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Games for girls - really different from men?

Opinion: Game developers could be trying to fill a niche that isn't there, reckons Emma Boyes...

European PlayStation boss Jim Ryan thinks that girls are the "the untapped holy grail" of games and he's revealed that Sony wants to appeal to more women with its new handheld, the Vita.

But will women even want to play the Vita? Various companies over the years have tried to muscle into the lucrative 'girl gamers' market, but do girls really play different games to blokes? Or are they trying to fill a niche where there isn't one and, in fact, women are just as happy to play Gears of War or Call of Duty as their male counterparts?

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Scientific research on the subject is a little thin on the ground. An interesting study by Stanford University found that the part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings appeared to be activated more in men than in women while they played video games. It seemed to show that women just don't get the same enjoyment out of conquering territory as men, perhaps explaining different tastes in play.

That esteemed scientific establishment, Doritos, found in a survey in July that women were more likely to enjoy games with social elements, like Facebook games, or ones that test their brain power, like Doctor Kawashima's Brain Training. Men were more likely to kick back and relax by blasting the hell out of each other in online war games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 or indulge in online gambling games. Other more reliable opinion polls, including one from Nielsen had previously found much the same thing.

Trade show manager and casual gamer Stacy Sterling thinks that there definitely are gender lines in games. She says, "Men and women do seem to gravitate toward different games. Based on me being a casual observer, first-person shooter type games definitely seem to be more popular among males, puzzle games seem to be attractive to females, however RPGs seem to have an attraction to both sexes." It may be politically incorrect to say it, but there's no doubt she's right. If you walk into a LAN event, it's a sausage party, and if you look at the stats for online games, women are actually playing them more than men.

It's absolutely true that some women DO prefer Facebook and casual games to first-person shooters, just as there are probably men who secretly do, too. Likewise I know plenty of women who find those kinds of games boring and prefer the adrenalin rush of a good shooter instead. Everyone has their own personal preferences, but it doesn't mean that ALL women have zero interest in competitive games.

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Maria Douglas, a pro gamer with the UK arm of all female clan PMS, thinks that it's rubbish that men and women are somehow genetically predisposed to like certain games, and thinks that it's got more to do with people behaving in a way that is considered socially acceptable. She explains, "I compete in FPS games, Counter-Strike: Source to be precise - widely considered to be a quality game.

"There are VERY few women play this game, and that has nothing much to do with the quality of it. There is a culture, a consensus that women who play more 'hardcore' games are weird, particularly at the level I play at." So, similar to how it's unlikely that girls and boys are born instinctively preferring powder pink or navy blue, it's probable that society 'pushes' them to an acceptable choice of gaming. Nice girls aren't aggressive or competitive, and to properly enjoy war games you really need to be both.

I think there are myriad reasons why many women prefer games like FarmVille to Battlefield. Not being able to play as a female character, having to put up with sexist comments playing online, sexist treatment of women in the games (or a complete absence of women in the games) and the catch-22 of a lack of other women playing are probably all reasons why women are turned off.

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