Gaming isn't a boys' club anymore, and brands need to catch up

The gaming industry is still often missing the mark when it comes to reaching and engaging with women in impactful ways, says Untitled Worldwide's CEO.

Here’s a fun fact: Women now make up 46 percent of all gamers, with teenage boys only accounting for 12 percent overall. It’s more than safe to say that the depiction and narrow generalization of "gamers" as junk-food addicted adolescent boys furiously shooting pixelated bad guys in their parents’ basements is a tired cliche at best. Yet brands and marketers in the gaming industry are still often missing the mark when it comes to reaching and engaging with the female demographic in impactful ways. 

The roots of the "only men can be real gamers" stereotype can be traced back to the male-dominated origins of technology. It’s pretty straightforward when you think about it; the tech industry has been (and in many ways still is) severely lacking in estrogen. Consequently, when tech advancements gave way to the birth of computer and consoles games in the ‘90s, the content and marketing clearly favored the male perspective. Basically, just like tech, gaming has always been a boys club, and the entire industry has persistently reinforced the message that ladies are not welcomed. 

Even in games where female characters were present, they were often hyper-sexualized tokens (aka the Smurfette Principle) or depicted as a weak damsel in distress waiting eagerly to be rescued by men. In the most extreme cases, games like Grand Theft Auto, or controversies like Gamergate, women weren’t just left out of the equation, but treated with outright hostility, violence and harassment. To make matters worse, the majority of console and computer games were designed for those who can devote incredulous amount of hours playing them, further shutting out busy women with families and daily obligations to fulfill.

And then came the advent of mobile games. As new genres of games flooded app stores, independent of the established players in the industry, more diverse, multidimensional, high quality stories and experiences opened up the culture to broader audiences. By design, many of these new games were meant be played more casually, taking the culture out of the dark basement and into a woman’s daily commute, work breaks and living rooms. 

It’s now been over a decade since mobile games took off, and all signs point to a seismic shift in its demography, skewing more and more to females. But old habits die hard, and despite the mounting evidence, the marketing still hasn’t caught up with the times yet.

More times than not, we see a big disconnect between how most games view and talk to women, and how women gamers actually see themselves. This is particularly evident in hidden objects games that heavily skew toward middle-aged women. Here, marketing often portrays its players as bored housewives with nothing better to do, rather than tapping into this group’s cleverness and desire for empowerment and thrill—a huge missed opportunity. Today, games that empower women have a huge opportunity to connect with the female demographic and fulfill their desires to take charge and take on roles of the driver, the heroine and the problem solver.

Video games are a $91 billion dollar industry, with mobile gaming accounting for $41 billion of the total, according to a 2016 analysis by SuperData Research. Consider this along with the fact that 75 percent of female gamers play on mobile. Refusal to evolve past the old conventions of gaming essentially means willingly leaving loads of money on the table.

At the end of the day, both men and women gamers just want great stories that they can relate to. Just like men, women yearn to feel badass and reap the glory; they just haven’t been given many opportunities to live that experience in games. As more women make gaming (both mobile and otherwise) a part of their lives, developers and marketers who cater to them with thoughtful, welcoming stories that respect their intelligence will be rewarded. 

MT Carney is founder and CEO of Untitled Worldwide.

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