On the Cool Jobs-O-Meter a kid might use to decide who to bring to Career Day at school, Seattleites Megan Gaiser, Brenda Spoonemore and Cara Ely would all rank high. Really, what could be more awesome than having a mom, aunt or friend in the digital gaming industry?
“I am the aunt of 11 nieces and nephews and in my humble opinion, which may not necessarily be true, I am their favorite aunt,” jokes Gaiser, chief strategic creative officer of Her Interactive, the game development company that in 1997 gave virtual new life to one of the world’s most popular teenage super-sleuths when it got the license to turn Nancy Drew into interactive computer games.
Her Interactive is a celebrated pioneer in the realm of interactive mystery games. The company’s electronic games have received 35 “Best Software” awards from Parents’ Choice Foundation, iParenting Media, Children’s Software Revue, The National Parenting Center and Good Housekeeping. In fact, Her Interactive was considered a groundbreaking company even before its Nancy Drew game series became a hit. It was one of the first companies established (in 1995) specifically to create games for teenage girls. The games that the company publishes are rated “E” (for everyone) and are designed for kids ages 10 and up. The company has been recognized for its corporate decision to not depict violence in its games. All of these things were a lure for Gaiser.
“I moved to Seattle because of the promise of multimedia and the chance to tell linear stories in a nonlinear progression,” says Gaiser. She was also interested in the possibility of interactive stories expanding people’s awareness rather than perpetuating stereotypes about women and girls.
“Nancy Drew was the original geek girl, who made being smart cool,” she reminds us. “I got excited by the opportunity to transform Nancy Drew into an inspiring and cinematic game experience.”
But in 1997 computer game distributors were decidedly closed-minded about the potential of a digital Nancy Drew adventure. “The distributors at the time refused to put our first Nancy Drew game on the retail shelves because they said that ‘girls were computer-phobic.’ We knew better,” she says.
They sold the games on Amazon instead of through brick-and-mortar retailers. “With that move, game sales took off and The New York Times dubbed us the ‘UnBarbie’ of computer games.” The same distributors that turned down the Nancy Drew game soon returned to Her Interactive with a retail deal.
“We are very proud to be the pioneers of games targeted towards female play preferences,” Gaiser says. Along with helping the company rake in numerous software awards, Gaiser herself has been lauded. She has been named one of the Game Industry’s 100 Most Influential Women by Next Generation and one of the Top 10 Most Influential Women of the Decade by Gaming Angels. In 2010, Microsoft (a former employer) handed Gaiser the Microsoft Women in Games award.
Cara Ely, former creative director of Seattle-based I-play Games, who is also named on several top 100 industry leader lists, faced similar skepticism when she began development of the first product in the popular Dream Day game series: Dream Day Wedding.
“When I pitched the first game, there was a lot of skepticism about making a game that might only appeal to women, even though we knew our core audience was female; I had to stay true to my creative vision and keep the team and management excited about the product every day,” she says.
That was in late 2006. Ely has since helped design seven Dream Day games and the series is I-play’s most successful original intellectual property to date. It’s been downloaded by more than 60 million people.
Dream Day True Love, based on the 70-year marriage of Ely’s grandparents and the most recent addition to the point-and-click-style game series, hits many other important milestones in the life of a relationship. Ely’s success has shown that a significant segment of gamers, especially women, are attracted to games that reflect real-life circumstances in a casual, relaxed game atmosphere.
Ely developed an innovative documentary approach and went to great lengths to gather the materials seen in Dream Day True Love — including her grandparents’ actual World War II love letters and wedding photos which are used as reference points or actual in-game objects.
Attention to that kind of personal detail is a cornerstone of all of the Dream Day games. In fact, users meet pets actually owned by members of her design team and other real-life insertions as they point and click through the games. Why? Ely says that as a woman in her 30s, she is part of her company’s core demographic and as such relies on her gut instinct about what is important to her as a game user during the development process.
According to Ely, the seek-and-find-style game itself is generally more appealing to women because of the different ways men and women process and remember information. Women, she says, tend to excel at visual memory games.
“When I talk to players who are fans of the games I’ve been working on in the last few years — hidden object/light adventure games — many of these players are women, and they often say that they play games to relax; it’s their ‘me’ time,” she says. “Relaxation is not something they associate with a first-person shooter, so they seek out something different. Women who might never call themselves gamers are spending hours per day on hidden object and puzzle games. I do believe there is a game for everyone, some mechanism that will flip that switch and turn a non-gamer into a gamer."
Ely, who recently stepped down from her post at I-play Games to pursue other interests, believes there has been a tectonic shift in gaming with an increasing number of games catering to women. According to the national Entertainment Software Association, approximately 40 percent of all gamers are now female. In fact, women are now the largest users of social media, an important statistical data point for the gaming industry. A poll of gaming done in March 2010 showed that 20 percent of people who played some form of video or digital game during the month played via a social network.
“With the emergence of the Wii, casual games and Facebook games, females have become major customers,” Gaiser points out. “As a result, the female perspective has become critical in designing games."
That may help balance a glaring disparity. Despite demanding a large portion of the buyers’ market, only 10 to 15 percent of gaming industry workers and designers are female. Even fewer have reached the executive level.
“All mediums go through a similar evolution,” says Gaiser, a former film producer and editor. “With the film industry, males dominated at first and it took a while to level the playing field. The same goes for the gaming industry, which by comparison is still in its infancy.” As it turns out, Her Interactive’s staff is half female, half male.
“That wasn’t by design,” Gaiser says. “We arrived there by hiring the best talent.”
The fact that young players like those at Her Interactive have a growing interest in making the games they love bodes well for women in the industry, both Gaiser and Ely agree.
“I think being a woman has really helped me, simply because our core audience is female. I created the Dream Day series of games partially in response to the number of casual games that were skewed towards guys or felt gender-neutral; we knew that women were playing in record numbers; why not explore some themes and story lines that were more female-friendly?”
Brenda Spoonemore is founder, past CEO and now chair of the board of Seattle-based Atomic Moguls, and she agrees that exposure and interest are the keys to reaching a more equitable gender split industry wide.
“It’s really more about interest than opportunity,” says Spoonemore. “In other words, there aren’t big barriers to women entering technology and gaming if they’re interested in doing so; I just haven’t seen a lot of résumés from women.”
Atomic Moguls caters to men in game development; many of its games are based on sports. But the company is a pioneer in the female-dominated gaming venue of social media. Atomic Moguls was one of the first companies to bring gaming to Facebook, for example, taking advantage of the word-of-mouth game-growth possibilities inherent in social media. The company’s Galacticos Football game is described as the “original social world football game on Facebook to use real-life soccer stars.” The goal of the game: Try to build your squad into the champions of Europe. CBSSports.com Franchise Football, co-branded with CBSSports.com, is the first social pro-football game on Facebook with real-life players that allows users to play football all day.
Spoonemore launched her gaming company after seven years with the NBA, where she ran the association’s digital media programs. She knows about being a woman in largely a man’s world but believes that, as in sports, women will continue to gain a greater and greater share of the workplace over time, especially as more men seek jobs that facilitate work-family balance or choose to stay home with kids.
That’s because the gaming culture is hard for either sex looking for that balance, Spoonemore observes. Until recently, women have been more apt to desire jobs that mesh better with a family’s schedule.
“There are more complicated social issues at the senior executive level, especially at larger companies who may have a 24/7 corporate culture which is at odds with men and women who are looking to balance work with family or outside interests,” she says.
While Spoonemore and her colleagues may not be getting many résumés from women at their male-oriented games company, Ely says she is definitely seeing signs that the industry-wide gender gap is closing.
“It seems like things have picked up steam,” says Ely. “Teams are more balanced and games are a way of life for men and women of all ages.”
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