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.
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