Innovation & Design

Marketing to Game Minorities


Experts from non-traditional gaming sectors talk tactics

It's painfully obvious that for too long, we in the gaming business have been slaves to typecasting. To wit, a few key points we'd all do well to remember:

• Gamers aren't all geeks

• Not every buyer's a white, 18-34 year-old male

• Graphics mean less than gameplay

• Hype alone does not move units

• Celebrity endorsements don't guarantee hits

• The simpler the concept, the better

• Shoppers are smarter than they're given credit for

In the spirit of constructively airing out several of the industry's more shameful grievances, I've invited four associates, each representing a traditional "gaming minority"—seniors, women, Latinos and African Americans, respectively—to offer their thoughts on the subject.

It's my sincere hope that the insight they offer helps to do away with some of the ignorance which sadly still seems to persist and color several of the sector's more common business practices:

Sal Falciglia

CEO and founder of Slingo, Inc., creators of the mega-successful Slingo casual game series: Won't disclose his age, but says he's "been around long enough to see a few U.S. presidents come and go."

What's the most common misconception about seniors?

"That seniors are not engaging in games and other online interactive entertainment experiences. According to Hitwise, over 30% of Slingo.com's traffic comes from users who are over 55 years of age. This means that hundreds of thousands of seniors are going online to play games and engage in social networks on our site alone."

How do you feel about their traditional portrayal in the gaming space?

"It's a bit shortsighted. Seniors have been engaging in social games for many years and the digital world is the next stage of senior entertainment evolution. Just look at any bingo hall or group of people playing bocce or shuffleboard and you will see a good portion of the players are from an older generation. Now they are conversing and congregating online."

What type of titles is the community really drawn to?

"We have seen our senior community drawn to games that embrace social elements and cooperative gameplay rather than isolated experiences or competitive games. They also have a tendency to enjoy games which are 'massively single-player' where people play together and are ranked against each other, but one person cannot affect another person's gameplay. For those people who don't have a large social outlet, online community games are a great way for people to connect."

How could game developers and publishers make their products more appealing and/or marketable to this audience?

"Start by forgetting most of what you learned about making games in the core space. User interface is considerably more important since eyesight, reaction time and color blindness can be factors with older players. Games should be designed so that next steps are clearly defined and the game itself should focus on the fun. Games should be pleasing to the eye, but don't have to focus on crazy particle effects and 3D graphics. Simple is usually better—like games that only require the use of the left mouse button."

Anything you'd like to say to software makers and distributors that might help them get their heads out of the sand?

"Just as the game industry dropped their mouths when they realized WOMEN were playing games a few years ago, the same level of awareness is going to strike when statistics show yet another demographic category has been underestimated. It's simple; anyone of any age enjoys an entertaining experience and sometimes that experience is a digital game."

Do games all have to be cerebral, slow-paced affairs like crossword puzzles or card games to connect with this demographic?

"Not at all. These people are seniors, not feeble, so they enjoy an exhilarating experience just as much as the next person. But just don't think that your older crowd is looking for shooters, RPGs and twitch games with complicated controls and unachievable goals that require 50 play-throughs."

As a follow up, what do you think is the best way to reach this audience?

"Like any other entertainment product you need to advertise where you will reach your market and show them how much fun your product is. Do not discount the massive power of word-of-mouth with an already social senior crowd."

Finally, the worst stereotype about seniors and gaming would be...?

"That older people don't add value to the game industry. Advertisers ignore them because they don't think they support an entertainment-based lifestyle. Seniors are a large and growing group of people who tend to consume entertainment products due to ample amounts of free time. They want to be entertained and are incredibly social people."

Kris Soumas

Vice President, Games, for Lifetime Networks, a leader in women's television and online programming; played a key role in the launch of the Lifetime Games unit, the top content section of www.LifetimeTV.com.

Things the industry would do well to realize when it comes to women and gaming?

"For starters, the myth that women don't play games has been shattered. The new misconception is that women aren't true gamers and our game playing isn't taken as seriously as the game playing of our male counterparts. Yet anyone who looks more closely recognizes that women are truly engaged by games, that they play for long periods at a time, and that once they discover a game they like, they become loyal to that title and its sequels. The success of franchises like Mystery Case Files or Diner Dash demonstrates this."

Some of the biggest mistakes designers make when creating titles for this audience?

"I think there is a tendency to put style over substance—which doesn't work with this audience. If the game is not based on a compelling game mechanic, we won't buy it, no matter how much you dress it up."

Do females really want all these girly/girl horse and pony, virtual dollhouse type games, or is there something more they look for?

"The most essential ingredient in any game is FUN. If it's fun, we will play it. One of the most effective forms of discovery for women is word of mouth. So females are often drawn to titles that are friend-approved—and in order for a friend to pass it on, it has to deliver on the fun factor.

"Sometimes the more typical topics for women work and sometimes they don't. On LifetimeTV.com, My Makeover is a super hit game, played millions of times each month by tens of thousands of players from around the world. Are women drawn to it simply because it's a makeover game? No, there are hundreds of makeover-themed games to play which they ignore; they play this one again and again, because it changes daily, has hundreds of different options and ultimately is fun to spend time with..."

Ways developers and publishers could tailor their products to better fit this audience?

"On a recent episode of American Idol, [judge] Simon [Cowell] told one of the contestants that while it may have looked like she was having fun onstage, it wasn't fun for the audience to watch her. Game developers have been known to make this mistake, and what is entertaining to them may not always be of equal entertainment to their audience. That is why focus testing and research are essential to success."

Why do you think females have traditionally been loath to embrace gaming? Are women not as into games as men, or have we as an industry been missing some fundamental point that would address the traditional disparity of female players all along?

"Women have not been loath to embrace gaming. Rather, the electronic gaming industry has been loath to embrace women, which is incredibly shortsighted. Today 80% of purchasing decisions are influenced by women and by 2010 it is expected women will control 60% of all wealth in the United States—ignoring this audience is fiscally irresponsible."

Ralph Rivera

Vice President and General Manager of AOL Games; responsible for all programming and business strategy for the division, which provides content, services and marketing for Web, PC and console games for AOL members and game fans on the Web.

The worst misconception about Latinos when it comes to gaming would be?

"I don't think that many publishers or developers have developed a point of view on Latinos in gaming in the first place for there to be a misconception after the fact. I believe this will change as people figure out that Latino overindex on gaming across the board, as well as being on broadband."

How do you feel about Latinos' traditional portrayal in the gaming space?

"It's very frustrating and disheartening. Latinos have gone from zero representation, to representation limited to negative stereotypes. We have to get to the point where videogames portray the wide range of roles and behaviors that exist in our community."

Some of the biggest mistakes designers make when creating titles for this audience?

"Having an uninformed view of who the audience is and what resonates with us. Always setting our stories in urban environments where we are poor, ignorant and criminally-minded is at best narrow-minded and at worst bigoted."

Do games really have to be all urban and blinged out to appeal to this demographic, as corporate America seems to think?

"Latinos play all type of games: Madden, Halo, Mario, Zelda and yes GTA just like everyone else does. As such, it would be misguided to think that one would need to develop an urban-themed game to attract Latinos. It would be better to look at what Grey's Anatomy, Prison Break or Desperate Housewives do—they have Latinos as part of the core cast. As such, the Latino audience can see themselves reflected in their programming choices. I believe this resonates with the audience especially if the roles are positive ones."

What type of titles is the community really drawn to?

"Titles with the same characteristics that appeal to all gamers: Ones with great gameplay, graphics, physics and storytelling."

How could game developers and publishers make their products more appealing and/or marketable to this audience?

"Work a diverse palette of Latino characters and themes into great games. Have the games reflect the diversity of our community and not just the negative stereotypes."

From a cultural standpoint, are there really any major media outlets or software manufacturers that have made anything resembling a concerted effort to actually connect with this community?

"Nothing on the software front. But if you look at media in general, you see that Latino artists have successfully crossed over into the mainstream: Think Shakira and J Lo in music; Jimmy Smits in NYPD Blue or West Wing; Eva Longoria in Desperate Housewives, etc. Add in Ugly Betty and The George Lopez Show and you can see how Latinos can be portrayed in the general media, and how much further the games industry has to go."

Anything you'd like to get off your chest that game makers and manufacturers need to hear?

"The games business is transforming into a media business, which will be more character and story driven. As such, look at the world around you and see if the stereotypes you are basing your games on reflect the society we live in and the stories that will resonate with the emerging mainstream."

Derek Smart, PhD

President and Lead Developer of 3000 AD as well as creator of the Battlecruiser and Universal Combat series; most recently developed Galactic Command—Echo Squad for Turner's GameTap broadband gaming service.

How do you feel about African Americans' portrayal by the gaming industry so far?

"I have no opinions on the matter. In fact, I wasn't even aware that there was any portrayal to speak of. It's all in the eyes of the beholder I guess. I'm just not beholding it. You don't see that many African American archetypes, heroes, foes, etc."

Some of the biggest mistakes designers make when creating titles for this audience?

"None that I can think of. Listen, if someone wants to develop a game—and they're paying for it—then they can do what the heck they like with it. There is no government grant which comes with strings attached. Why does everything have to be black or white? Why can't it just be what it is?"

Do games really have to be all urban and blinged out to appeal to this demographic, as corporate America seems to think?

"I don't know. It would all depend on the demographic. Of course, when you consider the general audience that you are catering to, you can't help but inject the nuances of that demographic. And, as you say, bling is a part of one such demographic aspect. But I have to tell you, not all of us talk like that, dress like that or even bling out like that. We may be in the minority and a different demographic, but again, games—like everything else that is mass produced—have a target demographic. We don't have to like it, but that's just the way it is. So if the target demographic is not you, don't buy the game. Move on."

How could game developers and publishers make their products more appealing and/or marketable to this audience?

"I'm not sure that there is anything for them to do about it. As I said earlier, the designers know who their demographic is. That's all that matters. Who are we to dictate to people how they spend their money, talent and resources? Look, if someone came to me and asked me to develop a game for the African American demographic, I'd probably laugh out loud... Right after I made sure that the funds cleared."

What could the industry be doing better to connect with a broader range of people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds?

"Nothing. As I said earlier, as an art form with no racial boundaries, games are what they are: A form of entertainment. Once you start catering to a specific demographic—and for whatever reason—you lose sight of the entire premise. For me, it's like that whole separation of church and state argument. Sure you can have both, but as a Christian, I am sure as heck more likely to vote for an atheist leader who is honest and does a good job of, you know, leading, than I am for one who is a religious nutcase."

Anything you'd like to say to software makers and distributors that might help them get their heads out of the sand?

"No. They're doing just fine. The more focus they place on developing good games, the less likely they are to get distracted and mired into that whole black vs. white non-issue when it comes to games. It's bad enough that we can't go online these days without seeing some idiot trying to connect real-world violence with video games. So no, let's not compound the problem by adding yet another catalyst. Next thing you know, we'll have Jesse [Jackson] and Al [Sharpton] breathing down our backs about more African Americans being in jail because we're developing crime- and violence-riddled games to them. Can you imagine what would happen if Jack Thompson were black?"

As a follow up, what do you think is the best way to reach this audience?

"I'd rather that they didn't because more likely that not, they'd probably screw things up and do more harm than good. I just want them to focus on developing good games. If a game is good and worth buying, everyone will buy it: You don't have to be African American, Caucasian, Chinese, Arabic etc. to appreciate an art form, let alone entertainment."


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