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Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007

When women wield the DS

More new titles targeted at female gamers during Tokyo Game Show


Special to The Japan Times

Imagine your typical video gamer. Male, aged 18-35, right?

Dokodemo Yoga
A Tokyo Game Show demonstration of "Dokodemo Yoga" for the Nitendo DS, one of two new titles specifically for women from publisher Konami. BRIAN ASHCRAFT PHOTOS

A businesswoman in her early 20s doesn't exactly fit the stereotype — but that's the untapped market that game-makers are now going after.

At Tokyo Game Show at the end of September, a handful of titles targeted at women were mixed in with the standard fare: role-playing games, first-person shooters and sports titles. It's not that women are just starting to play games, but that game-makers are now creating titles specifically for women.

"Developers are now working in an environment where it's perfectly acceptable to cater to a non-gamer audience, something which was probably not encouraged or frowned upon previously," says Hiroshi Kamide, a game-industry analyst for KBC Securities Japan. "The key factor is that this market segment can be very commercially worthwhile, but has been relatively untapped to date."

The past year has already seen a slew of titles targeted directly at women, with retailers clearing out shelf space specifically for them. These aren't games directed at pre-teens, 'tweens or teens, but adults. And what's more, games for girl does not necessarily mean "girly games" — most are less like traditional games and more like self-help magazine articles.

Take game-developer Taito's "My Happy Manner Book," which covers pressing concerns such as which is the "best" seat for single women in a traditional Japanese room, or what type of kimono is most appropriate to wear. The title presents different social situations from "Personal Interaction" to "Ceremonial Occasions" and helps you learn important etiquette, such as the proper way to write an address on an envelope or what to do with your napkin in fancy restaurants. Kiss embarrassing losses of face sayonara.

The title "DS Therapy" by developer Dimple Entertainment offers multiple-choice questions about love, work, daily life and the future. Users create a diary and track their progress through daily kokorobics (a Japanese wordplay on the words for heart and aerobics). Waifish anime therapists discuss your responses and dish up diagnoses based on psychological research.

Former male model-turned-walking guru Duke Saraie has even thrown his sporty beret into the ring with "Duke Saraie's Healthy Walking Navi: Let's Become Beautiful," a DS game that teaches users how to shape up their bodies and posture through walking.

Dream Skincare
A Konami employee demonstrates the "Dream Skincare" title for Nintendo DS portable conole.

And women's fashion magazine An-An has released the game "Female Power Emergency Up! DS," which encourages ladies to improve themselves over a three-month period through a series of quizzes and questions concerning romance and their bodies. What's better than reading women's mags? Playing them, it seems.

At Tokyo Game Show, Tokyo-based publisher Konami showed off two new titles specifically for women. First was "Dokodemo Yoga" for the popular Nintendo DS portable console. Players call up various yoga positions on the hand-held and track their progress through a daily in-game diary. The positions are fairly basic and the emphasis here is on relaxation rather than sticking your foot around the back of your head.

"Dream Skincare" was another newKonami title at the show. The software features real-life beauty adviser Chizu Saeki, who appears in the game to give pointers on skincare. In order to give users the best advice, individuals enter their daily body temperature and keep track of their hormonal balance and other factors which affect their skin's condition. It's possible to keep a record for up to a year.

"I wanted to create a fun title with which women can keep track of their hormone balance on the DS," says the game's director Hitomi Nozawa. "For women, keeping track of their body temperature will help them to understand the physical and mental health conditions that are tied to their hormone balance."

Since Nintendo introduced the DS in 2005, it has done a lot to expand the concept of what a video game is, first of all when it released a series of "brain-training games" that were a smash hit with casual players. The games consisted of logic and math problems that are supposed to make players smarter, or at least exercise their minds. What was novel about these games was that they tracked progress and featured mini-tests to provide a sense of accomplishment.

Earlier this year, Nintendo tried another angle with a "face-training" gamefor the DS titled "Otona no DS Kao Training," which came bundled with a camera. The TV ad featured a woman practicing various expressions, and the pitch was that working on the muscles in the face would create a more beautiful smile. These facial exercises (facercises, anyone?) have given us the Japanese-English word "facening" and work out parts of the body such as the jaw, cheek muscles and eyelids. Who knew eyelids need a workout?

These titles are more about achieving some personal best than winning any kind of competition. This allows them to dispense with the complex system of buttons, triggers and direction pads that video games traditionally rely on and which can often seem unnecessarily complicated to the casual gamer.

To the chagrin of some groups of hardcore gamers, the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii have simplified gaming interfaces — DS by using a stylus and touch-sensitive screen and the Wii with its remote control that you only need to wave about.

"The DS has brought more female gamers into the market as the barriers to entry for casual gaming are non-existent compared to conventional games," says KBC's Kamide.

Is it working? Nintendo's sales have mushroomed, and the company currently boasts the second most valuable Japanese stock behind Toyota.

"Over 18 million Nintendo DS units have been sold in Japan," says Konami's Nozawa. "This means that roughly 1 in every 7 Japanese have a Nintendo DS."

According to Meijin Takahashi, an executive at Sapporo-based game-developer and longtime Nintendo partner Hudson Soft, the biggest sector of the marketplace no longer belongs to the die-hard gamers anymore, but to casual players. At Tokyo Game Show, Hudson had on display an upcoming Nintendo Wii game, "Deca Sporta," which features a series of sports mini-games that use the Wii remote's motion controls. While Takahashi says that Microsoft and Sony continue to pursue more traditional gamers, his company is going after the larger, casual market. And a big chunk of that market is female.

Is this only happening in Japan? Currently, yes, though, at a recent game convention in Germany, a localized English version of "Dokodemo Yoga" (retitled "Let's Yoga") popped up. The game should be out in Western markets either later this year or in 2008.

As more of these female-friendly titles get released in Japan and abroad, perhaps we can expect the stereotype of gamers to change from the eternal teenage male to women aged 18 to 35.

Who's in the game?

Is the stereotype of the average gamer even true anymore? According to an online study by U.S. advertising agency JWT, it's not. In the "Denizens of Digitivity" survey, from Sept. 7-11, 1,000 individuals in the United States were polled as to whether they owned a video-game console (the survey did not mention PC gaming). The results:
* 44 percent of women said they owned a Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation or Microsoft Xbox, while 39 percent of men said they owned one of the three consoles.

As to what's causing this, JWT's trend spotters believe that it's the Nintendo Wii. While traditional game controllers require managing a complex set of buttons, the Wii has a motion-sensing controller that requires little pushing of buttons. The simple interface has opened up console gaming to the more casual player.



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