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Selling Video Games To Women – Is It Really That Hard?

Essay

The Entertainment Software Association recently released their latest batch of statistics on video game sales and player demographics. There’s lots of interesting stuff in there, but the numbers on player gender sparked some chatter last week. According to the ESA, 45% of all gamers are women. That percentage stays pretty much the same for the “most frequent video game purchasers,” of which women represent 46%.

Nothing too surprising, but there were two threads of discussion prompted by it. Some people were dismissive, claiming that most women gamers are “only” playing casual games (though the ESA stats make no mention of genre preferences by gender), and therefore aren’t a concern for most developers. There were also those who pointed out that ignoring 46% of steady purchasers is bad business, and mused over how best to cater to the female market.

Let me begin with a story. 

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of making a new friend. Games eventually entered into our conversation. She mentioned she was eager to try some, but had no idea where to start. We found a coffee shop, and as our drinks cooled, I began to suss out what she might like to play. I described various genres, and asked questions about her other interests. Did she like puzzles? How about action movies? Which test of her abilities sounded the most appealing: critical thinking, hand-eye coordination, or philosophical reasoning? In her free time, did she prefer energetic activities, or something more laid back? Was she squeamish? How did she feel about guns, or horror movies? And so on, and so on.

We determined that platformers and puzzle games would be a good place for her to start, though she was also curious about how games tell stories, and was down with scary stuff. I scrawled out some recommendations in her notebook. If memory serves, I suggested Portal, Braid, Fez, Sword & Sworcery, The Walking Dead, Osmos, and — provided that she could find a friend with a PS3 — Journey.

There were a number of considerations that went into picking those titles. They had to be things she could play on her existing computer. I needed simple UIs and mechanics that were quick to pick up, but still offered a good challenge. I wanted to introduce her to the wide range of mental states games can facilitate, from the mellow flow of Osmos, to the cold-sweat intensity of The Walking Dead. I wanted games that would make her laugh and cry and think.

I would’ve used those criteria for any beginner, but her gender did make me quietly factor in one additional thing: they had to be games in which she would feel welcome.

This wasn’t difficult, given the genres I was considering. If she had wanted to start with shooters, RPGs, or action games, though, I would’ve had to think more carefully. For starters, I wouldn’t have recommended a game with skimpy armor. There are some female gamers who enjoy dressing their characters that way, and that’s totally cool. But generally speaking, a brand new recruit who’s been sold on the idea of adventures and cerebral challenges is probably going to be taken aback if her hero is made to wear a scale mail halter top and hot pants. Similarly, I would not have recommended a game in which women are only there to be rescued and/or to have sex with. I would not have recommended a game with a multiplayer community known for toxic behavior. Then again — okay, I might have done one of those things, if she was looking for something specific, or there was a game I felt she’d enjoy despite some problematic inclusions. But I wouldn’t have recommended it without a warning. I would’ve said something along the lines of, “FYI, the armor in this game is pretty ridiculous. If you play as a female character, you’re not going to be wearing much. A lot of games are like that. It’s just kind of how it is.”

Not exactly the strongest pitch I could make.

That kind of disclaimer is something I’ve only recently noticed in conversations between experienced gamers, even though we do it all the time. My gamer friends and I frequently recommend stuff to each other, but there is one subtle difference in how we go about it. If I’m recommending a game to a male friend, I’ll talk about the mechanics and the story, and that’s it. But if I’m recommending a game to a female friend, or vice versa, there is almost always a mention of how women are portrayed within the game, if at all (and to be fair, some of my male friends also do this when recommending a game to me). This is different than a full-blown discussion of gender portrayal, which any of my friends might take part in. What I’m talking about is a casual footnote, mentioned while persuading a female player to buy the game. At some point during the playthrough, the person recommending the game will have experienced a moment in which she (or he) felt uncomfortable or annoyed, and feels obligated to give a heads-up to someone who might feel the same way. We do this without thinking much about it. It’s just a courtesy.

After the warning is given, the person will say something like, “y’know, video games,” and both parties will shrug with resignation, and go back to talking about mechanics. No big deal, right? Well, actually, yes. It shows an important distinction in how experienced gamers approach the medium. Women who regularly play more complex games, especially in the AAA category or across multiple genres, are used to impractical armor and characters that leave us wanting. This isn’t our first time at the rodeo. But that doesn’t mean we’re always willing to put up with it. We pay attention to how women are presented in marketing material, in everything from trailers to box art. We read industry news, and we listen to how developers talk about their characters. We consider other players’ impressions of how women are treated in specific multiplayer games. We weigh the appeal of the gameplay against how much we have to overlook or steel ourselves against. Our boundaries vary, but we all make our purchasing decisions based on which side comes out on top.

Casual gamers and newcomers, on the other hand, aren’t going to roll with the punches as easily. And they’re the important ones in this discussion, because those of us who have stuck around a particular genre regardless of its problems are already established within the market. If the goal is to widen the net — and we’re talking for the sake of cash money here, not fairness — a lot of games aren’t helping.

So what kind of games do women want? I have no idea. I don’t like the same stuff as some women. My friends and I don’t always like the same stuff. Some of us like fast combat, others don’t. Some like being social, others don’t. Some like PvP, others don’t. This isn’t about genre, or mechanics, or whether a game has a female protagonist. As far as purchasing choices go, we don’t need to play as women. Out of curiosity, I did a quick count just of the games in my Steam library. Out of one hundred and six games (not all of which have a player character, mind you), twenty four offered me a choice of protagonist gender. Only nine had a female protagonist, which is misleading, as five of them represented two characters (Lara Croft and Chell). That’s a bit troubling from a cultural standpoint, but business-wise, a lack of female characters clearly hasn’t prevented me from spending money. If I bought only games in which I could play as a woman, I wouldn’t get to play much at all. To most female gamers, gender inclusion is a benefit, not a dealbreaker. What we’re asking for is very simple: games that don’t make us feel unwelcome, and games we can recommend to our friends without reservation.

There are lots of ways you can go about achieving that. Think about how your NPCs talk to and about women. Think about how your protagonist talks to and about women. Offer identical armor sets (or at least a choice between practical and sexy). Offer romance options of all genders. Look at how the camera treats male and female characters. Enforce good behavior in your multiplayer community, as best you can. Not only do these things ease the barrier of entry for newcomers, but they make us veterans feel like we matter. We’re no longer the bastard children, without a name or a title. We’re feasting in the main hall, pinning the family crest to our doublets! (I’ve been playing a lot of fantasy-themed stuff lately). We may be accustomed to the status quo, but if we find something in which we’re treated with equal respect — both as characters and as players — we’re going to tell our friends to play it. Loudly. Aggressively. We’ll do the advertising for you, and still throw down our wallets for DLC. We’re suckers that way.

None of this is to say that developers have to consider their female audience. I obviously hope they do, but people are allowed to tell stories as they please. If a dev says, “You know, not having breasts spilling out of this armor is cramping my artistic vision,” then by all means, go for it. That dev probably knows they have a niche audience, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re free to foster whatever kind of environment they want. But for those who want a bigger slice of the pie, who want to know how they can bring in more of that 45%, it’s worth stopping to think about how your game is going to look to the women playing it.

As for the claim that the 45-46% statistics aren’t relevant because most women “only” play casual games — I dislike a number of the implications that go along with that, but honestly, I can’t comment on its accuracy. It’s true that women make up the majority of the casual market, but that’s different than saying that the majority of all women gamers exclusively play casual games (not that there’s anything wrong with those that do). As far as I know, there are no overarching statistics on genre preferences for women (if there are, do send them my way). I can find player stats for individual games or types of mechanics, but nothing that sheds light on what women as a whole are currently buying and playing. At this point, all anyone’s got is anecdotal evidence.

Let’s say, though, for the sake of argument, that most women in that 45% are only playing casual stuff. I think again of my new friend, who thought she didn’t have gaming experience. She did. She had games on her iPhone. “I don’t know if that counts,” she said. Oh yes, it counts. Some may scoff at mobile games, but they’re a great gateway drug. A person who “only” plays on their phone has already joined the party. They know about strategy. They know about solving puzzles. They know about leveling up. If they like what they’re playing on their phone, there’s a decent chance they’re interested in branching out, just as my friend was. All it takes is for them to feel like the larger world of gaming is a place that will welcome them. Those of us who are already here are happy to be ambassadors. We just need good stuff to offer. And we do have some good stuff, and our selection is increasing by the year. But we can always, always use more.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also always be found on Twitter.

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