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Solving the Mystery of the Missing Girl Games

By Megan Gaiser

I never intended to get into the interactive gaming field. But after 11 years of making films, primarily documentaries, I had an itch to try something different. So in the mid-90s I packed my bags and moved from Washington, D.C., to Seattle to hunt for a job creating interactive media.

My film industry colleagues thought I was nuts. "What exactly is interactive media, anyway?" they asked. My first gig out West was with Microsoft as a producer of Web content. It was a great first step, but it didn't exactly feed my passion for storytelling. Through an acquaintance, I became aware of a small company that developed interactive entertainment for girls, Her Interactive.

The company had just secured the license to create Nancy Drew products. As a young adult I had read all the Nancy Drew books, and the opportunity to bring the mysteries to life on the PC was a dream come true. I joined the company as the creative director, moved on to a producer role and ultimately became president.

Early on I realized we were doing something different. Most games at the time were designed by males, for males. Barbie was about the only form of interactive entertainment there was. We were rebels with a cause. What I didn't anticipate was that neither the distribution channel nor the industry had girl games on their radar. They believed that females were computer-phobic and didn't like video games. To me, that spelled "opportunity." Other industries had successfully targeted books, music, and films to females. So why not video games?

Our research confirmed that the interest was there. We learned how to tap into it by seeking female perspectives on everything we did, from playing style and mechanics to marketing. Our games speak to a different experience and value system. Since many of the women and girls in our studies had limited experience playing video games, their fresh insights helped us improve existing game play conventions. And although we initially targeted girls ages 10-15, we found women were having so much fun that we expanded our audience to casual gamers ages 10-80.

Even with the research to back us up, distributors still didn't understand that female gamers could be a lucrative market. After the last door was shut on us, we turned to alternative distribution channels. We approached and finally found a voice and a path to get Her Interactive games out there. Our success there pried the doors open. Since then we have partnered with Atari and DreamCatcher to get Nancy Drew into retail stores.

The interactive entertainment industry is risk averse. Like Hollywood, it takes a formula that works, like sex and violence, and it uses it over and over again. Most games on the market are targeted to boys and men. At Her Interactive we always believed that the market was much bigger. The industry has only recently changed its thinking and is now targeting female gamers.

Today's buying and playing market is almost half female, a monumental change from the early days of gaming. In 2003, Nancy Drew was the top adventure game franchise, according to market research firm The NPD Group. I attribute Her Interactive's success to identifying, seizing and serving a market when most others were in denial that it existed.

I'm thrilled that the market is opening up. The interactive entertainment industry is still in its infancy and it's similar to the early days of the film industry. In time, we will segment the market to include as many genres as there are preferences, and genres will begin to overlap and merge. The digital economy is changing the way we interact, the way we do business and the way we play. The rules are changing and creativity is the equalizer.

author Megan Gaiser
Megan Gaiser is president of Her Interactive.