THE GENDER DIVIDE

The Baltimore Sun

Claire Carton is pretty sure her husband owns "every video game known to man" and that they're all named the same thing: Guns of War.

Not surprisingly, one of the few games Carton likes herself, her husband can't get into.

"What's the point of the Sims game?" he's always asking.

"To have the nicest house," she says, to which he concludes: "That's so stupid."

Gender disparity, it's easy to see, is alive and well in the video game world, evident in every explosion, every bloodletting, every bosomy sidekick.

"The games my husband plays have these incredible narratives but the main character is always a muscular guy with a hot babe walking around to help out," says Carton, a vice president at the Baltimore communications firm idfive. "They do a horrible job in designing and marketing games toward women. They think we're a lost cause."

Not everyone. Not anymore. Some gaming companies think women are a huge opportunity, a chance for what's already a multibillion-dollar industry to get at the 50 percent of the population it's been missing.

That's why Nintendo is offering its hand-held version in pink.

That's why Gamestop is promoting the latest version of the Madden NFL football game with a "Girls Night In" Web page.

That's why fashionistas shopping for designer purses at the online handbag rental company featured in Sex and the City are being offered game rentals when they order certain purses.

All steps in the right direction, but long overdue, says Deb Tillett, a technology consultant and former president of Hunt Valley's BreakAway Games, who is one of the few women in the gaming business.

Women won't find games appealing until women are helping make them, she says.

"What's out there now and what sells are hard-core games for guys," she says. "Women do buy and will buy games but it's all about the content."

The Entertainment Software Association, an advocacy organization for the video game industry, spends a lot of time trying to clear up the misconception that video games are for lonely teenage boys to play in their parents' dimly lit basements.

The association proudly points out that 40 percent of game players are women. But that statistic includes all games - computer solitaire, games included on cell phones and BlackBerries.

When it comes to the serious console games - Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox - women certainly play, but the majority of players are men and children.

Women who do play video games say there's just not much on the market that appeals to them.

Jaime Hood, for instance, is a self-proclaimed "geeky gamer girl" who has been hooked on video games since she was 4 and her parents brought home a Nintendo device. Though the 27-year-old from Bel Air has a number of game systems and about 300 games to go with them, even she will say gaming is a man's domain.

"I always felt like a loner; not many other girls I knew liked video games," she says. "I just don't think they appeal to most girls. It's racing and cars and big-breasted women, a lot of fighting games and a lot of testosterone."

Hood complains that when she wants to play a fighting game, she's usually forced to choose from about 20 male characters, or, if she's lucky, one or two women, both of whom will probably be overtly sexy.

Worse yet, she says: Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball.

"Have you every seen it?" she says. "It's all huge-chested women. They have slow-motion replay and it's ridiculous. It shows the women diving for the ball and breasts bouncing up and down."

On the bright side, Hood and others have noticed companies reaching out to the them. Nintendo in particular with its Wii and its portable DS (the one that comes in metallic rose and has the partnership with the online purse business From Bags to Riches).

In a recent campaign for Nintendo DS, the company featured Carrie Underwood, America Ferrara and Liv Tyler playing the game.

At the Minnesota gaming company Destineer, the CEO essentially ordered his staff to create with women in mind.

To that end, the company plans to release Iron Chef America Supreme Cuisine for the holidays, a game for Nintendo's Wii or DS based on the Food Network's competitive cooking show. The game's lead designer is a woman.

"If you've ever stirred something, you can play this game," says Lisa Mason, the designer. "It's very accessible. There's no buttons. It's very easy to pick up and play. And food is completely universal. What I'm hoping is [there is] no segment of the population that is unable or doesn't like playing this game."

For Mason, a 28-year-old who also plays games in her free time, almost worse than being ignored by the video game market is being condescended to by it. She feels as if a lot of the games made for women are either sparkly, pink and fuzzy or the equivalent of competitive shoe shopping.

For instance, in the game Imagine Babyz, the player feeds and plays with babies while cleaning and decorating the house.

"Women aren't this one collective group," she says. "What amuses us and what entertains us is different from person to person. [Game makers] know that about male players but they think women all fall into the same group."

But with the Iron Chef game, where people can play as chefs Mario Baltali or Cat Cora and vie to concoct dishes like shrimp ravioli and wild boar pita pockets, men and women are on equal footing and, she thinks, just as likely to be engaged in the competition. The game builds on the success of Cooking Mama, a kitchen-oriented game that was a hit with men and women alike.

Dave Degnan, producer for the Iron Chef game, says his girlfriend, Darci, who's 30, has shown interest in just two games he's brought home - Iron Chef and something called WordJong, a word puzzle game that's a cross between Scrabble and MahJong.

"One day I was working on WordJong and I said, 'Hey babe, you should try this out.' She spelled one word, turned her shoulder to me and said, 'You're not getting this back.' She's had my DS ever since."

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