Makers of computer and video games have a new customer on their holiday list this year: people like Jennifer Vandersteen.
The 29-year-old student at the University of Texas, San Antonio, began playing Ms. Pac-Man at age 6. Now, she logs as many as 40 hours a week gaming, playing Grand Theft Auto on her PlayStation 2 and word games and puzzle games online.
Vandersteen bears little resemblance to the geeky male teens long viewed as the best customers of makers of computer and console games. But now, gamemakers, awakened to the fact that customer demographics have changed, are readying a wave of software, online services and marketing pitches to court their growing female audience.
Among the most visible efforts is American Idol, a video game based on the popular TV show. Players of the game, developed by British publisher Codemasters Software Co., choose hair, wardrobe and nails for their character before advancing through a series of auditions, where they synchronize their character's dance moves with on-screen images and endure the quips of the scathing Simon Cowell.
Codemasters, known for such games as Wartime Command and Pro Race Driver, focused previous advertising efforts on magazines such as GamePro, which cater largely to males. For the holidays this year, Codemasters says it will run its most aggressive U.S. ad campaign ever, placing print ads in magazines including CosmoGirl, YM, Teen People and Working Mother. The multimillion-dollar campaign also features TV spots set to start airing on the WB network, during 7th Heaven, Smallville and other shows popular with young women and girls.
There Inc., a Silicon Valley startup that recently launched an unusual online animated community called There.com, is aiming to boost its appeal to women through an advertising partnership forged with iVillage Inc., New York. The five-year agreement calls for iVillage, a female-focused media company, to establish a special zone within the There.com online community, where players can access iVillage ads and services, including astrological and love-compatibility reports.
Game Universe, a unit of eUniverse Inc., a large online provider of subscription games, also is working with iVillage to create a new gaming "platform" aimed at women. Arkadium Inc., an online game site that claims a 65 percent female clientele, has partnered with women's cable TV network company Oxygen Media Inc. to provide games on Oxygen's Web site.
Microsoft Corp. also is getting in on the act. Three of its four holiday TV commercials for its xBox game machine feature female players. "That was very deliberate," says Beth Featherstone, Microsoft's senior director of marketing. "Two or three years ago, we wouldn't even have put any women or people in ads like that. There weren't enough women playing games."
That situation has changed, especially as more gaming companies offer card games, puzzles and word games, which hold more appeal for women than fighting games such as id Software Inc.'s Quake and Doom. Microsoft says that at its gaming site (www.zone.com), which features many games of the calmer variety, 68 percent of the 30-million registered users are women. Game Universe, whose Web sites allow users to compete for prizes playing games such as MahJong Solitaire, says 60 percent of its 8-million registered gamers are women.
About 26 percent of video and computer gamers are women 18 or older, according to a survey released this fall by the Entertainment Software Association. That is a surprisingly larger proportion than boys age 6 to 17, who make up 21 percent of gamers; 12 percent are 6- to 17-year-old girls. Men 18 and older are the largest group, 38 percent, the survey found.
Increasing Internet use among housewives and working women is responsible for the growth in women gamers. Women now find an abundance of nonviolent games online at home and at work. Diana Crawford, an Oklahoma City resident, turned to the Internet when her husband suffered a stroke that forces him to bed early and leaves her on her own in the evenings. A Game Universe regular, she prefers parlor games such as backgammon and solitaire.
"I mostly do it for entertainment in the evenings when I'm watching TV," says Crawford, a 55-year-old tax preparer. "Got a footstool there where I prop my feet up."
A whole new category of games is emerging with rules, characters and narratives that appeal to women. A prime inspiration is the Sims, Electronic Arts Inc.'s popular video game, in which players control their characters' lives, careers and romances. About 56 percent of Sims users are female, the company says. "Women just have better taste in these things," says Joe Laszlo, a senior analyst at market-research company Jupiter Research.
Defining female tastes can be tricky: In the mid 1990s, Purple Moon, a startup backed by investor Paul Allen, conducted intensive interviews and focus groups with girls before developing software based on the adventures of a preteen named Rockett. The effort flopped: The games were criticized for being too superficial, and the company was sold to Mattel Inc., which discontinued the products.
A safer course is the one taken by Codemasters, with American Idol, and Legacy Interactive Inc. of Hollywood, Calif. Their games emulate TV shows with proven appeal to women: Legacy's game version of Law and Order has a 60 percent female audience, says Ariella Lehrer, Legacy's president.
By contrast, There, of Menlo Park, Calif., avoids narrative and traditional game objectives entirely in There.com. The new service is a free-form animated world, where users create characters, then socialize, build houses, exchange goods or simply wander. There spent five years developing the site, including a nine-month public test. It says women return more often than men, spend more money and take more leadership positions in the online community. Rules prevent male players from harassing women (and vice versa): Players can make themselves invisible to players who approach them.
One There.com fan is Darla Marcomb, of Fremont, Calif., a controller for a medical company who joined the game's test phase in August. She says she enjoys socializing with other players and creating new images for herself in the game: Her character sports milk-white skin and tar-black goth garb one day, a tan and a conservative blue suit the next. She has logged an average of four hours a day since joining the test. "Work and There are my life," she says.
Video game players by gender and age:
Age 18 and older
Age 6 to 17