When you think of gamers glued to the computer screen, racking up points in "Tetris" or conquering villains, you probably don’t think of mothers and grandmothers.
But a recent survey found that middle-aged and older ladies are exactly the ones who can’t tear themselves away from their favorite online games. AOL Games/Digital Marketing Services (search) found that the 40-plus female set plays online games more often and spends longer playing them than men or teenagers do.
But they're not hunting down virtual bad guys — they're playing online Bingo, gin and other traditional real-world games.
In fact, 40 percent of all online gamers are female and 39 percent of all gamers — computer and video — are gals, according to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) (search). In a $10 billion-plus industry, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
"Women are more interested in games than they used to be," said ESA President Douglas Lowenstein. "Games are a great outlet. They're simple, entertaining and captivating."
In the AOL survey, 41 percent of females in the 40+ age group said they played online games every day, compared to 23 percent of women under 40, and 73 percent of all females versus 69 percent of males reported playing in the past week.
A significant part of the appeal of games for women, say experts, is the online community that sprouts up around playing, since people can instant message or e-mail each other in chat-room situations during each round.
“It's a way for women to socialize without all the usual pressures (of having) to dress up, worry about clothes, makeup and hair," said Paul Boutin, contributing editor for Wired Magazine. "This is a great way to socialize without having to deal with the hassles and risks of trying to meet people in the real world. It’s not just for women but for anyone who likes to sit around and gossip.”
That was undoubtedly one of the reasons Belleville, N.J., resident Sharon Fredericks got sucked into online Bingo a few years back.
“In Bingo, you meet really interesting people,” said the 60-year-old mother and grandmother. “That was addictive. I knew everybody in the Bingo room. … Part of the attraction was to see if this girl’s husband came back or whatever. It was like a soap opera.”
Some of the players’ dramas Fredericks was privy to got a little strange, however.
“One girl was just so addicted that she didn’t want to leave the computer long enough to give birth. She was having labor pains,” Fredericks remembered. “I said, ‘Don’t you think you should call a doctor?’ She said, ‘I just have to finish this session.’ Thirty hours later she was back and had a little boy.”
But gaming women don’t go in for gore, violence and blowing up bad guys as much as their male counterparts do. Instead, many gravitate toward card, puzzle, maze and trivia kinds of online fun. Aside from Bingo, for instance, Fredericks plays another similar game called "Slingo."
Gin rummy, cribbage and other traditional table games; "Second Life" (where gamers join an online society and choose how to live in it); "The Sims" series (where players create characters and control various aspects of their lives); and those like "Rollercoaster Tycoon" and "Zoo Tycoon" (in which gamers start up and run businesses) are all popular with the ladies, according to gaming gurus.
So are adventure games with strong heroines, like "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" or Nintendo's "The Legend of Zelda" set.
“Now there are all sorts of games with female characters and more compelling storylines,” said Lowenstein. “You’re seeing much more out there, making it more common for girls and women to find something of interest than a decade ago.”
The female gamer boom extends to other age groups, too — from pre-teens on — and reflects the increasing popularity of game playing as a form of entertainment as a whole generation who played as children has now entered adulthood.
"A lot of young kids grew up playing games and now it's a very acceptable form of entertainment," said Beth Llewelyn, corporate communications director for Nintendo of America (search).
But, Lowenstein added, the trend hasn't become large enough to displace guy gamers, and video games’ core demographic is still males 18 to 35 years old — evident in the statistics for console games, whose players are only 24 percent female.
“I wouldn’t say that today there’s a massive industry demographic shift going on,” he said.
At Nintendo, for instance, Game Boy has a higher female demographic for its portable games than for those it produces for the console.
“A lot of games there tend to appeal to a female gamer,” said Llewelyn. “It’s certainly a growing area.”
It isn’t just the social element that draws women in. Like anyone else, many play just for the sake of playing — and potentially winning.
“The appeal is playing the game,” Fredericks said. “I play them late at night, when everyone else is sleeping, there’s nothing on TV and I don’t have a good book. Trust me, I am not your conventional mother. I never was.”