Sunday, December 9, 2007

Girl in the Computer Game Store

This is the second post for my series, Gender and Games.

What can be done to help women feel more comfortable buying computer games at a bricks-and-mortar store? I suspect that if game stores themselves could appeal to women better, then women would buy more computer games.

Computer Game Stores
Computer game stores are fine most of the time. Games are clearly displayed in a gender-neutral setting, and lighting is good. There are demo consoles in the store, so you can see what you're getting into. And, unless it's the holiday crush, clerks are generally available to discuss game titles. All-in-all, computer game stores are friendlier to women than traditional game stores. However, there is still work to be done.

Take a snapshot of a typical computer game store at Christmas time, and you'll see that over half the people in the store are in line, blocking other customers from reaching the rest of the store, and completely obscuring product displays near the registers. This is not a woman-friendly shopping environment. As at any store, women like to shop with enough space around them to avoid colliding with, or having to squeeze by, other customers.*

Real Information, not Pink
So far, it seems that publishers are convinced that all it takes to sell a computer game to women is to color it pink. Just look at the packaging for the animal care simulation games, and games based on popular toys. You need only glance down the aisle at a computer game store to know which games and consoles are being marketed to girls.

But that doesn't really help girls and women shop for the right game. Game packaging and placement need to provide clear, detailed information, such as if and how a game can be shared with friends, and what gameplay is really like.

PC game boxes rarely explicitly state numbers of players on the box. For example, the WoW box has one tiny paragraph that mentions, "Play solo or enlist fellow heroes..." and then its ESRB rating reads, "Game Experience May Change During Online Play".

That's not useful, and doesn't even make clear if 'fellow heroes' are NPCs, PCs, or both. Is it a team game where numbers of players are limited by specific map sizes? Is it an MMO where hundreds of people, or more, can share a game space? Do those other people need to buy a copy of the game or not to play together? How many slots or profiles does it save? Is play cooperative, competitive, or both? These are important details that should be shown on every package, but aren't.

Fortunately, computer game stores could help overcome the problem. Games could be sorted by number of players. For example, stores could add 'party games' sections for the Wii and other consoles. PC games could be sorted into multiplayer and single player sections. Clerks could add stickers to the shrink wrap: Massively Multiplayer, Up to 4 Players, 2-player Co-op, etc., and define those terms on a colorful poster or kiosk. All of those steps would help women actually shop for games instead of leaving them squinting at miniaturized screenshots on the box, trying to guess at gameplay features.

Other Ideas
Computer game culture uses a ton of acronyms, and these can be unfamiliar to the uninitiated. Basic ones, like MMO, RPG, and FPS, should be posted clearly with their definitions. Likewise, ESRB ratings should be posted and explained. 'Mature' rated games should be boldly labeled and kept on the top shelves, lest mom accidentally pick out a nice-sounding game like Rainbow Six for her grade schooler. Conversely, games for little kids should be placed at little-kid height, not high in the shelves (where I seem to keep finding them).

Computer game store employees need to be careful not to condescend to women, or treat them like they couldn't possibly be gamers. Having female clerks is great - it's easier for a woman to trust a fellow woman's recommendations. Clerks who know all the games out there and can describe them well are an awesome resource, vital to any shopper. Fortunately, I've never had any real problems with computer game store employees, aside from their tendency to ignore other customers when they're socializing.

So, overall, computer game stores don't have too much further to go before they become places where women can feel really comfortable shopping for games. Game stores should keep hiring great staff, explain gamer jargon, make sure detailed information about gameplay is included on every box, sort games by ESRB rating and number of players, and speed up the checkout process.

*Reference: Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Girl in the Gaming Store

I'm starting a 'Gender and Games' blog series, which I'm writing to help demystify the connections between women, men, and games. As a disclaimer, please understand that I'll be using generalities in this series.

I'll start with the most obvious point of purchase for games: the bricks-and-mortar game store.

So... why don't we see more women in game stores? How can we get more women to shop for games, and better yet, buy them and play them?

Well, there's at least two kinds of stores to talk about, each of which have their own problems.

The first is traditional gaming stores - the ones that sell card and board games as well as RPGs and tabletop miniatures games. The second is computer game stores, which sell console and PC games. The former has more problems than the latter, so I'll tackle it first.

Traditional Gaming Stores
The typical traditional gaming store is a mess. Dusty merchandise lines narrow, poorly-lit aisles, while impenetrable groups of men stand and chat loudly with the clerk. The bathroom isn't well-kept, and the gaming room in the back of the store - The Back Room - is worn and cluttered.

The book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill has a lot to say about why these are problems. Here is some of the book's knowledge that I've distilled for gaming stores:

When a woman walks into a store, she typically prefers clean, undamaged, neatly ordered goods. A dusty, dented or scratched item just announces that it has sat on the shelf forever, and isn't a good buy. The majority of women also like to read packaging. Who wants to pick up a dusty old game to read how it plays? Not most women.

Another issue with game store merchandise is that there isn't much available for beginners. For example, the best sizes of hobby paintbrushes are almost never present. There are plenty of miniatures and paints, but good luck finding the glue! Not only that, but the 'starter kits' for the more popular games are either missing or buried and dusty. You're not going to hook a woman on a hobby she can't find the basics for.

The aisles at gaming stores are usually too narrow for a shopper to easily pass a crouching shopper. Walkways need to be wider, since women won't generally stay to shop if they are in danger of being bumped. As well, I don't think I've seen gaming store aisles wide enough to accommodate a stroller; so much for helping new moms find a game.

Traditional game store lighting is often poor. It needs to be bright enough to read game books and packaging comfortably, even in the back corner. Plus, games often have great art - why not show it off with some well-aimed spotlights?

Most women prefer to interact with other human beings to discuss their potential purchases. However, if the game store clerk is busy chatting it up with the guys, a woman may feel too intimidated to approach. If she's shy, and she'll have to walk through those guys to get to the counter, she might not even make a planned purchase. Hiring female clerks can really help with this, as women usually feel more comfortable approaching other women.

Traditional game stores usually do have a lavatory, though its state is never predictable. I've seen perfectly clean bathrooms with everything a woman needs, and I've seen what could best be described as a questionable toilet in a janitorial closet. My advice to game stores is to install both men's and women's restrooms, and keep them clean and well stocked. When women see that a game store has a bathroom suited to them, they'll feel more welcome there.

The Back Room can be unnerving. It has disorganized shelves of ratty and broken pieces of terrain for use in battle simulation games, uncomfortable metal chairs, ugly and worn tables and floor, racks of ancient books shredded with use, poorly lit display shelves with dusty (but beautifully painted) miniatures, and faded game posters covering the windows. Sometimes these posters have illustrations of women in various states of undress.

The Back Room is a home for the gamer elite; the kings of the geeks. It is a thoroughly intimidating place for women. I do, however, have a couple of ideas on how to avoid scaring women off.

There's an interesting concept I learned about from The Tipping Point - the Broken Windows theory. For our purposes, it states that if you relentlessly keep a place clean, people will treat the place (and the people in the place) better. I've seen such actions work at Backspace, a computer/tabletop gaming hangout in Portland, OR. Unfortunately, after talking with employees of traditional game stores, I've realized that relentless cleaning would be difficult to practice at those locales. At the core of the issue is lack of manpower, and the juggernaut of gamer culture itself.

It's a delicate issue. Gamers show slovenly characteristics often enough that the cultural stereotype persists. While game stores do have the right to refuse service to anyone, their profit margins are too low for them to afford confronting their least hygienic patrons. And because women are more sensitive to odors than men are, the maleness of The Back Room perpetuates itself.

So, since game stores may never be able to make The Back Room welcoming to women, they can at least strive for keeping them from being frightening. I'd start by installing a good ventilation system, and by making sure that the worst messes and most worn paraphernalia were taken care of. That way, when a girl shows up with mom or dad to buy collectible cards, she's not as turned off by what she encounters in The Back Room.

In my ideal world, it would be as easy for a woman to break into gamer culture by visiting a game store as it is for a woman to break into do-it-yourselfer culture by visiting a Home Depot. Traditional game stores might be able to accomplish this if they had bright and well-placed lighting; clean merchandise and displays; beginner kits, instructions and materials present and in obvious locations; non-intimidating staff; superb bathrooms; wide aisles; and a well-kept gaming room.

Next up: the computer game store.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill
These postings are mine alone, have not been reviewed or approved by any employer or company, and do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone but me.