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Video gaming fascination, from female perspective

Video gaming fascination, from female perspective

The “boys only” atmosphere of video game culture is quickly vanishing.

Although men still tend to be regarded as the biggest demographic for gamers, the pastime has been opened up to everyone by new devices and modes of play. And though recent developments have brought new women into the fold, many say there’s always been room for both genders.

Nearly 40 percent of video game players are female, and they’re spending an average of  7.4 hours a week playing, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

Caitlin Whiting’s WOW chararacter, “Red Light,” visits the “Valley of Wisdom” in the city of “Orgrimmar.”

Jessica Donahoe, 24, an assistant manager at a local game store, has been a gamer for years.

“I got a Super Nintendo for my 10th birthday, and Super Mario was a fantastic game,” she said. “It was something that I was good at, that was entertaining and that gave me something to talk about with other kids my age.”

Donahoe says she’s not a stereotypical female gamer. “I have systems other than the Wii and the DS, which I think is what most people think of when they hear that someone is female and a gamer,” she said, referring to the Nintendo console and handheld systems.

While she is a fan of the DS, her favorite system is Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

“It seems to have the most games and the greatest variety of games,” she said.  “More of the Triple-A titles come out exclusive to 360. The online service is second to none.”

A system like the Wii tends to appeal to a more casual player with more games consisting of a series of mini-games that can be played in short bursts.

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Donahoe said. “It’s just not where my tastes run.”

Donahoe said the gaming experience tends to split more along experience lines than gender.

“I think that new gamers tend to be the ones that Nintendo is going for and what they’re making products to appeal to, and that once people have been involved with video games for a little while they start to seek out a richer experience, something more equivalent to watching a movie or reading a book,” she said.

Donahoe prefers role-playing games, action titles and first-person shooters like “Call of Duty 4,” where players take on the role of modern-day soldiers. For casual experiences, she prefers puzzle games like “Luxor,” “Bejeweled” and “Puzzle Quest,” which combine both role playing and puzzle elements.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games, which Donahoe said have very broad appeal, have been a major factor in getting more women into gaming.

Of the 300 pre-orders at her store for the latest installment of the “World of Warcraft” franchise, a fantasy online role-playing game with millions of devoted players, almost half were from female players.

“The only customers that I know that are maniacs about the game (are) all female, hundred percent,” she said.

A Whole New World

Emily Holt, 29, was one of those customers.

She and her husband, Jerry, joined hundreds of fans lined up at midnight on a chilly November night to be among the first to purchase the third expansion of the game, in which players create fantasy characters to do battle with other human and computer characters.

Holt, a stay-at-home mom, has been playing the game since 2005.

“For me it was either join my husband or hate the game and hate him playing it,” she said. “And I loved it. As soon as I started playing I was like, ‘Why have I not been playing this the whole time?'”

It’s not an unusual starting point for women gamers, Donahoe said: women getting into gaming because their partners play, Donahoe said.

Donahoe herself got into the first-person shooter “Call of Duty 4,” where players take on the role of a modern-day soldier, by watching her boyfriend. By the time she started playing multiplayer on her own, she knew all of the game’s maps and strategies.

Her frustration with her husband for ignoring her soon became frustration with him for taking up all the household computer time. Buying a second computer solved that problem.

“I dumped $1,600 to stop the marital feud,” Jerry said.

“And it’s been bliss ever since,” Emily replied.

Holt came to gaming relatively late in life, starting after she graduated from high school. “I think my boyfriend at the time was playing Everquest,” another online role-playing game, she said. “It looked fun, and I made a character, and I just got into it.”

“World of Warcraft’s” social aspect pulls her in, she said, and she feels obligated to play when other members of her online team are playing.

Holt, who plays when her 1- and 3-year-old children are snoozing, said the game is a soothing ending to pressure-filled days.

“I put my kids to bed, and it’s my time,” she said. “It’s an excellent escape from a day of diapers and screaming.”

Stephanie Winter, 19, and Cristina Johnson, 20, both students at the University of Missouri, were also at the November release. Both have been playing games since they were children: Winter started out on the Sega Genesis while Johnson played both Nintendo and computer games.

Winter and Johnson agreed the gender gap had been largely bridged in gaming. Growing up, the pair said games were largely something boys played.

“But I played with the boys, so it didn’t matter,” Winter said. “I think the boys like to think that it’s still the boys club.”

Both play all female characters in “World of Warcraft.”

“I tried one (male character),” Johnson said, but she didn’t like the way the character shaped up. Getting hit on by other female characters was also awkward, she added.

Roughly a third of their guild, or online team, is female, and the women tend to play more than the men, they said. Johnson said she appreciated the fact she could play a female warrior without dealing with bias.

Family-Friendly

Gaming has become much more mainstream these days, Holt said, which she attributes both to MMORPGs and a generation that grew up with games.

The new generation of hardware has also had an impact, she said.

In addition to their computers, Holt said the family also owns a Wii. “I play Wii Fit,” Holt said. “Not so much for the game aspect but for the exercise aspect.”

The Wii has been successful in bringing new gamers into the fold, Winter said.

“My mom is even playing,” she said. “My grandma bought one to do exercise. We have family get-togethers, and they’re bowling on Wii.”

The ease of accessibility and play has made it an easy point of entry, Winter said.

Michelle Sharp, 24, said she doesn’t necessarily define herself as a gamer. But the University of Missouri student, who also works at a game store, said the term now certainly applies across genders.

“It’s more socially acceptable for women to be gamers,” Sharp said.

Sharp said she used to watch her step-siblings play when she was little but didn’t game much between her days playing Mario on her Super Nintendo and her current Nintendo DS and 360.

She started slowly getting back into gaming, playing fighting games with her boyfriend. It was a far cry from her high school gaming experiences, where her then-boyfriend ignored Sharp while playing Playstation 2. “He wasn’t very nice anyway,” she said.

Getting beyond her high school experiences, Sharp picked up an Xbox 360 after discovering her love of music games like “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band.”

“I like games that I can play with other people,” she said of her preferences.

Sharp also had a Wii but got rid of it. “Most of the games that were on it, I just wasn’t interested in,” she said.

But that’s not true of Nintendo’s other system, the take-along DS. “I could play it for hours, but I’m trying to do my homework,” she says of the handheld system.

On the DS, Sharp is a fan of role-playing and life-simulation games such as “Harvest Moon” and “Animal Crossing” along with old favorites like “Tetris.” But it’s the system’s more user-friendly titles like “brain-training” and puzzle games, which are drawing in the new players, which Sharp said is a positive development.

But social acceptability brings its own issues, she said. Sharp said she disliked game companies’ use of body-image hang-ups, for instance, to promote exercise titles.

“I find that a little insulting,” Sharp said. “I think it’s pretty unfortunate.”

More than just a game.

Donahoe said she is looking forward to the increased abilities of systems, such as the Xbox 360’s partnership with Netflix, which will allow people with both Xbox Live and Netflix to download movies to their systems.

It’s partly the social aspects that are drawing more people to the gaming world, at least in terms of the changes Donahoe has seen over the past 14 years.

“More people are involved,” she said. There’s no longer as much of a stigma attached to being a gamer.  Older generations are more willing to give games a fair hearing.

Sharp advised those curious about video games to just to get out there and play.

“Don’t be afraid to play kid games; don’t be afraid to explore different things you think might be silly,” Sharp said.

For new players shy about picking up a controller for fear of not excelling, Donahoe suggested starting out with something non-competitive such as the quirky hit “Katamari Damacy” or a game that can be played cooperatively.

“Learn as much as you can before you try something, and have a good footing on which to start,” she said. Ask questions, either from a gamer in their lives or from video game store employees, and embrace not knowing.

As Sharp puts it: “It’s all about trying it out, seeing what you’re good at, seeing what you like.”

Video games go mainstream

An annual survey by the video game industry’s trade industry released in July found that women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (33 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (18 percent)

Other major findings:

65 percent of American households play computer and video games; 38 percent of American homes have a video game console; the average game player is 35 years old; one out of four gamers are over age 50; 41 percent of Americans expect to purchase one or more games this year.The new research also shows how involved parents are in the way their children buy, rent and play games: 94 percent of parents are present when games are purchased or rented; 88 percent of parents report always or sometimes monitoring the games their children play; and 63 percent of parents believe games are a positive part of their children’s lives.

Source: Entertainment Software Association, The 2008 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry

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