Video games are no longer a man’s world. From first-person-shooter games, to mobile crossword puzzles, women are not “noobs” (rookies) when it comes to gaming. In fact, according to the Entertainment Software Association’s (ESA) 2018 survey, 45 percent of U.S. gamers are women, with an average age of 36 years old. Yet female underrepresentation in the industry has been a common and heated topic, and several changes have been implemented recently to encourage more inclusivity.
“I think that the industry is starting to take female users seriously after realizing that it’s not only teenage boys who play games,” says Serkan Toto, CEO and founder of Kantan Games Inc. “More blockbuster games are featuring female characters as the main protagonists, take ‘Uncharted: The Lost Legacy,’ ‘Horizon Zero Dawn,’ ‘Battlefield V,’ or the upcoming ‘The Last of Us Part II’ as examples. In most of these games, users don’t have a choice but to take on the part of a woman, and play through the game and follow the narrative from that character’s perspective. This would have been unthinkable several years ago, even though a few classics like Tomb Raider starred female heroes.”
Gender disparity is becoming a thing of the past, and businesses in the video gaming industry must find ways to capture women gamers or risk being left behind.
“I definitely get the impression that things are getting better,” says Meagan Marie, author of “Women in Gaming: 100 Professionals of Play.” “By no capacity are things completely fine at this point. There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done in terms of representation in the industry, and especially with representation in characters within the video games.”
“There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done in terms of representation in the industry, and especially with representation in characters within the video games."
With more than 2.5 billion video gamers in the world, the video game market is projected to be worth more than $90 billion by 2020. But businesses must dig deep to uncover which games women are most engaged with and why they choose to play those games. A study by Newzoo found that women generally were more likely than men to play games for stress relief or entertainment purposes. Mobile platforms are their preferred method of gaming: 64 percent of women prefer to play games on mobile over other platforms, compared to 38 percent of men. Women also reported playing more frequently, with 43 percent of mobile players logging into their games five days a week or more, on average. Given that mobile revenues account for more than 50 percent of the global games market and are on track for double-digit growth, the numbers themselves show the purchasing power of women gamers in the industry.
“Mobile gaming is the best entry point,” says Toto. “I do believe that mobile devices have finally made gaming mainstream and have opened the market to more potential users. Since women were underrepresented in gaming before the smartphone revolution, their numbers rose faster than those of male players.” Mobile app games deliver bite-size, short-format games that require less commitment than other game genres, such as role-playing games (RPGs) or strategy-based games.
"Mobile gaming is the best entry point. I do believe that mobile devices have finally made gaming mainstream and have opened the market to potential users."
What types of games are women most inclined to play? A 2017 report by analytics company Quantic Foundry found game preferences by gender based on a survey of more than 270,000 gamers worldwide. Additionally, the company was able to distinguish that, while almost half of the world’s gamers were women, only 5 percent self-identified as core gamers. By gaming genre, this means that female representation and participation are lowest in areas like eSports, tactical shooting and racing games, whereas interactive drama, casual puzzle and family-style games saw the highest number of female gamers.
“The number of females playing hardcore games has certainly gone up in the past few years, along with a general increasing trend of seeing girls pick up video games,” says Toto. “But a lot of the hardcore titles out there are action games—which I believe historically was, and to a large extent is, still a male-dominated genre. But I know that female users enjoy these titles as well, there’s absolutely no reason why they wouldn’t.”
Game genre popularity and platform preference can be explained by multiple factors: accessibility, representation and relatability. Mobile platforms are more accessible to women than console games, which require a bigger investment of time and money. Representation in each of these game genres is also an area worth noting. Current narratives in genres such as combat or tactical gaming lean heavily toward male orientations, which may not resonate much with the female audience.
“Take Bahiyya Khan of South Africa, for example,” says Marie. “She’s an incredible video game developer and finds that games are an incredible way to express herself, especially when discussing difficult topics. But at the same time, she doesn’t see herself represented often in games. She doesn’t see herself represented in the people who make games. And I think this makes her work so much more important because she’s going to be the beacon for other girls who may have the same feelings but see themselves being reflected in her.”
Toto agrees with Marie’s sentiments. “I think the key here is representation,” he says. “A lot of triple-A video games nowadays either have a range of female characters in the cast, or offer them as the only protagonist that can be controlled by the user.”
By having more female representation within the game and in campaigns, businesses will generate more interest from this significant half of the gamer market.
The U.S. and China accounted for half of the $113 billion global gaming market in 2018, and the Asia Pacific is projected to reach revenues of $200 billion by 2030 along with a projected annual growth of 9.5 percent.
“The statistics say that the percentage of female gamers in China is higher than in the West, thanks to mobile gaming and developers who have realized that women constitute a target group that is worth going after,” says Toto. “There are also now entire game companies in the East and the West, especially on mobile, that specifically focus on and market to girls. Examples include Frenzoo from Hong Kong, Glu Mobile in California, and Japan’s Voltage Inc.”
From virtual dating to playing strategy games, women now account for nearly half of all players in China’s $16.4 billion mobile gaming industry. China’s video game industry has recognized the purchasing power and potential of women as a driving force and has been proactive in gender inclusivity across areas such as game design, storylines and social media advertising. Interestingly, the two most popular mobile games among Chinese women today have been catered specifically for their gender. “Love and Producer,” a mobile virtual dating game, was an instant hit upon release in December 2017 and saw an estimated $32 million of in-app purchases after one month of being launched. “Travel Frog” is also among the most played mobile games for women in China, given its familiarity to other games such as “Pokemon Go.” Women are also joining the career ranks as professional video gamers. Take Hong Kong’s first all-female professional video gaming team, PandaCute. Training 10 hours a day for five days a week, this team of gamers—who are all only 20 or 21 years old—have gained a substantial following after winning several big tournaments.
“I think that, just like in normal sports, there are no real differences in what men and women can do in terms of competitive video gaming.”
“I think that, just like in normal sports, there are no real differences between what men and women can do, in terms of competitive video gaming,” says Toto. “There is a whole range of incredibly talented female eSports players across hardcore games such as ‘Street Fighter V,’ ‘StarCraft II’ or ‘Counter-Strike’ already. One major problem is that, like in real sports, female eSports stars earn less money, and it will take time until we can speak of an even playing field.”
In May 2018, women surpassed men and became the top players in Tencent’s top-grossing, battle-arena mobile game called “Honor of Kings.” Logging more than 200 million active users, the ratio of men and women on this game is roughly equal. Why then, does “Honor of Kings” boast a higher percentage of women gamers compared to other similar games, such as “League of Legends,” “World of Warcraft” and “Vainglory”? The answer lies in digital marketing campaigns.
The formula for businesses to invite women to play their games seems straightforward. More inclusion, in addition to more representation within the games, and marketing campaigns will yield in a higher level of interest and engagement from the female demographic.
“Women are willing to speak up and make waves. They’re willing to put in the extra time and energy to create resources for industry hopefuls, or to use their platform to challenge what we’ve considered games even to be,” says Marie. “Seeing women wanting to take control of their own destinies and making such a big impact on the industry is leading us in a very positive direction.”