NEW YORK (Reuters) - Gina Sutton takes aim and deftly strikes down several targets in a row as they pop up on the screen in front of her.
A self-described girl gamer, she traveled from her home in Virginia to spend her 16th birthday at the Nintendo World Store in New York, and she can’t understand why anyone would think video games are just for boys.
“It’s like saying boys play with action figures and girls play with dolls,” she said as she used a Wii Zapper in a game called Link’s Crossbow Training. “I‘m the girl who plays with action figures.”
With her nimble fingers and bubbling enthusiasm, she is one of a fast-growing posse of female gamers in the United States and elsewhere capturing the attention of video game makers -- expanding the market beyond male-appeal games like Grand Theft Auto.
Girls and young women are a “pot of gold” for the industry, said George VanHorn, senior analyst at market research firm IBISWorld. “The gaming industry has market characteristics that many would die for.”
According to IBISWorld, 38 percent of U.S. gamers are female, up from 33 percent in just five years.
From January through August of 2008 females ages 18 to 45 made up 28 percent of the total industry revenue, ranking second to males ages 18 to 45, who made up 37 percent.
Software makers have churned out a throng of non-violent, easy-to-play games in a bid to capture so-called casual gamers -- those who don’t spend a lot of time on games -- and women make up a big part of that target audience.
Companies have also snapped up smaller online game makers. Last year, Walt Disney Co bought Club Penguin, which appeals to girls and boys aged 6 to 14. In 2005, Viacom Inc bought Neopets Inc.
At the Nintendo World Store in New York this month, Fatima Gomez, 8, bounced from one game to the next, looking for short, easy ones and never spending long on one.
She likes Bratz, Disney Princess and Hannah Montana and she doesn’t like shooting games, said Oscar Gomez, her father, who brought his family from Mexico City on vacation.
“She doesn’t care if she wins or not. It’s different with this guy,” he said, pointing to his son. “They like to win.”
Females accounted for 21 percent of the industry’s total sales growth last year, according to Anita Frazier, a video game industry analyst from the research firm NPD Group.
Frazier said many more females were playing than were showing up in these statistics. “The challenge is not to get them to play, but to get them to spend more of their time and money on games.”
One game that appeals to more girls than boys is Horseland, developed by Christina Johnson and her father, Phil Gerskovich.
When Johnson was 12, she stood at the kitchen table nearly every evening and lobbied her parents for a horse. While most parents might try to satisfy these demands with a stuffed animal or a day trip to the stables, Gerskovich created a horse avatar for his daughter.
The result was Horseland, an online pet game and social network, which they launched together in 1994. Today, Horseland lassos more than 5 million users, and has a line of merchandise and a partnership with DIC Entertainment for a CBS cartoon show.
Another factor that is making girls and women a greater force in gaming is the crossover of casual games from the online world to consoles like Nintendo’s Wii. According to market researcher NPD Group, as of July 2008, the fitness game Wii Fit had sold 1.4 million units in the United States since its launch in May, drawing large numbers of female gamers.
Activision’s Guitar Hero and Electronic Arts’ Rock Band, in which players perform in a virtual band on console systems such as the Wii, Sony Playstation or Microsoft Xbox, also appeal to young girls who enjoy the interactive nature of the games.
Electronic Arts also publishes the female-friendly blockbuster virtual life game The Sims, which has sold over 100 million copies worldwide since its launch in 2000.
“The expanded audience of women joining the gaming community is very exciting,” said Katie Cray, public relations manager for Nintendo of America. If current growth continues, the potential of the female market will only continue to expand, she said.
According to NPD Group, the top selling hardware in the United States in August was the Nintendo DS, a portable player which hosts girl-friendly games such as Nintendogs and Brain Age. Originally available in black or white, it now comes in metallic rose and silver.
Targeting the female market is part of the broad approach for the Sony Playstation console, according to Sony’s Julie Han. In addition to Rock Band, she said Sony is looking to release other “gender-defying” titles like Little Big Planet, a world-creation coming in October.
In the U.S. economic slowdown, much is riding on the female gamers said Edward Williams, managing director of equity research at BMO Capital Markets.
“Publishers and developers need to create the right content that appeals to more girls in order to maintain the health of the industry,” Williams said.
Still, the video game industry is reasonably small and subject to the cycles of console and game launches rather than to the broader economic cycle, so it should be continue to grow over the next two to three years, Williams said.
“As people travel less, the money spent on a video game is a little more justifiable,” he said. “It provides a fair amount of entertainment value per dollar spent.”
Meanwhile, some gamers lament that many female-focused games reinforce stereotypes and lack substantive content. Ubisoft Entertainment’s “Imagine” line of games, for Nintendo DS, targets preteen girls with titles such as Fashion Designer, Master Chef and Babyz, a game where girls overcome obstacles to becoming “the best babysitter on the planet!”
Only 11.5 percent of the people designing games are female, according to the International Game Developers Association.
Didi Cardoso, managing editor of Grrlgamers.com, a video game review website produced by women, said that the trends in female-oriented games are pink boxes, fashion, cooking, babies and makeup. “I think a girl’s world is a little bigger than that,” she said
Sutton, in New York to celebrate her sweet 16 at the Nintendo World Store on September 12, said games that focused on cooking, fashion and babysitting were demeaning. Some of her favorite games are cartoon fighting game Super Smash Bros., racecar game Mario Kart and farm simulation game Harvest Moon.
“But I‘m a little guilty of playing Cooking Momma, so I shouldn’t judge,” she said.
Reporting by Deborah Jian Lee; Editing by Eddie Evans