Video games: For women, new appeal

Better 'playability,' faster downloads open doors to a new player demographic.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Pictured is a screen image from the game EVE, an online computer game.
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    Pictured is a screen image from the game EVE, an online computer game.
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Guys play video games. Girls don't.

For years, that's been conventional wisdom among industry insiders and hard-core gamers, who are predominantly young, white, and male. But the widespread success of a string of recent games – accessible, intuitive, and downright cheap – has changed the landscape, many producers say.

Leading the charge: the evolution of the so-called "free to play" (F2P) model and a boom in downloadable games, which can be accessed through traditional platforms such as Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360.

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"We're at a point now where technology has really opened up the field," says Ron Williams, the general manager of CDC Games US. "It opens everything up to people who wouldn't play normally. The trick is breaking down the barriers of entry," and improving what Mr. Williams calls "playability."

On Feb. 15, CDC launched an online computer game called "Lunia," which is available as a free download for Windows. Unusual for a massively multiplayer online role-playing game MMORPG in geek argot "Lunia" does
not require a thick user's manual to play. Movement is a matter of a few keyboard strokes, allowing gamers to quickly immerse themselves in a bright fantasy world.... More important, Williams says, "Lunia" can be played free of charge. (Gamers fork over money only if they want to purchase new items.) [Editor's note: The original version misrepresented the game-controlling mechanism.]

"That allows people who are curious to try it [to do so], without shelling out the membership costs" of more expensive competitors," Williams says. One immediate effect: an influx of women gamers, who are seen as hesitant to jump headfirst into an MMORPG. According to CDC US, in this regard "Lunia" has been a startling success, attracting thousands of female subscribers.

A similar shift toward the "F2P" model drove the popularity of "Club Penguin," an online game geared toward children, and a "fashion" game called "Miss Bimbo," which was temporarily shut down this month after an avalanche of criticism.

"I think the landscape is slowly changing," says Deborah Mars, the US producer for "PixelJunk Monsters," a smash hit released in late January on the online PlayStation Store.

"Monsters," playable as a download on the PlayStation 3 – and on remote play for the PlayStation Portable – has been particularly successful among women and neophyte gamers. The look of the thing is remarkably colorful and clean; the controls feel familiar. As a result, Ms. Mars says, "It's very easy to get sucked inside."

The thinking, producers say, is that many women not weaned on video games are put off by the price and time-consuming nature of a console game. Downloadable games are often quirkier and more intuitive, and allow users to duck in and out, depending on how many hours they are willing to invest.

"There will always be a place for the console games and the big blockbusters," Mars says. "But we're able to be very creative with downloadable games and take some risks, and create some unique – and charming – products."

Across the corporate aisle, for instance, the Xbox Live ArcadeMicrosoft's answer to the Play­­Station Store – has rung up a handful of mini-hits, mostly of the puzzle variety. Of particular note: "Rez HD," an update of a classic shooter, which has proved to be wildly popular. Both Sony and Microsoft are expected to beef up the selections on these online marketplaces, with an eye toward historically unexploited demographics.

Still, as Mars notes, "if there's a magic formula" for attracting female audiences, "I'd love to know it."

"It doesn't have as much to do with gender as what you like to do," says Jeska Dzwigalski of Linden Labs. Ms. Dzwigalski serves as a liaison of sorts between Linden Labs and the company's densely populated online world, "Second Life." Metrics from the past few months put the female population of "Second Life" at about 40 percent, a number that will likely climb over the next few years.

Virtual worlds are "still in their infancy," Dzwigalski says, "and everything that's new has a little stigma attached."

And yet, she adds, "Second Life" is not a game. It is something more broadly popular – a space where users can do as little or as much as they'd like, from walking to waging digital warfare.

"It used to be an underground feeling to play games online, and it's not anymore," says Chantal Zuurmond, a game designer for the Icelandic company CCP. In 2003, CCP launched "EVE Online," an MMORPG set in a sci-fi universe. Recently, "EVE" has seen massive gains in its female audience.

"Women won't play games that are childish or insulting," Ms. Zuurmond says. "At the basic level, you need a good strong game. On 'Eve,' the politics are almost everything, and women excel at this."

She adds, "People now say, 'Wow, you're a good gamer, for a girl.' No. You're just a good gamer. It's a matter of changing the mind-set."

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