The bakery is crowded, and orders are starting to back up. A grandmotherly type impatiently awaits a cake she ordered, while a businessman demands a pie. Jill, the plucky proprietor, is running back and forth trying to fill everyone's orders—hoping to keep her new business afloat and earn enough cash to reopen her grandparents' bakery as well—all while fighting off the evil corporation Mega-Mart.
Sound like fun? It's all a game, and Jill is the main character in Cake Mania, one of the more popular games on the Internet—one primarily played by women.
While the popular perception of gamers persists—they are either pimply-faced teenage boys or 30-something males living in their parents' basements—women increasingly represent a huge portion of the gaming world. And while still underrepresented when compared to other emerging segments, the female gamer is an increasingly attractive target for advertisers, who are finding more women online playing games than ever before.
Gaming channels on Yahoo! and MSN, along with gaming destination sites like Pogo.com, regularly pull in monthly audiences exceeding 10 million unique users. These sites offer hundreds of games, which can be played directly through a user's Web browser for free, or are downloaded onto a user's desktop at a cost of about $20. The games range from basic chance games like poker and dominos, to racing and sports games which, while becoming more sophisticated, are still easier to navigate than the average game for Playstation 2.
These sites are dominated by women, who make up 60 percent to 70 percent of their total audiences. And the average time spent on these sites is significant—think hours, not minutes (see chart, next page).
According to a study released last month by the Consumer Electronics Association, 65 percent of women ages 25 to 34 report playing video games, compared to just 35 percent of men. The report cites casual gaming as the reason why the numbers for women are so large.
Given these compelling numbers, advertisers are shifting more dollars into this space. Most of these games have long offered a wealth of ad options: banners and buttons alongside game play; full-screen ads running in between natural game breaks; and more frequently, advertisers' logos or virtual products integrated into the games themselves.
Most insiders attest to strong recent growth for advertising in casual games, particularly by advertisers targeting women, but spending estimates for this market are scarce. By all accounts, there is plenty of room for growth, given that many on Madison Avenue still have not been able to accept that women play video games.
Video games have always been considered a guy thing, from those first sessions of Pong, to the thousands of games of Halo 2 and John Madden Football that men have bought over the past several years. And while women do play console games, including first-person shooter games like Halo or even MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role-playing games) like EverQuest, it's casual games where women dominate.
"Casual games evolved out of casino games," says Dave Madden, executive vp sales, marketing & business at WildTangent, which produces computer games. When online casinos were targeted by the federal government, gaming sites, including MSN and Yahoo!, decided that any association with gambling was not good for business. So they dumped casino games and their advertising, shifted gears and moved into more casual games. Gradually, women gravitated to card and puzzle games like solitaire, Suduko, and mah jong. Soon, women dominated the casual game sites.
Lisa Sikora, group marketing manager, Microsoft Casual Games group, says that over the past two years, MSN Games, which reaches 9 million unique users a month, has seen its female audience increase by 10 percent—now females account for 70 percent of its total audience. That's different from when the channel launched a decade ago and featured mostly classic arcade titles like Asteroids. "It was really geared for the core gamer back in 1995," she says.
As a result, game developers are creating more sophisticated casual games, many with female protagonists and female-appealing themes, such as Cake Mania or the popular Bejeweled, which combines two things that appeal to many women: puzzles and diamonds.
Women—particularly women 35 and older—seek out gaming for different reasons than men. While men enjoy the me-versus-the-computer fantasy aspects of games, women turn to games for relief, distraction and socializing. In addition, the games that appeal to women, while clearly escapist, tend to carry a much different tone than those that resonate with testosterone-fueled males. "These games are generally nonviolent," explains James Belcher, an analyst at eMarketer. "They are not Grand Theft Auto. You don't have to beat up hookers to win the game." In other words, men are into blowing up aliens from Mars, women want to chat with the aliens from Venus.
Women also don't spend their time gaming in quite the way that men do. "Casual games are about bite-sized entertainment," says Sikora. "They are games that you don't have read a manual for—entertaining yet totally challenging."
Such games are perfect for stay-at-home moms looking to steal a few minutes of fun during a hectic day. "One of the things women are saying in focus groups is, 'after the kids go to bed, it's my down time.' Or, 'at work, it's a quick break to refocus,'" she adds.
To further endorse the fact that women play games online, MSN launched a microsite on MSN Games last month—Pause2Play—that attempted to highlight the positive aspects of gaming to women.
To serve as Pause2Play's on-site expert, MSN tapped Dr. Kathleen Hall, a "stress and work-life balance expert" and founder of The Stress Institute. After doing her own research on the subject, Hall produced some original content for Pause2Play that promotes gaming for women as a great stress-reliever. "Taking a moment to play an online game provides a healthy distraction, and is a great way to de-stress and recharge," she writes on the site.
MSN positions gaming as a productive use of time, deflating the perception that playing games online is a big time-waster. "A lot of women don't want to actually think they are gamers," says Sikora. "They might be horrified to use that word."
Beatrice Spaine, director of marketing and sales operations for EA's Pogo.com, one of the Web's largest gaming sites, agrees, saying that such perceptions have actually made it more difficult to sell the medium to advertisers.
"The one problem we have is that even the consumers don't think of themselves as gamers," she says. "If you ask people on the street, they say 'No, I don't have time for games.' We have to educate the ad world [about how women use these sites]."
Some are further ahead than others. "What's new on the ad side is that we are definitely starting to see some of the bigger, female-oriented brands moving dollars into games," says Dave Williams, chief marketing officer and general manager, Shockwave.com, a popular online gaming site which also licenses games to portals such as Yahoo!. Williams lists Scott and Kraft Food among the brands advertising in casual games. "Kraft is running an in-game campaign for Easy Mac," he says. "That says it all right there. This used to be the domain of folks that were doing cutting-edge stuff."
Indeed, MSN counts Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Wal-Mart and Target as advertisers; WildTanget just launched a new campaign for the Nissan Quest minivan; and Pogo has run campaigns for Nabisco's Oreo. In fact, the gaming research group DFC released a report earlier this year that was bullish on the advertising potential for casual games, given their size and stickiness, particularly as a female-reach vehicle.
"There are probably few more precisely targeted ways of reaching middle-aged women with office jobs than advertising on casual game Web sites," it states in a report, "Can Games Capture a Share of Online Advertising Revenue?"
According to DFC research analyst Alexis Madrigal, the casual game space carries more potential than do PC and console games, which have been widely hyped of late as ideal ad platforms for nabbing hard-to-reach young males.
"We project a lot more ad revenue in the casual games space than in the console space," he says. "If you think about it, games are just another form of Internet content."
Madrigal says that because casual games tend to accommodate more standardized online creative placements such as banners, interstitials and video spots, it's a lot easier for Web advertisers to extend into this space rather than elect to build product placement into console games or bake dynamic ad units into Internet-based titles.
Also, casual games are peaking just as Internet advertising enjoys a wide resurgence. "I think we are seeing the industry benefit from two macro trends: the number of women playing games has reached critical mass," says Shockwave's Williams. "And brand advertisers are shifting dollars to the Web."
Those brand advertisers are reaching a receptive, open audience, according to Bob Lonigro, Pogo's head of sales. "If I corner a client in the elevator [to talk about casual games], it's the engagement [I sell]."
Some are not convinced that this is the way to reach women, especially 30- and 40-somethings who are not as highly sought after by most marketers as young males. "Companies like Massive have focused on younger males as a high value target," says Martin Zagorsek, vp, games and software, NPD Group. "[Some advertisers feel] there are a lot of ways to get older women."
Perhaps, but there is a growing, though still small group of younger, hard-core female gamers, evidenced by the growth of sites like WomenGamers.com and GrrlGamer.com. And among kids, game play is becoming more and more an activity done by both boys and girls—which will surely have an impact on marketing in the future.
"Younger women are also playing [console games]," says Madrigal. "That is what is surprising to people—it's such a break from conventional thinking."
Mike Shields covers interactive media for Mediaweek.