Taking her first sip of Saturday morning coffee, Debbie allows her eyes to rest on the recycling bin overflowing with energy drink cans and the two empty pizza boxes unceremoniously deposited on the kitchen counter. Chad must have had another late night playing Overwatch or Fortnite with his friends. While she’s glad that he’s staying out of trouble, Debbie has a hard time grasping why he needs to play his games into the early morning hours. He’s going to need to develop better time management skills by the time he goes off to college.
Her phone buzzes with a push notification. Cheryl is up and finally catching up on Words With Friends; the two of them have five games going at once. Debbie excitedly waits for her friend to finish playing so that she can take her own turns in one rapid burst.
Maybe she should try to gently nudge Chad toward some new hobbies, she thinks. He’s maintaining good grades and holding down his part-time job at the grocery store, but all he ever wants to do is play video games! And he always seems willing to fritter away the money he earns on extras like downloadable maps and character skins.
A different notification pops up on her phone: a new episode release from Candy Crush Saga. She’s already completed the last one and doesn’t feel like waiting until she can play for free, so maybe she’ll just go ahead and pay for access later today. After all, she brings in plenty of income to this household and deserves to splurge on some little things, right?
43-year-old Debbie would have a hard time believing you if you told her that she spends roughly the same amount of time and money on video games as her 16-year-old son Chad. After all, he’s a hardcore gamer who blocks off hours at a time for his hobby. She keeps busy most of the day with her realtor job and various household tasks and social engagements, only playing games on her phone during short snatches of downtime. Yet for all the difference in styles, she’s just as much a gamer as her son.
But Chad enjoys access to a host of books, magazines, news hubs, YouTube and Twitch channels and video sites streaming original content, all catering to his favorite pastime. Debbie’s only source of gaming information is word of mouth from her friends and coworkers. Why is no one going to the effort of creating content for her?
You can find any number of articles online that will trumpet the news to you that nearly half of the world’s gamers are female. What they often miss is that this side of the gaming world skews considerably older than the male equivalent; the average woman who plays video games is 37 years old and financially independent. And women actually outnumber men as gamers in the 50-64 and 65+ demographics.
With an audience of adult women gamers whose numbers are nearly double those of boys under 18, it is important to question why so many games seem designed with adolescent males as the default audience. But just as critical is the question of why middle-aged and older women don’t seem to be targeted for any gaming news or entertainment content of their own. What sets them apart and makes the industry as a whole feel comfortable ignoring them? It’s not like the Debbies of the world aren’t shelling out a fortune to mobile developers like King and Zynga.
The key to this mystery is the perceived divide between “core” and “casual” gamers, with middle-aged women relegated to the latter category. And while it’s wrong to assume that “casual” gamers don’t deserve our attention, it is true that their tastes are very different from the (largely young and male) “core” gamers. This older segment of women prefers to play mostly puzzle and strategy games (the most popular genres overall, in fact) on mobile devices. They gravitate toward the type of “snackable” games that can be picked up and put down at a moment’s notice, yielding an experience that is perhaps shallow but still a relaxing diversion from the stress of daily life.
“Historically, women have not been particularly well-served by the sedentary nature and limited distribution of traditional games,” Backflip Studios CMO Joe Lazarus told Forbes. But casual mobile games have made inroads with women who previously never had the opportunity or inclination to set aside time for lengthy gaming sessions. “Prior to the advent of mobile, a person might sit in their basement and play for an hour at a time,” Lazarus added. “[Now] the games are always with us.”
Mobile games also provide middle-aged women like Debbie with the opportunity to connect remotely with friends and family. “It’s a way to bond and have fun with your friends or significant other,” one survey respondent told Refinery29. “As kids grow up, they normally want to spend less time with their parents,” explained gamer and mom Rachel DeMario in the same article. “I feel like gaming will help me bridge that gap, and we can spend more time gaming together.”
Many of the sources that examine the role of women as video game consumers approach them fundamentally as a single monolithic audience, which runs the risk of erasing the distinctive qualities and needs of middle-aged and older women. When you read that 30 percent of viewers watching YouTube gaming videos are female or that 21 million people subscribe to the top 10 female gamers on the platform, it’s easy to come away with the impression that women are already reasonably well served and well represented in the world of gaming content. But to what extent do these figures only reflect engagement of younger women? Without studies that break down these numbers across different age demographics, it can be hard to say.
There is an increasing number of gaming influencers on YouTube or Twitch who cover mobile games, but these rising stars are largely male and almost always young. A rundown of popular female game streamers also doesn’t appear to overlap much with the age range or game preferences of the women who are devoting the most time and money to video games. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, either, since we know that middle-aged women are playing on their phones and often on the go. How many of them are interested in sitting down for hours to watch never-ending game streams? And how interesting would it really be to watch someone else play Pokémon Go or Kim Kardashian: Hollywood for hours? Games like this are only expected to hold players’ attention for a few minutes at a time.
Middle-aged women who play casual mobile games deserve to have gaming content that speaks to them on their own terms, and it’s not likely that streaming video is going to do the trick. Dedicated websites focused on mobile game news and reviews (as opposed to the occasional list on mainstream tech and gaming websites) would likely do well, especially if they were optimized for reading on mobile devices. Smartphone apps that allow users to rate and review their favorite casual games with a social dimension (think Goodreads for games) would also have the potential to be more accessible than YouTube or Twitch. Middle-aged women have shown that they are willing to spend plenty of time and money on their favorite casual games, so why force them to rely on word of mouth to discover new favorites?
The media is paying lots of attention, especially in the wake of the Gamergate controversy, to the issue of how to make gaming a more friendly and inclusive space for women. And while this impulse is welcome and important, it tends to be concerned with girls and younger women who are actual or potential members of the “core” gamer audience. Recruiting more female developers and creating games with woman-oriented narratives might revolutionize gaming culture, but it won’t necessarily change the lives of women who enjoy stealing a few spare moments to play Candy Crush Saga or FarmVille 2. And it’s worth considering whether we actually need to try to include them in any outreach efforts.
Identifying middle-aged women who like mobile games as “casual” gamers shouldn’t be a reason to write them off or neglect their unique information needs. But just as gaming culture hasn’t been quick to embrace them, they haven’t tended to identify with the culture any more than Debbie does with Chad’s gamer friends. That’s why it will be easier to create new gaming content hubs from scratch with female casual gamers as the target audience than to rope in middle-aged women with a new Rooster Teeth series or a special section on Kotaku.
Time and technology requirements haven’t been the only obstacles keeping female casual gamers away from the mainstream content world of “core” gamers. There is also the intensely competitive atmosphere, the “gatekeeping” behavior and—in our post-Gamergate moment—the toxicity and sexism that is sadly rampant in gaming culture. We can put our hope in younger gamers, both men and women, to change this culture from within. But we can also offer middle-aged women an alternative space in which to enjoy their hobby free from the politics and infighting.
Just as Debbie isn’t likely to join Chad’s Overwatch league, she probably won’t be well served by the type of gaming content that speaks to him. But she and her fellow moms represent a huge and well-off market segment whose spending power has yet to be fully tapped. King, the hugely successful developer of Candy Crush Saga and other popular casual games, was acquired by Activision Blizzard for $5.9 billion. But the games themselves are only the tip of the iceberg. Content creators have the opportunity to create an entirely independent media ecosystem for casual gamers like Debbie and her friends if they’re brave enough to throw away the blueprint and try some new ideas.