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SXSW: Panel Talks The Female Takedown of Casual Gaming

The game audience is diversifying -- but what about game development? At Austin's SXSW event, Kongregate's Jim Greer, Foundation 9's Jane Pinckard, PlayFirst's John Welch and Michael Cai of Parks Associates discussed the casual space, and what it might ta
The game audience is diversifying -- but what about game development? Is that diversifying in a similar way? And how do women gamers consume games? At Austin's SXSW event, Kongregate's Jim Greer, Foundation 9's Jane Pinckard, PlayFirst's John Welch and Michael Cai of Parks Associates discussed drawing more women into the casual space, in a panel moderated by Scale Venture Partners' Sharon Wienbar. Talking Demographics "26 percent of our designers are female," Welch began. "Unfortunately, 0% of our coders are female." Foundation 9 also has a majority male staff, according to Pinckard. Prior to founding Kongregate with his sister, Greer worked with Pogo, whose audience is 60-70 percent women, but according to him: "The development staff was at one point zero percent women." Even on Kongregate's user-contributed development scene, where it's tough to verify submitter's identities, Greer's aware of only one female designer. "She made a Tetris game with cats in it. It’s sort of a young male scene for making games," he says. Wienbar asked the panel what it might take to encourage female involvement in user-generated game content. "Women are active in our forums," said PlayFirst's Welch. "When people can express themselves and be creative… many times, we find women for the first time doing these activities." While Parks Associates' Cai pointed out that social networking sites like Facebook are a good place to encourage female participation, Pinckard reminded him that those examples aren't really user-generated. As an alternative example, she said independently-developed tools that make it easier to develop one's own games are promising, while she's also seen women in Second Life creating complex content on a high level. "With the item payment model, you often have a lot of women involved," said Wiener. "There are quite a number of women there with businesses making money creating that content. I think as games become more community based, we’ll see more of that." Finally, Welch suggested that the growing acceptance of casual games by the broader gaming industry will help attract further talent, much of it female. "At some point we’ll stop making these distinctions because gaming will truly become a first-tier form of entertainment, like television. More people have played Diner Dash than have played Halo or The Sims." What Women Want As more businesses try to expand and attract the casual audience, there have been many attempts to define what will be attractive to different audiences. Do women and men prefer different forms of gameplay, and do they play for different reasons? "Our focus groups and surveys show that most women tend to play just to unwind," said Cai, whose company, Parks Associates, conducts this type of research often. "They often say they want to feel less stress, not more. On the other hand, Guitar Hero and Rock Band are bringing so many new players into console gaming. And, yes, females seem to be less interested in competing against others." When women play on community sites, is there a different willingness to play with strangers for men versus women? Or do they prefer to play with friends? Recalled Welch, "At Shockwave.com, we had an 8-way multiplayer Pictionary-type game. One thing that happened was a group of people wrote to us to say they would be celebrating New Years Eve on our site. It was just people who met each other through the community, and they liked each other so much they wanted to celebrate together that way." Distributing To Diversity Wienbar asked the panel how these games are being discovered and distributed -- and Cai admits that's an issue. "One thing I’ve struggled with in the casual industry is that a lot of gamers forget where they went to get that great game. So they Google, and just download it from the first site they find." Agrees Welch, "There are so many more sites selling games. So why would you go to any one website? So now there’s a lot of fragmentation and competition." How might further diversity among players impact monetization, distribution and business models? Welch added: "Our numbers show that out of the $1 million generated by casual games in the US, [the number one source] is still advertising. Companies in the industry have kind of passed the experimental stage." An audience member asked, given all the hype about games on social networks, might they be a good avenue for more female-friendly games? "Facebook is offering an opportunity to redefine what is a good gaming experience," said Welch. "Distribution is really defined by where the people are, so social networks become a critical site for distribution. Everyone is looking at social networks as critical aspects of their distribution." "From the point of view of social networks, it’s very important to add games," Wienbar agreed by way of conclusion. "It keeps them engaging."

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