Game Changers

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008

You really must do something about your hair," teases Ally Burguieres's mom, referring to the appearance of her daughter's on-screen video game character.

It's Wii night at the Burguieres house in Bethesda. On the living room TV, virtual versions of Jan Burguieres and her 20-something daughters Ally, Elizabeth and Tory are playing baseball via the Nintendo system atop the set. Each of the cartoony game characters have been crafted to resemble their real-world counterparts. Ally's avatar wears oval-shaped glasses, just as Ally does, but its hair is just a little too straggly, in Mom's view.

It used to be that this all-woman crew wouldn't fit the standard image of the video game consumer. But the perception of gamers as being mostly young guys isn't so true anymore. Women and girls make up 40 percent of the gamer population, according to the Entertainment Software Association, the video game industry's trade group. And with game software sales at $9.5 billion last year, companies are paying closer attention to the titles women seek out.

The Burguieres sisters grew up playing video games. Ally, a 25-year-old grad student working on a PhD in linguistics at Queen's University in Belfast, says she sometimes felt shut out as a kid when boys started to play or talk about video games. She says that's a situation that may have changed, thanks to the widespread appeal of the Wii and music games such as Guitar Hero.

"Women are now being treated as natural members of the gaming community," she says. "In my generation and before, I don't think girls felt accepted in that community."

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For years, the video game industry spent its marketing dollars on trying to get guys excited about the latest sports or shoot-'em-up title. It was generally assumed that women and girls weren't interested.

But that started to change in 2004, says industry analyst Michael Pachter, when Nintendo launched its DS portable game system, named for its dual screens. Its features stretched the notion of what a video game is -- and who might want to play.

In one early DS game, players took control of a virtual puppy. To pet the dog, players rubbed the touch-sensitive screen; to train the dog to sit, players spoke into the device's built-in microphone.

Compared with many games that expected a mastery of the controller buttons, the interface was intuitive. Nintendogs was a hit with both sexes and suggested to many in the industry that it might be time to take note of games that appeal to a wider audience.

"That's when we started to get more girl-oriented games," says Pachter, who works for the investment firm Wedbush Morgan Securities. "Before that, there had been the occasional Britney Spears game, but they weren't really marketed much."

Today, half of DS users are female, according to Nintendo. Game publisher Ubisoft has been courting this market with games designed to appeal to girls ages 6 to 14. Themes for those titles include figure skating and fashion design.

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