Understanding Video Games text-book
What women want - (and it ain\’t Counter Strike)

Date posted: May 14, 2006
Updated: Oct 24, 2006

By Jonas Heide Smith (smith@game-research.com)

Do some women play computer games? Yes. Are there hard-core female gamers? Most likely. Can we trust business statistics on player demographics? Certainly not.

At a recent discussion on games and narrative a Danish game developer had the audacity to hint that computer games is mostly a male thing.
The crowd stirred as one listener sprang to her feet requesting statistics please! claiming in addition that her experience told her differently.

The game developer looked worried as well he should and - no doubt fearing the dreaded well-that’s-just-because-you-make-such-poor-games argument - went for the safety of the old girls-are-far-too-clever-to-play-games defense.

A clever move, perhaps. But the small incident illustrates an obvious discrepancy between the common knowledge of (I dare presume) most male gamers and certain much referred-to statistics. For the last couple of years it has in some circles been an established fact that women play computer games as much as men do.

Conveniently disregarding the telltale insides of computer game stores and indeed Internet cafes that would seem to question this fact the story of how women have taken to gaming on a large scale has received considerable attention from various media. It is a good story.

* Game developers like it. It shows (or claims) that gaming is for everybody. It’s not a masculine activity, girls, come on in.

* Male gamers like it. It shows that what they’re engaged in a normal, non-anti-social, activity which might even let them meet girls.

* Female gamers like it. It shows that game developers would be wise to cater to specific female game preferences. Girls play games, so take us seriously.

As I said, it’s a good story.

But is it true? I doubt it. The female gamer mentioned above didn’t doubt it. Biggering, however, will get us nowhere so we may as well lay aside our preconceptions and examine the evidence. And the evidence apparently all point to the IDSA, the Interactive Digital Software Association. The IDSA in 2000 had a survey done by the well-reputed research bureau Peter D. Hart Research Associates. Hart phoned 816 American households getting data on 1281 American gamers (it says here). This is a reasonable sample and I find no specific reason to doubt the seriousness of Hart’s approach. But still, I find my common sense challenged and so would like to dig a little deeper. Girls and women play a lot? Fine, great even, but show me the data.

And this is where the waters get a little murky. Leafing through IDSA’s State of the Industry report we find references to the survey in question. Inquiring at Hart’s we are told to ask the IDSA. What we want to know is how exactly these numbers came about - in other words we want the survey questions asked, preferably the questionnaire itself. The IDSA is helpful but note that the questionnaire is confidential.

Confidential. For researchers the word should set alarm bells ringing. To the business consultant it is more commonplace. The problem, however, should be obvious to all: By obscuring the methodology we are left uncertain. And when uncertain we are back to assuming things. Here are a few of my assumptions:

* The survey was conducted in a professional manner
* The data has been stretched to the breaking point

The IDSA famously claims that “Forty-three percent of game players are women”. This has been taken up by publications such as Womengamers.com, Mediascope, Happypuppy.com, and Gamespot. But what is it they’re all saying? Basically that forty-three percent out of all those who said they played were women.

So, if the survey question was “Do you play computer games?” we have learned the interesting fact that men and women are almost equally distributed on this issue. This finding is compatible with an impressive range of conclusions. Here are two:

* Women play as much as men
* A more or less equal number of women and men have played computer games at some time. Men, however, spend X times more time and money playing.

I believe I’ve made my point. In the computer game business statistics are used to make headlines. If we want to be academic about it we’re going to have to be far more careful. This, unfortunately, leaves us back where we started which is a shame since we’re here to make progress. So if anyone knows reliable statistics on gamer demographics please let me know and we’ll place the results in the statistics section.

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