GDC panel charts trajectory of the female gamer

Conjecture on coveted female demographic: Where are they, and how can they be reached?

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SAN FRANCISCO--Clarinda Merripen of Cyberlore Studios, moderator of Wednesday's GDC panel titled "Counting Women: The Dollars and Cents Behind Female Gamers," kicked off the session by assuring the audience that there would be no conjecture from the panelists: Every statement put forth had to have been derived from research or study. Bold words, no doubt, but the temptation to offer possible explanations of the hard data seemed to have been too strong.

Indeed, just before the session's conclusion Merripen herself hypothesized that the explanation for why women don't prefer games as strongly as men may be the result of men watching less television (as they shift to interactive entertainment), and television programs more aggressively recruiting female viewers.

Other panelists included Schelley Olhava, program manager for consumer markets at IDC; Mia Consalvo, Ph.D., assistant professor in telecommunications at Ohio University; Aleks Krotoski, British journalist; and Richard Ow, spokesperson and games analyst for The NPD Group. They delivered serial presentations of the data their companies or groups had mined regarding the habits of female gamers.

Olhava was the first to present, discussing the surveys that IDC had conducted on US households. She demonstrated that while gaming "remains a male-dominated activity," 37.2 percent of "secondary gamers" (the nondominant gamers) were women. She highlighted this demographic's strong influence on the purchasing habits of the primary gamer and said that developers should not seek to convert women into primary gamers, but rather, they should continue to cultivate this secondary status and focus on other platforms with a greater potential for female participation (such as mobile devices and online PC games). Olhava said her group was about to launch a more concerted study of mobile gaming to investigate this further.

The results of Consalvo's research surprised some in the audience...even the presenter herself. The national phone survey she conducted indicated that only 148 of 1,022 total respondents (male and female) played video games for an hour or more per week, which represented only 15 percent. Games, then, "may not be the mass-market activity that we seem to think they might be."

Her data also indicated that men like social games more than women, contrary to popular belief.

Vaguely speaking to the issues that Olhava had just brought up, Consalvo offered data indicating that the considerations of male and female game buyers were not differentiated by gender, except that women found price to be a more significant consideration than men.

She did mention that her study showed that men played on average 2.3 more hours a week than women (7.8 versus 5.5), but, ultimately, her data did not demonstrate many significant differences between the sexes in their gameplay or game-purchasing habits.

Aleks Krotoski's work focused particularly on the UK, though she did include some interesting international figures. In Japan, for instance, 69.2 percent of women have at least one game console in their home, and 25 percent of women tend to play massively multiplayer online games. In the UK, 22 percent of women claim to be gamers, and their average age is 30 to 35. This group spends more on gaming appliances and software than women from any other PAL region.

She remarked that women prefer older consoles like the original PlayStation, conjecturing (against the rules, perhaps) that the reasons behind this are that they are "tried and tested," cheaper, rely on existing IP, and are heavily recommended to them by others.

She continued her conjecture by suggesting that the popularity of the EyeToy, which sold 3.5 million units between March and May of 2004 (30 percent of which went to new PlayStation 2 owners), was largely due to the female market and its attraction to a device that removed the traditional controller interface.

Krotoski's study also investigated the play style preferences of women across media. She determined that more so than men, women in the UK like strong plots, rich characterizations, choices in goal-attainment strategies, freedom of self-expression, novelty, immersion in atmospheric environments, games they can immediately pick up and play, flexibility, and social interaction.

Female employment and recruitment in the software industry was also something that Krotoski reported on, with dismaying results of underrepresentation and lower pay. (For instance, the study showed that of 161 employees in art and design, only 17 were women.) She concluded that recruitment strategies and "marketing and its malcontents" were items for further investigation. Most game advertisements were distinctly not gender-neutral, she said, and there were some "pretty shocking [video game] ads out there that don't necessarily encourage women to say, 'Yeah, that's something for me.'"

Citing the other male-dominated panels he'd been on already, Richard Ow began his presentation by telling the audience that this was "one of the sweetest panels I've ever been on."

Ow chose to look at the "recipient" group rather than a "purchaser" group, since he felt the former addressed who was actually playing the games. His data were concerned with console games and not PC games: "We're reaching that stage of the life cycle [of PC games] where you would expect more mass-market user share, more mass-market games to bring on the female gender," he said. "Unfortunately, we're not seeing growth there."

He did, however, see positive growth in mobile gaming. In the US, it's already a $2 billion business, with one of every three gamers being female, with a growth rate of 11 percent.

Some other findings from Ow include: Nintendo is the "queen" of female appeal, with the GameCube being the strongest platform with 20 percent female recipients. In game genre preference, 93.9 percent of the female base prefers card, puzzle, arcade, or word games.

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