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Michealene Cristini Risley made targeting female players a priority when she worked at Sega in the 1990s.
Ollie Hoff

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What happened when Sega courted female players in the mid-’90s

How a group of Sega executives helped make video games more inclusive

In 1993, when Sega of America came calling, Michealene Cristini Risley had been growing increasingly concerned at the lack of female representation in games and animation. “I’d spent a lot of time in L.A. and Hollywood,” she says, referring to her job doing production and licensing in Marvel’s animation unit, “and I’d just noticed, particularly when I was working in kids television, that there were not a lot of roles for female [actors/characters].”

The roles she did see tended to be ancillary. Insignificant. And the games world that she was poised to enter seemed to be even worse. There were token female characters like Ms. Pac-Man and the occasional damsel in distress — a princess or girlfriend that needed saving — and scarcely anything else.

But she recognized that at Sega, as head of its new Entertainment & Consumer Products division, she might be able to do something about it. Empowered by the company’s aggressive recruitment efforts (it sent her several boxes of Genesis games and offered to pay for her wedding coordinator, among other things), Risley accepted Sega’s offer. Shortly afterwards, she asked for approval to attend a two-week program at Stanford on women and gender studies. “It was a life-changing experience for me,” she says.

Risley decided she would try to leverage her new role at Sega to shrink the gap in gender representation in games and animation. “The world is not, you know, 2% women and 98% men,” she says. And the growing popularity of games, especially, was creating a cultural gap between genders. “So it was really important.”

Sega had made a point of broadening the audience for games with its Genesis console — to go beyond the then-traditional console gaming audience of 9- to 14-year-old boys to appeal more strongly to teenage boys and college-age men. Risley thought girls could be a part of that audience expansion, too, but she knew it wouldn’t work to pitch her bosses on the under-representation of girls as a problem. It had to be an opportunity.

“The only way I was going to get them to pay attention was to turn it into money,” she says, “and so I presented it as like, ‘We’re leaving this huge market on the table. And if we don’t start creating content for girls, somebody else is going to.’”

A girls task force

Sega of America’s CEO at the time, Tom Kalinske, also saw the business potential in a product reaching girls. “My background was toys,” he says. “I came out of Mattel and spent half my life working on Barbie.”

He’d been there when analysts, retail buyers, and even Mattel’s own sales force believed it was “over for Barbie.” By the time he’d left the company, having climbed through the ranks from product manager to CEO, Barbie had grown into a billion-dollar business. He remembers that the key to this resurgence was understanding — as explained to him by Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler — that Barbie allows a girl to be anything she wants to be.

So too could a video game, Kalinske realized after Risley’s presentation. And the biggest part of getting that message across would lie in advertising. Sega had to start showing girls playing video games. With that they hoped girls would get the idea that they could do anything a boy — and more specifically a teenage boy — could do.

With Kalinske’s blessing, Risley pulled together an all-women task force to help her: Diane Fornasier, vice president of marketing; Cynthia Modders (née Wilkes), director of licensing; Cindy Hardgrave (née Claveran), executive producer; and Lydia Gable (née Brichta), product marketing manager (then later vice president of marketing). The Sega Girls Task Force would try to expand Sega’s female audience through any initiatives — internal or external — it could think up.

“We really just sat down and said, ‘OK, what can we do differently? How do we start this?’ And then that’s when we started working with the ad agency and trying to figure out how we can begin drawing girls into gaming,” Risley says.

Girl-focused marketing

Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein had strong history with Sega’s youth marketing efforts. A year earlier, the advertising agency had devised the Sega Scream, which became a critical part of Sega of America’s branding and marketing efforts. Sega commissioned the agency to make a TV commercial aimed at attracting more girls to engage with the Sonic the Hedgehog brand.

“I think I got in a fight with one of the senior executives there because we were trying to show girls were interested in Sonic, and they insisted on the girl having a banana bike to ride,” Risley says. (That’s a bicycle with a banana-shaped seat.) “And I said, ‘No, girls don’t ride banana bikes.’”

Risley felt the ad had to be authentic. In order to normalize the idea that games weren’t just for boys, it had to depict ordinary girls — people that the girls watching at home would relate to and not write off as a joke or male fantasy. “And so every little nuance we had to pay attention to,” Risley says.

These were small things, Kalinske says, “that guys don’t think about. But a girl looking at it would say, ‘Oh, that’s just not gonna work. And we would just not be aware of it.”

Inviting girls into the gaming audience — or any male-dominated industry — necessitated a change in thinking. Men dominated the supply chain. They made up the majority of people in decision-making roles in retail, marketing, product planning, and development. And throughout her career, both before and after she worked at Sega, Risley found this led to some misguided assumptions.

She points to a story from a few years later in her career, after she left the games industry, as an example: “I did the first branded maternity line ever with Adidas. No one had any maternity out there,” says Risley. “But when I would go to the sales guys at retail, they would all say the same thing: ‘No, my wife doesn’t need this product. She just uses my clothes.’ And so there was this perception that women were just like men. And I saw it everywhere. I saw it in toys; I saw it in television. And in games.”

Gender differences

Once formed, Sega’s Girls Task Force sought out all the research it could find to better understand how girls play. “We’d never really asked girls what they wanted [before],” Risley says. “We were just like, ‘Oh, they’re going to like the same things [as boys].’ But it just wasn’t so.”

The research revealed that girls like games to have strong, resourceful, and smart female characters. And also that girls tend to play differently to boys. “Girls have a stronger auditory nerve in their ears or, you know, they like lots of small [precision movements, like those required in games like Tetris, Mario, and Pac-Man],” says Risley. They also found girls prefer cooperative rather than competitive play.

“So there are lots of things that were very different than what we were creating in games,” Risley continues. “Do girls want to play shoot-’em-up games most of all? No, they like puzzles. They like using their brain.”

Risley adds that the most important thing was to have a great game. Many of the best franchises could appeal to both genders — like Sonic, especially after Sega introduced the Sally and Tails characters, and Ecco the Dolphin and Aladdin. Graphically violent, gory games rated low with girls, however, regardless of quality, with the caveat that certain kinds of competitive violence fared better — Virtua Fighter turned out to be a dual-audience franchise, for instance.

Armed with this research, Sega had what it needed to take steps forward. The company set aside a small portion of its publishing budget to test the waters of girl-friendly game development with three titles — Crystal’s Pony Tale, Baby Boom and, The Berenstain Bears’ Camping Adventure.

Baby Boom, a puzzle game about corralling hundreds of escaped babies back into their daycare center, was canceled early on. “It wasn’t fun with the D-pad,” says designer Ed Annunziata, so it got shelved. The Berenstain Bears game and Crystal’s Pony Tale, meanwhile, ended up on the Sega Club kids label — both simple, colorful platformers targeted at a younger audience, the latter of which was focus tested several times with young girls — though nothing much came of either game on the market.

The reality was that girl games remained only a very minor concern to Sega’s console gaming efforts. “Sega never spent much marketing money on girl games,” says Cindy Hardgrave, a member of the task force who was producer on these titles, “and there was never a big push to target girls.” Even with a team of senior female executives at Sega driving for change, real progress would come slowly.

Teething pains

In 1993, when the Sega Girls Task Force kicked into gear, Mattel was still years away from figuring out how to effectively adapt its toys and dolls for digital entertainment. The girl games movement, likewise, had yet to emerge with its slew of girl-focused games from predominantly-female development teams backed by deep market research.

There were no successful examples to point to as proof that games can be as much for girls as boys. Nobody had gathered that data. The Sega Girls Task Force had to start from the beginning.

“Other than a few select people, like Tom Kalinske and Joe Miller, who really got it and was heading product design, [we faced considerable] skepticism,” says Risley. “Absolute skepticism.”

At times she even got “blowback” from people, she says — sometimes even other women — who were uncomfortable with a woman leading or challenging convention. “I remember my mom was in town,” Risley recalls. “And she goes, ‘Mike, look! You’re on the front page of the business section [in the San Francisco Chronicle].’ I was mortified because I didn’t want to stand out, even though I was the one who started the Task Force and I pitched it and then brought the team together.”

Kalinske remembers skepticism from the Japanese side of Sega. “When we would talk about this in Japan, they didn’t understand it at all,” he says. “They didn’t buy into the idea. This was another crazy American deal, and ‘go ahead and do it, but we don’t really expect you to be successful with it.’ Frankly, they felt that way about a lot of stuff we tried. And thank God most of the time we were right.”

Sonic Team was receptive to ideas that might make games more accessible to non-traditional audiences, says Pamela Kelly, marketing manager at Sega of America from 1992 until 1995. But many development partners resisted efforts to make games appeal more to girls. “I was working with Disney and Virgin on Disney’s Aladdin,” Kelly says, “and I remember the Disney producers saying, ‘We are going to make this the hardest game ever!’ Oh my gosh, did I have to fight to say that is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.

“Look who’s the audience. Go to the movies, see who’s going into the movie, see who’s playing the videos. You can’t alienate those kids, ’cause they’re the ones who want to play.”

Kelly won out in that instance, and worked with programmer David Perry on filling the game with accessible, light-hearted humor. But she remembers the attitude of the Disney producers being a common problem, especially with licensed games. “It really came from that mind of ‘I love games; I’m making a game for myself,’” she says, when in fact the game would be for fans of the franchise — many of whom are young girls or boys.

Changing norms

Getting girls into games required more than simply making games that would appeal to them. Kelly recalls that girls at the time were actively discouraged from engaging with games and technology. Even if a girl did start to play, Kelly adds, citing ethnography research she did later at Mattel, “when a boy walked in the room she’d have to give it up to the boy.”

Worse, she says, “it was a known fact [that] girls don’t play with computers and girls don’t play with video games. That’s what the retailers thought.”

Kalinske adds that even when presented with actual concrete data, many people would scoff at the notion that girls might be interested in video games. During the 1993 and ’94 U.S. congressional hearings on video game violence, for instance, he tried to point out that a) the average age of game players at the time was 21, which meant adults play games too, and b) millions of women and girls play Sega’s games. “But when I said that, they wouldn’t believe me,” he says. “It was a very difficult message to get anyone to buy into, because they had this older perception of what the video game industry was.”

Neither Risley nor Kalinske nor Kelly thinks that Sega ever got remotely close to solving the problem of girls in games. But they all point to their work at Sega as a step in trying to shift this perception of what games are or who they’re for.

While the Sega Task Force’s precise impact on the industry is impossible to gauge, market surveys from the time indicated a massive increase in the use of Sega Genesis by young girls — from just 3% in 1993 to 20% in 1995, when Risley left the company.

“We opened the floodgates,” Risley says. “And I’d like to think that when you started talking about this, you know, people began to shift. There’s a lot of people who began saying, wait, let’s look at broadening the audience.”

The next few years saw a blossoming of girl game efforts, both from startup and small studios as well as big brands like Disney and Mattel — the latter of which hired Pamela Kelly to co-found its interactive entertainment division, where she drew from Mattel’s decades of internal research data on male and female play patterns to help build Barbie Fashion Designer, the first million-selling girl-focused game.

Beyond the numbers, Risley recalls receiving letters of thanks from girls who were excited to see female characters. “They felt like they belonged,” says Risley. “I think it made them feel like they could play.”

Kalinske echoes the sentiment: “I’ve heard from a number of people over the years about how our efforts helped introduce them [to games and made] video game playing acceptable for them,” he says. “They’re grateful for it. It makes me feel good.”

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