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Casual games embrace girl next door Add to ...

Over the years the videogame industry has tried, with varying degrees of success, to attract more girl gamers into the fold - a task that hasn't always been easy given its penchant for portraying female characters as damsels in distress or one-dimensional bits of eye candy.

The assumption that there are few good role models for women in games, however, is a myth.

With games themed around restaurant management, running beauty salons and fashion boutiques and caring for pets and babies, casual games cater to a loyal (and exponentially growing) fanbase of women, from 'tween girls to 40-year-old soccer moms to 70-year old grandmas. In the casual world, the Strong Female Protagonist, or "SFP," is about as ubiquitous as ammo in a first-person shooter.

Stacey Hood, a 39-year-old stay-at-home Mom from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, thinks characters in casual games are great role models for girls. "The characters are very pleasant, goal- and task-oriented, and typically what most girls dreamed about being when I was young," she explains. "I also don't see anything wrong with pretending to be Lara Croft in Tomb Raider either. I just don't particularly care for these types of games myself, nor did I ever want to 'role-play' them."

Hood buys about seven games per month, which she plays to relax, unwind and escape from daily stressors. "They're fun and interactive," she explains, "unlike television, which has way too much bad language, violence and sexual content."

A GIRL NAMED FLO

The rise of the female protagonist in casual games can be traced back to 2004, when the most popular casual titles were gem-swapping games like Bejeweled, Collapse-style puzzle games, and ball-popping games like Luxor and Zuma. Game publisher PlayFirst wanted to better connect with the 35-and-over women demographic by offering them authentic, everyday themes and inspirational characters that they could identify with.

The result was Diner Dash, a restaurant management game that starred a plucky waitress name Flo. Diner Dash was a hit. Along with its sequels it has sold more than 200,000 million copies and spawned hundreds of imitators, all of which feature hard-working female protagonists based on the Flo prototype.

These days, casual games feature women in a variety of roles, including running salons (Belle's Beauty Boutique, Sally's Salon), taking care of children (Carrie the Caregiver), planning weddings (Wedding Dash), designing clothes (JoJo's Fashion Show), and managing offices (Miss Management).

Players have shown their approval with their wallets. According to the Casual Games Association, casual games are a $2.25 billion industry and growing. Media research firm Interpret found that in 2007 more than 7.1 million people played casual games for at least one hour per week (with the average being 5 hours per week), and bought about 3 games per week (at $7 - $20 a pop), mainly from online try-before-you-buy download portals like Big Fish Games, Yahoo! Games, MSN Games, Pogo.com and RealArcade.

The fact that casual games are easier and cheaper to produce, and that a significant portion of their audience is already women, makes it easier for casual developers to continue creating compelling female characters than it is for their counterparts in the hardcore industry to start.

"I think the hardcore gaming industry is well aware of how to create female figures just as good as the ones in casual games. The problem is that the people buying their games just don't care," says Stanley Adrianus, founder & CEO of Gamenauts and the creator of Cate West - The Vanishing Files.

"There are a lot of very smart people in the hardcore industry, and in some ways I feel that their hands are tied. If they try to develop a genuinely interesting female character without the exaggerated sex appeal, would their primary audience appreciate it? My best example is the game Beyond Good & Evil. A great and honestly intelligent female character, but the game was a commercial flop."

GRANNIES, GO-GETTERS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR

"In any media, and whether male or female, I think plucky and devoted characters have always been appealing," says Melanie Tercha, the producer of iWin's Polly Pride Pet Detective. "Often in games, we're meeting the character in a situation of high stress. Maybe these strong-willed women resonate with players because, when faced with a challenge, they do what we all hope we'd do - rise to it."

Like the majority of female leads in casual games, Polly "owns a business, has a strong sense of herself and her interests, and puts fear on the back burner to accomplish goals," which makes her a character that a lot of women can relate to.

When Sandlot Games was designing Jill, the star of Cake Mania, great care was taken to make her look like the girl next door. "We created a whole persona around her, from her likes and dislikes to her favourite movie and books," says Sandlot Games Founder & CEO Daniel Bernstein.

Some of the early concept art for Jill featured a rather "expanded" chest that wasn't suitable for her image. Says Bernstein: "In the hardcore [video game]space this is something you see all the time, and the portrayal of women is really stereotypical and almost farcical. So we really needed to tone that down and make sure she looks like she could be somebody who plays one of our games."

In the case of Super Granny, another Sandlot Games title, the engaging 80-year-old main character with her lavender track suit and feisty attitude actually succeeded in making the game's more hardcore play mechanic - an action platformer played with the keyboard - more approachable to casual audiences.

COOKING, CLEANING AND SEWING... NOT THAT THERE'S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT

When Andy Megowan helped to create Jill at Sandlot Games, he had no idea that she and Diner Dash's Flo would be so frequently imitated.

"Their significance has definitely been diluted by the hordes of clones," he admits, "and lots of folks don't have time to understand the resonance of the original Strong Female Protagonists. Instead, they do their best to imitate what they think are the strongest qualities of commercial successes and hope for a slice of the same cake. The result is that lots of these characters bear superficial resemblances, but have more negative or insulting messages."

While their original goal was one of empowerment, some casual games have attracted criticism for portraying women in service-oriented and stereotypically feminine occupations like cooking, cleaning, care-taking and working in the fashion trade.

"Why aren't there games about female lawyers and CEO's?" asks Vincent Carrella, author and director of licensing at Shockwave. "One could argue that a good chunk of the buying public are middle-class moms, high-school educated ... thus, feminism and portraying women in non-traditional roles may not be too important to them. But, as a man raised by a single mom, and a father of two daughters, I would like to see the bar raised a little."

While Megowan, who is now Creative Director at iWin Division 90, says that the "Strong Female Protagonist with a Small Business" is definitely overdone, he also appreciates why they have become iconic in casual games. "They are not only an archetype that the majority of the target demographic can identify with, but are also characters that women can hold up and say 'You can keep your muscle-bound warriors and effeminate boys with large swords. These characters are ours!'"

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