Videogame Makers Should Market to Women

This opinion piece first appeared on AOL's GameDaily Web site on December 12, 2007.

During the recent holiday season, consumers spent millions of dollars on videogames. While their commercial success is unquestionable, it's amazing to think that videogames have become so successful while almost willfully excluding a sizable chunk of the population - women.

Videogame developers could take some tips from Parker Brothers 100 years ago. Parker Brothers understood the most successful board games would bring the whole family together to play: male and female, parents, children and grandparents. This belief impacted how they developed and marketed their games. Recent research I conducted with the women's game collective Ludica revealed some interesting nuances: board game covers featured intergenerational groups playing together; girls and women were as actively involved as males. Also, designers like George Parker often employed women to manufacture their products; as a result, they were often recruited to playtest his new games. This approach led to games that young and old, male and female could enjoy playing together, as well as tremendous success for Parker Brothers.

In contrast, much of the videogame industry stubbornly insists on targeting its products to the narrow audience of 'hardcore gamers' comprised of predominantly high school and college-aged males. The games are largely designed by and for men. A recent study revealed that 88.5 percent of game developers are male, tested by young men and marketed to young men. And they continue to do this in the face of overwhelming evidence that shows they are missing out on a huge opportunity to move from developing niche products to developing true blockbusters.

First of all, look at the numbers: Women make up 52 percent of the U.S. population, but only 38 percent of the videogame players. Recent studies that include web-based and downloadable games have found that women over 40 spend more time on average playing games than any other group. Despite this large and interested market, female gamers are often maligned as players of exclusively casual games (short-term play, downloadable games, such as Diner Dash), a claim that is wholly unsubstantiated by any empirical research. The mainstream game industry often marginalizes these games in favor of the 40-hour or more playtime, marquee, adrenaline-infused games like Halo 3 and Grand Theft Auto produced for consoles. Imagine the opportunity if companies actually marketed to instead of against the female gamer!

Second, time and time again, titles with a strong female appeal - Pac-Man and Myst, among others - have proven to be among the most commercially successful games. Pac-Man was secretly designed as a game that would appeal to women, a fact its creator, Toru Iwatani, hid from his employers. The enduring success of Pac-Man over the past 20+ years indicates that the designer was on to something. Some recent offerings, such as Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero and the recently released Rock Band, follow up on this more inclusive tradition.

Third, we need look no further than the tremendous success of Nintendo's Wii gaming console and its handheld DS. When they started developing their next generation gaming systems, Sony and Microsoft placed their bets on higher-end graphics, pushing umpteen million polygons per second, while managing not to push the boundaries of game design all that much. Nintendo decided it didn't stand a chance in this race and its best bet was to play another game entirely.

With both the Wii and DS (as their 'GameBoy' was conspicuously renamed), Nintendo has boldly gone where no game company dared to go: to new audiences. Nintendo has unabashedly made known its strategy: its competitors can have the 'hardcore gamers,' they'll take everyone else (along with some hardcore gamers too)! They are the first game company in history to have a booth at the AARP annual convention. (Baby Boomers, anyone?)

With the fastest selling handheld ever in the DS and the Wii console outselling the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 combined, Nintendo's bet has paid off. Despite its lower price point, the Wii is also more profitable per unit than either of its competitors. The gaming industry has taken notice. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are now distributing downloadable games, popular with female gamers. Recently, Microsoft announced a new marketing and advertising campaign designed to reach casual gamers, predominantly women.

But will marketing a product designed by and for young men to a broader audience help compete for this new market into which Nintendo has tapped? Time will tell, but in the meantime, Nintendo could well position itself as the Parker Brothers of the 21st Century, finding its way into the hearts and homes of 'well' everyone.

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