Choices: a machine gun, a handgun, a shotgun, a grenade. What's a 14-year-old girl to do?
"You use them at different times," says Aikaterini "Kat" Stamoulis, a sophomore at Magruder High School in Rockville, her eyes focused on the video-game screen. She's playing Time Crisis 3, a point, shoot and duck spree set in the Mediterranean that allows her to keep changing weapons. She's also a big fan of the House of the Dead 2 and Grand Theft Auto 3, the latter of which features a smorgasbord of violent endings in a fictional place called Liberty City USA.
Martin Tran, who stands to Kat's left one afternoon at Dave and Buster's in North Bethesda's White Flint Mall, looks surprised. "Girls don't like video games," he says. "They just don't."
Tran's perception fits the popular notion of the video and computer gaming industry as testosterone territory -- 61 percent of players are male. The characters in the games are almost all male and the marketing, as embodied by PSM ("the world's #1 PlayStation Magazine") with its "10 pages of your favorite game girls," is pretty much boys-only. Just where girls and women fit into the world's fastest-growing entertainment industry -- $7 billion in game sales last year -- is still an open question. Kat Stamoulis, for one, thinks it's a missed opportunity.
"Some girls like cars," she says. "Some girls like shooting games. They should gear their games toward boys and girls. Wouldn't they get more money that way?"
Schelley Olhava, a senior analyst with International Data Corp., a research firm in Mountain View, Calif., agrees. "For long-term growth, the industry needs to figure out how to get to the female demographic. But look at it this way: Who are making the games? Men. They design what they want to play. Whenever you see a TV show or read articles about the games, who are being shown? Men. Though we have data that says: Yes, women are playing games, and they're playing all kinds of games."
Nearly two-thirds of the female demographic using games is 18 or older, according to the Washington-based Entertainment Software Association (ESA). That number includes computer gaming and video gaming in which players use consoles such as Xboxes or PlayStations connected to their TVs.
Women make up 39 percent of all video and computer gamers, and industry analysts say the bulk of that percentage is computer gamers "on the run" -- say, women on their lunch breaks, looking for something fun and quick to do. Besides those "casual gamers" such as Amy Ellard, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Potomac who plays Mech Warrior on her Xbox, are the "hard-core gamers" like Melissa Allen, a 32-year-old epidemiology specialist from Chesterfield, Va., who plays the Sims on her PC. In a week, on average, Amy spends "four hours at most" on games, Allen more than 10 hours. On a recent Saturday, for example, Allen started at 6 p.m. and called it quits at 2 a.m.
ESA President Douglas Lowenstein says strategy games -- card and puzzle games at Web sites such as Zone.com and Realarcade.com -- are attracting women to the gaming industry in droves. But, he says, "the percentage of women and girls in the 'passionate' gaming category is significantly less than the percentage of boys and men."
Lowenstein continues: "I think the industry is really not doing a great deal right now, from a marketing and creative standpoint, to accelerate the adoption of games by girls and women. . . . It's shortsighted."
Henry Jenkins, head of the comparative media studies program at MIT, tackled the gender gap in "From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games," a book he co-edited in 1998. "They call it a GameBoy, right?" he says. "That's a clear sign, a huge assumption, that the players will be boys."
Jenkins and others note the exception of a few games aimed at pre-adolescent girls (think of the Mary-Kate & Ashley and Barbie games) that appeared on the market starting in 1994. The "girl game genre," as industry insiders call it, has barely made a dent in the market, and success has meant overcoming considerable skepticism. In 1998, for example, Megan Gaiser's company, Her Interactive, created Secrets Can Kill, a computer game based on a popular Nancy Drew book. "No publisher -- now I'm not going to name any names -- but no publisher would put that game on the shelf," says Gaiser. "They said, 'Females are computer-phobic, they don't play computer games, there's no market for them.' "
Gaiser had the last laugh. Unwelcomed at the front door, she found a back way, promoting the games on her Web site, Herinteractive.com, and selling them on Amazon.com. The games were a hit. Since 2000, the Nancy Drew franchise has sold 1.8 million units. Gaiser said a 12th game, the Secret of Shadow Ranch, is due next month.
Of course, there is some truth to the stereotype. The industry has a long way to go to attract Harmony Davis and Kayley Harrington, both 21, both averse to playing what they call "silly" and "pointless" games. (Dating a guy addicted to games is a no-no, they say.)
"I just don't get it. I never did, I probably never will," says Davis, a student at Columbia University who was visiting Harrington, a District resident. "To me, video games are a waste of energy, a waste of time. Read a book. Read the paper. Do something constructive."
Harrington nods. She has a 16-year-old brother who is "a huge, huge" gamer, glued to the TV for hours. "I don't identify and relate to it at all. I don't think many girls do."
"It's a personality thing, isn't it?" asks 33-year-old Minerva Torres, catching the Metro to Fairfax. "Guys are happy to play by themselves." She laughs. "But girls, girls want to interact. They want people involved. Most of the games aren't set up like that."
Most games, as they exist now, "are really well-designed to take the traditional aspects of boy-playing," says Jenkins. "As games have emerged in the past decade or so, a lot of what has been created was taken from what boys like to play in the back yard. But where does that leave the girls?"
The Sims seems to have found it. The PC game -- the best-selling PC franchise of all time, selling some 12 million copies of various titles -- is now translated into 17 languages. It's like reality TV gone virtual, with gamers playing God, dictating what a neighborhood of simulated people (Sims) can do. There's the Sims Livin' Large, the Sims House Party, the Sims Hot Date and so on. Trudy Muller, a spokeswoman for Electronic Arts (EA) -- which publishes the Sims and reported a 2003 revenue of $2.96 billion -- says at least 50 percent of the games' players are women.
"With the Sims, you're really building relationships and, with the focus groups that we've done, that's something that interests women and teenage girls," she says.
What sells, ultimately, are "games that span both genders and all ages," Muller notes. Her logic: Yes, sports games are made for sports fans, most of whom are men, "but the women are there, and they, too, are playing the sporting games." She predicts that as video games "become more mainstream, you'll have a wider range of content."
What sells, ultimately, are "great games that provide great entertainment -- period," echoes J.C. Herz, author of "Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds," considered the definitive look at the culture of video games. "Talk of 'girl games,' " she says, is "nonsense," covered in "political correctness."
"Here's the bottom line: All the games that succeed are obsessed with being great entertainment product," says Herz.
So just what do women want?
"When it comes to girls, gaming interests run the gamut," says Phaedra Boinodiris. "Asking what women want to play is like asking what kind of movies women want to watch. It's very divergent. That's what the industry is so slow to realize."
Boinodiris took action in 1999. With her sister, husband and cousin -- all of them "passionate" gamers -- she started Womengamers.com, one of the few women's gaming portals on the Internet.
"It comes down to choices," Boinodiris says. "Women would like better female characters and more of them, and more gender-neutral games where, as a player, you don't have to play a man. It's simple, really. Women want marketing that acknowledges that women gamers do exist."
That's certainly Kat Stamoulis's wish. She has played since the second grade, though she didn't get a PlayStation2 until last Christmas.
"I held out until she was 14," says her mother, Maureen Stamoulis, laughing. "I'm still opposed to it. I still try to limit her playing time. "It's not like she gets C's and D's in school and plays games all day," says Stamoulis, the principal at Cashell Elementary School in Rockville. "She's a good student. She's got other interests." Such as musicals -- she was in the chorus of "Bye Bye Birdie," "Grease," "Guys and Dolls." And books. But video games, mother and daughter agree, trump everything.
Now she is playing GTA3. "I just love, love this game," she says. "I mean, it's just, well, fun. It's hard to explain."
She's on the first level, working for the Italian mafia, driving a Yamaha Banshee -- or, trying to drive -- around Liberty City, USA, "the worst place in America." She (or he, since the character is male) beats four people with a bat, blood splattering on the pavement. She gets $1,000 for that. "When you carjack a taxi," she says, "you get the money, too."
"You can run people over. You can drive like crazy."
But isn't there a part where you can pick up a prostitute, have sex with her, then kill her for the money?
"Yeah, so?" she answers. "It's a game. It's only a game. I don't take it seriously. Come on."
Twenty minutes pass by; an hour and a half.
"Three hours of playing games, if you think about it, is not that much," Kat says. "You've got 24 hours in a day."