Video games unveil feminine side

As developers and marketing execs expand roles, vision of gaming is turned on its ear

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Morgan romine is team captain of the Frag Dolls. That means on most weekends, you can find her at video-game tournaments with her six female teammates, shattering the egos of mostly male opponents in online matches. But on most weekdays, you can find her in the marketing department of Ubisoft, shattering the stereotype of a just-for-men gaming industry.

"The Frag Dolls are not just good spokes-gamers ... but we can actually kick butt at them, too," says Ms. Romine, 25. "Anyone can like games, not just the stereotype pale pimply geeks hiding out in the basement."

Ms. Romine, a grad of the University of California at Berkeley, is one of an influx of smart, driven businesswomen snapping up key positions in video gaming over the past few years, including many in marketing and advertising.

That behind-the-scenes phalanx of females mirrors a similar scene in front of the screen: Females of all ages are flocking to video games. They make up about 40% of the total gaming audience, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Some 64% of online gamers in the U.S. are female, according to a recent Nielsen study. And in the emerging mobile-game market, women account for 55% of players, according to NPD Group.

So when you add the growing number of women in power behind the scenes to broader female interest across age groups and gaming venues, plus the November launch of the first family-targeted gaming console, the Nintendo Wii, you come up with an emerging female mass market in gaming.

"The myth that video games are for males is just that-a myth," says NPD analyst David Riley, whose group includes well-known gaming analyst Anita Frazier. "Keep in mind that women are ... game developers, industry executives and visionaries too," he notes.

One of them is Julie Shumaker, VP-sales at Double Fusion, an in-game ad provider, and formerly national director-sales at Electronic Arts, the No. 1 game publisher in the U.S.


"From a publishing angle, I think there's a better understanding that if we build games for women, they will come-not just 'Let's put a pink wrapper on what we've already got and they'll come,' " Mr. Shumaker says. "[But on the marketing side] it's still not starting to change, from my vantage point anyway."

Buena Vista Games may be one exception. It's been making hit games such as "Disney Princess" for young girls but for the first time is targeting women aged 18-49 with a PC game based on "Desperate Housewives," the hit show on Walt Disney Co. sister unit ABC.

A campaign from Eclipse Advertising, Burbank, Calif., to support this month's launch includes spots on networks such as E!, SoapNet and VH1; print in tabloids and soap opera magazines; and online ads on women's gaming and lifestyle sites, says Barbara Gleason, senior brand manager at Buena Vista Games. The game features in-game ads and interactive couponing from Unilever, Chrysler and Sears/Kmart.

"We tested the game and found play patterns are very different for women compared with typical male-targeted destruction kind of games," Ms. Gleason says. "They're more into personalization, they like more community and dialogue, and they like aspirational characters and solving puzzles."

Another common observation is that women tend to like to play in shorter time segments. "Women aren't willing to commit as much, even though they're just as interested in gaming," says Mona Hamilton, VP-marketing at Midway Games.

Midway's approach to the growing female market has been to broaden its portfolio, and therefore its target appeal, over the past couple of years. Two games set for fall launch, "Happy Feet" and the "Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy," should appeal equally to boys and girls, she says, and two more gender-neutral titles are planned for the Wii launch.

"Girls who game don't want to necessarily be classified as 'girl gamers,' " says Ms. Hamilton.

And that should serve as warning to marketers: Wrapping a shooter game in pink isn't going to fool females. In fact, when Sony announced a pink PlayStation2 to debut this November in Europe, it was snickered at online by some female gamers.

Still, tweens have fallen for Nintendo DS in pink-marketed directly to them in a co-marketing deal with Limited Too clothing stores-released in September.

"Just like a lot of other consumer categories, there are a lot of different segments to address," says Jennifer McLean, senior director-marketing at Double Fusion and former director-marketing for IGN Entertainment/Fox Interactive Media. "Marketers need to analyze the spectrum of the female demographics in gaming and try to reach them appropriately."

Everyone who's interested in the female market will be watching Nintendo this holiday season. If the family-friendly Wii console makes a dramatic entry, it could radically shift gaming demographics.

"If it's going to happen, it will happen with the Wii," says Saneel Radia, director at Play, the gaming arm of Denuo Group. "Nintendo has created a very approachable device."

Regardless of how well Wii and other family-friendly games sell, and the number of female executives in the industry, many are betting on continued increases in women gamers.

"In just two years with the Frag Dolls we've seen a tremendous change in attitude toward women gamers, and that's just going to continue," Ms. Romine asserts. "Really it's not that much of an anomaly. And if it is, it shouldn't be."
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