Technology

Xenakis on Technology: Online Games for Girls: E-commerce’s Next Frontier?

Will "collaboration" and "no males allowed" revive online markets?
John XenakisFebruary 14, 2001

Surprise! More females than males play online games. Just a few years ago, computer games were considered a no-woman’s-land. Not anymore.

However, men and women tend to play different games and use different styles of play, which raises the question whether existing E-commerce Web sites are set up to encourage the maximum number of online purchases by women.

Most market research says that some 80 percent to 85 percent of all consumer purchases in the U.S. are made by women. This means that four times as many consumer goods are purchased by women as by men.

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But there’s a tremendous gender gap between E-commerce and retail purchases. For example, a recent report from Forrester Research says that as many women as men are buying online, and that women and men follow similar E-tailing patterns.

But the different E-commerce habits of men and women are often misunderstood. Because, men and women are now making equal amounts of purchases in cyberspace, Forrester concludes that “gender is a red herring,” and “the E-commerce gender gap has closed.”

But that assertion seems to be off the mark. As long as women make up a far-smaller percentage of virtual transactions than they do in the bricks-and-mortar world of traditional retailing, the obvious conclusion is that online marketers are missing an enormous opportunity. It’s fair to ask whether the majority of E-commerce Web sites are simply “too masculine.”

But how should this disparity be addressed? Unfortunately, there’s no conclusive data on a solution.

It remains to be seen whether collaborative or other female-oriented traits can help E-commerce Web sites attract more women customers. Simply put, women tend to behave differently than men in online games and communications, and some observations about the distinctive features in online games for girls suggest some tactics that E-tailers might try to lure more women customers.

“Our latest study shows that women make up about 51 percent of the online gaming population,” says Sean Wargo of the market research firm, PC Data Inc. However, while men are more likely to be playing shooter or sports games, “what appeals most to women is card games, games based on a trivia theme and games with a gambling theme.” Most of these games have a collaborative element, permitting groups of people to share experiences.

The computer games adults choose appear to parallel the games young boys and girls play. Males tend to enjoy competitive, sometimes solitary games like car racing or shooting monsters, while women are more likely to look for games that emphasize sharing and communication, or which test their intelligence and problem-solving skills in non- competitive ways.

The PC games for girls that have reached a mass market include the Barbie games from Mattel Media Inc. (www.mattelmedia.com). These games, which are targeted to five- to 10-year-old girls, emphasize clothing and fashion. But “Detective Barbie: Mystery Cruise” is an adventure game starring Barbie, who has to solve an art-theft mystery using a variety of gadgets to uncover clues.

The Nancy Drew series games from Her Interactive Inc. (www.herinteractive.com) have also sold well through four titles since 1997, and are targeted to girls 10 and older.

“What’s interesting is that girls had never really been asked what they want in games, with the result that most games have been designed by males for males,” says Megan Gaiser, president of Her Interactive. “We took a look at how they use the computer and what they like and dislike, and they’ve given us a fresh perspective on what games should be.”

The latest title, “Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion” topped the Amazon.com children’s software list for a part of the last holiday season, according to Gaiser, who says that girls collaborate in this game similar to the manner in which they play hopscotch.

“We find that girls tend to play this game in groups of two or three,” she says. “They work together. One girl sits at the computer, and one girl writes down the hints and the clues that you need to solve the mystery.”

The games packaging makes it clear that this a “no males allowed” game, and the first thing you see when you open it is a banner reading, “Girls are cool.” My teen son, who’s willing to try almost any computer game, wouldn’t go near this one, although he watched me play it and only took command of the mouse when I was well into it.

How important is an occasional “no males allowed” message to this and other games targeted to girls?

Tami Cotter, a communications professional with two young daughters, 3 and 5, says that in her experience this kind of gender differentiation is very important.

“I don’t think it has to do with the parents, because we’re very open,” says Cotter. “But even when Ashley was very little she just wanted to play with dolls, and her attitude towards trucks was, ‘I’m not interested – those are for boys.’ “

This theme appears in the Tomb Raider games from Eidos (www.eidos.com) in a different way. The lead character in this series is the character Lara Croft, who is being heavily cross-promoted. Lara wears a Timex TMX Grip Clip watch in the game, and you can also buy that watch in stores. And a Tomb Raider movie is scheduled for release this summer, with Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie in the title role.

Although more males than females purchase Tomb Raider games, the percentage of female purchasers is relatively high, more than 10 percent, compared to less than 1 percent for most PC games.

Paul Baldwin, vice president of marketing for Eidos, “no males allowed” is at least a part of what women look for in this game.

“Lara Croft is an intelligent female heroine, never had time for males, always adventurous,” says Baldwin. “There’s a big puzzle and adventure element, including exploration in 3D worlds. For example, you can visit the massive tombs in Egypt and explore for hours. There are puzzles, but they don’t test your reactions, which is a male thing, but they touch your mind.”

The billion dollar question, of course, is whether companies can learn some new marketing skills by studying the differences in the online behavior between males and females. In the billion dollar world of E- commerce, that’s not kid stuff.

(Send John Xenakis your questions and comments for Xenakis on Technology (XOT) to [email protected])