Research on Effects of Gamers’ Gender on the Game Design Market

This is a research paper I wrote during Writing 2 at the University of California in Santa Cruz in Spring 2009. I spent ample time researching and interviewing employees at various gaming companies to write the following paper. Here are a few words from my lecturer, Lindsay Knisely:

“Devon’s marvelous research essay was enthusiastically researched and… was the best research essay I received out of 51 papers this quarter… This essay referenced twice the minimum number of sources and was twice the minimum page length for the assignment, and Devon did good work to unify a great deal of material into an elegant, cohesive text. In addition, she conducted and analyzed four excellent personal interviews as part of her research.  Her classmates and I learned a lot from reading her essay and I encourage her to continue her exploration of this fascinating topic.”

The paper considers the history of games and how women were pushed out of the market at an early age. Women are now fighting to get recognized as gamers and have forced game developers to think about changing their ways. The paper ends by discussing the ways women have changed games and suggests possible paths the gaming industry can take when designing games in the future.

At times, it is as though male gamers act like female gamers do not exist. The design market acts in a similar way; they do not notice female gamers and then fail to recognize the potential interest and profit. Because the industry does not see girls as part of their consumer base, developers refuse to spend the time and money in creating games to attract women. From the launch of the gaming industry until the early 2000s, designers were focused on young males as their primary customers. Not until recently has the idea of female gamers been pursued. Why is this? Why has the gaming industry been so reluctant to include both genders? From the research I have uncovered, it seems as though there is no clear answer. In the past, games were marketed as fun for the whole family, but once gaming companies such as Atari and Nintendo introduced single player arcade games, the gamer interest group narrowed to 13 to 25 year-old males. Since then, games have been designed for this gendered age group with little effort to change. My goal in this paper is to inform others about this issue, the one that developers seem so reluctant to acknowledge, and provide insight about possible change.

Throughout the history of game design, the target audience has repeatedly changed. Atari Incorporated’s Pong, which was released in 1972, “was the first commercially successful home entertainment computer product. It was marketed as fun for the entire family” (Ray xiii). Why then, did games suddenly become “masculine” less than ten years later in 1981 when the arcade game, Donkey Kong was released? As Sheri Graner Ray says, “The idea of ‘fun for the whole family’ began to fade… and by the early 1990s, the market had firmly established itself as a ‘males, ages 13-25′ domain, and publishers began to churn out title after title aimed squarely at that market” (Ray xiii). Because games became so gender focused after their initial development, designers went with the flow of the market and continued to produce game after game designed especially for young men.

Maybe Donkey Kong interested more males, but from childhood, females were pushed away from the idea that electronics could be fun while males were encouraged to experiment and play with the latest technology. Although both young women and men had the opportunity to own a computer, many women were discouraged from experimenting with electronics and computers. Instead, they were given software to learn how to use a computer. On the other hand, young men were encouraged to play with new technology to see what it was capable of and how to use the computer as a medium for fun and entertainment. Because men seemed to dominate computers and the technology market, women were physically “crowded out” by the boys and thus were not given the opportunity to try and understand electronics and especially video games (Ray 4).


When women were unable to get to a computer and experience video games, men took the reigns and as Egenfeldt-Nielson says, “The video game industry [was, and still] is overwhelmingly dominated by men” (Egenfeldt-Nielson 161). Because boys were given the chance to understand computers, male presence in the development of technology and gaming industries far exceeds that of women in the career, and thus video games reflect this through their masculine appeal. Even if some developers were thinking about expanding the market base for a game, the discovery of the mass interest of young men in video games forced the market to turn toward developing games especially for this market. When females vanished from the spectrum, designers and developers from the mid-1990s began to strongly believe that “girls don’t play computer games” (Ray xiv).

In 1996, independent designers began to push for a gender-inclusive gaming market. McKenzie & Co. released Barbie Fashion Designer with huge success. However, when the game industry tried to duplicate McKenzie & Co.’s achievement, they began losing money and soon lowered the quality of games. And as Ray says so nicely, “As the quality of games dropped, so did the figures” and so the development of girls games seemed to fail (Ray xiv). Attempts for an equal gaming market continued to struggle to be noticed. Unlike the independent designer, the gaming industry tried to “attract young female players, usually by giving games a more girl-friendly appearance” (Egenfeldt-Nielson 161), but no matter how much dressing the industry tried to soak the games in, females were more interested in the quality of the game rather than the box the game was packaged in. Because the industry had such a hard time attracting females to the gaming market, they classified this movement as a failure and “so they turned their backs on the female market” (Ray xv).

Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball

Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball

By the early 2000s, games discouraged women from playing even more. With the release of games such as Dead or Alive (DOA) Xtreme Volleyball, “where girls glad in thong-style bikinis bounce, jiggle, and giggle their way through games of beach volleyball… almost as if to say: ‘See, we told you girls don’t play games’” (Ray xv). At this time, developers were beginning to recognize female interest, but instead of changing, games continued to push girls away, as if they were saying that girls were not welcome to play. Many female players were aware of the industry’s refusal to produce gender inclusive games and, although they have shown interest in video games, female gamers took little action to publicize the issue. Instead, they quietly state that they wished gender representation were more balanced and realistic (Egenfeldt-Nielson 162). If designers were more aware of the failure of inclusion at this time, games today would be much more gender inclusive instead of the clear division between most games and genres.


Even if there is a defined line between what the typical population classifies as a girls’ game and a boys’ game, women are starting to build up their support in the gaming market. Although games are not specifically designed with women in mind, female players are starting to take over a small portion of the gaming world including Internet games, casual games, and most chat services. As Ray has discovered, “Today, females make up 52% of the Internet users in this country… and research shows that 70% of the casual online gamers are female” (Ray xvi). This increase in female activity is most likely caused by the increase in the availability of new technologies. Between the 1990s and 2000s, technological capabilities seemed to leap and many believed that women were left behind. This is a common misconception. Women have all the latest gadgets and computers but lack the interest in the video games predominantly designed for men: “If it were strictly a technology issue, then we would not see the percentage of female users of the Internet, casual games, and chat services continuing to rise” (Ray xvi). Women are illustrating the potential of a gender inclusive game design market through their interest in these casual online games and developers are starting to take note.

Once design teams started to actually notice the number of gaming machines females own at home, they began to realize that there might be a large female market just waiting for the perfect game (Egenfeldt-Nielson 161). Although gender is important for gender-inclusive games, developers and designers rarely think about gender when thinking up ideas for games. Typically they design games for themselves or for friends, not specific gender groups. When interviewing Torrie Dorrell at Sony Online Entertainment’s G.I.R.L. program, I asked her if developers ever think about gender when designing a video game. Personally, I figured that at some point in time they would have to think of the designated target audience in order to make any profit after developing the game, but Dorrell says, “I hope not! No one thinks a great game can come out of building a box and trying to fit a game into that box.” (Dorrell). She does go on to say that the industry’s marketing team is required think about gender, but only after the game is already in development. If the designers are thinking about creating a game that has to fit specific criteria, the game will most likely turn out horrible and offer no advancement in the gender-inclusion issue. If developers know they need certain styles and aspects in the game that require a “woman’s touch”, they will ask females to join the design team.

Even though girls are becoming noticed in the game industry, women are not generally involved in the design process because they were told earlier in life that the study of video games was regarded as infantile and unworthy of an educational degree. Since women were mentally pushed away from becoming game designers, the game industry is having a hard time creating games for the broader market without the help of a woman’s ideas and opinions (Egenfeldt-Nielson 8). There is a tremendous negativism about video games in this country. Many adults see violence in video games and immediately reject them. Because these adults are typically parents, the children are also made to avoid them. Young men can usually get away with playing video games because it is more socially acceptable for men to be interested in action and violence. Girls, on the other hand, are forced into a conservative society where any interest in violence is regarded as masculine and thus unacceptable for an aging female. Once young girls are taught that video games are “bad”, they will rarely venture out and try to experience them later in life. Thus, many women do not have consoles. Without systems such as the Nintendo Wii, Xbox, and Playstation, women are missing out on a huge gaming market. Even if they do not spend the time and money on consoles and system games, women do seem to be finding a way to experience video games through computers and the Internet.

Maple Story Screen Capture

Maple Story

Casual online games and Mass Multiplayer Online Role-playing games tend to attract many women. The social aspect of the game is what attracts females to play online games rather than offline games (Ray). With experience from a female’s perspective, I enjoy playing online with people far more than playing an offline version of the same game or playing the game without any friends online. I used to be involved in the MMORPG called Maple Story where the player plays as a 2D avatar that is customizable. The player can join into one of many job classes and pursue quests to increase in level and in status. The game is incredibly simple and the attacks are fairly basic. At times I wonder why I was so addicted to the game, but because of the group of friends and guild missions I was involved with, I felt the need to sign on and join in. Not only did the social aspect of the game draw me in, but the job classes and environment as well. Without the cartoonish fantasy environment, the game would become a shell with nothing but a character and text. Maple Story had me addicted for a good three years of my life. The thing that made me quit was the lack of updates (traveling through the same land over and over gets a tad bit boring) and the absences of friends when they left for college.

These casual online games are not made primarily for girls, but instead, they are designed for anyone who wants to play. With a large social network, likable characters and settings, and constant quests and missions to finish, MMOs can become enjoyable for anyone, female or male, gamer or not. The thing that designers believe attracts women to the games is the idea of animals, pets, and mystical creatures. As Egenfeldt-Nielson discovered, “Specifically, girl gamers identified a preference for third-person role-play games that contain animal/ creature based characters rather than highly gendered human figures” (Egenfeldt-Nielson 162). He continues on to say that females are not only attracted to games that have creature-like characters, but they are also interested in games that allow them “the freedom to explore the virtual setting of the game. This was supported by the finding that girl gamers rejected games such as sports games and violent, combat focused games that are not open to creative interpretation” (Egenfeldt-Nielson 162). Games that are overly realistic and force the player to follow a specific path tend to be uninteresting for many female gamers.

With a gender-inclusive online world, females are starting to venture into the gaming market. Online gaming gives women the opportunity to be social gamers, in which they play casually online while chatting with others. Maybe this is why 44% of online game players are female (Entertainment Software Association). Sony Online Entertainment’s gamers in real life (G.I.R.L.) program was created recently to boost the support toward gender-inclusive gaming, especially online gaming. They were founded so that they can positively impact the way females are depicted in video games, and create and influence content to be appealing to women. G.I.R.L. helps raise awareness of the serious female gaming audience to the media in an effort to encourage the gaming industry to positively promote women throughout all facets of games, game production, and game management (Dorrell). Hopefully the development of SOE’s G.I.R.L. program will familiarize the issues of the negligence of female gaming interests in the gaming industry.

When asked about creating gender-inclusive games, Torrie Dorrell of the SOE G.I.R.L. program believes that “the best games are developed under an organic creative process, by those who are passionate about their ideas.  It is less about telling a development team to fit their game into a gender-inclusive box, and more about ensuring that these teams are more gender balanced, so that the natural sensibilities of both sexes are incorporated” (Dorrell). She goes on to say that a game they recently released is intended for teenage girls and boys and thus the development team was fitted with a greater female presence.

Beyond the online world, gender-inclusive offline games are starting to show up. The Play Station 3 has created a few innovative games that could change the course of game development. Little Big Planet is one of those. With it’s strategic puzzles, character customization, colorful graphics, and engaging environment, Little Big Planet is the perfect “cross over” game. Not only does it allow players to enjoy their environment, but it also gives guys the action they might desire and girls their community. The Play Station 3 has the ability for four players to play at once and thus the designers for Little Big Planet were able to use this ability to their advantage. Within the game, there are mini quests that are only possible with a specific number of people. So if the player wants an item, they have to find someone else to play with. I find this game fascinating. I had the opportunity to play it with some friends and discovered that the in-game maps and character customization are incredibly exciting no matter how many times you play through them, making the game repayable and enjoyable every time one plays it. Little Big Planetdefinitely crosses the division of games and will hopefully affect the development of games in the future.

Gender Neutral Characters in Little Big Planet

Gender Neutral Characters in Little Big Planet


In the past, there seemed to be a vicious cycle where females did not play video games because no game suited them, and no developers made games to suit them because they rarely played video games. Sullivan’s response to this proves that the game industry is starting to advance and grow out of this horrendous, infinite loop: “I don’t think we can say that women don’t play games anymore. They do play, but they are drawn to a different style of game” (Sullivan). Women are starting to break this cycle and developers are noticing. With a populace of over 70% females playing casual games such as MMOs and RPGs, the industry has no choice but to change their ways, broaden their ideas, and expand their potential game market for future gamers around the world. As Ray says in her book, Gender-Inclusive Game Design, “developers need to think about the future growth of this industry and what the marketcould be” (Ray xv) instead of dwelling on the successes of the past.

Sony Online Entertainment is striving to be ahead of the game. Their G.I.R.L. program is taking the necessary steps to create a gender balanced gaming community. Later in our interview, Dorrell explained that after a recent keynote speech she gave about G.I.R.L., she was asked why such effort in gender-inclusive games was important for the industry. Dorrell’s response:

Bring more women into game development and you will have more women playing games. More women playing games means a bigger consumer base.  A bigger consumer base means more dollars spent on games.  More dollars spent on games means the industry thrives. It’s simple math: If we had made Free Realms (G.I.R.L.’s recently released game) for primarily boys, we would have lost perhaps 40% of the overall gaming population we could have by making the game appealing to both boys and girls.

Women are starting to make up a good percentage of the gaming market, so any developer that still believes that girls do not play video games will be hit hard in only a few years. Unlike many companies today, Dorrell asserts that, “We (G.I.R.L.) put ‘diversity’ into our long-term strategic plan four years ago,” which will greatly help them succeed in the future (Dorrell).

Today, G.I.R.L. is beginning to see the fruits of this focus with Free Realms, and are starting development of two other MMO games (DCUO and The Agency) that are also concentrating on male and female appeal. To do that, they ended up hiring more women in development and are continuing to make a concerted effort on that front. Sony Online, just like many other developers, have noticed that “there is still a large market potential not satisfied yet” (Hanappi-Egger 150). Women make up a vast majority of the world’s population and many of which own electronics and gaming devices. In the future, game designers and developers need to expand their industry to include women in their design crew and overall development plans. As E-Nielson says, “We must examine the role of gender in the industry” (Egenfeldt-Nielson161). Right now, gender is an issue that is tossed aside, hopefully dealt with “later.” However, the gaming industry needs to think about gender now. If females are not included in gaming, the industry will begin to diminish. In the future, women will have no interest in video games because they never had the chance to play them when they were young.

In order to attract females to video games, games need to incorporate different conflict resolution styles and learning styles, avatar presentation needs to be rethought for female interest, and game design teams to keep a broad market in mind throughout the design process. As Ray says, “By expanding our design knowledge to include this new knowledge, we will not only expand our market, but we will design better games” (RAY xvii). The ability to create games for both girls and boys allows games to be more diverse, interesting, and complex. Like Ray says, gender-inclusive games will not only help expand the industry’s market but will give companies the chance to broaden their ideas and develop games with a much deeper story, more sophisticated play style, and more thought-provoking puzzles.


To develop more inclusive games, one cannot just say, “make more games for girls.” Instead, the industry must design games for a broader audience, with not one gender, race, or nationality in mind. As Sullivan nicely explains, “Everyone is an individual, regardless of gender. Studies may show that women prefer “social” styles of play, but there are certainly plenty of men out there that enjoy the social nature of games, and there are women out there who enjoy first person shooter games” (Sullivan). A group of dedicated female gamers proves this claim. The PMS Clan (Pandora’s Mighty Soldiers) is a group of females that are dedicated to playing violent, shooter games for fun and they even compete in competitions with each other and men. I recently joined this clan to see just what the group is about and found an incredibly female gamer positive atmosphere where guys and girls alike play games together for fun. As Wikipedia explains, the PMS Clan’s “ultimate goal is to provide a safe, fun and competitive playing environment for female gamers, and they are also driven to bring females into the top ranks of tournament champions. Their members range from casual players to the ultra-competitive which balances these two goals” (“PMS Clan”). When thinking about designing games for both genders, the game industry must take this into account and think up ideas that both males and females could find interesting and exciting. Dorrell of SOE’s G.I.R.L. program defends this by saying that “women and men have different sensibilities and tastes.  Men generally like and gravitate towards different aspects of a game than women, but I don’t believe that means that both cannot find fun in the same game” (Dorrell). Instead of spending time to create multiple games to satisfy each gender, it would be best if the industry developed a game that any gender could enjoy.

While talking to Robert Mitchell, I discovered that many designers appear to be stuck in the past. Instead of creating games designed for specific gamer types, Mitchell develops games for those around him. In his words, “Different people play games differently. Until recently, most game developers have made games primarily for themselves (18-30 year-old males). I currently make games for at least four types of people: my wife, my mother, my 9 year-old nieces, and myself. Any game I make will have to qualify for three or more” (Mitchell). I find this incredibly comforting. If programmers such as Mitchell are thinking about designing games for people other than themselves, hopefully the industry will catch on and begin thinking up video games for the general population instead of one specific group of gamers. Designers should be “active creators rather than passive consumers”, meaning that they should design not only for their own interests as gamers, but the interests of people around them. Designers need to broaden the audience they think of when coming up with game ideas (Egenfeldt-Nielson148).


The question still stands, “How [will] computer games have to be changed to attract women?” (Hanappi-Egger 150). Because the gaming industry has grown up on a male dominated market, the entire development process will have to alter to adopt the potential female population. The simple solution? Women need to join the game design industry. Even if designers design games for their loved ones, a male designer is not going to know exactly what a female enjoys in a video game. As Anne Sullivan states, “Designers create what they would like to play, and the vast majority of designers are men” (Sullivan). If more women were involved in the design process, games would noticeably become more attractive to females. Dorrell suggests the same saying that games would become more inclusive, naturally, “if more women were on design teams, in whatever capacity that is” (Dorrell).

So now that we know that the best way to create gender-inclusive games is to have equal genders involved in the development process, what about technology? In the past, women were pushed away from technology and electronics. Women appear to be more tech savvy today, but few women are pursuing careers in the development of technology and especially video games. As Ray summarizes, “We cannot expect women to excel in technology tomorrow if we don’t encourage girls to have fun with technology today” (Ray 6). Not only should girls be encouraged to have fun with technology, they should be confident in exploring video games, compared to their current rejection in the video game world. Women need to be allowed to explore the world of technology and video games, not constantly pushed away by the idea that games and technology are males’ objects of entertainment (Ray). Luckily, the PMS Clan has started to break down this barrier. “Amber Dalton, the clan leader, was voted as one of “Game Industry’s 100 Most Influential Women” by Next Generation Business, because the setting up of PMS clan has helped to break the stereotype of gamers and offers a safe and friendly environment for female gamers to play” (“PMS Clan”). Sadly, their ambitious fight against a gendered gaming community is fairly quiet and has had little effect. In the future, I hope they are able to influence the gaming society, the gaming industry, and hopefully the game designers.


In conclusion, the game industry needs to accept women for who they are and who they can be – gamers. By noticing females as a potential market, games will become entertaining mediums for both males and females. The gaming industry needs to be set up now so that there is a possibility of gender-inclusive gaming in the future. As Dorrell admits, the G.I.R.L. program was designed as only a short term program to hopefully encourage more women to get involved in gaming: “I will say that I truly believe that equalizing game development by bringing more women into the industry is a short term need… I am hopeful all our efforts today will set us up for product that resonates with both sexes in the next 10 years, but after that, this will all be a moot point.  My greatest hope is that my G.I.R.L. foundation is irrelevant in 10 years!” (Dorrell). Although it seems like the future will be bright for female games, Sullivan argues that games can be made “so neutral that it is no fun for anyone” (Sullivan). Hopefully the industry does not design such neutral games, but after experimenting with some of these games, they will hopefully discover the true potential of gender inclusive games and females will finally enjoy the gaming world with no boundaries.


Dorrell, Torrie. Emailed Interview. 7 May 2009.

Egenfeldt-Nielson, S, Smith, J, & Tosca, S (2008). Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. New York and London: Routledge.

Entertainment Software Association, “Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.”2008 Sales, Demographic and Usage Data. 2008.

Hanappi-Egger, Edeltraud (2007). Computer Games: Playing Gender, Reflecting on Gender . Gender Designs IT. 149-159.

Mitchell, Robert. Emailed Interview. 19 April 2009.

“PMS Clan.” Wikipedia. 2009. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 29 May 2009.

Ray, Sheri Graner (2003). Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding The Market. Hingham, Massachusetts: Charles River Media.

Sullivan, Anne. Emailed Interview. 4 May 2009.


Alexander, Leigh. “Opinion: What Do Women Want From Games?.” Gamasutra September 9, 2008 Web.4 May 2009. <>.

Dorrell, Torrie. Emailed Interview. 7 May 2009.

Egenfeldt-Nielson, S, Smith, J, & Tosca, S (2008). Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. New York and London: Routledge.

Entertainment Software Association, “Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.”2008 Sales, Demographic and Usage Data. 2008.

Fong, Kirby. Facebook Interview. 2 June 2009.

Hanappi-Egger, Edeltraud (2007). Computer Games: Playing Gender, Reflecting on Gender . Gender Designs IT. 149-159.

Hobler, Mara. “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later: Motivations of a Women’s Gaming Clan” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, San Francisco, CA, May 23, 2007. 2009-02-04 <>

Gary. “15 great myth-busting, women vs men stat articles about Games.” MUVEDesign 27 Jan 2009 Web.23 May 2009. <>.

Mitchell, Robert. Emailed Interview. 19 April 2009.

“PMS Clan.” Wikipedia. 2009. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 29 May 2009.

Ray, Sheri Graner (2003). Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding The Market. Hingham, Massachusetts: Charles River Media.

Sullivan, Anne. Emailed Interview. 4 May 2009.

 Figure: The character named Kasumi shows just how “anti-female” Dead or Alive Xtreme Volleyball was designed

 Figure: This is a screen shot from the game Maple Story. On the bottom you can see the player’s information bar. On the bottom right is the chat box and log. Experience received from killing a monster is shown on the bottom right and when a player levels, a LEVEL UP displays (as shown by the other player on the right). On the top right-hand corner of the screen, players are shown what spells are currently being used (Magic Guard, which redirects damage taken to MP instead of HP and Haste, which allows the player to move faster). Players can also get married in the game which is shown by the hearts over each player’s avatar.

 Figure: Little Big Planet

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