Where the Women Aren’t

Nielsen Interactive just released a study on gamers in the US. There’s a lot of interesting tidbits, nicely summarized by Next Generation here, and quite a few surprises. Who knew “active gamers” spent on average $16 a week on games, or that an estimated 117 million Americans fit in that category? (Over a third of the country, nearly as many who voted in the last general election.)

One cluster of data in particular stands out and hits you in the face: While the ratio of men to women in the overall gaming universe is 2 to 1, an astounding 64% of online gamers are women.

Which begs an immediate question: if there are so many women playing games online, why aren’t they playing MMOs?

Because the thing is, for the most part, they aren’t. Last year, Stanford’s Nick Yee ran some of the results of his Daedalus Project, easily the most rigorous survey of MMO behavior and demographics thus far, and they point to a dearth of women in online roleplaying games. In World of Warcraft, by far the largest MMO, 84% of players are men, 16% are women. (According to Yee’s figures, 35% of the in-game avatars are female, meaning roughly half are actually guys engaged in gender-bending.)

So lining up Yee’s figures with Nielsen’s, we’re talking tens of millions of women who do enjoy online games, but for one reason or another, are mostly passing on MMOs.

The consensus is that online, women tend to play casual, Java and Flash-powered web games like Bejeweled, generally passing on download-install-and-play “hardcore” online world games like WoW. That’s true to a certain extent, but it needn’t be like this. At the risk of seeming like an evangelist, in the demographics of Second Life, 43% of the user population are women, and also tend to be the more active players, and the most socially influential.
Second Life may be an anomalous case, but it does suggest a larger point: when speaking of the big publishers and developers, the game industry as a whole is underserving a vast market. Numerous theories abound for why this is– women are turned off by the busty babe avatars that MMOs usually force them choose, women don’t like violent gameplay, and so on– but on the whole, the culprit they all finger is the industry’s male-dominated culture, and a near-complete indifference to what people who aren’t like them want. (Or as I once quoted a British game designer at an MMO developer roundtable, “Will all the women in the room please stand up? It’s white males, all wearing glasses! Look at us!”)

Putting the politics of this aside, the economic reality cannot be more devasating: there are tens of millions of women who play casual and largely free web-based games, who might be playing subscription-based, pay-as-you-go MMOs, but don’t. That’s billions of dollars in potential revenue lost.


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