The Industry Perspective: Reaching The Female Gamer By Ignoring Stereotypes

Girl gamers are being overlooked by the video game industry. There are plenty of them out there, but for some reason, old stereotypes about girl gamers continue to drive not only game marketing, but also game development. Jennifer Shanley, a veteran of the gaming industry and a gamer herself, explains the issues and tells us how the company that finally gets girl gamers could have a massive market banging down its door…

(For the girl gamer perspective, check out Marketing Messages Miss The Target, from Youth Advisory Board member Julia.)

The Industry Perspective: Reaching The Female Gamer By Ignoring Stereotypes

GamersThere is a revolution waiting to happen in the gaming industry. The big-budget game studios are ignoring an entire segment of the population and the first one to reach it is likely to set off a seismic tremor felt throughout the industry. I speak, of course, of the mysterious female world where myths and stereotypes collide at warp speed. The facts are that in the $25 billion gaming industry, female gamers represent 42% of consumers.

Think of girl gamers and images of Goth-clad introverts mixing it up with boys come to mind. Think of a game specifically designed for girls, and images of princesses dressed in pink and gold might float to the surface. Goth or girlie, it doesn’t matter; both images are wrong. Any product designed with only them in mind would most likely be doomed to failure. To be successful, studios have to identify who today’s female gamer is. The way to do that is to first abandon old stereotypes, and second to recognize that the single most important factor in designing for female gamers is an understanding of how they play the game. Many developers focus on the theme of the game, not game play, leading games to be pigeonholed as either “girl games” or “boy games,” because the theme is focused on a stereotype: princesses for girls, explosions for boys. Focus on how games are played, and theme becomes a less prominent issue. For example, male-brained gamers like play that provides set rules with a constant renegotiation of terms leading to a decisive end, while female-brained gamers are much more interested in the diversity of the game journey along the way to the final quest.

Getting To Know The Female Gamer

For a female gamer, there is as much play enjoyment in the journey, as there is in the eventual goal. For example, young girls will delight in writing a script and making costumes for a puppet show and have as much fun in the preparation as from the show itself. In creating game-play experiences that appeal to the female gamer, developers need to keep this in mind. Because the journey is as much a part of the enjoyment as the final result, two things can help developers appeal to the psyche of the female gamer. One, make the quests intricate and diverse in how to solve problems or meet objectives; less “which weapon for which dragon” and more “how do I outsmart the dragon.” Create variety in play by introducing more interactive puzzles, more control over and collaboration with other players or characters, more individual choice over the outcome. Female gamers want control over their journey, not just to be along for the ride. They want diversity in play, making each sub-quest unique in it’s approach and resolution. Give female gamers the opportunity to demonstrate mastery in game play.

Imagine a young girl playing with a puzzle. She puts the pieces together and delights in her accomplishment. But, she won’t want to put another puzzle together right away, unless a new element of play is introduced. She will want to do another one, if, for example, she must complete the puzzle with an additional obstacle such as a time limit or missing pieces or if she is tasked to complete the outside edge first; the task becomes challenging and different enough to pique her interest.

The female video gamer wants a diverse set of quests that require looking at the game from different perspectives to keep her engaged in game play. If in order to defeat the dragon, she just has to figure out the correct weapon for each particular battle, she will lose interest. But, if choosing the correct weapon is related to decoding a set of hieroglyphics in the dragon’s lair, she’s in. Make each mini-quest creative and unique in its approach, and you’ve got a game that truly speaks to girl gamers.

Getting To Know The Guy Gamer

The video game industry clearly understands the way male gamers play. They have created games with established rules, situations for repeated negotiations through game play, and ample opportunity for play through competitive engagement, complete with accessories.

To get the picture of male gaming, imagine two boys playing in the yard with their homemade swords and shields.  They create the basic setting and quest:

Boy #1: “I’ve just crash-landed on Mars and I’ve got to find the missing piece of my spaceship. You’re an alien who wants to stop me.”

The rules are created as they go along, creating a constant renegotiation of game terms:

Boy #2 “This is my lightening sword. It shoots lightening bolts!”

Boy #1 “Well, my shield is made of rocks from Neptune and it stops lightening bolts.”

Then they battle for a bit until new terms are introduced:

Boy #2 “I’ve cracked your shield! Now I can get you with my lightening sword.”

Boy #1 “But I’ve built a force field around this tree so if I’m touching it, you can’t get me.”

And the battle continues creating opportunities for mini-battles/quests along the way to the culminating obstacle at end of the game.

These same elements are seen in video games that are marketed towards male gamers. You want the golden key? Well, you’d better figure out what weapon you’ll need to defeat the fire breathing dragon who guards it. In the end, once the mini-puzzles are solved and the main quest is finished, the game ends and the gamer is triumphant.

Finding The Middle Ground

There are games that are making inroads by appealing to both male and female gamers. Bethesda’s “Skyrim,” for example, allows you to create your own male or female character in the game (and the female isn’t a caricature of what Barbie would look like after committing to P90X workouts, an element that often turns off female gamers). Skyrim creates a world of infinite random intricate quests that appeal to the female gamer’s need for more variation in game play, however, Skyrim was still only marketed to reach male gamers, with no hint at female characters or diverse game play in its marketing efforts. The “Skyrim” trailer, with its montage of battles, dragons in flames, and hairy-armed lead character, screams “battle, battle, battle!” But, that’s not all Skyrim is about. Bethesda missed a huge segment of the market by not selling to women as well.

I often hear from industry insiders that they are concerned that marketing to female gamers will decrease the interest of their male gamer customers. Meanwhile, advocates insist they are not talking about trying to market the softer side of “Call of Duty MW3” to fifth grade girls, but instead are talking about showing more than just guy-game “skill kills” and explosions to appeal to the multi-dimensional interests of mature female gamers.

It will take a single game to prove to the industry the power of the female gamer. One game with “Skyrim”-quality graphics, a dynamic, adventurous plot, opportunities for character development with a female character who exudes power and control, and challenging quests that require both skill and complex puzzle solving. This game will be marketed to male gamers as well as female gamers without speaking to the misconstrued stereotypes that permeate the industry.

The Princess Problem

Look around. Chances are the women and girls you know in your world don’t fit pre-established gamer stereotypes, not even when they’re in the midst of playing a game. Stereotypes won’t drive the industry; understanding how gamers play will. Game designers must also realize that though there is tremendous variation in the thematic interests of female gamers at different ages, there are some constants over time that help identify the preferences in game play of both male and female gamers.

Witness the uproar over Lego’s new line for girls, with its pink and pastels. Some people like it and some people find it condescending to say that a toy appeals to girls simply because of its color scheme. The game play is the same, building structures. But, by focusing on pastel colors, the theme is limited. Which brings us to the whole “princess” theme dilemma, which many women find offensive. While it may not be one’s preference, it is important to recognize the appeal of the princess to a little girl. The theme is less about promoting a patriarchal, dynasty-driven, repressive female stereotype than it is about a little girl feeling special, important, and powerful. She is not paying any attention to the fact that, in a real-life princess scenario, she would have to marry to enter into this life, or that she is participating in an antiquated monarchial society. Quite frankly, she doesn’t care. The theme may be pink gowns and tiaras, but the play is about power. I have yet to meet a girl who rejects the notion of being a princess because of its misogynistic structure; rather, she enjoys it because being a princess (or rock-star, or whatever the power-position of the decade is) is all about being powerful, important, and in control.

As girls grow up and become teenagers and adult game players, the theme of princess may fade, but play that allows positions of power, importance, and control only grows. I challenge the game industry to look beyond color-schemes and old stereotypical game themes for girls and to approach gaming for female gamers in a new way. Forget themes of pink, princesses, and puppies. Instead, concentrate on how the game is played. Game play that speaks to the way female gamers play will make the princess debate dilemma irrelevant. With no pun or insult to the Bard intended, when it comes to designing for female gamers, the play is indeed the thing.

About Jennifer Shanley

Jennifer ShanleyJennifer Shanley, CEO of Zwirlz, Inc., an entertainment software company with an eponymous video game for young girls, has a background in video game marketing and design and the psychology of play. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and two children. She can frequently be found at the International Center for the History of Electronic Games with a pocket full of quarters.


  1. Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth

    Jennifer, agree with stereotypes assessment and particularly love “there is as much play enjoyment in the journey, as there is in the eventual goal” along with your perspectives on female play patterns in terms of ‘outsmarting the dragon’ vs choosing some weapon to slay it…

    On your Lego/princess critique though, I’d like to offer that for many of us feel the missed opportunity is about neuroscience, using the spatial spheres of math acumen (and yes, videogames enhance that for girls too!) versus your statement, “some people find it condescending to say that a toy appeals to girls simply because of its color scheme. The game play is the same, building structures. But, by focusing on pastel colors, the theme is limited.”

    It’s not the color scheme or pastels that’s limiting it’s the short-sighted foul-up of reinforcing stereotypes of beauty of brains and taking the brain plasticity in its most formative stage and zapping it with limited worldviews of what girls are all about.

    Here’s my post titled, “LegoFriends: Please Build on Possibility & Brain Plasticity”

    Also wanted to add that though I realize you’re making an over-arching point on the empowerment role play, I personally feel the concept of ‘power’ is most certainly not the only driver for girl gamers, and lordy lou the new Legos for girls don’t empower squat.

    The new LegoFriends for girls are more about ASSEMBLY than BUILDing and therein lies a whole other missed opp to open up imaginative play vs constrict and confine with pre-made sets. Guess I just wish Lego would go back to when they ‘had it right’ with letting play be about innovation and creativity vs monetizable accessories…

    (The difference between a pillowcase being a cape and having to have the ‘oh so just right’ superhero storebought version of same…) But that’s a diff story and a different beastie to ‘slay’...

    Anyway, looking forward to checking out your company more and will follow you more closely on Twitter now too! Thanks for the post—-

  2. Jennifer Shanley

    Great points, Amy! There are many more layers to the current issues with how Lego is creating a narrow concept of play for girls. Glad to keep this discussion going to encourage game and toys designers for girls to look at play from a different perspective; one that takes into account brain development, not social stereotypes.

    Open ended play is paramount. There’s a reason that the cardboard box was a finalist in the National Toy Hall of Fame! Oh, the possibilities!

    So glad to meet you here, on and discover your wonderful website I wil.l be following your posts, tweets, etc. with great interest.

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