2.3 Bn gamers, a $140 Bn industry, 8% five year CAGR and 3x average session length in comparison to social media, the world’s biggest fringe pastime is now a mainstream industry.
I have tracked global media and entertainment through the lens of a consumer, operator and investor and witnessed the skyrocketing growth of the games industry (second to video content). While entertainment should transcend cultural, geographical, gender and age boundaries, games particularly have skewed heavily towards content which is more male oriented despite the large female audience.
Digital entertainment has evolved. Consumer preferences have altered. Curated, personalised experiences are being demanded and more women are playing games than ever before. There is a great need to create more diverse content to serve this audience and also capture the value left on the table.
I spoke to some experienced product managers across the globe to understand how to build and enable inclusive entertainment at a more meaningful scale.
Underserved, Ignored and Often Patronised
A commonly held perception is that games entertainment for women is plentiful, especially since the advent of mobile. Titles such as Candy Crush, Episode, Choices, Hay Day, Love Island, Kim Kardashian, Farmville are offered as evidence of the proliferation of gaming titles catering to women.
However, is that it?
“We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what entertainment for women looks like.” Sarah Fuchs, VP and GM Covet Fashion, Glu Mobile
Video games has historically been viewed as a masculine activity. The dearth of female representation in the industry alongside findings of sexist encounters in online game spaces have traditionally meant that entertainment featuring women or rich, complex and immersive gaming experiences built for women have been scarce.
“Historically, there has been an under appreciation of feminine content and often near-contempt for it. So, as a woman to be considered a “serious” gamer there was almost a pressure to gravitate towards more male-oriented AAA titles.“ Camilla Avellar, Game Designer, Supercell.
“Sexy, Strong and Secondary” is a fascinating research study on female characters in video games which analysed content across a period of 31 years. It reveals that video games feature female characters less frequently than male and portrayals of sexualised females abound, often in secondary roles. It also presents evidence where the preponderance of men in the game industry has led to a culture in which the male perspective is often the only one.
Over the last decade, many may argue, the landscape changed. The emergence of Facebook games in 2008 was followed by the mobile games revolution. Games became more accessible. Audiences became more diverse. Content became geared towards a more “casual/women oriented audience”.
11 years and a plethora of farm builders, cute puzzles, high school stories and match 3 games later, the norm of women focused games has not evolved. Innovation in content for this audience has been undeniably slow.
“As game creators we often design for an audience we are part of (or can relate to) and make games we would also like to play. It does mean that since the majority of developers and financiers are men, the type of games that get made and funded are somewhat skewed. This has been slowly changing recently as female players have become an economic force to be reckoned with, but creating authentic and innovative experiences for this audience will ultimately need more women in the industry as both creators and investors.” Zsuzsa James, Founder of Dreamatik.
So, What Do Women Want?
The limited exploration of what feminine entertainment entails, the underrepresentation of women in the industry and the dearth of funding opportunities for innovative, women focused content is largely responsible for the lack of content diversity.
Now, men and women are more similar than dissimilar. However, differences between sexes on biology and genomes is woefully understudied. As per the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic, University of California there is recent research documenting the structural chemical, genetic, hormonal and functional brain differences between men and women. This impacts brain sensitivities to stress, conflict, experiencing emotion, visual identification and problem solving.
Studies have found that to complete a task, while there are no “performance differences” between men and women, there are significant sex-specific differences in the brain circuits activated to do so. These differences are incredibly important to understand and grasp particularly when designing consumer tech products and experiences for discrete audiences.
“ As women, we are challenged and stressed in our daily lives in ways that we have internalised. We perform more household chores than our spouses, we are constantly marginalised in our work, judged for our appearance and ridiculed for our choices. Thus, we need more female focused entertainment which is not “win-only”. We asked ourselves what if we can engage women in a way that is not zero sum? “ Christianne Amodio, Co-Creator, Design Home.
Gone are the days of the one-size-fits-all approach. Particularly games where audiences are demanding more nuanced, customised and rich experiences.
“After conducting multiple focus groups and studies, it is very clear that relaxation, channelling creativity/ inspiration and learning are some of the top reasons for women to play our games.” Judy Chen, Director-Data Science Product Management, Design Home, Glu Mobile.
A research report by Quantic Foundry surveyed 250,000 gamers (out of the sample size surveyed, only 18% were women) listed the major motivation for women to be completion (getting all stars/completing all missions) and fantasy (being someone else). For men, competition and destruction were the top two motivators.
While there is indeed a subset of female players who are competitive and focused on completion, it is clear that there is an audience who aren’t.* Beating stress and avoiding competition in choice of entertainment is often a key motivation for women players. Seeking inspiration, desire to learn and self-improvement are also equally important. These preferences are clearly demonstrated by this audience via the immense popularity of apps like Instagram/Pinterest as outlets for self-expression.
“Many women don’t identify themselves as gamers. Games are seen by many women as time wasters. After conducting a number of user surveys across teen girls and older women, I discovered the following: women are not interested in products that treat women badly; women are interested in products that reference their preferred cultural touchstones and that does not necessarily include sci-fi, fantasy or cute farms; and women are interested in products that help them understand their real lives and real identities better, and not products that are about winning petty challenges.” Brie Code, Founder and CEO, TRU LUV.
Game designers and product managers who want to build for female audiences will do well to understand this key differentiation.
In “The Female Brain” by Louann Brizendine M.D. identifies that collaboration, creation, tend and befriend strategies for women is at the core of their being whereas competition, social rank, power and defence of territory is a key part of the male genetic makeup. This impacts the choice of play as well. While the latter is widely known and designed for, the former has meant that a lot of content designed for women has been overly simplistic and stereotypical.
Recent research also shows that anxiety is four times more common in women than men due to body chemistry. Gene variations and brain circuits impacted by estrogen and serotonin often result in intense sensitivity to stress in women. Timers, leaderboards, progression mechanics which are all commonly employed in games inherently have a powerful effect on the limbic system, induce “fight or flight” stress responses and ultimately culminate in a dopamine reward. Highly effective for one kind of player but often indiscriminately applied to all audiences without recognition of diverse player needs.
“ In Hay Day, we see a majority female audience. We always have our antennae up about any in-game changes that will detract from Hay Day being a happy place. Adding more pain points i.e. making the animals run away, burning down the farms etc could potentially increase the need to spend but we are very conscious about not stressing our audience or pushing it away. The game is very focused on constructive, calming collaboration as opposed to the hard-core, intense competition seen in games like Clash of Clans.” Drussila Hollanda- Grönberg, Project Lead, Supercell and Camilla Avellar, Game Designer, Supercell
While meaningful social collaboration is important for women and can drive engagement in games, time constraints facing women are different from men. Social patterns that come from large multiplayer games which require huge time investment don’t necessarily translate well for women’s realities, hence short session lengths, single player games and asynchronous social interactions often work well in women oriented games.
“Learning and inspiration is a key element of our games. With a 98% female audience, we provide a canvas to our players to be creative without it being competitive or time consuming. There is a palette that our players can use to make something beautiful and learn something. It was also a deliberate decision to look like a magazine catalogue which lies between a game and an app to speak to a wider audience. “ Sarah Fuchs, VP & GM Covet Fashion, Glu Mobile
These two games are the first of a kind with a view to build an aspirational, beautiful and stylised gaming experience for women interested in interior design and fashion without being forcefully cute, pink or patronising. While social collaboration and validation is part of the game, the games can also be played entirely single player. Monetisation is elegant and non-predatory. No lootboxes, timers or skipping wait times. The monetisation strategy leverages the bond a user creates with the game and the need to better a creation. The games understand the nuances necessary to create playful, creative experiences so important to their audiences. This clearly translates into commercial success. Over the last 6 years, Covet Fashion has achieved 60M+ downloads, 2–3M DAU’s and over $220M in bookings through Q1 2019. Launched in late 2016, Design Home achieved 60M+ downloads, dozens of brand partners, over $300M in bookings through Q1 2019 and still going strong.
Designing new app mechanics and aesthetics with more feminine aspects have yet to be experimented with on a meaningful scale. Thus, leaving a huge audience base still largely untapped and underserved.
“At TRU LUV we build experiences that create flow states of deepening connection as opposed to commonly employed mechanics of rising tension. I am not interested in stress and pressure when I use an app. I want to be seen, understood, and to have a growing sense of connection. Our AI companions are inspired by oxytocin, not adrenaline, leveraging design curves that go from awkward to smooth or messy to tidy instead of from easy to hard, so that when you leave the app you are calm and satisfied, not stressed” Brie Code, Founder & CEO, TRU LUV.
Strong women leaders build diverse teams and products
To build inclusive entertainment, hire more women and build diverse teams. It’s a no brainer. Having women in leadership roles and strong female voices driving product decisions are game-changers.
Balancing out teams in terms of professional backgrounds, gender, ethnicity and demographic in the early days is critical to building balanced products. Even diversifying by hiring from outside the industry often adds a new dimension to product design. An easy lesson that startups and established companies in the industry have repeatedly failed to implement. Those who do clearly yield dividends.
In FarmVille Tropic Escape, key leads across art, game design and engineering were women.We take a focused approach to our hiring, to ensure our hiring practices are more inclusive: i.e. going to conferences which are women oriented, being more deliberate while crafting job descriptions and even going outside the games industry to hire certain talent.” Heather Houston, Senior Director, Words with Friends, Zynga.
“ It’s important to hire a diverse array of talent that can represent and empathise with the general population. This allows teams to foster an environment to be bold, stay curious and deliver socially connected creative experiences for underserved audiences.” Sarah Fuchs, VP and GM, Glu Mobile.
The future is female
As platforms/channels diversify and women spend more time on their devices seeking entertainment, we need to acknowledge the role gaming content will play in influencing and shaping society. While a few companies have already tapped this audience with great success, there is still room for more creative and innovative content.
For far too long has the representation, narrative and power structures of our world been male oriented. As tech awakens to women as power consumers, we need a paradigm for inclusive and diverse entertainment. As an investor, I am excited about a world with equal representation and what it unlocks. Imagine the possibilities.
*Note: The primary aim of this article is to shed light on the need to build innovative content, in the context of female audiences and the opportunity it presents. It does not preclude the sub-set of male players who may enjoy similar style of entertainment and are also underserved. A special thanks to everyone who contributed to this with their experiences, insights, perspectives and opinions (some of whom are quoted).