She got game

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      Women wooed as gamers and video-game creators.

      Not many of Lindsay Stewart's female friends play computer games. Maybe it's an image problem. With media attention focused on the action and war games that make up much of the market, content seems largely aimed at the male consumer.

      “I think a lot of games aren't marketed towards women,” Stewart says over coffee near her Gastown office. “Even when I watch trailers for games, they're like movie trailers, and most are big blockbusters and male-focused, like Gears of War. I think they're interesting; when I look at them I'm always amazed at the technology and how similar they are to movies nowadays. But I don't play those types of games.”

      But with the advent of new platforms like the Wii and fun, social games such as Guitar Hero, Stewart has noticed more of her female pals becoming curious. And industry statistics show that the number of female gamers is on the rise.

      According to the Interactive Entertainment Industry Report, published by Wedbush Morgan Securities in 2005, “Notwithstanding the historical strength of the male demographic in the interactive entertainment industry, the largest area of future growth is likely to be in the female market.”

      The report cites trends toward nonviolent games and the use of licensed content from sources such as Harry Potter, SpongeBob SquarePants, Finding Nemo, Shrek, and Spider-Man as a way to cross gender lines. “As more games target the mass market, we expect the trend toward more female gamers to continue. A recent household survey by IDC revealed that only 31 percent of all primary gamers in households are female. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) estimates that female users (either primary or secondary) make up only 35 percent of the console market and 43 percent of the PC market.”

      On its Web site ( ), the ESA reports that 38 percent of all gamers are female. But try telling this to Stewart's nongamer girlfriends. “I probably wouldn't have picked it [gaming] up unless I had other people around me,” Stewart says. The 29-year-old communications and support worker for a UBC–subsidized Web site began playing video games with her brothers when she was a kid.

      For Stewart, who considers herself an enthusiast rather than a gamer, the social aspect of on-line games—in which you can communicate with other players—isn't as important as the relaxation provided by solo playing. Like watching television or reading a book, firing up Viva Piñata on the Xbox 360 is a way to unwind after a long day at the office.

      But she thinks the gender imbalance will eventually even out. “Nowadays, kids are being groomed younger, and there are a lot of games targeted at younger kids,” Stewart says. “I'm sure there are a lot more younger girls playing them now than even in my generation. Maybe as that generation gets older, there'll be more games targeted at women my age as well.”

      A long-running issue in the industry, the lack of female players on both sides of the screen is one of the more curious aspects of computer gaming, at least in North America. Although both sexes are more or less equally represented in Asia, on this side of the world women are an untapped creative force and market. If girls just want to have fun, why aren't more of them playing video games?

      “That sounds a little high to me,” says Brenda Bailey, when told of an ESA stat claiming that women now make up 38 percent of the market.

      Bailey, chief operating officer of Deep Fried Entertainment, is reached by phone at her office. The Vancouver company will release its first title—a Sega-partnered racing-combat game called Full Auto 2 for the PlayStation Portable platform—in March. Bailey helped form Deep Fried after running the regional office of the Canadian Cancer Society.

      She believes there is an untapped market of female gamers in North America, and one reason for this is the quality of games offered. “I'm an unusual market myself—I'm almost 40 and I game,” says Bailey, who notes that she's “completely addicted” to the Nintendo DS game Big Brain Academy.

      “Generally speaking, what has appealed to girls are games like The Sims, where there is a lot of social interaction. I have a daughter and two sons who are gamers, and my daughter loves The Sims. More than any other game I can think of, it's done a really good job of tapping into what I think women want in gaming, which is a lot of really interesting and complex social interaction.”

      And she agrees that, at least from a parental point of view, image may be a problem. “Video games have an undeserved bad reputation. The parallel I always give is there are a lot of really crappy movies out there, but we don't bash the entire movie industry. We choose selectively. As a parent, you choose the movies you want to allow in the house. Why can't you do the same with games?”

      And computer games are still seen by many as a largely male activity. “When you're a girl and a teenager and you start to date, it's like there are all these boys on the couch, they're all playing their games,” says Chu-Chu Kenchenten, an environment artist at Propaganda Games.

      She is one of a group of Propaganda employees to sit down with the Georgia Straight at the company's downtown office to discuss some of the problems facing women in the industry. “I couldn't relate. Did I really want to sit in that group of stinky boys playing video games?”

      On-line and cellphone games are attracting more female players, says Kenchenten, who also points to Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution as being more female-friendly than the average game. “My God, everyone's all over those. We meet with friends and other couples. We're having a barbecue, and after you can have your beer and play a little Guitar Hero. Everyone's involved, it's easy to pick up, it's instant, it's music. It's really interactive, and you're not just sitting there.”

      The topic reminds Propaganda animator Kim Sanchez of a friend who recently began seeing a new guy. After their second or third date, Sanchez says, he asked her to come over to his place. “She told us, ”˜He wanted to play games.' She's not into games, and she thought it was stupid and lame. And I thought, ”˜Okay, in theory that could've been a lot of fun.' ”

      Although female gamers may be on the increase, there's still a lack of women working in the video-game industry. Women make up about 15 percent of Electronic Arts' B.C. work force. Ten percent of enrollment in Vancouver Film School's game-design program in 2006 were women.

      Propaganda's Katie Sorrell, who has 13 years' experience, thinks the ratio has improved. “There are more women now,” she says. “When I first started working at Sony [in Cambridge, England], I was the only girl at the studio. It seems like there are loads of girls here.”

      “We need more women, and in higher positions,” says Kenchenten, who acts as a mentor for people entering the industry. “You don't see many women art directors, or programmers or GMs of companies who are women.”

      Paula Fellbaum, director of human resources at the Vancouver branch of Nexon (a Japanese-owned company that has had huge international success marketing products like MapleStory, a massive multiplayer on-line role-playing game, to a mixed audience) remembers going on a recruiting tour of the top five universities in Canada several years ago. A huge budget and an enormous amount of advertising went into promoting the seminars, in which gaming- industry bigwigs discussed entering their field.

      “And the biggest audience of women we ever got, maybe, was a dozen,” says Fellbaum, interviewed at her firm's Yaletown office. “We all stood there going, ”˜Oh my God, where are you? Where are the women?' ”

      Fellbaum says she isn't surprised gaming hasn't caught on more with North American women, though—at least from a “content standpoint”. She's also heard other reasons for why there are fewer female gamers. “Women are too busy, they have more responsibility, they have kids,” she says. “But I don't know why girls don't play games as much. The whole industry is focused on that. If they're not talking about it, they should be. And I don't know any studio that isn't.”

      Still, she's puzzled why more women aren't joining this sector of the work force. “In my point of view, it's a fantastic environment. My office is snazzy and cool, gaming companies pay well, the benefits are highly competitive. I believe the work-life-balance issue, though skewed significantly in the past, is becoming more normal.”

      Deep Fried's Bailey thinks the number of female gamers will increase as more women enter the industry. “I don't think there are enough women making games to make games appealing to women. I don't think men can make games for women. There will be fabulous games made for women when fabulous women are making games. And right now they're really under ­epresented.”

      The female gaming community in North America probably still hasn't reached its full potential.

      Attracting more women players, and creators, is one of the more interesting challenges facing the young, rapidly changing—at least technologically speaking—video-game industry.