Female role in gaming industry grows

Phaedra Boinodiris says the Wii prompted a radical shift in traditional gaming industry marketing.

Women represent a huge portion of the market for the $10.5 billion video game industry. According to the Entertainment Software Association, females account for 40 percent of all players. At 33 percent of the gaming population, adult women even outnumber boys age 17 or younger. But despite those statistics, the male-dominated industry is still widely criticized for its portrayal of women.

But some female gamers, like IBM Gaming and Interactive Manager Phaedra Boinodiris, are working to change that portrayal – and get more women interest and playing and creating games. Science in the Triangle spoke with Boinodiris, the co-creator of WomenGamers.com, about the state of the industry and how it’s changing when it comes to women.

How did you first get into gaming?

My sister and I have been playing forever, ever since the days of Pong. I know that completely dates me – it’s scary. We knew we played and our friends played and our cousins played, but we’d open up most gaming magazines and look at gaming websites and they were targeted toward young men. So we decided to start a company, WomenGamers.com. That’s how we got the site of the ground.

How long did it take you when you were younger to notice how slanted the gaming industry is toward men?

It was gradual. I don’t know if you recall the first advertisements on television for the Atari or for ColecoVision, but if you take a look at what those looked like, you’d always see families playing together. Then there was this subtle shift in the kind of marketing that gaming companies were doing to focus more and more on a predominantly male audience. It was very interesting to us to note this shift.

So one day we were invited to a marketing to women online conference — this was back in the late 90s – and there was a panel on women in gaming. There was so much interest from big companies. Mattel, at the time, was really investing in that space. There was a lot of conversation about where this was going and how it was untapped. We just walked away thinking there was a lot of opportunity here to showcase this untapped market and really provide service.

Given the statistics about women gamers and gaming parents, why do you think the industry fails to market to women appropriately?

Because they have very few women working for them. If there were more women game designers, for example, if there were more women who were on staff working within these companies, you would see a bigger shift.

It wasn’t until Nintendo decided to make a play in that space to go after the more casual gamer that you would see huge changes in marketing and advertising. I remember before the Nintendo Wii, you would go to conferences like E3 – you would never see a poster of a woman actually playing a game. If you saw a woman, if she was depicted at all, she was typically in a chain mail bikini. But once the Nintendo Wii came out, there was a big push toward showing women playing.

They were on the frontier, and obviously they scored big with that. It wasn’t until after Nintendo made that big play that people started to wake up to this notion of the casual gamer and going after new blood. So you have more social games, like Farmville, mobile games, going after a bigger and bigger audience.

In Epic Games’ upcoming Gears of War 3, communications officer Anya Stroud will hit the frontlines as a soldier. | Photo courtesy of Epic Games

Do you think the industry’s lack of female roles and often misogynistic overtones turn off female gamers who would otherwise want to play?

Absolutely. It perpetuates a stigma of what working within the game industry is like. It’s a shame because if women consider it as a boy’s club that’s really exclusionary, why would they ever try to, as their career, work there?

We really have a job to do to make sure the gaming industry itself is considered more inclusive so we can include more women who work there. This isn’t just to benefit women, by the way. You include women as game designers, you’re going to get whole new genres of games that don’t exist. I’m noticing with my daughter, she approaches certain games in a very different way. I’ve spoken with professors who teach game design and development classes who also remark upon the fact that the female students they have in their classes end up creating things that are really different from the status quo out on the market.

It will mean a lot more diversity in the market of games out there. Also, it means some serious profit for these game studios because they’re going after a larger and larger audience.

Intelligence officer Kat is second in command of Halo: Reach’s Noble Team. | Photo courtesy Bungie/Microsoft Studios

In hardcore games, the female role does seem to be changing. We have female soldiers in the new Gears of War and Halo titles. Mass Effect 2 also has very prominent females as major players in the game. Are gaming companies starting to realize they need to put more females in these larger roles?

Actually, for the titles you mentioned, I don’t think they’re doing that to attract women necessarily. I think they’re primary reason for including women is for the men.

We’ve done a lot of studies and we’ve seen that a lot of the male game players prefer to play females, especially in [massively multiplayer online role playing games]. You ask them why, and they say, “Well they’re nicer to look at.” Secondly, they’ve found that when they’re playing a female character, a female avatar, others within the game will assume they’re a female playing. They’ve said they actually get a lot of free stuff – weaponry, swords, all kinds of things! It’s interesting to see the dynamic there in terms of the men choosing to play the female avatars.

Do you think one part of the solution here is sparking the interest of young women in math and science early on?

Absolutely, and my sister and I have done a lot of talks at elementary schools and middle schools about this subject. There’s been a huge drop in the number of women in math and science ever since the Bush era. One of the ways that we purport to be able to encourage women back into these fields is to encourage them to design games, early.

If you think about it, from my personal experience, the way that I got interested in math and science was absolutely because of games. It is a fun pursuit, especially the idea of designing your own. It’s play, if you will. What better way to get enthusiastic about subject matter than by playing in it to begin with? The idea is that you encourage young women, young girls to play these games, to design their own games, so hopefully they’ll be able to see why having a field in computer science or math or physics would be interesting.

Do universities have a role to play when it comes to encouraging women in science, technology, engineering and math fields?

Absolutely, but I think it’s a challenge. From an even earlier age than college, why is it that they’re being turned away from math and science? That question needs to be answered.

Whether it’s [creating] a game or a software application, it takes a lot more than programming. It takes good writing skills, good scripting, texture design, art, sound. In my case, for serious games, it takes a lot of business acumen and knowledge of complex systems.

For those women who think, “Programming is not really my thing,” that should not deter them from looking into this space anyway.

Was there a moment for you at some point in your childhood that you knew going into a science- or math-related field was for you?

It wasn’t a sudden thing. Both of my parents were retired IBMers and we had computers all the time in our house. They were very big on education and very big on math and science. It was something we always enjoyed and something we always loved and embraced. No one ever scared us off of that.

We were lucky to grow up in an environment that was very nurturing for us to like those fields and not feel like we’re eating our Brussels sprouts.

Looking forward, is there something that gives you hope about the future of the role of female gamers?

Everything I see. Look at the big push toward mobile gaming and casual gaming and what’s happening with the Nintendo Wii and how they’re outpacing everybody. It’s a huge wake-up call to companies. They’re really saying, “Gee, we really missed the boat. We really need to refocus on what we’re doing here. ”They’re looking at their staff and saying, “Who here knows how to target women? Who here knows how to make a gender inclusive game?”

They really are trying to learn at this point, not for good karma or altruistic feelings, but because it makes sense for the bottom line.


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