The XX Factor

A History of Sexist Video Game Marketing

(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Why don’t women play more video games? Perhaps it’s because they’re not being sold to us. In Polygon, Tracey Lien has a fascinating history of the gendered marketing of gaming, from the couples-friendly breakthrough arcade video game Pong through the hyper-masculine framing of first-person shooters, and into the more gender equitable branding for modern social gaming.

When video games were first popularized in the 1970s, the industry’s central marketing challenge was to sell the same game to both adults and kids. Pong was a two-player arcade game marketed to couples in bars, then to families on Atari home consoles. Tapper was initially marketed as Budweiser Tapper in bars (players took the role of bartender and told customers “This Bud’s For You”), then as Root Beer Tapper in family-friendly arcades (players manned a non-alcoholic soda jerk with the modified catchphrase “This One’s For You”). Then the industry experienced a massive recession, and financial pressures forced video game companies to take a different approach. “Knowing that you have limited funding, you can’t just market shotgun. You can’t just go after anybody,” marketer Rodger Roeser told Lien. “You need to have a very clearly differentiated and specific brand because that’s going to play into where you’re running your ads and what kind of ads you run. That niche-ing, that targeting makes it easier for marketers to have a very succinct conversation with their target without overspending and trying to reach everybody.” So the industry put all of its efforts on catering to boys.

Things got pretty dudely from there. Lien dredges up this amazing 1998 Playstation ad, where a cast of video game characters ambush target customer “Brad” in a movie theater and force him to choose between playing masculine games and being “totally whipped” by his nagging girlfriend. (“Would you rather be at home shooting a bazooka, or watching a chick flick? Chick flick, Bazooka. Chick Flick, Bazooka.”) The approach became a “a self-fulfilling prophecy,” where boys were raised to be gamers, and gaming became an expression of masculinity. So when the boys grew up, they kept playing.

Of course, many women enjoyed playing video games, but the industry largely failed to capitalize on their interest. Myst, which was released in 1993, the same year as the first-person shooter Doom, attracted a strong female audience. But 20 years later, there have been innumerable games released in the Doom tradition, while Myst failed to spark a similar revolution. Why? Because video game developers didn’t have to care. Targeting men worked. As Lien notes, “industries tend to look beyond their existing target demographic only when the market has become totally saturated.”

Perhaps that time has come. With boys and men securely in its pocket, the video game industry has more leeway to branch out to the other half of the population—if they choose to. “Given enough money, I could make guys buy tampons,” one marketing expert hilariously told Lien. I don’t doubt it. When soda companies decided they wanted men to drink low-calorie pop, they excised the girly word “diet,” painted the cans black, and rolled out the mobile “Man Caves” to facilitate a more masculine drinking experience. So if “gaming” is itself a masculine term, how will marketers grab the other half of the market? They’re already doing it with social games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds, which are intentionally framed outside of the video game context. What’s next, marketing geniuses? Half of the population is ready to play, no matter what you call us.

Correction, December 4, 2013: This post originally misspelled Tracey Lien’s first name.

Correction, December 4, 2013: This post originally misspelled Tracey Lien’s first name.