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Video games: For women, new appeal

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

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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.

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"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."