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I want to smash Bart Simpson. I would if I could, but the little yellow cartoon character that is supposed to be helping me learn how to play this damn video game is bouncing all over the screen, and I can't even figure out how to start my avatar.

"Press the Y button to get into the car. And don't take all day - it's just a tutorial," Bart jeers.

Mouthy brat.

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"Press the A button to accelerate, and use the left directional pad to steer. The C button is your break-and-reverse, and the X button is your handbrake. You know, just like every driving game ever."

No, I don't know. The Simpsons Road Rage is the first driving game I've ever played. And as I crash my pink convertible into a graphic tree, I realize I'm hopeless - and becoming increasingly hostile. Why aren't there any foot pedals?

I haven't played a video game since the early eighties. Even then, Ms. Pac Man was just an excuse to hang out at the arcade and chase after boys. Until recently, I thought my indifference to gaming was typical of women my age. Video games, I reasoned, were the domain of young geeky guys with nothing better to do than lurk in dark basements, fondling their joysticks.

Wrong. Adult women now make up a larger percentage of the on-line gaming population than boys aged 6 to 17, according to a survey released last year by the Entertainment Software Association, a U.S. games-industry analyst.

Most experts agree that young men still make up the vast majority of hard-core gamers plugged into home PlayStations. Women, they say, tend to play more traditional games like backgammon and solitaire, and usually on-line. But they're obsessive about it.

In fact, women over 40 spend more time playing on-line than adult men or teens, according to a new survey of casual on-line game players released last month by AOL (American Online) Games

Even though men spend more time on the Internet each week than women (23.2 hours compared to 21.6 hours), women over the age of 40 spend the most hours per week playing games (9.1 hours, or 41 per cent of their on-line time, compared to 6.1 hours, or 26 per cent, for men).

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The study also shows that women are also more likely to play on-line games every day than men or teens of either sex. And 28 per cent of gals who game report they usually play into the wee hours of the night, between midnight and 5 a.m.

Have you checked on your mother lately?

Catharine Hortsing says the studies are believable. "Those games are addictive," the 38-year-old Torontonian says with a shudder. "That's why I don't go near them any more."

Last summer, Hortsing started a job as vice-president of business development for Espresso Code, a web-based logistics software company. Newly immersed in the world of technology, and surrounded in the office by young intern software developers, the former high-school English teacher soon found herself hooked on a group video game called Counter-Strike.

"The first time I played, I was appalled," she says of the shooting game in which two teams, terrorists and counterterrorists, amass weapons in their mission to plant bombs, rescue hostages and kill off their enemies.

"It's just so incredibly violent. But once you let down that barrier, it's so much fun. Everyday at 4 p.m., we'd shut down the office and start up the game. We'd play for hours."

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The appeal? "Winning!" she exclaims. "And being sneakier than everyone else."

Even outside the office, Hortsing found herself strangely drawn to the casino and crossword games at the end of the bar at her local pub. She compares the guilty pleasure to reading a mystery novel: "Everything's wrapped up at the end. And when you're playing, you have to focus completely. It totally shuts out whatever other stresses are going on in your life."

One night, however, Hortsing realized her obsession was getting out of hand. "I was giving one of the kids - er, developers - a ride home. We were standing outside in the parking lot and looked up. Another guy was standing in the window. You could see his silhouette outlined perfectly. We got in the car, glanced at each other and started laughing nervously. We were both having the same thought - if only we had the sniper rifle, it would be a perfect shot!"

"Oh, it was so awful," Hortsing recalls, howling hysterically. "I had to stop."

In Vancouver, Radical Entertainment is getting ready to pounce all over women like Hortsing. The small, independent company, best known for developing such action-adventure games as The Hulk and The Simpsons, is an anomaly in the male-dominated gaming industry. While only 14 per cent of Radical's 180 employees are women, they comprise nearly half of the firm's 35 management jobs. That's a lot of estrogen in positions of power.

"Our main target is still the 18-to-34-year-old male," says Danielle Michael, Radical's vice-president of business development. "But obviously we want to go wider. Having women work here on the development side will make it more appealing on the output side, in terms of our games resonating with consumers."

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Reaching women is really the only way the market will grow, explains Kirsten Forbes, Radical's producer in charge of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a series of games based on the TV show that just happens to be hugely popular with women.

"The traditional market is stagnant," says Forbes. "There are only so many 18-to-35-year-old men out there, and they have all the games they need."

As with any marketing effort, Forbes says they don't expect to convert all women. "The goal is to take on-line gamers, and get them to buy console or PC games that are more immersive."

"The radical girls," as they call themselves, are pioneers in a relatively young industry where stereotypes aren't carved in stone, and many of their colleagues still have pimples. "Well, there's a young boys' network," says Forbes. "But you can easily break into that just by smoking on the balcony."

Back at home, I go on-line and read a news article about surgeons who warm up for the operating room by playing Super Monkey Ball and other action video games that test their hand-eye coordination, abstract laser manipulation, and timing.

Another story in The Los Angeles Times talks about the growth of video games as an academic subject - there are PhD students out there writing theses that explore "aporia and epiphany" in shoot-'em-up games like Doom, and college classes dedicated to deconstructing the symbolism in The Sims' digital dollhouses. At the L.A. County Museum of Art, an entire exhibit, Into the Pixel, is being mounted next month around video-game graphics.

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This is what gets those radical girls so excited when they talk about the new bio-feedback, sensory-powered games that are controlled by the temperature of your fingertip. I want don't want to be left behind. I submit to the power of Future Shop and go buy Radical's new female-friendly PC game, CSI: Dark Motives.

The original CSI game, which Radical developed last year for Ubisoft Publishing in San Francisco, sold 500,000 copies, half of those to women. The game brings players into the world of a Las Vegas crime lab. The goal is to collect evidence, interview witnesses and work with animated partners in the lab and police department to solve a crime.

I load up, and am really digging the 3-D graphics that zoom over the blinking lights of the Vegas strip. Then my computer freezes. It's as obsolete as I am.

I put out an e-mail plea to my girlfriends: "Any of you chicks got lots of RAM, or whatever you call it?"

Annabel comes to my rescue. A few nights later, we hunker down at her place with a bottle of wine and her high-powered laptop. It doesn't take us long to figure out how to use the fingerprint dusters. Before we know it, we're zooming from crime scene to hospital.

These sorts of problem-solving, role-playing games - which require quicker brains than thumbs - are all part of the growth market for women. As they develop more of them, another thing that needs to change, say advocates, is the hypersexualization of female characters.

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In a hot new book called Gender Inclusive Game Design, author Sheri Graner-Ray notes derisively how Lara Croft is depicted on the box cover of the new Tomb Raider game, Angel of Darkness. "Her bust line is embossed so that it's raised in bas-relief," she writes. "The customers can actually run their fingers over the cover and 'feel' Lara's breasts."

Graner-Ray argues that such character candy might be popular with men, but most women are not comfortable wandering into their local electronics boutique past a throng of horny young boys to pick up a game with boob-centric female protagonists on the cover.

Forbes says even most men on her team think such portrayals of women are ridiculous. "The general rule," she explains, "is to make sure their waists aren't smaller than their necks, and their nipples aren't erect through plate armour."

Not all women in the business agree. "Boobs sell," says Michael. "There are a lot of men who really like Lara Croft."

Back at Annabel's, we have no problem with the curves on Catherine Willows, our senior investigative partner. It's her attitude that's driving us crazy.

"Sure I could help you," she sneers when we click on her image and ask her for help. "But you're going to get docked points."

"Witch," we curse back.

We play for an hour, and then start getting bored.

"I just don't have the patience," says Annabel, as the streets outside her Yaletown loft start filling up with cheering Canucks fans getting out of a real game. We glance at each other guiltily, silently turn off the game and race out to the bar.

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