Video Games Lack Woman's Touch

Stereo typical characters help manufacturers miss out on the female market
BY GREG SANDOVAL Associated Press
Tara Teich enjoys nothing more than slipping into the role of a female video game character. But the 26-year-old software programmer gets annoyed by the appearance of such digital alter egos as the busty tomb raider Lara Croft or the belly-baring Wu the Lotus Blossom of Jade Empire.
Don't even get her started on the thong-bikini babes that the male gunmen win as prizes in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was sent to stores with hidden sex scenes left embedded on the discs by programmers.
Rockstar Games belatedly took responsibility for the scenes this week after the industry's ratings board re-rated the game ``Adults Only.''
''I wish they were wearing more clothes,'' says Teich, a lifelong game enthusiast who now helps create games. Why, she asks, must women in video games always look like Las Vegas showgirls?
Tammy Yap, a game programmer for six years, once asked that of a colleague -- after all, the skimpy clothing and exaggerated body parts might offend some women, she told him. His response: ``What difference does it make? Women don't play video games.''
The data on who plays games are actually quite consistent -- men account for 70 percent of the players of games written for consoles (such as Xbox and PlayStation2), says Schelley Olhava, an analyst with the research group IDC. ''Those numbers have changed little in the past seven years,'' she says.
Women could be a rich area for growth -- if the $10 billion video game industry figures out what games they want. But their point of view often goes unheard.
''There's no question that we need more diversity,'' says Justin Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association. ``We're saying that we need to grow the business and broaden the audience and yet the game creators are still mostly young white males.''
It's not just about good intentions.
The decision by the Entertainment Software Rating Board to require an ''Adults Only'' rating for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas could cost Take-Two Interactive Software, Rockstar's parent company, more than $50 million this quarter alone.
Controversy over the amount of sex and violence in video games has raged for years. With games rated ''M'' for mature proving to be reliable top sellers, the industry has become synonymous with blood-spattered shootouts and voluptuous vixens. This makes it difficult to attract female job candidates, insiders say.
While Olhava says 10 percent of all software engineers in the technology industry are women, that figure is just 4 percent in the video game field, according to Della Rocca.
''I've never worked with another woman programmer,'' says Yap, 28, who has been at three companies in six years. She likes her male co-workers at Midway Home Entertainment in San Diego, but ``sometimes it gets lonely.''
Video game companies may remain a man's world for years to come.
In May, the University of Derby in Great Britain launched a game-programming course with financial backing from Microsoft.
All 106 applicants were male. And at the University of Southern California's school of engineering, it's not unusual to see classes in video game programming without a single female student, says Anthony Borquez, director of education for USC's Integrated Media Systems Center.
''The perception is that video games are just shoot-em-ups with half-naked women running around,'' Borquez says. ``A lot of women think that there isn't much video game content for them.''
Marketing efforts by the software companies seem to reinforce that perception, Yap says.
''Game magazines have women wearing bikinis on the cover,'' she says. ``They are obviously targeting men. There's nothing wrong with that, but that approach isn't going to attract many women.''
Teich and Yap say the industry doesn't have to be so male oriented. They cite the success of The Sims, a nonviolent RPG, as proof that the women's market means big bucks.
Redwood City, Calif.-based Electronic Arts has sold more than 54 million units of the Sims, generating more than $1 billion in sales since it launched in 2000. It's the bestselling PC game of all time, and about 55 percent of the buyers were women, says EA spokeswoman Tammy Schachter.
She also notes that there were more women on the Sims' development team than on most of EA's games.
''We're definitely very motivated to find more ways to get women into the industry,'' Schachter says. ``This is part of a plan to build out the talent pipeline over the long term. This is not something we can solve overnight.''

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