Letters

What do women want from gaming? A few suggestions from Salon readers responding to Jane Pinckard's "Video Gaming and Its Discontents."


Salon Staff
January 7, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

As a female gamer, I read Jane Pinckard's article on the state of video games in 2003 with much enthusiasm. She eloquently describes the problems facing video gaming's inability to attract new gamers due to entrenched stereotyping along gender lines, fed by marketers who think all it takes to attract a girl gamer is the color pink.

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Imagine my surprise when I got to the last page to see Ms. Pinckard endorsing a stereotype of her own -- that of the hardcore gamer as a geek who couldn't be moved off the couch if his life depended on it. She states that "Dance Dance Revolution" does not appeal to hardcore gamers because gamers are geeks and geeks would never be caught dancing. I hope in the future Ms. Pinckard will do a little market research of her own. My husband, a hardcore gamer, LOVES DDR. My brother, who is 1) a hardcore gamer and 2) a mechanical engineer (the stereotype of a geek if there ever was one), also loved the game when we introduced it to him. We first learned of DDR from Penny-Arcade.com, an online site run by hardcore gamers.

Not all gamers are geeks, not all geeks fear deviation from the FPS format, and not all hardcore gamers shun more social types of gaming. What gamers love is a challenge, whether it's measured with the hands or the feet. While I applaud Ms. Pinckard for her support of gaming that breaks gender stereotypes, I hope she won't in the future perpetuate other misconceptions about gamers.

-- Tiffany Taylor

In my eight years of programming commercial video games, I've heard many people try to solve the riddle of why the female market remains elusive. The recent Salon.com article "Video Gaming and Its Discontents" adds only confusion to the discussion.

After spending a full page trumpeting beat games, dance games and calligraphy games, Ms. Pinckard makes the remarkable statement "I don't want girl games." She seems unaware that these "funky," "supafly" and "lovely little game[s]" are just more grown-up versions of pink and ponies. They are girl games. And many of them are not so much games as they are karaoke. When the author ventures outside her own personal experience, she fares no better. She writes that moving games beyond the "hardcore ghetto" and attracting women go hand in hand. And yet the sole female gamer whose opinion she consults mentions "Counter-Strike," the quintessential hardcore gamer's game, as a favorite.

At the height of confusion, Ms. Pinckard strangely regrets as "geeky" what is the most central appeal of video gaming: that it is a virtual experience. No, the EyeToy and maraca peripherals are not going to bring a "new era of interactivity." We've seen these gimmicks come and go many times over the last 20 years. Offer a gamer a fully interactive VR suit and goggles, and they'll say, "No thanks, this joystick gets me into the game just as well." The author only strikes at the truth backhandedly when explaining, as if it were a handicap, that gaming is a "rather tight, enclosed, compressed, cerebral experience." Bingo. That's what people (mostly male, it seems) like about it.

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-- Joel Barber

It's no surprise that some gamers see their cup half full of great games this year and some see it as half empty. Video games are an entertainment medium, just like film and television, and if you ask two film critics how good the current crop of films is, you'll get answers ranging from "'Scary Movie 3' proves Western civilization is on the decline" to "The 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy signals a new era of the epic and all is now right with the world."

Female gamers, on the other hand, get the unique privilege of being both sought after and treated with contempt. Again and again we are focus-grouped in an attempt to determine the holy grail of computer games that will bring in all the women (completely ignoring the fact that recent studies show nearly half of all games are purchased by women; of course, this is ignored as "the mom effect," assuming all those games are being bought for children and not for the mother's enjoyment).

Time and time again women respond to queries about "what kind of game will attract women" with the no-brainer answer "a good one." Not all women like games where nothing happens but talk, despite the stereotypes. Recent studies of online activity in "EverQuest" have shown that female players do not, in fact, spend all their time baking muffins and spreading gossip, but participate fully in the combat-driven areas of the game. Some women don't mind violence in a game that makes sense, like the absolutely stunning "Max Payne 2," which even features a dynamic, intelligent and sexy female character. Some women, myself included, happen to think that organizing a coordinated assault on a bomb site in "Counter-Strike" is as social as they want their games to get.

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Not to rant or anything, but getting more women to game is simple: stop treating them like they're all the same. Women, and men, don't like to be patronized by any industry. The average age of gamers is 28 years old, yet the mainstream gaming press is geared toward teenagers and serves as little more than a propaganda service for the industry. Games that are geared toward adults have won acclaim and sold extremely well, but the press rarely acknowledges that fact. The stereotype that all gamers are 13-year-old boys leads to marketing that targets that demographic to the exclusion of adult gamers. In other words, making a great game isn't enough to draw in adults; you have to also have advertising that doesn't turn adults away at the door in disgust. Give us an attractive female character in our games, like Cate Archer from the "No One Lives Forever" games, but don't give us bikini shots and pin-ups and drool articles in IGN for Men.

We, adults of both genders, are the ones who pour money into the gaming industry because gaming has been part of our lives since puberty. My glass is certainly half full this year due to some great releases, and even some disappointing ones, but I'd have even more to be thankful for if the stereotype that women don't play, or that they only play animated soap operas, would just go away. Some of us like to frag, too.

-- Chris Lepley

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I liked your article and I agree that innovation is (unsurprisingly) ultimately in the best interests of everyone who plays games.

But I think you need a new definition of "geeky." "Dance Dance Revolution" can be exceedingly entertaining, not to mention calisthenic. But there is just about no activity more geeky that you can perform in front of a television next to mouthing the lines of a "Star Trek" episode. In order to enjoy the game, one has to get over the inherent self-consciousness that arises from jumping around on a pad painted with a silhouette of a John Travolta disco pose while the announcer calls out "Fabulous! I won't forget your Dancing!"

While "Dance Dance Revolution" and the EyeToy are definitely innovative, they ultimately end up appealing to smaller fringe groups rather than the already established fringe of hardcore gamers. The issue is that to work, a game has to have a gameplay "hook" that will draw a player in. It's very rare for a game to have a broad-based "hook" that will appeal to everyone. "Tetris" is a unique example and true gamers got bored with it a decade ago. Personally, I feel like I reached the upper circles of Zen meditation on the high-speed levels of "Amplitude" but my video gamer friends can't understand why anyone would want to spend time pressing buttons along with rhythms. Because such a specific hook is needed, developers are always going to depend upon the established cult of hardcore gamers whose unrelenting quest for expensive hardware and better video cards buoys the electronics industry and fuels the NASDAQ index. This cult is interested in shooting things and blowing things up (not that there's anything wrong with that).

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In my experience, girls want to play a video game in the same way they might want to play Monopoly or Taboo, as a casual social activity. In other words, they're not gamers. A non-gamer is never going to play Taboo for an entire 14-hour period the way a gamer will play "Grand Theft Auto 3" or "Halo." Most important for the industry, a non-gamer may be interested in "Dance Dance Revolution" as a diversion, but she is not going to pay $200+ for a console system, $30 for a cheesy dance pad, and $50 for the video game. If you want to change gaming you have to do it through the gamers.

-- Rodkangyil Danjuma

Hey, I'm a (young, cute and married) woman who likes the games (and sequels) we have now -- "Deus Ex," "Half-Life," "American McGee's Alice" and "System Shock 2," for example. And for the thousandth time, these games don't seem any more violent than your average Hollywood blockbuster -- and I like them for the same reason. They're damn good escapist fun!

What women want (at least this woman and her friends) are better graphics, and more of a game story that gives you a reason to run around shooting (which is why "Unreal Tournament" bored me after a few hours and "Deus Ex 1" kept me playing for weeks). You don't need to change the games ... you need to change the image of gaming as a pursuit for pimply junior high school boys! As the average age of game players increases, and women start seeing nice (and nice-looking) guys playing these games, things will change.

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And keep up the video game reviews -- Gameboys (Tom and Jeff) were hysterical!! We love them, bring them back every week and we promise to renew our subscription eternally.

-- Suzanne Lewis Ship

Although I agree with what Jane said, it's not as though this analysis is new or revealing. It fails to expose.

Girls and women actually do have a lot of choices -- there are great games out there, games that offer the "wow-factor" game play that you hear boys and men talking about. The gender divide is not due to the lack of quality games.

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Is it marketing's fault? Only partially. Marketers spend where they can make the most impact, especially with limited or shrinking budgets. It's all about conversion -- an ad in Glamour just won't convert, no matter how "cool" it is; women and girls rely much more on word of mouth.

Women are supposed to like "social" games because they are told by peers and ads that social games are what women want and play. It's also a load of bunk. Women who are really into [games] also want to be good at them. You could insert any male-dominated sport into that sentence; women don't play games because games are not mainstream or popular enough. The game industry has been struggling for years to get gaming to be as accepted as movies as an entertainment medium, and it's only recently that gaming has started to grab the spotlight outside the industry. When games become mainstream like television and the movies, you won't have to ask why women aren't playing them.

-- Jennifer Pease

For Jane Pinckard's video games article, this is very nitpicky, but why didn't you use a current game system controller (PS2, Xbox, GameCube) for your graphic instead of a Nintendo 64 controller?

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Game geeks out there know the difference! :)

-- John Kuner


Salon Staff

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