SXSW: Getting Girls Into The Game: Designing and Marketing Games for Female Players

Boyfriends aren't the only ones facing dilemmas. Publishers and developers have been struggling to develop games that appeal to women, because they represent a huge demographic who haven't traditionally been associated with the video game market, and that translates to lost dollars. But how do you begin to approach making a game for girls, or is it even a mistake to set out to do that from the beginning, rather than just making a game that's fun?

The panel first asked the question, "What constitutes a female gamer?" Jame Pinckard said, "Women aren't just this monolithic block of 'gamers', they all want different types of games. Just because a Barbie video is made for a 12 year old girl, doesn't mean a 26 year woman has to play it." Sheri Graner Ray took it a step further, adding "There is no definition of a female gamer, and trying to tack a label to them does a disservice. The female gamer is simply a female who plays games. She's just a diverse as any other market out there."

Then they broke down some of the numbers they have about female gamers. According to the numbers, 42% of all online gamers are women. At first, this number is fairly impressive ... however the panelists were quick to point out that "online gaming" consists of things like casual games (Super Text Twist, anyone?), and that female gamers are an extremely small portion of online gaming when it comes to consoles, which is 98% male. Still, even with that note, 42% of all online gaming is still a large number, and large numbers attract companies hunting for customers.

Market research firms take this information and use it to form focus groups for video games, where they try and figure out what type of game a female would want. Pinckard quips, "Has any great art really come out of a focus group or a committee? Have they made 'Jane Austen: The Game' for women?" Hopefully not, because the title alone puts us to sleep. But this illustrates a good point that has the development of games for girls in a bit of a vicious circle. The majority of game publishers and developers are male, and when they try to make games for female gamers, they use things like focus groups and research numbers. As a result, they usually miss the target and develop games for them that suck. Then the games don't sell, so the publishers say, "Well, women don't play games."

The panelists point out that the market data and research is important, because it allows them to open the door to the publishers, but too often they use it to tell them what game to make. Some market research has shown that girls like stories that are story-driven, or games where you have a specific, constructive goal like The Sims or Civilization. However, we've seen women who love to frag people in Halo 2, so it seems like the types of games that girls like ... are exactly the same kinds of games that guys like. Call us crazy.

They did all agree that in-game tutorials bring girls into the game a lot faster, because they like to be told how the game works, rather than just dropped into an environment and told to explore. However, this again applies to guys as well. That and the fact that everyone seems to hate reading game manuals. Pinckard points out that innovation is the key to reaching gamers of all kinds, "The Nintendo Wii is f-cking brilliant. Not because it's cutesy and for girls, but because it makes gaming fun for everyone, not just the hardcore console crowd."

So it seems like more of a problem in marketing than anything else. If games are appealing to both girls and guys, but mostly guys are buying them, then you need to market your games better. Don't develop a video game version of The Devil Wears Prada and then complain when it doesn't sell. Instead, just make fun games that anybody would want to play. Then make sure that they know about it. According to the panelists, "Please don't lock your game up in EB Games, girls don't like to go in there. And don't put a chain-mail bikini babe on the cover." So there goes the Chain-Mail Bikini Babes exclusive game we were developing in an exclusive agreement with EB Games. Dammit.