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Pink Poison

There’s been some talk on the women’s dev list about “pink games” and “girls games” .. alot of it has been quite unflattering.  I think it’s kinda sad that something like the concept of “games for girls” could get such a bad rap and the idea of “pink games” should become so derogatory. Anyway.. here’s an analysis of what happened in the 90’s to the concept of games for girls and how we got to where we are today….

Pink Poison

I’d love to give ya’ll a bit of history on the girls’ game movement of the 90’s as it may give you a bit of insight into how “girls games” and “pink games” ended up such a emotionally charged concept.

In early 1990’s American Laser Game’s VP of Marketing, Patricia Flanigan decided that there was a market for games for girls. So with the help of the Albuquerque Independent School District and over 3000 jr high and high school age girls, she designed a game. This was McKenzie & Co. which I was hired on mid-way through development to help bring out. We took our work, demographics, prototype and half finished game out to the publishers. Every one of ‘em responded with “girls don’t play games” and shut the door in our face.

So we self-published the title and sold 80,000 units. With this success we went back to the publishers with our next game idea but we were still met with “girls didn’t play games.”

Fortunately at the same time there were other companies just about to release games for girls as well. One year after McKenzie & Co came out, Barbie Fashion Designer came out, Purple Moon released their titles, and Girl Games in Austin released theirs.

All of these titles had good success, but Barbie Fashion Designer sold OUTRAGEOUSLY well. 600K units in the first year. This was unheard of and suddenly the publishers changed their tune from “girls don’t play games” to “how do we make games for girls??”

Unfortunately, they did what they’ve always done. They looked at Barbie and said, “GET ME THAT MARKET!!” and began to produce Barbie-like games at a fever pitch.

As the Barbie clones flooded the market, that niche quickly became saturated and the individual titles performed quite poorly. Add to that the fact that only Barbie can be Barbie and everything else pales in comparison.

Then Purple Moon closed its doors and Girl Games moved their business strategy away from games and changed their name, and American Laser Games (Her Interactive’s parent company) went through bankruptcy (from which Her Interactive survived.) All this combined with the lackluster sales of the Barbie clones caused the industry to scream “See??!! We TOLD you girls didn’t play games!” And then they quickly retreated from the idea of games for girls.

So, while Barbie helped us by opening the door to the idea of games for girls. She also hurt us as the industry used her as the definition for an entire MARKET. That is they redefined a broad and diverse market of “girls” into a GENRE of “fashion, shopping and makeup for girls ages 6-10.” … hence.. Pink Poison.

Unfortunately… at this time the industry STILL defines “girls games” this way today. They do not see it as a potential MARKET, rather they see it as a single genre.. like “flight sims” or “RTS’s.” This is, of course, a terrible disservice to the market that so rightly deserves its own specifically targeted entertainment!

For now, I think we will have to deal with the fact that “casual games” essentially means games for which the audience is 70% female, because you can not pitch a “girls title” to anyone without the shadow of the “pink games” hanging over you.

Please understand I’ve NEVER EVER said that girls/women shouldn’t have computer entertainment/games developed specifically for them. In fact, I would strongly SUPPORT ANYONE who wants to target titles to that audience!!!! I specifically target my talks and information to those who are producing traditional titles and want to learn how they can expand their market to include female players. But I also believe we can target the female audience quite successfully. (Notice that I use “female” instead of “girl” or “women”. There is no term for the female gender that does not carry with it some baggage in its definition.)

The female market is a strong, viable market and is, in my opinion, ripe for development. Just ask the publishing industry how lucrative the romance book market is. Just ask the film industry how lucrative Chick Flicks are (Titanic, anyone?)

What I want is for developers to decide AHEAD OF TIME who their market is .. and that they GET PAST the idea that “games for girls” has to be this tiny little genre of “fashion shopping and makeup for ages 6-10”!!

I would also like to see the industry as a whole stop denigrating the concept of “games for girls.” Building computer games for girls is still a VERY viable concept.. so long as you do not let the pink poison infect what you are building.

Published inRandom Musings


  1. I’ve noticed a rather depressing self-fulfilling prophecy in Sony and Microsoft regarding targeting a female demographic.

    In a recent pitch meeting for PSN, games targeting a female audience were rejected on the grounds that the demographic data for PSN users showed that the audience was almost universally male. How utterly shocking that a service offering games solely targeting a male audience should turn out to be almost entirely male!

    I like to think that people can’t get any more stupid, but the world keeps proving me wrong! :p

  2. J. J.

    As I remember almost completely embarrassing myself at a WIGI meeting some years back soliloquizing, Barbie isn’t getting cloned so much anymore … everyone is just making a HORSE GAME FOR GIRLS.

  3. I wonder if it’s even necessary to market the game specifically to women, for women. If it’s been designed for women, and it’s fun and/or engaging, then that should prove itself out in sales.

    I just pitch ideas and keep any specific gender-target (if there is one) obfuscated.

  4. That depends…. if you only advertise it in… say.. Gamestop… where no women really shop.. or in something like Computer Game Magazine or Game Developer Magazine, which have very predominantly male readerships.. then how are the women going to know about them? So.. yah.. I do think you need to advertise a game that is targeted toward females to females. Heck.. if you can figure out where your barriers to access are and look at removing them.. you should consider advertising games to women .. period!

    There is simply nothing wrong with making good games for minorities.. or any targeted audience. If we didn’t do targeted entertainment.. then we’d get tons of “Avatar” and very little “The Piano” or “The Color Purple.”

    ANyway.. it’s perfectly financially viable to target minorities when you develop entertainment. Minorities control a huge amount of disposable income.. I’d like some of that please :).

    As for obfuscating your target market… bad idea… need to clearly communicate who your target market is.. or when it does get published.. you’ll end up with ads in Game Dev magazine.. when they really need to be in Seventeen. 🙂


    (thanks again for the template!!! 🙂 )

  5. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m with you in that when choosing a marketing channel, the game needs to be featured somewhere that your target audience will actually see it.

    What I’m getting at is that when pitching a design I don’t think it’s necessary in this day and age to say that the product is being specifically built for a given gender, race, religious sect, what have you.

    While you might get a few more sales by slipping your game-for-women in a magazine-for-women, I really believe that the casual and core female gamers aren’t looking in those places for game-related information.

    Perhaps what really needs to happen is the creation of marketing channels for female gamers. Magazines, websites, conventions, etc. And some of these exist.

    What my thinking is is that we’ll get the outliers from indirect marketing based on the quality of the game. People will talk about it, and if there are female-specific elements to it, it will reach the ears and eyes it needs to reach.

    But my perspective is a bit warped, as I try to make “games for humans” first, and then insert whatever minority/majority-specific content there’s room/call for.

    Isn’t that the sort of approach that serves as an antidote for the “Pink Poison”? 🙂

  6. “What I’m getting at is that when pitching a design I don’t think it’s necessary in this day and age to say that the product is being specifically built for a given gender, race, religious sect, what have you. ”

    But my perspective is a bit warped, as I try to make “games for humans” first, and then insert whatever minority/majority-specific content there’s room/call for.

    Isn’t that the sort of approach that serves as an antidote for the “Pink Poison”?”

    If only it were that simple. :\

    You have no idea how many times I’ve heard this and for how long. MANY developers will say they are doing this… but usually, because they do not have a diverse team and/or are so steeped in what they’ve been doing for so long, they are unable to see the barriers to access that exist in their titles.

    For instance – “Red Dead Redemption” Great game, right?

    … yah, well, I never played it and won’t.

    Why? Cuz I can’t play a female character in it.

    Yes, I’m serious. No, I’m not the “only one.” I’m not comfortable playing male characters.. period. (check Nick Yee’s latest info on “gender bending” – people playing the opposite gender then their own in games.. it reveals this clearly.)

    I actually own Red Dead… I *tried* very hard to play it.. but that barrier to access for me was too high. And therefore you may THINK you made a ‘human centric game” but it may have barriers in it that keep me out and make me feel like it isn’t for me.

    And.. frankly… if you showed up to pitch a game to me and COULDN’T tell me who your target market was.. or if you said, “All Humans!” I would politely ask you to go do better market research for your title. I do not believe there is a “one size fits all” entertainment out there. There are no “Games for humans.” There are games for markets. At this time that market is predominantly “white, young, straight, non-handicapped, males.” I just wish we would recognize the minorities as viable markets that are worthy of developing for.

    So no, declaring all minorities as unnecessary distinctions and trying to produce games for all humans is not the antidote. The antidote is two fold:

    1) for mainstream titles – identify barriers to access that may keep minorities out of our titles and then working to remove those barriers

    1) recognizing and acknowledging the value of the minority groups over all as worthy of developing entertainment for


  7. There you go, that’s what I was looking for! Thank you very much for taking the time to dig a bit deeper on this issue, your antidote is solid gold. Now just grant me a moment to explain my position:

    I wear the indie blinders, where I believe I can indeed create a “game for humans” as I do not answer to a producer. I have carte blanche with my designs.

    Believe me, I fully sympathize and understand that the people that hold the purse strings in larger operations want a fully realized plan for the product that they’re funding. And, due to my bias and current luxury I feel that this is an artefact of an age in development that needs to die the death it deserves. That’s where *I* am coming from. (I’m a misguided, idealistic crusader? 😛 )

    However, if I were to pitch to big money, I assert: my design would come from a foundation of games for humans. I wouldn’t entertain and ideas of marketing until I had a design I was satisfied with. Then, if it fit a certain criteria and could be leveraged to a given demographic, then by all means I would present it as such. If not… I guess I’d go build it myself! 🙂

    I agree with you 100% that at the end of the day a game, as a commercial product, has to be pointed at a specific market to make the most of the given marketing budget. That’s business.

    On the *art* side though I believe that we don’t have to seed our designs with a given market in mind. I say that, unless someone is holding a gun to my head or specifically paying me to do so, I would never begin a design session with the words “Let’s make a game specifically for women”. And you know what? That comes from me having no idea how to do that… and I’d argue that very few people, if any, really do.

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