Product Placement: Creating Women Gamers

BOSTON (TheStreet) --According to the folks behind NPD Group's incredibly necessary Gaming Segmentation 2009 report, the percentage of girls and women playing console video games has risen 5% since last year.

That must come as an incredible relief to my sister, who has played console games since using the pause function on my Nintendo ( NTDOY) Entertainment System as a psyche-out strategy during games of Super Mario Brothers and Blades of Steel. It must further comfort the dozens of women who joined me at Viacom ( VIA)-owned Harmonix's game-testing sessions for Rock Band. It must justify the very existence of PlayFirst Games Chief Executive Mari Baker, whose female user base for habit-forming games like Diner Dash and Chocolatier so desperately needed validation from women, which NPD Group says make up 28% of console users.

PopCap, which produces the Plants vs. Zombies game, has a 65% female audience.

"Historically, there's been this view that girls don't use computers, and women don't play games," Baker says. "Women are just not as interested in blowing things up and seeing blood spatter all over the screen."

While there certainly are women who enjoy destroying a boomer zombie in Left 4 Dead as much as the next person, female gamers rarely fit into the stereotype of the doughy, caffeine-quaffing, online Call of Duty-playing fanboy whose Microsoft ( MSFT) Xbox 360 is near meltdown. With female gamers making up 40% of the entire gaming community, according to an Entertainment Software Association study conducted this year, female gamers are becoming increasingly difficult to stereotype.

First off, who says consoles are the best way to gauge female gamers? While NPD Group makes a valid point about the Nintendo Wii and games like Wii Sports (and the upcoming Wii Sports Resort), Wii Fit, EA Active and Ubisoft's ( UBI) Rayman series drawing a broader audience to consoles, the demographic turns when you go online. The PlayFirst gamers that made Diner Dash's harried waitress Flo the Mario of "casual gaming" are nearly 70% women, with a median age of 37.

"Part of what we've done in our games is develop strong female heroines, but also games that are intelligent and appeal to a different variety of people," Baker says.

Meanwhile, PopCap games, which produced hits like Bejeweled, Peggle and Zuma before encouraging users to unleash their veggie beast in the ridiculously addictive Plants vs. Zombies, has a 65% female audience, three-quarters of whom are over age 30. The Electronic Arts ( ERTS)-held Pogo.com, Sierra Online and other game sites that draw huge audiences of female gamers all took away the same lesson: When you need to make a great game with very little money, you can't afford to discriminate.

"We don't target women gamers; we make games for everyone," says Garth Chouteau, senior director of public relations for PopCap games. "If you make great games that don't pander to women and don't offend women, women will play them."

That was the thinking that made games from Pong and Pac-Man to The Sims and Mario Kart so popular, and it's something that's still considered in game-testing sessions. At their company's inception, PopCap co-founders John Vechey, Brian Fiete and Jason Kapalka used their mothers as beta testers for Bejeweled -- not to market it to women, but to see if it appealed to women. The same applies at Harmonix, where female testers and male testers judge games along the same criteria.

While the Wii has helped open up console gaming to a wider audience, new platforms including mobile phones have become legitimate gaming devices for casual gamers and have narrowed the gender gap among video-game consumers. If Tetris were released today, it would probably be an Apple ( AAPL) iPhone app instead of a Game Boy cartridge. Little sis played that one, too.

"When you don't focus on making games for guys, you make great games," Choteau says.

-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston. Feedback can be sent to jason.notte@thestreet.com.

Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.

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