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Andi Murphy, Published August 17 2010

Video game industry tailoring more offerings to female players

For years, video games have been marketed toward male players with ads that showcase unreal action sequences or alluring female figures guiding players through virtual worlds.

But as the video game industry expands its consumer base, some female gamers are feeling a little less ignored by an industry that has realized not only men play their games.

In fact, women make up 42 percent of the 215 million Americans who play video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

In response to the stats, more and more games are being made to capitalize on the female demographic.

For instance, a pink-haired, overjoyed character helps gamers prepare a whole dinner in the Nintendo DS game “Cooking Mama.” In “Desperate Housewives: The Game” players live out the lives of the show’s characters. And in “Imagine: Animal Doctor,” players nurse animals back to health.

Other games focus on fitness or even shopping. And while they’re not made specifically for women, the video game industry has taken notice its audience includes tween girls and adult women.

“The social and casual (video) games revolution has really opened up the market for women, and currently women spend more money on games than any other market sector,” says Belinda Van Sickle, CEO of Women In Gaming International.

Part of that consumer dominance is because women are often buying their children’s games. But women are purchasing their own games, too.

“Video games have become so mainstream that everyone plays,” says Christina Patterson, a Moorhead gamer.

Indeed. Senior citizens play brain games. Families can get together to play the physically active Nintendo Wii. And children can learn to read from video games that use phonics.

But when walking through the video game aisle at a department store or watching commercials promoting video games, male fantasies are still prominent. Looking at the history of video games, male-focused marketing seems to be almost as old at the medium itself.

Video game evolution

When video games began emerging in the 1970s, they were not geared toward men but were designed to be children’s toys. But men gravitated toward them and eventually took over the market.

Furthering the gender identity of the genre was the fact that most early game developers were men, who made games with plotlines usually focused on male characters.

Later, in the 1990s, the video game industry grew with the development of technology showcased in systems like the Sega Genesis and Playstation consoles. With increased “power,” the new systems could support games with enhanced graphics along with more complex story line and action sequences.

But as video game technology grew, the industry’s focal point shrank. It began marketing to the “hardcore” gamers who became hooked on games that took 10 to 20 hours to complete, Van Sickle said.

She says during this “console revolution” the game industry catered to the mostly male hardcore gamers, who represented only 3 percent of the market.

Regardless of demographic targets, the industry was making money through platforms that focused on male gamers. In 1996, the sales of console and online video games brought in $2.6 billion to the game industry. In 2009, that number had increased to $10.5 billion, according to the ESA.

And since the majority of gamers are men, game developers seem to create games for that population, says Marissa Monera, a freelance writer and creator of the website female-gamer.com.

“To me, that’s just discrimination,” Monera said. “It’s all from a guy’s eye.”

But male eyes aren’t the only ones focused on video games.

Evolution of interests

Christina Patterson grew up as a gamer faithful to iconic Nintendo video game characters like Mario and Zelda.

But now the Moorhead woman says she prefers role-playing games where she can pick her own character and complete missions while living a social life in a virtual world.

It’s an evolution of interests that mirrors the development of video games.

Patterson says she plays sporadically, sometimes going weeks without playing. But she is just as guilty as men are of staying up all hours of the night playing video games.

“ ‘My wife is mad at me because I was up until 2 playing video games,’ ” Patterson says, paraphrasing a conversation with a fellow male gamer. “And I’ll say, My husband got mad at me, too.’ ”

In, “Fable,” one of Patterson’s favorite role-playing games, she can play as a host of different characters that can get married and have virtual babies.

“It would be nice to get a better-looking husband in virtual world,” Patterson says.

Though the character’s level of sexiness doesn’t interest her much, Patterson often notices that male characters seem to be so-so looking while female characters are voluptuous models often ridiculously proportioned and scantily-clad running around in forests, streets or snow-covered landscapes.

There’s also the shooter style of games that offer players gun-wielding first-person perspectives.

Patterson says she doesn’t have much interest in playing the shooter games.

“I think it’s just that game companies seem to spend more money on shooter games, and that’s a really male-dominated field,” Monera says.

Increasing numbers

At Section 9, a pay-to-play console arcade in downtown Fargo, the owners have noticed more women coming in to play since the business opened in early 2009.

“Especially with the Wii, it’s opened up an entirely new realm of players and gotten more people interested,” says Sean Sanford, co-owner of Section 9.

But the women gamers stepping into Section 9 are not gravitating toward the shooters.

Rather, they seem to play puzzle and strategy video games like “Katamari,” a colorfully eccentric Japanese game in which a ball rolls around collecting things to add to its mass. And “a lot of girls are into ‘World of Warcraft’ and role-play games,” Sanford says.

Monera says because women have different concerns in life and have families to care for, they tend to play sporadically and play more casual, social, adventure, strategy and role-play games.

She believes the industry could attract more women if it spent more time developing casual games and less time focusing on shooter games.

But Monera warns against “pinkifying” games into whimsical, pink, little-girl fantasies like “Detective Barbie.”

“That’s just my opinion,” Monera said. “I’m sure the marketing people know what they’re doing.”