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How department stores edged women out of the gaming industry

How department stores edged women out of the gaming industry

As I was growing up, a large part of my identity was ‘Player 2’. It was a part of who I was, the honorary title of my down-time hours. School nights after dinner were unfailingly spent sitting next to my big brother – permanently and incontestably ‘Player 1’ – settling our sibling rivalries over Super Smash Brothers, Mario Kart and Donkey Kong Country. It wasn’t until high school, when I enthusiastically exclaimed that the Ocarina of Time was unquestionably the best Legend of Zelda game, that I started to get eye-rolls from the boys. How dare I profess an interest in their domain? Was I just trying to be the ‘cool girl’ by pretending to be interested in their choice of electronic entertainment? From then on, I’ve been fascinated and offended by this bizarre binary of relevance in the video game industry.

 

The earliest forms of video games (think ‘pong’ and ‘space invaders’), were marketed as completely unisex. In fact, Electronic Gamer’s Magazine in 1982 said its record-smashing arcade game Pac-Man’s success “derives from its overwhelming popularity among female gamers”, incentivizing Atari to release the game’s sequel, Ms. Pac-Man. And this was not a surprising outcome. The video game industry at the time not only had a large female audience, but also a comparatively huge percentage of female game developers, including Atari’s Carol Shaw, creator of Centipede Donna Bailey, and adventure game pioneer and company co-Founder, Roberta Williams. Women were thriving in the industry, and everyone, young and old, were hooked. So what changed?

Image credit: Electronic Gamers Magazine, 1982.

Image credit: Electronic Gamers Magazine, 1982.

In 1983, there was an incident that has come to be known as the Video Game Crash (like the Great Financial Crisis, but for people who weren’t invited to their senior formals). Given the success of early arcade and video games for all members of the family, the market was flooded with poorly developed games that were unable to live up to the likes of Donkey Kong and Super Mario, the prior sensations of the industry. With marketing and production of these games catering to the less discerning junior audiences, most adults stopped playing the games entirely. It began to appear as the video game business was just a flash in the pan, so the industry cratered.

But this all changed when iconic gaming brand Nintendo got their foot in the door, and had to think fast with a new marketing strategy that would reinvigorate their target audience. The big change that occurred here was the loss of the adult market, and Nintendo’s subsequent decision that gaming consoles were not going to be sold in the electronics section of the store, but the toy section.

This would not have proven to be a problem for the company, however the layout of most department stores had now formally changed to accommodate a gender binary in toys and entertainment: Nintendo would have to pick a side, and market to them. Naturally, Nintendo, along with the rest of society, had chosen to discard the interests of the fairer sex in favour of the boys, and many other companies quickly followed suit. Having done a bit of research around gaming advertisements of the time, it isn’t difficult to notice a trend. Choice phrases in these commercials, all featuring fair-haired little boys in Air Jordans and crew-cuts, included, “Will you get the girl, or play like one?”, “it’s not the size of your weapon, it’s what you do with it” and “play like a man – with power”.

Image credit: Collegehumor

Image credit: Collegehumor

After decades of this kind of advertising, and it wasn’t long before video games became the exclusive domain of boys and men – the kind you couldn’t even buy into with all the Rupees in Hyrule. We have even come to believe that it’s just more natural for boys to like gaming more than girls do - which according to a study done last year by the Entertainment Software Association, is simply untrue. This study found that more adult women play video games than teenage boys do. Just let that sink in for a moment.

Granted these included iPhone apps such as Candy Crush and Angry Birds, but this only further demonstrates that mainstream gaming consoles like PlayStation and the Xbox are simply refusing to cater to a huge, untapped market.

So even though I’ve grown up loving video games, I haven’t picked up a Super Nintendo controller in years, because frankly, I’ve started believing that they don’t love me back. But don’t let that trick you into believing I couldn’t whoop your butt at N64’s GoldenEye. Because I will.

 

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