Four-year-old Riley Maida stands in a toy aisle of a department store in Newburgh, N.Y. The backdrop is pink. The shelves behind her are stacked with plastic babies in pink onesies. To her left are hair-and-makeup dolls with exaggerated heads attached to truncated shoulders. The shelf above has rows of little dresses and pastel pink slippers. The shelf above that, more pink dolls in more pink dresses.
In the next aisle, there's a distinct absence of pink. This is the "boys aisle." Lined with Nerf guns, G.I. Joes, superhero figures, building blocks and toy cars, it has a diverse color palette of blues, greens, oranges and reds.
Maida looks down the aisle of pink. Arms akimbo, the cherubic 4-year-old with brunette bangs furrows her brow. She looks into her father's camera and begins a rant that will go viral on the internet and make its way onto television networks like CNN and ABC.
"Would it be fair for all the girls to buy princesses and the boys to buy superheroes?" she says, smacking her right hand to her head in exasperation. "Girls want superheroes AND the boys want superheroes!"
She points her index finger and shakes her hand at the pink boxes around her. Occasionally jumbling her words while giving her impassioned speech, she questions why boys and girls need separate toy aisles and why some toys are designated for one gender and not the other. Boys and girls can both like pink, she says. Why do companies have to make boys and girls think that they can only like certain things? Palm open, she hits her right hand on the top of one of the boxes to emphasize her point.
A few aisles over, in the video game section, there is a similar marketing story that Maida has yet to learn. Unlike in the toy aisles, she won't find an expansive selection of video games for boys and an equally expansive selection for girls. Most "girls' sections," if they exist, are lined with fitness titles and Ubisoft's simplified career simulation series, Imagine, which lets players pretend they're doctors, teachers, gymnasts and babysitters.
As for the boys section — there isn't one. Everything else is for boys.
If the selection at the average retailer is anything to go by, girls don't play video games. If cultural stereotypes are anything to go by, video games are for males. They're the makers, the buyers and the players.
There is often truth to stereotypes. But whatever truth there may be, the stereotype does not show the long and complicated path taken to formulate it, spread it and have it come back to shape societal views.
The stereotype, for example, does not explain why "girls don't play video games." It does not reveal who or what is responsible for it. It does not explain how an industry that started with games like Pong (1972) or the first computer version of Tic-Tac-Toe (1959) came to be responsible for a medium that, for most of its history, hasn't had even an aisle's worth of games for Maida.
Toy aisles are explicit in their gender divide. Clear signage indicates which toys are for boys, and which are for girls. In the video game section, there is little overt exclusion. It's a slower molding of our expectations over time.
Maida might not understand this right away. She hasn't even gotten to the video game aisle yet. But standing among the dolls in their pink tutus, face scrunched up and hands slapping her sides, she's starting in the right place. She's asking the most important question: "Why?"
Power of marketing
Not every 4-year-old is as critical as Riley Maida. Most adults don't give a second thought to the way their local department stores are laid out or how things are sold to them. But there are few marketing accidents in retail. The aisle Maida stood in was not accidentally saturated in pink. It's no accident that most video game retailers plaster their walls with promotional posters for action games, shooters and war games.
Marketers have advertising down to a science, according to Rodger Roeser, president of marketing firm the Eisen Agency. They research and analyze consumer behavior: what colors make people want to eat more, what colors make people want to buy more and how people react to different imagery. "People like me get paid a lot of money to understand customer and consumer behavior," Roeser says. A lot of that money goes into research and finding the best way to send messages to consumers. He says that, whether we like it or not, we're conditioned from an early age to pay attention to these messages. "Very smart, creative, crafty people are tweaking your brain to get you to want something or buy something," Roeser says. "And while you might think you're arriving at the conclusion completely on your own, I promise you, marketing played a role in some way."
"It appeals to a certain gender or category of the population and it makes sense from a marketing perspective to go after it."
Long before a video game hits retailers, the marketing machine is already well in motion. Before games like Call of Duty, Madden or Grand Theft Auto are even made, marketers are working with game developers to determine the game's content, how they'll represent it, who they're making it for and how they'll reach that audience. Most of the time, they know exactly which market they want to capture before they even start considering game ideas. Many of the decisions about what gets green-lit and what doesn't are based on hard data and analytics. Marketers know who plays which games, how big the audience is and what they're hungry for. Like the pink aisle, there is little to no prodding in the dark.
Most marketers will explain that trying to target a general audience in one campaign is a bad idea. It dilutes the marketing message. People want things that have been designed just for them. A product is more than just a product; it carries meaning and often a promise — a promise that we'll look better, feel better, have more fun and improve our lives in some way.
President of the marketing firm A Squared Group Amy Cotteleer says that marketing is so powerful that it can shape our values and beliefs, and we're often not even aware that it's happening. Coca-Cola's marketing campaigns in the 1920s are the reason why the modern-day image of Santa Claus is a jovial, plump man in a Coca-Cola Red suit. Prior to Coca-Cola, there was no consistent image of Santa. He was often represented as a skinny man who sometimes wore green and sometimes wore brown. So if Coca-Cola could sell us the modern-day Santa, the game industry would not have had much trouble selling the idea that video games are for males.
"Marketing is insights-based," Cotteleer says. "People land on something, something resonates, it appeals to a certain gender or category of the population and it makes sense from a marketing perspective to go after it."
"You do the math, find the insight, and you figure, 'What's the biggest population we can sell this to?' That's who you need to target. That's how it breaks into a gender story."
There are plenty of ideas that have been sold to populations through marketing — ideas that go deeper than what color Santa wears.
Cotteleer cites the example of Coors beer. "There's not a lot to distinguish between American canned and bottled beers like Coors and Miller, and they were having a hard time figuring out what they could market," she says. Coors decided it would differentiate itself from its competition by owning "cold," she says, so that when people think of "ice-cold beer," they think Coors.
"It was Coors that said, 'We are the coldest of the cold. We are brewed in the mountains; we ship in refrigerated trucks.' They put a stake in ice-cold beer and people literally began to think and continue to think to this day, 'I've got to drink my beer ice-cold.'"
Of course, there is a practical reason for drinking beer cold: Chilled beer is harder to taste. Coldness neutralizes the flavor, which makes many beers — particular cheap beers — more drinkable. "So it actually does a really great job on two levels," she says. "It convinces you that you need to have a cold beer, and you actually think this product is superior because it doesn't taste as bad as the competitor, which is slightly warmer."
Marketing a product as being superior to its competition is one way of defining it and securing customers. Gendering a product is another. According to Roeser, personal-care company Procter & Gamble is the master of selling the same product to multiple markets because of the way it has gendered items like shampoo, body lotion, deodorants and shower gels. He says that the difference between something like Pantene and Old Spice is the packaging and fragrance. Both shampoos do the same thing, but one is sold as a product that women use to pamper themselves, while the other is sold as something practical — so practical, in fact, that its slogan is: "The original. If your grandfather hadn't worn it, you wouldn't exist."
Roeser explains that focusing on one audience, whether it be young men, young women, children or the older population allows the marketer to focus their resources on one demographic and increase their likelihood for success. If a company wants to direct the product at men, then its marketing department can focus its limited resources on winning over that demographic, rather than trying to reach too many people and risk failing altogether.
"You don't want to water down your brand," Roeser says. "You want to know specifically who you're targeting and go after that, because there are very few products that have a mass appeal. There's really only two — Coca-Cola and Pepsi — and inside those there are massive subsets like Coke Zero, Diet Coke, Pepsi Max etc."
According to Roeser, it makes sense from a marketing perspective for the video game industry to have pursued a male audience, which is exactly what it did starting in the early '90s.
We made the games we wanted
An Atari office in California the 1970s had two floors for game development. Upstairs was the home entertainment division, where about half a dozen developers made games for home consoles like the Atari 2600 and Atari 800. Downstairs was the coin-op division. It worked on games for arcade machines. There was hardly any interaction between the two floors. Both divisions worked on the same games, with the home console team porting arcade titles like Pong to the Atari home machines, but they went after different audiences. Pong on the console was for the family. Pong on the coin-op machines was for adults in bars.
Before arcades themselves became destinations, arcade machines mimicked the distribution of pinball machines. They were targeted at beer-drinking adults who were looking to wind down and socialize after work. Later, they spread to more family-friendly locations like malls, movie theaters, bowling alleys and Chuck E. Cheese. But before they did, they were a mostly adult affair. The arcade game Tapper, sometimes known as Root Beer Tapper, was originally released as Budweiser Tapper. In the game, players would play the part of a bartender serving drinks to eager customers. Likewise, Zeke's Peak — a mechanical arcade game where players navigate the playing field with a marble — originally launched as Ice Cold Beer.
"She knew not many women held bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science and engineering, but she held both. She was qualified to do the job, and that was that. "
Pong was a hit in arcades. The game required two players, which meant it was perfect in social spaces like bars and pubs where men and women spent time after work. Pong on the home console was an even bigger hit. It was the same game — two virtual sticks on each side of the screen hitting a ball in a game of virtual tennis — but it was marketed as a family game. It featured heavily in the Sears shopping catalog as something for parents to enjoy with their children.
In these early days of game development, video games were made by small teams, oftentimes only two or three people. At Atari, one developer often handled the game's writing, coding, design and art. Video game studios were predominantly male, largely a by-product of men far outnumbering women in the field of computer sciences.
Carol Shaw was the first female developer Atari hired. She is best known for designing and programming River Raid for the Atari 2600 at Activision. She says never got the sense that the games she made were for one gender or another, and there was never a mandate from higher-ups to target a certain audience. When she interviewed for the job, she didn't believe she was at any disadvantage because she was a woman, nor did she feel that video games were the realm of men. She knew not many women held bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science and engineering, but she held both. She was qualified to do the job, and that was that. "We never really discussed who our target demographic was," she says. "We didn't discuss gender or age. We just did games we thought would be fun."
Many of the games released were gender-neutral. Shaw herself made the computer version of 3D Tic-Tac-Toe and Checkers. At the arcades, games like Avalanche (where players attempt to catch rocks from paddles), Breakout (where players break down a wall with a ball and paddle) and Centipede (where players shoot at a segmented centipede) were huge hits.
The only time Shaw remembers the subject of gendering games coming up was when, Ray Kassar, who would later become president and CEO of Atari, remarked, "Gee, now that Atari has a female game designer, she can do interior decorating and cosmetic color-matching games!" He laughed. Shaw rolled her eyes. When Kassar left the room, her fellow game developers turned to her: "Don't pay attention to him," they said. "Just do whatever you want."
In the late 1970s in Oakhurst, Calif., Ken and Roberta Williams founded Sierra Entertainment, a video game studio that would come to be known for its adventure games like King's Quest, Quest for Glory, Leisure Suit Larry and, much later on, the full-motion Phantasmagoria titles.
Lori Cole, who co-wrote and designed Sierra's Quest for Glory series, recalls that some of the earliest video games she played were so simplistic that there was nothing gendered about them. The games mostly involved blowing up meteorites and spaceships. "Those games weren't exactly female-targeted, but it was guys who were making them, and they were trying to make what they could with this technology," she says. "So I don't think it was a case of the games being designed for guys. They were just designed by guys."
While the industry was male-dominated, much like it is today, Sierra was a rare exception. The company centered around Roberta Williams, who designed the company's cash-cow King's Quest. "She was the queen of the company," Cole says. It was hard for anyone at Sierra to assume that men were the primary audience when the company's best sellers were based on fairy tales.
Many of Sierra's audience were women in their 30s. They were by no means the majority. But the studio knew, based on the feedback it got, that it had a diverse audience. According to Cole, the attitude that games were for men didn't exist, at least it didn't exist at Sierra at that time.
"I remember when Sierra released a King's Quest game where the lead character was Rosella, a female character," Cole says. "We received the silliest letter ever from this guy who was calling Roberta a feminist for wanting to have a female as a main character. We passed it around the company and everybody at Sierra was laughing at this guy for being upset because we had a female main character.
"We didn't see this as a problem. In fact, we had several games that had female leads. Nobody thought it was an issue."
Ending the Wild West
The game industry from the '70s through the early '80s was a kind of Wild West. "Nobody knew what they were doing," Cole says. "Nobody was a professional at this." With the first popular home consoles launching in the late '70s, there was no marketer with game industry experience because there had previously been no video game industry. Both Cole and Shaw say at no point in their early careers did they even interact with a marketing department or receive instructions about having to target a specific demographic. Unlike today, some say there was hardly any player research being conducted, either.
"With the Atari 2600, games like Space Invaders, Combat and Adventure were being sold through toy channels, but they didn't know who was actually playing the games," says the current head of development at Other Ocean Interactive, Mike Mika, who began his game development career in the days of the Game Boy and has helped ship more than 120 titles. "Was it the father? The mother? The children? Registration data was rarely returned." Many studios targeted everyone. This strategy worked for a while. And then it stopped.
In 1983, North America experienced a massive recession in the video game industry, now known as the video game crash. The crash had devastating effects, bankrupting game company after game company. At its peak, the revenues for video games in the U.S. sat at $3.2 billion in 1983. By 1985, revenues fell a whopping 97 percent to approximately $100 million. There are many factors behind the crash. The key factor is that by 1983, the video game market was saturated with low-quality games, which resulted in a loss of consumer confidence. Anyone who could make a game was making a game, and there was little to no regulation on the part of the console makers. Players got burnt. Retailers got burnt. People stopped buying video games. The crash marked what many believed to be the end of the video game industry.
Nintendo is largely credited with reviving the game industry with the launch of its Nintendo Entertainment System and its stringent regulations on what games could be released on its consoles. All of its games came with the "Official Nintendo Seal of Quality" — a promise to buyers that the game would not disappoint them, and there would be no repeat of the sloppy and broken titles that flooded the market and led to the crash.
According to Ian Bogost, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology as well as game designer and author of Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games, Nintendo re-established the favor of the toy business by presenting its Nintendo Entertainment System as more of a toy and less as a game. In the mind of the retailers, nobody was buying video games anymore, but people were still buying toys. "That shift to toy culture in the mid-'80s with the NES and its followers, and then the shift to what we now call 'dude-bro' games happening in the early '90s — I think those are the two most important marketing moments, and I think they're different from one another," Bogost says.
"You need to have a very clearly differentiated and specific brand because that's going to play into where you're running your ads."
The marketing of video games and consoles as toys was a way of saving the industry at retail. Once video games were back in toy stores, the industry had a chance at making money again. It couldn't repeat the past. There could be no more Wild West.
"Knowing that you have limited funding, you can't just market shotgun. You can't just go after anybody," says Rodger Roeser. "You need to have a very clearly differentiated and specific brand because that's going to play into where you're running your ads and what kind of ads you run. That niche-ing, that targeting makes it easier for marketers to have a very succinct conversation with their target without overspending and trying to reach everybody."
The industry did the math. Companies like Nintendo aggressively sought out people who played their games. It began publishing its own video game magazine, Nintendo Power, which had enormous outreach and allowed the company to communicate with its customers. Publishers traveled to cities, held tournaments and got to see firsthand who was playing their games. "That was probably the first age of game demographic enlightenment," says Mika. The numbers were in: More boys were playing video games than girls. Video games were about to be reinvented.
The '90s shift
In a magazine advertisement for the Atari game Millipede (1982), a young girl stands in front of the arcade machine with her hands on the buttons, her face visibly excited by the action on the screen. An older woman, presumably her mother, stands beside her, hand on her shoulder, equally excited, a little bit awkward.
In another ad for Atari's home computers demonstration center, a woman with red hair and brightly flushed cheeks stands in front of the center with a controller in her hands while a man stands behind her. Cheesy grins on faces, both appear to be enjoying a game of Pac-Man. There's a company making Christian video games for Atari 2600 — it also has a magazine ad. "Bible Video Game BRINGS FUN HOME," it declares, as a little blond boy and girl sit in front of the television guiding a pixelated Moses across the Red Sea.
"The Nintendo Entertainment System was targeted toward boys under 10. If you look at the Super NES five years later, it starts targeting boys ages 10-15."
In the 1990s, the messaging of video game advertisements takes a different turn. Television commercials for the Game Boy feature only young boys and teenagers. The ad for the Game Boy Color has a boy zapping what appears to be a knight with a finger laser. Atari filmed a bizarre series of infomercials that shows a man how much his life will improve if he upgrades to the Jaguar console. With each "improvement," he has more and more attractive women fawning over him. There is nothing in any of the ads that indicate that the consoles and games are for anyone other than young men.
Even leading up to the '90s, the marketing had started changing and iconic video game box covers started to emerge. Like the cover of the game Barbarian, which featured a scantily clad, buxom woman at the feet of a barely clothed man. She's not a playable character in the game, of course. Her pixelated curves can be seen watching the game's action from the grandstand in the background. And the ad for Battlecruiser showed an attractive blond woman wearing only a bra, one finger coyly in her mouth, with a copy of the game placed in front of her crotch. "She really wants it," the caption reads. The game is about fighting alien aircraft in space.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, video games appeared to be growing up alongside the young players who had latched onto the medium at the time of the Game Boy. Games and consoles were getting more sophisticated. Titles like Wipeout, Tomb Raider and Gran Turismo showed the world what video games could offer. For the most part, it showed what video games could offer men. There's a well-known commercial from 1998 for the original PlayStation where a grown man sits in a movie theater with his girlfriend. She's nagging him in an almost cartoonish way. Crash Bandicoot, from the PS1 game of the same name, is soon patrolling the theater, shining a flashlight on the man and telling him, "You are so totally whipped." A busty Lara Croft appears next to him, and he's given the choice of going home with his girlfriend, who is still nagging, or taking Lara Croft. He chooses the latter. The commercial ends with the tagline: "Live in your world. Play in ours."
"The Nintendo Entertainment System was targeted toward boys under 10. If you look at the Super NES five years later, it starts targeting boys ages 10-15," says Jesse Divnich, vice president of insights and analysis for Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR). "So we're seeing this natural progression of the idea of once you're a gamer, you're always a gamer."
The video game industry created something of a chicken-and-egg situation. When it conducted market research during the '80s and '90s, it found that more boys than girls played video games. Boys were more likely to be involved with new technology, more willing to be early adopters and more encouraged by their teachers and families to pursue science, technology, engineering and math in school. Girls have always played video games, but they weren't the majority. In wake of the video game crash, the game industry's pursuit of a safe and reliable market led to it homing in on the young male. And so the advertising campaigns began. Video games were heavily marketed as products for men, and the message was clear: No girls allowed.
According to Simeon Spearman, a senior innovation strategist at marketing agency Engauge, this kind of marketing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. "If you look at the advertisements for games in the 1980s, you not only had an obvious assumption on the part of the marketers that video games were going to resonate more with young men, you also had them casting young men in the lead roles. They're cast in a way that perpetuates that stereotype — the belief that young men are the audience."
The ads made no distinction between different genres of games being for different people. Even nonviolent games like Tetris were painted with the same masculine brush when they appeared in ads for the Game Boy. It was, after all, the Game Boy, not the Game Girl.
Game designer Brenda Laurel started her career at Atari and Activision as a programmer and producer. She later founded Purple Moon, a studio dedicated to making games for girls, before it was bought out by Mattel. She says the studios she worked for assumed a male audience, even though there was no demographic subtlety.
"Generally speaking, it did not occur to any of the companies I worked for that they should be looking at female audiences for games," she says. "It was always, 'Oh of course girls don't play games.' I got that so many times. 'Of course girls don't play games — why are we going to waste money on this audience that doesn't exist?'
"Where in fact, the nonexistence of the audience was a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we did Purple Moon, one of the criticisms we got was 'Why do you need special games for girls?' I was like, 'Dude, everything else is for boys and you don't even know it. You're taking it for granted all this time.'"
The exceptions, the problem
First-person shooters, action games and sports games have been popular among boys ever since the early '90s. In 2012, the three categories combined were responsible for 58.8 percent of video game sales in North America. They're easily some of the most visible kinds of games, lining the shelves at retailers and appearing on television screens any time a story about video games makes the news. But not everyone buys the idea that games have become the realm of males.
"I've always known there were some games and genres that attracted a heavier male audience than others, like shooters for instance," says Brenda Romero, a developer who has worked in the game industry since the early '80s and has been credited on titles such as Wizardry, Jagged Alliance and Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes. "With the popularity of shooters, maybe we say, 'Well, men play shooters and then shooters are the most popular game,' then we can take this logical leap to say 'Men play video games — it's predominantly men."'
But Romero points out that if we go back to fall 1993, two significant things happened in gaming. One is the release of Doom, which heralded the start of the male-dominated first-person shooter genre. The other, in the same year, is the launch of Myst, which had an overwhelmingly female player base. "Myst dominated the charts, and we don't say games are dominated by women," Romero says. "So I've never felt that way. The Sims has more female players than it has male players, but I don't use those statistics to paint all of games."
In fact, the 1990s is filled with exceptions. There's Tetris on the Game Boy, which was popular with both men and women. Tim Schafer's LucasArts adventure games perform well across the board, demographically. Sim City was more popular with women than it was with men. By the end of the 1990s, we already had Bejeweled.
"Maybe our perception of the problem is the problem, rather than there actually being a problem," says Ian Bogost. "We're not looking at diversity in the marketplace. We're looking at where there isn't diversity and we're saying those games are the most valid games."
Bogost points to games like FarmVille, Candy Crush Saga and Words With Friends — hugely successful games that have enormous male and female player bases — but they're rarely acknowledged as being the same thing as what is traditionally thought of as a video game. "Those games somehow get the technology industry stories about the rise of these big companies, whereas something like Call of Duty is talked about as an example of gaming, and probably a negative example."
Part of the problem, he explains, is when people think about video games, they think Doom, Mortal Kombat and Call of Duty. Meanwhile, FarmVille and Angry Birds are considered something else entirely and associated with a different domain. This can be attributed to a different kind of marketing.
"It's worth pointing out that public sentiment and public discourse around video games is also a kind of marketing," Bogost says. "It's just not marketing that you pay for. So when Sandy Hook or Columbine happened, those events act as a kind of negative marketing for games in general."
Bogost believes the reason why so many people outside of video game culture think games are for young boys is because of moral panics — one of the most effective forms of marketing available. In recent decades, when video games have appeared in the news, it's often been bad news. There were the reports linking the Columbine shooters to Doom. There were the stories linking Norwegian killer Anders Breivik to World of Warcraft. Most recently, Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza was reported to have played first-person shooters. Bogost explains that certain categories of games are more visible to the mainstream public because of these moral panics — because they're the recurring images in the news whenever the media talks about video games. The result is whenever video games come up in conversation, those are the games that people associate with the medium. People forget that other games exist.
"All those people in 1993 who were up in arms in the Mortal Kombat moral panic were also in that very year all playing Windows Solitaire and Minesweeper on their office computers while they were bored on conference calls," Bogost says. Windows Solitaire remains, by quantity, one of the most-distributed games in the world because it was packaged with Windows. But most people who played it don't think of it as a video game. "They think, 'This is not a game. I don't play games,' and it's because when they hear about video games in the media, it's always a certain kind of game," Bogost says. "It's this kind of violent fighting game or first-person shooters. Those are the things they hear about. They just don't think about the subtleties of it because why would they? They're leading normal lives. It just doesn't occur to them."
This, Bogost says, is one of the fundamental problems with the way people view video games today. The most popular titles — stuff like Candy Crush, Draw Something, Bejeweled — are excluded from being 'real games,' both by those within and outside of video game culture. What that leaves is what he describes as infantile adolescent power fantasy games, which are possibly a minority game experience, but they're the "loudest." So even if video games as a whole aren't a gendered medium, even if there's diversity in content and players, the stereotype persists outside of video game culture.
A future for everyone
When Romero's daughter Maezza was 8, she returned home from school with a story for her mother. Maezza had told her classmates that when she grows up, she wants to be a game designer. She was a level 90 in World of Warcraft. She loved wearing her Blizzard T-shirt to school. She wanted to learn how to code and make games. A kid in her class turned around. "Girls don't play games," he said. "Fortunately, my daughter had a great response," Romero says. "She said to the boy, 'My mommy makes games.' She owned him entirely."
That the concept of "girls don't play games" exists even among children in schoolyards today has less to do with the actual numbers of players as much as it has to do with an idea that was heavily circulated from the '90s through television commercials, magazine ads, video game box art and the media. After all, a person who grew up in the '90s would have little or even no reference for what came before. Their first game marketing experiences would have sold a very black-and-white picture about who video games are for. But this idea is starting to break down.
According to Cotteleer, industries tend to look beyond their existing target demographic only when the market has become totally saturated. It can take a while — sometimes more than a decade. And when that happens, they ask, "Who's next?" She says Nintendo mastered this with the launch of the Wii console, which went on to break records in console sales and introduce video gaming to audiences who had previously never bought a console or played a video game. Its advertising also deliberately targets a different audience, using celebrity spokespeople like Beyoncé, Penelope Cruz and Robin Williams and his daughter Zelda.
But the process of breaking down the widely held stereotype of games being for boys doesn't end with game-makers targeting diverse audiences, Bogost says. In fact, he doesn't believe that is the right approach, in the same way he doesn't believe that the industry going after the male audience was a smart idea. "It seems to me an enormously stupid idea, actually," Bogost says. "All you have to do is look at the most successful games to see that it's only been possible for them to be massively successful if they don't systematically exclude half the population."
In order for video games to overcome their existing stereotype, they have to be sold to us as general purpose products. Bogost uses bookstores as an example. No one is surprised when they go into a bookstore and find that there are books for children, books about gardening or books about cooking. It's accepted that books are a general purpose medium that can address lots of interests. The same applies to television — it doesn't surprise people that there are channels dedicated to cooking, sports, animals or news. Bogost says that games are already there in terms of there being a diverse variety that can do different things — it just hasn't effectively gotten the message out there yet.
When the message gets out there — when video games are seen as a general purpose medium, and a person who plays Angry Birds can associate that with playing games on a PlayStation 4 — then perhaps the stereotype will begin to fade. It would be a big marketing challenge, but it's not impossible.
"Given enough money, I could make guys buy tampons," says Roeser. "I mean, I could figure out something to do with them. It all comes down to how somebody like me, and there's frighteningly thousands of me across the country and the world, creates a campaign that specifically targets an audience." Roeser believes that if the makers of Call of Duty came to him and said they wanted to pursue the female market, it could be done. It would just be a matter of making the message appealing to women and reaching them through the right channels.
Bogost proposes a similar way of selling video game consoles to a wider variety of people — the messaging would have to be different than what it has been over the past two decades. For example, if Sony were to plaster images of its new console on buses and billboards, that's not a different message. It's the same message, just in a different place. Bogost says companies like Sony and Microsoft would have to re-present their high-end game consoles as having something to offer everyone, and he doesn't think it would be that hard. If Sony were to release an Apple-like montage showing people playing games like Journey or any of its narrative-driven or broadly appealing independent games played on Sony devices, that would send a very different message than a montage of virtual bullets being sprayed into a war zone.
"The way we relate to consumer products through marketing is real," Bogost says. "In this industry, we think of marketers as these evil-doers who take the product and ruin it by hawking it in the wrong way to the public. And that might be true. I don't know. But advertising is enormously powerful."
Back in Newburgh, N.Y., wide-eyed and frustrated, Riley Maida paces back and forth in the aisle, occasionally looking into the lens of her father's camera.
"Why do all the girls have to buy princesses?" she asks. "Some girls like superheroes; some girls like princesses. Some boys like superheroes; some boys like princesses. So why do all the girls have to buy princesses and all the boys have to buy different-colored stuff?" She animatedly shrugs her shoulders and huffs as she asks why, and marches off. Her father's shaky camera follows. We hear his voice behind the camera: "That's a good question, Riley."
Illustrations: David Saracino
Images: Lori Cole, Brenda Laurel, Carol Shaw, Ufunk.net, Fistimuffs tumblr, Speccy Jam, Wikipedia
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan, Ally Palanzi