Games women play

Women once gathered in quilting bees or over the backyard fence. Today, they can connect through online games - and these aren't what the boys are playing.

Pamela Borgos recently moved from Tacoma to Lakewood, Wash., where she knows few people. But the move doesn't worry this nursing assistant who lives by herself. She says she has a community that transcends the bricks and mortar of a new town.

Ms. Borgos is part of one of the fastest growing groups on the Internet: adult women who play cyber versions of familiar games such as gin and cribbage. She says this community gives her a rich social life.

"You 'meet' a lot of fascinating people from all over the world," she says.

Women age 40 and older, when they go online, spend a longer time playing games than men or teenagers do. Cyber games are replacing TV, books, films, or exercise for 44 percent of these women, according to a recent survey by AOL Games/Digital Marketing Services.

Industry pundits cite the growing number of women in games as evidence that the industry itself is coming of age. Ten years ago, "the core gaming market was teenage boys," says Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association. Today, he says, "the average age of gamers is 29, the core demographic is 18 to 35, and a third of game players are women."

This shift reflects major changes in the videogame landscape. Primary among them: a generation of computer-literate players has now come of age. Many of these are women who have never played the violent, complex, time-consuming, and expensive games that have evolved primarily for the three major consoles: Playstation, GameCube, and Xbox. But they understand computers and traditional games. As broadband connections have made games faster and easier to play, researchers say these often free, simple, online versions of traditional card and board games appeal to women with limited time but a desire to socialize. They are to the current generation what the phone was to women of the past.

"What a lot of people don't realize is that video games are a part of our cultural fabric," says Jason Della Rocca, program director for the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). "Where your mom and her girlfriends would agree to meet at someone's house to play bridge, you and your girlfriends agree to meet online and play bridge over the Internet."

This social component is vital for many women, says Ms. Borgos, who has one adult son and two grandchildren. She adds that this online world can yield true friends, not just the casual contacts of a chat room. Borgos tells a story of the woman she calls her salvation, an online game player who gave her a new lease on life. "She's my guardian angel," says Borgos.

The two met during a game of Jungle Gin on the Club Pogo website, one of the Web's biggest online game sites. "We were talking via the game chat about work," says Borgos, who adds that her job has irregular hours, low pay, and no sick days or vacation benefits. "This woman, I'll call her Marcie, started talking to me about if I'd thought about going back to school and what I would do if I could." Borgos told Marcie that she'd be interested in learning about medical billing, but didn't know how she'd pay tuition.

"She said she'd pay," says Borgos, who was initially too surprised to take the offer seriously. But she eventually decided to take Marcie at her word and now has two semesters under her belt.

Researchers in the still-young discipline of interactive entertainment say such games will attract more players in an era of far-flung families. "The way Americans are all over the map, the online game world facilitates people getting together," says David Cole, president of DFC Intelligence, an industry research group.

And that includes the off-line world, as well. Contrary to the early stereotype of the typical video-gamer as an antisocial loner, many of the groups that have been playing online for a year or more often make plans to get together off-line, visiting vacation hot spots such as Las Vegas and taking Caribbean cruises.

It makes sense that the industry is expanding into a wider marketplace, says videogame researcher Peter Vorderer.

"This is pretty much what you see with any new medium and its content," says Professor Vorderer, who heads the newly established Computer Games Project at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.

"It usually starts with a product that targets specific groups; with this it was young males," he says, pointing at the preponderance of high-testosterone games that have dominated the videogame world. "But now ... they're looking for additional audiences. There are only two groups to target: older [people] and the other gender."

New sites sporting these easy games are proliferating, adding competition for the big sites such as the MSN game site (zone.msn.com), Yahoo!, and Pogo.com. A recent Web search for "easy online games" turned up 579 sites (excluding gambling areas). While most of these are free, Pogo.com boasts that in nine months, its subscription area, Club Pogo, has attracted 400,000 members - and more than 75 percent of those are women.

Verifiable Internet-wide numbers of women are harder to come by since mainstream institutions have only recently begun to regard video games as a legitimate field of study.

But while total numbers may be unclear at this point, Vorderer says that emerging distinctions between the way men and women play are not. "It's a stereotype, but confirmed by research, that women are more interested in communication and interaction and constructively putting things together when they play online," he says, "while guys tend to fight and compete and are more likely to be violent in pursuing goals."

Because of this difference, and as more women play these games, game developers can be expected to take notice, says Mia Consalvo, an Ohio University researcher who is also on the steering committee for the first Women's Game Conference to be held in Austin, Texas, in September. An avid player whose favorite is a flash game called eyezmaze.com/grow3, she says, "I can't say that if you add women and stir it will automatically change games." But she maintains that the women's style of play will encourage the development of more social and less combative games.

"Part of the problem is that [the big] games are getting so expensive to develop that, just like movies, companies are falling back on the ... formulas for what sells. But," she says, "if there are more women, you will see different things going on."

While researchers are still compiling data, avid players already know the score on at least one front: identity.

Thirtysomething Keri Craighead has been in cyber play for nearly three years. She says the women she knows enjoy playing online because they feel empowered. "Women have more confidence when they play online," says Ms. Craighead, who got hooked first on cybercribbage. "They have a much stronger sense of self because they're not being judged by their appearance," she adds. "They can just be who they are, person to person."

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