies have been unable to make a successful game that appeals primarily to girls and women. Foy says it's partly because of the mentality of game company executives, and it's hard not to agree with her. The industry refers to the elusive female product as the "pink game."

"You can't just put it in a pretty, pink box and think girls are going to buy it," Foy says.

She adds that part of the reason video game companies have yet to stumble on a game that attracts solely female players is because they really have no idea what girl gamers like to play.

"No one thinks girl gamers play first-person shooters or sports games. Any game can be a girl's game. Girl gamers are gamers. They play everything," Foy says.

As frustrating as it is covering the industry in front of the camera, it's also equally frustrating behind the scenes. If girl gamers are the holy grail, women like Robin Hunicke are the Ark of the Covenant. She is an avid gamer currently working on her Ph.D. at Northwestern University, where she is studying, designing and building artificial intelligence engines for video games.

Hunicke says it has been frustrating trying to navigate a future career in the industry when she is forced to confront sexist imagery at every turn.

Hunicke recently attended the Game Developers Conference -- a weeklong event that brings publishers, studios and programmers together to discuss innovation within the industry. The theme of this year's show was "evolution." She says Microsoft had giant cutouts of a scantily clad woman -- and that wasn't the worst of it.

"I walked the [E3] show floor for two days, equally exhausted and depressed. I thought about doing my own awards for the most offensive displays -- the boobie awards."

While Hunicke said it's not fair to demonize video games because they're gender marketed, she says she does want to point out the lack of diversity -- at least on game covers.

"I don't want to be unfair. I understand it's a sex-driven world where people buy cars or champagne because they're advertised with a naked woman next to the product. The industry is skewed and doesn't seem interested in marketing to women," Hunicke says.

The absence of female-friendly marketing is something that perplexes Frank Gibeau, senior vice-president of marketing for Electronic Arts, one of the largest third-party software publishers in the industry.

"Why only serve half the market if you don't have to? I've been here 12 years, and it used to be you'd close your eyes and hope you got a few girl gamers," he says. "Now it's assumed we at EA will at least market to them directly."

Recognizing the role women have played in past successes, Gibeau said EA has taken a unique approach to marketing its products, including using broader-based advertising that doesn't alienate or offend women and advertising on cable channels like MTV and Lifetime, which have a female demographic.

EA has had a few successes in building content that attracts women. The pay portion of its online gaming site www.pogo.com, called Club Pogo, is made up of 75 percent women, with gamers with an average age of 45 logging on to play the mix of card, casino, puzzle and word games.

Another EA franchise, "The Sims" also has managed to attract a core female audience. The game is open-ended, has players creating simulated human beings (Sims for short) and taking care of both basic needs like eating and showering and creative needs like painting and dancing.

"Fifty percent of the people playing the Sims games are women," Gibeau says. "Women are an integral part of why the franchise has been so successful. We've been able to achieve that by not pandering to the lowest common denominator. Sexist advertising is not the EA way."

Lucy Bradshaw, the executive producer of the upcoming game "The Sims 2," said women's attraction to the game goes beyond just the maternal aspects of raising Sims.

"It's one of the few games that you don't have to beat to still enjoy," Bradshow says.

"There's very little pressure to 'beat' the simulation, and you feel successful when you master any aspect of the game."

"The Sims" is developed by EA's Maxis studio. Twenty-five percent of Maxis' work force happens to be women. While Bradshaw admits the female designers, development directors and project leaders can't help but bring their gender into play when designing a game, the franchise has succeeded by appealing to both male and female gamers.

"It's hard to succeed at making a game just for girl gamers. Ultimately, it's up to female gamers to expect more from their games," Bradshaw said.

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