Games for Girls and Women

by Sheri Graner Ray, Women in Games International, Senior Game Designer/Author

Sheri Graner Ray is author of the book Gender Inclusive Game Design-Expanding the Market. She has served as the cochair for the Women in Game Development SIG of the IGDA for 4 years and has been a spokesperson for female game players for many years. In 2004 she was the chair of the Women’s Game Conference, the first game conference to specifically address the issues of women and games that was held in the United States. Sheri has served as a design consultant to Cartoon Network and as Senior Game Designer with Sony Online Entertainment. Before coming to Sony, she served as president of her own studio, Sirenia Software, and before that as director of product development for Her Interactive, where she began her research into females and computer games. She has also worked for Origin Systems as a writer and designer on the Ultima PC series.

Today mention the concept of “girls’ games” and you find yourself in the middle of an emotionally charged debate on the value, or lack thereof, of “pink games.” But how did this happen? How did an industry that is populated with such smart and creative people fall into the trap of such stereotypical thinking? And then, based on this thinking, summarily dismiss an entire market?

It all started in the early 1990s when American Laser Game’s VP of Marketing, Patricia Flannigan, noticed that her daughters weren’t interested in the games her company was producing. She saw how much disposable income they had and realized that if they could capture that market, it would be amazingly lucrative. So she went to the Albuquerque Independent School District and enlisted their aid in helping her research this market. Through the school district she distributed surveys, conducted interviews, and held play study groups. Then using this information she set out to design a game that girls would want to play.

The title this produced was McKenzie & Co., a full motion video (FMV) game that was dubbed a “Social Adventure” by the American Laser Games marketing department. It was a story-based game that involved getting through your junior year in high school with a group of your friends. The player “attended class,” which consisted of playing themed minigames and made social choices that pitted popularity and friends against social and personal responsibility. At the same time, the player tried to impress the boy of her choice and get him to ask her to the prom. It was one of the first games to involve commercial product placement and explored marketing opportunities outside the traditional game channels.

As the work on McKenzie & Co. progressed, the developers took it out to all the major publishers. They included their demographics, play studies, and prototypes. Every single publisher turned it down and all for the same reason, “girls don’t play games.”

Undaunted, the developers decided to self-published the title. It went on to sell over 80,000 units during its lifetime. This was during a time in the industry when a product selling 100,000 units was considered a “blockbuster.” Armed with this success, the developers at American Laser Games went back to the publishers with their next girls’ game idea but found even a harder time getting in to talk to them. The publishers still held that girls don’t play games.

Fortunately, at the same time there were three other companies just about to release games for girls as well. One year after McKenzie & Co was released, Mattel released Barbie Fashion Designer. At about that same time Purple Moon released the first of their Rockett titles, and Girl Games in Austin released Let’s Talk About Me.

All of these titles had good success, but Barbie Fashion Designer sold amazingly well, moving 600,000 units in the first year. This was unheard of in the game industry and got the attention of the major publishers. They all changed their tune from “girls don’t play games” to “how do we make games for girls?”

Unfortunately, rather than doing what Purple Moon, Mattel, Girl Games, and Her Interactive did, which was research what their specific market wanted, they looked at the most successful of the group, Barbie Fashion Designer, and said, “Get me that market!” With that they were off and running, each trying to produce a Barbie-like game as fast as they could.

Soon the Barbie clones were flooding the market, and that niche quickly became saturated. Add to that the fact that only Barbie can be Barbie, and everything else paled in comparison. In short, the Barbie clones didn’t do well. The lower than expected sales prompted studios to lower production costs even further, and sales continued to fail to meet the expectations set by Mattel. At one point this author was sitting in the office of a prominent publisher as he proudly talked about finalizing a million dollar deal for a traditional title but, when he turned to the subject of making a girls’ game, he said, “So, what can you do for me for under 100K?”

The continued decrease in production value, the flagrant attempt to imitate Barbie, and the ubiquitous use of pink in the packaging resulted in the derogatory name of “pink games.”

Within the next three years, Purple Moon closed its doors, Girl Games moved their business strategy away from games and changed their name, and American Laser Games (Her Interactive’s parent company) went through bankruptcy but spun off Her Interactive. Of these groups, only Her Interactive survives today in the same market space in which it began. All of this, combined with the lackluster sales of the Barbie clones, caused the industry to immediately declare “See? We told you girls didn’t play games!” and retreat from the idea of any games that targeted females of any type.

So on one hand Barbie helped the girls’ game industry by opening the door to the idea that girls actually do play games. On the other hand, it also irrevocably hurt the concept because the industry redefined the entire broad and diverse female market into one single, small, genre of “fashion, shopping, and makeup for girls ages 6–10,” hence, pink poison.

Unfortunately, this definition continues to exist. The industry still flinches at the concept of girls’ games. They do not see it as a potential market, rather they see it as a single genre, like “flight sims” or “god games.” This is, of course, a terrible disservice to the market that not only rightly deserves its own specifically targeted entertainment, but it is lucrative and wants to play!

For the short term, developers who are interested in developing for the female market will have to accept that a girls’ title cannot be pitched without the specter of “pink games” hanging over it. They might find it easier to target the “casual games” market because most studies report that the audience for those titles range from 60–70% female.

At this point, it is important to understand that this does not mean that girls and women shouldn’t have computer entertainment/games developed specifically for them. In fact, this author would strongly support anyone who wants to target titles to that audience! The female market is a strong, viable market and has many facets that are prime candidates for computer entertainment development.

However, developing for that market means more than putting games into a pink box. It means make no guesses or assumptions about what the audience wants. Get out and do the research. Find out what they do in their spare time, what they are playing now, and what they like and don’t like in computer entertainment. It is only when they have the answers to these and other questions that they can begin to develop a title tailor-made for their audience.

Ultimately, today’s female audience is more technically savvy and discerning than the generation originally being developed for in the early 1990s. They won’t settle for something that isn’t exactly what they want to play.

What is important in all cases, regardless of genre, is for developers to decide before they begin development who exactly their market is and then to do the research to find out what that market wants. And if they are targeting a female market, they need to get past the idea that games for females has to be fashion, shopping, and makeup for girls ages 6–10 and wrapped in a pink box!