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From a guy that has previously owned Video Game stores and lived in multiple countries, here’s a good insight into some of the drivers of the astonishing rise in female gamers with some stories that may even shock you!
The growth of the female gamer is a very remarkable story. It’s one that includes ingenious marketing, a bit of luck and of course the increase in gender equality. We still have a long way to go, but I really love this story of development and there’s plenty more we can do to play a part in it’s future. Let’s start by looking at how gaming developed to understand what changed.
When I was in primary school (about 8 years old) I remember having a computer system called the Commodore 64. Although some games came on cartridge, most were on cassette tapes. I remember putting the tape in the system, waiting a few minutes to press the space bar on the game confirm screen and then going out to play ‘Hide and Seek’ in the street with friends for half an hour before the game was ready. You had to really want to play games in those times as access to them was not so easy. You also invested a lot of time playing a video game as it took so long to load.
Sometime later I moved to having a PC. It was great fun but needed a lot of time invested in learning the system and how it worked. Installing games was not easy and often required multiple discs being exchanged in and out all the time.
It’s important to remember that times were different back then. It was mainly the man who was head of the family, he had the one car in the household and he brought in the income. He would be technically savvy and it was therefore the boys in the family who tended to lean towards new technology. That is where the stereotype of the ‘fat, anti-social, Dorito eating, smelly gamer who never leaves the house’ came from. Of course it was a stereotype but there was perhaps an element of truth to some of it.
Now I’m going to switch to a different technology to show how much things changed. In 1998 I had my first mobile phone. It was an Ericsson and I remember the screen was so limited that you could not see all 11 digits when you typed in a mobile number! Phones were just taking off at that time and of course all students seem to have one but in families, it was still the man who had a phone.
So Motorola decided they were going to try and double the size of the market by making a sleek thin phone for the more fashion conscience consumer (meaning women). However it didn’t have the desired effect as I remember my male neighbour showing off the Razr phone and how sleek it was. What they intended to finally be a phone for ladies didn’t quite happen. So they brought out another model which was Pink and overnight they helped change the mind-set that only a man needed a phone (ok, not quite overnight but you get the point).
Gaming followed a very similar pattern of inclusions led by Nintendo. By 2004 the PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 were selling well but it was mainly dominated my male players. Games were largely created by men for men. So Nintendo launched the DS hoping to bring a new generation of gamers into what was seen as a geeky pastime. They launched with the Silver DS which was nice but again dominated by male players. I sold many of these in my Video Game store and it was still rare to see women who played games coming into my store.
That all changed a year later when we saw the release of the Pink Nintendogs DS bundle which I believe truly changed the industry. Overnight, this time literally, my store was full of women accompanying young girls to continually ask if I had anymore stock of the illusive pink handheld console. A trend that continued for months as firstly the console slowly began to become readily available and then even more slowly the three versions of the Nintendogs games began to emerge in abundance.
The demographics of my customers shifted within months. It was no longer surprising to see women looking at games and it was not surprising to see women talking about PlayStation or Xbox games as they had become more open to playing games traditionally seen as part of the male domain.
Not only that, but Brain Training (another Nintendo DS game) even featured Terry Wogan on the adverts in UK. It was a game aimed at elder members of society, a game that gave you a mental age after each round so if it went down you felt like you were getting younger. They gave pensioners the fountain of youth and encouraged them to get into gaming too. They took a traditional male dominated domain and made it acceptable for a larger section of society.
I remember how surprised people were when a young girl came second within a Street Fighter tournament we had organised. She has put in the time and dedication to become good at a game that she enjoyed and at least the guys in my store were really starting to respect that it was no longer a male only gaming world. A change that would take time but was given a huge push by another brilliant Nintendo move.
Forward a few years and an interesting console called the Wii was released. It was revolutionary as it was designed to be super simple to use. It was designed to break down all the barriers that stopped casual people from playing games. You simple picked up a controller, pointed it at a screen and swung the remote around, which had only two main buttons. Simple.
Compare that with the PlayStation or Xbox controllers which have multiple buttons and confused my 9 year old niece so much that she could not use the analogue sticks together to move and look at the same time. She has to do one, stop and then do the other, which limited her gameplay and affected her experience of console gaming. However give her a Wii remote and the confidence rocketed, she knew what she was doing and was really quite good at numerous games (in fact she taught me a few things!).
Nintendo made the console accessible. They lowered all the barriers to entry so that if you can swing your hand and can handle pressing two buttons, you can play. They said their aim was to take the console out of the boys’ bedroom and into the living room, which they achieved immensely well with their range of family based games.
This new generation of women who entered gaming, both young and old never left. They have grown up in a new world which is more open minded to gaming and is slowly eroding the stereotype of the former PC gamer.
Facebook games such as Farmville did incredibly well with women who traditionally were never the target for games. They used colours, creativity and the ability to compete against friends to help promote their cause and as a result Zynga did very well in it’s earlier years.
As internet speeds and smartphones got better, we saw the rise of mobile gaming. So many of these games were gender neutral and very simple to play. That meant that once again it was easily accessible for all. It’s not uncommon at all to see people still playing Candy Crush on a bus or train (oh yeah – stop sending me Facebook invites to play the game!!). In fact, latest research has shown that 60% of females who play mobile games also play a disc based console game too.
Once it becomes acceptable to play games and you begin to enjoy it, you become open to playing more games, even if they take a greater investment of time in terms of learning how to play. Casual gaming is helping change the way people feel about the industry and will help not only make gaming more acceptable but will also help fuel a whole new generation of console and PC gamers. It’s a gateway gaming experience before fully exploring what the industry has to offer.
The progress has been great in the last decade but it still has a long way to go. We don’t call someone who watches TV, a TV watcher as it’s just so common and acceptable and I believe in the next few years the same will be true about gaming. With 7 out of 10 households in the UK having a console, gamers are everywhere and no longer the minority.
However I feel women themselves have to snap out of the stereotype mentality as illustrated by this final story. A few weeks ago I attended an entrepreneurial event which was full of interested people who had started their own businesses. I happened to get talking to a good looking ‘Dance School Principle’ who was dressed really well and well, seemed like she really looked after herself. We went to get a drink at the bar where she asked me what I do for a living. I mentioned that it was in gaming and her face dropped. She looked at me with disgust and I couldn’t help tell her off ‘Don’t look down at me like that’.
I changed the subject and we continued talking, even though I was a little put off by her judgement of me. I was about to leave her at the bar after a few minutes and she grabed my arm and told me she wanted to say something I shouldn’t tell anyone else. She told me ‘Don’t tell anyone but when my son goes to school and I’m home alone, I often play on his Xbox’. Wow, the woman who looked at me in disgust for being in gaming is actually a secret gamer. Sometimes women are their own worst enemy…