From Barbies to Borderlands: What Women Want

written by Rachel Burger on February 9, 2011 in Classic Posts and Special Feature

The Chinese Game Shop

Last year, I was 11,000 miles away from home staring into a tiny Beijing shop with amaranth shelves and bright bubbled posters trying to attract female customers. Lining their walls were stacks of unplayed Bratz and Hannah Montana games for PC, Nintendo, and other console systems (which are, interestingly enough, banned in China).

At the time, I was working for a magazine called Time Out that ran reviews of the Beijing scene for expats. After hearing about this store, I jumped on the story. Once I was there, fixedly eyeing the “girl” games around the store, I wanted to leave. However, a redhead in Beijing does not go unnoticed for long. The shopkeeper saw me, rushed out, pulled me in, and said, “Pretty girl! Pretty girl!” She handed me the Chinese version of this game:

Smiling politely, I explained that I was a reporter. I got the facts about her store and left without impulse to purchase anything.

Why would a store targeting women and girls leave me, a female gamer, so disappointed? She offered many of the games available to us in the States, decorated the store with symbolic shades of pink, and greeted me warmly when she saw me looking into her store. Her problem: all that she offered were games made for girls 12 and under.

Here in the States, female gamers of all abilities and interests are faced with a similar predicament. There is plenty of media targeting grown women in other industries (think chick flicks, Oprah, and Cosmopolitan), why not in video games?

What Is Available Now?

With women now taking up 38% of the video game market, why do the top games for women include Nintendogs, Farmville, and Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2010 when top books read by women include adventure (Corelli’s Mandolin), fantasy (Poison Study), and mystery (The Pact)? Omitting first-person shooters (a genre which women statistically do not enjoy, though that is changing), there is plenty of room to make action games targeted towards women. Look at what’s available now:

Samus acknowledging her strong female qualities in the Metroid games

Samus’s feminine qualities are hidden by a ginormous, manly suit

Over-sexualized non-player female characters

Over-sexualized female children

Impossible body standards (and we thought Barbie was bad!)

These kinds of images scare away real-life women from playing video games! I refuse to believe that most women want to be constrained to their Farmville crops in lieu of rescuing the world.

Sex sells

I hear this argument a lot, and I am willing to offer an alternative. Yes, sex sells, but so does romance. Women pour their money into novels, magazines, and movies where the girl gets the guy (here’s an exercise: try to think about movies with female protagonists where the woman does not end up with a man). Romance is a key ingredient for getting the female market. Sex might sell to men, but romance will get female attention.

I also encourage more video game characters to look like Nathan Drake instead of Mario.

What Women Want

If the world were perfect, this would be an easy question in any context. All women are different and thus have different desires. As someone who enjoys more action games, my request would be as follows:

  • Strong assortment of lead females (flat-chested/big-boned/CLOTHED all okay by me)
  • Strong NPC females (same as above)
  • A choice between playing a male or a female
  • Developed plot and potential romance (Mass Effect II mastered this). The story should be the centerpiece of the game, and may even be more important than the game’s combat system.

Women don’t want a pink video game store with titles targeted at little girls, and there are better games available than iPhone Tetris and Bubbleshooter. When developers start marketing towards women, they are going to tap into a gold mine of possibilities. This is not to say that women don’t already enjoy casual games, but when it comes to adventure, fantasy, and RPGs, we are settling for less.

Are you a female gamer? What kind of games do you play? What games do your girlfriend, sisters, or female friends play? Let us know in the comments!