How to Sell Video Games to the Ladies

Quick OMGPOPQUIZZZ!!! You’re creating a registration form, and you’d like to know if your registrant has a PENIS or a VAGINA. Do you ask for the registrant’s GENDER, or do you ask for his or her SEX?

Female-ish warrior

Choose wisely.

The correct answer is “SEX”.

It annoys me to no end to see “GENDER” on a form asking me whether i have a penis or a vagina, because gender is not determined by that factor alone. Gender – masculinity and femininity/maleness and femaleness – is determined by a number of factors, and is not solely influenced by the amount of testosterone / progesterone / estrogen / Legolas / pepperoni in your body. i reflected on this while i read guest author Julia Barry’s How to Create/Market Games for Women article on Taylan Kay’s “The Selling Game” blog.

Sissy Boy

i comment a lot on violence in gaming, often complaining about it, as i would if i were a filmmaker who wanted to create great films, but the dominant genre in my industry was porn. Or if i was a television producer, and the top-ranking shows were fishing shows, and you couldn’t get any considerable love or attention unless you created a fishing show. It’s depressing.

But i was reminded throughout Julia’s article that i have had a far different upbringing than most men. i was raised the only child of a single mother who abhorred violence of any kind. Most of the men in my life were baddies. And today, i am the only male in my family unit save for the two cats, and we cut off their testicles years ago.

LOLCat Neuter

So when i rail against violence – when i commit to non-violence in my company credo – i’m doing so from a unique position where, through my upbringing and conditioning, i skew further toward the feminine end of the gender spectrum than the masculine end. And i’m okay with that. It helps me to appreciate and understand Julia’s perspective far more than if i’d been raised on a steady diet of blood n’ tits.

Barbarians at the Gate

With many videogames, we are entrenching a world of values where boys impress each other by being violent, and girls impress boys (and compete with other girls) in being pretty and inviting of sexual encounter.

i agree with Julia here, as long as we replace “are entrenching” with “have entrenched”. It feels like this attitude of betterment-through-beheading has been firmly set, and we are enslaved to it. This value system was already in place in other media while the pioneers of video games were creating Space War!, Pong and Zork on monstrous machines at the turn-of-the-80’s. Video games were far less visceral while i was growing up – not because we lacked the technology to depict dismemberment and disembowling, but because i believe the people creating games were kinder, gentler and more thoughtful. Dare i say it? More feminine.

It wasn’t until the 90’s that jocks got involved in gaming in a big way, thanks mostly to id software. Suddenly, there was an influx of customers whose needs were being catered to – in this case, manly red-meat-eating macho MEN with back hair and cocks the size of SUVs who wanted to kill, compete, maim, humiliate, screw, devour, shoot, mock, explode and teabag their way to that thrillingly blunt endorphin release that the more reasoned among us can achieve with a particularly stimulating crossword puzzle. Simply put, dumb, base males aged 18-35 hijacked the video game industry in the early 1990s, and they remain the ruling customer class to this very day.


Hey, FAGS. Where’s the Playstation at?

But Julia’s article gave me hope: hope of a day when we see a similar shift as the jock renaissance of the early 90’s, and game developers figure out how to best appeal to women – how to reliably give ladies their endorphin release (hint: it takes longer, but they can experience it multiple times). Then – who knows? We might see another complete shift that sees the game industry dominated with games about buying and selling real estate, improving situations through the power of colour and texture, nurturing the growth of plants and animals, stealing each others’ friends, and other more feminine pursuits.

Hope Only Exists in an Alternate Universe

Realistically, though, i don’t see this happening, unless we see a major shift in the way electronic entertainment is designed and built. The dominant programming languages, techniques and methodologies, hardware and software have all been designed by certain types of men, so that the same types of men can understand and use them to create more tools and technology, which beget more tools and technology, and so on. All of these created elements play to the strengths of an analytical, scientific mind – the type of mind that is most often found pulsating inside a body that has a penis. PLEASE DO NOT EMAIL ME INSISTING THAT WOMEN CAN ALSO BE ANALYTICAL AND SCIENTIFIC. i’m speaking generally here. And generally, the tools and technologies have been built by nerdy males and for nerdy males, and now that the beget-ball is rolling, it’ll be very difficult to stop.

In trying to create “girl” games … companies pander even more to gender stereotypes. Marketing games to girls shouldn’t mean making everything gossipy and pink, yet there are countless products in that vein. Games and toys aimed at the female population are often shallow, fluffy screen versions of dress-up and shopping.

The challenge here is that women – and men, for that matter – don’t know what’s good for them. i remember sitting at a panel discussion on this topic, where the game developer said that they tested a number of themes and concepts on little girls and female gamers, and the results that consistently scored the highest involved pink, shopping, dress-up, baking, and pets. The OOO (Three Rings) crew defended the sexy, skimpy female pirate clothing in their Puzzle Pirates online game by revealing that not only did pirate bikini tops sell better than other female characters’ clothing, but that they started the game with more modest attire and were hounded by their female players requesting sexier clothing options.

Pirate girl

Alright, i confess – i’m ready to swash some buckles.

So this begs the question: are less-sexualized, more thoughtful and more “3-dimensional” (as Julia puts it) games something that:

  1. all women want
  2. some women want
  3. all women should want, but don’t know it
  4. some women want on behalf of all women, who should really know better?

My suspicion is that it’s that last point, in which case i suppose i am similarly one man in a minority of men who want something better on behalf of all men. Masculinity and manhood are not proven through achieving the most headshots, or ripping the most still-beating hearts out of digital characters’ chests, in the same way that femininity is not demonstrated by combing and washing the sparkling mane of your pink flying unicorn vagina pony. A better, more balanced world, both virtual and actual, lies somewhere between the extreme ends of the gender spectrum.

15 thoughts on “How to Sell Video Games to the Ladies

  1. TFernando

    Honestly, I think Ms. Barry starts from the flawed premise that the only games are AAA games. Casual space has claimed for a while to have significant female playership and appears to market to that demographic without pink title screens and fluffy bunnies. Scanning quickly though Big Fish’s current top 100, looking only at the graphics which popup when hovering over the titles, I don’t see any chainmail bikinis*, but generally sensibly dressed women as main characters, alongside an handful of aliens and animals. What males are depicted seem to be ones that could be generally classed as … non-threatening**,***. The assertion that (and I’m aware it’s not yours Ryan) “Games and toys aimed at the female population are often shallow, fluffy screen versions of dress-up and shopping.” isn’t all that accurate when ‘Games’ are expanded beyond AAA console games [where (console !=Wii)]. Flash-space is more complicated, of course. (I personally think there’s at least two distinct demographics playing flash with differing tastes, but that would be a subject for someone else to take up in a blog post). Certainly there, the non-violent games tend to be of the analytical/logical type. And lord knows we have the dress-up games. :)

    I don’t know what to make of your extension to the reference blog post though. For most of the ’90s I was a core gamer, and I was a nerdy-guy, but doubt I was simultaneously the the character you assert as having hijacked the industry during that time, nor did I aspire to be that guy. And I don’t know how you want us to program computers which at their absolute heart are networks of transistors and other basic electrical components which must conform to logical and known rules, except by using logical and formal expressions. (Is it worth noting here that the first compiler was written by the Grace Hopper? Adding extra layers which need to be interpreted on top of the literal instructions is perhaps a sterotypically female way of communicating.**** If programming were manly, we’d do everything with hex Op-codes)


    *- Well, the current number 1&2 have main characters wearing corsets.. but in apparently vicorian times. I don’t think the intent is viewer titilation in those titles.

    ** – One or two exceptions.

    ***- And of course many games don’t depict a character at all in that pop-up.

    ****- Tounge firmly in cheek if it wasn’t obvious. ;)

    1. Ryan

      Adding extra layers which need to be interpreted on top of the literal instructions is perhaps a sterotypically female way of communicating.


      btw, i’m interested to hear which two distinct types of audiences you believe are playing Flash games.

  2. Ben Olding

    I don’t realy agree with much of this article. Its not like being a filmmaker and most films being pornographic, its like being a filmmaker and most films being violent – which they are, it doesnt stop people making other good films and having them be a success. I think a game offering the whole range of attire for women and they can then choose what they want to wear is good for the gaming experience, women can wear what they like in real life (to a degree), why in a game should they be forced to wear either overly sexy or overly modest clothes? I make games, many of them violent because thats what I enjoy, ive always liked violent games, but im not violent in real life and im not some macho idiot, in fact you could argue that people can exhaust their violent tendancies in the safety of a game rather than doing it out on the streets.

    I say give people all options and let them decide for themselves rather than telling them how to behave. To be honest there are plenty of puzzle games etc out there anyway, a game doesnt have to be violent to be a success

    1. Ryan

      Ben – i use pornography hyperbolically because i strongly object to violent games (and fishing shows).

      re: exhausting violent tendencies – recent research is trending towards the conclusion that expressing anger and rage by screaming at a pillow (or by mowing down nazis in a WWII FPS) is actually counter-productive to controlling your emotions. This makes complete sense to me. How can you remove an unwanted behaviour from your life by practicing it?

      re: giving people options and letting them decide for themselves … My experience is that people naturally trend towards evil – selfishness, rage, bitterness, violence … and that by providing a buffet of options, your selfless/peaceful/patient/kind/gentle trays are going to stay full and untouched by most. But if we limit our options to these last qualities, we’ll find this planet a better place to be.

  3. Taylan

    You’ve got a pretty nice discussion going on here. Hope you don’t mind me weighing in.

    The inspiration to ask Julia for her opinion (which led to her article) mostly came from my previous article, “Why Six Days in Fallujah was Really Cancelled,” criticizing the content traditions of the video games industry. As a male gamer myself who is quite capable of enjoying blood’n’tits (as Ryan puts it) I am still not so happy with the lack of almost anything else in recent games. I was curious what a female would think on the subject if even a core gamer such as myself could get saturated with sex and violence.

    So personally I’m not one for limiting options (I need a certain dose of guy geekiness in my life), but I believe in more sophisticated way of creating mature content, and balancing the availability of content options to gamers.

    I do not think behaviours themselves can be evil. It is the way they are channeled that makes the difference. And the key to making people choose better should not be limiting their options, but rather it should be educating them better about the consequences of their actions and raising awareness. A violent, aggressive dog will not change at all by simply cutting access to the yard where a steady supply of mailmen can be found. I think our prisons are built around that idea of limiting free will and choice, and we know how well that works. It is education that counts, so that people can make better choices by themselves.

  4. Seth

    Personally I find violent games boring. I also believe it has contributed in shaping our culture and altitudes. I think it has become a catch 22. where as these games have become AAA best sellers, more mraketing dollars are spent convincing people that they want to play these games, thus making developers who want to make money develop violent games,thus contributing to the viscous cycle :/

    I totally disagree though that ppl naturally trend towards evil and should not be given options in making a moral decision, but this opinion is a highly debatable philosophical topic. IMO good and evil are relative terms that seem to differ from different cultures and eras. Without having a choice we can’t learn from our mistakes. There were times that I thought i was doing something good and appropriate only to realize what i’ve done was unhelpful and destructive. The fact that I’ve learnt something means that I would make a better decision in the future. Having options is always “good” IMO.:)

    I also believe genre that has real value (value in a sense that promotes something useful and constructive) will ultimately rise above anything that has perceived value, providing that its fun of course. but that could be wishful thinking on my part.

    1. Ryan

      Taylan – we disagree completely.

      Seth – moral relativism is a nice story people tell to let themselves off the hook for committing evil. If a certain behaviour isn’t really evil, but there’s merely a culturally constructed viewpoint surrounding it, then i can get away with it. After all, it’d be fine if i lived in Copenhagen/Japan/Ancient Mexico.

      The truth is that evil exists. It exists beyond the cofines of organized religion, which people use moral relativism to excuse themselves from. Throughout time, there are certain behaviours that have been deemed unacceptable in any culture, and in any period in history. Incest, murder, cannibalism, theft – these are a few. You can troll out your oddball examples to the contrary, but by broad strokes, these actions are and have always been considered morally wrong. Objectively, unarguably wrong. The opposite of good and right. Evil.

      And it’s very easy to see people trending towards it. Just look at driving. Nobody wants another driver to break a road rule and smash into his car, but a driver will often roll a stop, rush a yellow light, or pass on a solid line to get ahead. Driving is a great display of humankind’s tendency towards self-centredness (which i call Evil) – a willingness to break or bend rules that exist for the safety of everyone just so that i can shave a few minutes off my trip.

      i agree with you that we’ve descended into a vicious cycle of violent game development, marketing, and sales. But look at the reason why a game like Grand Theft Auto III was popular to begin with. i remember when it was released, my classmates in college (all morally reprehensible fellows in their own right) were saying stuff like “It’s hilarious what you can do! You can shoot someone, take his car, run over pedestrians, crash the car into a building, and then run away a hijack another car!”

      It’s my Christian stripe shining through here, but in a nutshell:

      1. Evil exists. It exists objectively, unarguably. It exists beyond cultural and historical boundaries.
      2. The practice of evil is called sin.
      3. Sin is inherently fun.
      4. Games are fun.
      5. Sin and games go hand in hand.
      6. Expect a great many more sin-stuffed games before the coming Zombie Apocalypse.

      Further reading:

  5. Ben Olding

    I know im late replying, sorry about that…

    Regarding screaming at pillows etc…

    I think there are a few seperate things here: I dont think violent games are a place to exhaust your rage, but i think if someone enjoys violence, then giving them a violent game to play is a safe outlet for it. I know you are going to argue that “practicing” violent games is going to increase their need for violence, but I dont believe that. I am a fan of martial arts (I am a martial artist) and violent games, but actual violence in real life scares me and i dont like it at all. If people were made violent by games then the whole world would be full of really violent people, i think if you went back 200 years you would find people were much more violent than they are now, despite what a few right wing news people would have you believe.

    “How can you remove an unwanted behaviour from your life by practicing it?” – i mentioned before that im a martial artist, i practice learning how to fight a few nights a week (ive never been in a real fight in a bar or anything). By learning how to fight i have given myself much more control emotionally and physically and therefore i think i am less likely to actually end up hurting anyone.

    As for the pillow, screaming at it may increase your anger, but going to work on a punch bag for say 15 minutes is a great way to reduce anger and stress, exercise is one of the best cures for those things.

    People tending towards evil: Its easy to notice the people that act selfishly, as they stand out, but in day to day life there are loads of people who dont barge to the front of the queue, lots of people will hold open a door.

    Also theres the fact that its not as simple as good and evil, its never that black and white. Who decides what is good and what is evil? if you save someones life and expect a “thank you” in return, does that make you evil? what if you expect money? I don’t want my morals decided for me, I would rather decide myself. You yourself have decided that people need to be controlled by a moral code, who is to control you?

    1. Ryan

      Ben – “Who decides what is good and what is evil?” If you ask a Christian, he’ll say “God does”, naturally. But beyond God, if you want to be an atheist, you have to recognize that certain behaviours have been deemed evil by nearly all cultures in nearly all places for nearly all of time. (My “nearlies” allow for freak cases, so don’t bother with those.) Buy into moral relativism all you want (i don’t recommend it) … but if you ultimately conclude that raping a baby or eating a fellow human being is, for you, a morally upstanding thing to do, then best of luck to you. You likely won’t get far in this, or any other, society.

      DEAR EVERYONE: Ben Olding is not going to rape a baby or eat a person. Calm down. We’re just yapping.


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