Playing Without Quarters: Women and the Domestication of the Home Video Console

The following is a work in progress paper presented to the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference 2018 and to the California State University, Long Beach Comparative Literature conference 2018. Comments are welcome but please contact the author before citing.

The popular image of nerdy male gamer was born in the heyday of the coin operated arcade, where men ostensibly dominated all aspects of arcade gaming culture and the arcade became a haven for a new form of masculinity [1]. While Family Fun Centers and family-friendly arcades like Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theater attempted to soften the hyper masculine image of the video game arcade, women remained a minority in cultural representations of these environments. If they were found in arcades, popular culture held that it was as arm candy to the local quarter jockey or a girlfriend cheerleader who watched from the sidelines as her boyfriend rescued the damsel from that damn dirty ape Donkey Kong. There was seemingly no place for women to actively engage in this new phenomenon, thus creating the stereotypical male gamer image and the image of the arcade as a purely masculine space. 

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This paper argues that women did, in fact, participate in video game culture and did so despite an industry that appeared to cater exclusively to men. Evidence suggests that many women braved the arcade, but more importantly countless others participated from the comfort of their own homes, couches, or rec rooms. The domestication of video games through the home console market, specifically through the Atari VCS (2600) and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), took video games out of the male-dominated coin operated arcades and brought them into American homes, making them available to a generation of women and girls who, comfortable in their own space, actively engaged in this burgeoning gaming culture. Branded as toys, these home consoles were marketed in a way that took the masculine stigma from the games and made them accessible to all members of the family. Playing at home granted women and girls an anonymity or invisibility that allowed them to excel in these digital worlds without interference from men or boys, creating a generation of gaming pioneers who help to pave the way for the female gamers who make up nearly 45% of the contemporary global video game market.

With the introduction of Space Wars and later Atari’s Pong into bars in the late 1970s, a gaming revolution had begun that took the country by storm. By the 1980s, coin op arcades were a cultural phenomenon and video games where everywhere from convenience stores and laundromats to pizza parlors and cocktail bars. News outlets from local to national were reporting on the arcades’ rise as both an exciting and disruptive phenomenon in American lives. The arcade became the new wild west, blamed for violence and juvenile delinquency, praised as an outlet for individualism and most importantly seen as a Carly Kocurek writes a, “kind of technoplayground for boys” [2] that helped to engender a new form of masculinity for those who competed for notoriety in these spaces. 

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The press and popular culture believed arcades to be the domain of men. And yet, women were active participants in arcade gaming, especially early on. Nolan Bushnell inventor of Pong and co-founder of Atari has said in many interviews that “40% of the income from Pong machines came from women who played the game.”[3] In “Women Join the Arcade Revolution,” from Electronic Games magazine published in May of 1982 Joyce Worley, (founding senior editor of the magazine and a gamer herself) writes that “Women have officially arrived in the world of electronic gaming. They’re not just there for decoration, either. These females can zap a centipede or blast an asteroid as well -- and sometimes even better -- than any man.” She continues later in the piece say that, “Like the men, the typical lady arcader spends as much as 5 hours per week playing coin-op games.” A follow up survey in 1983 of Electronic Games magazine readers revealed it wasn’t just teens or young girls playing games, putting the median age of women who gamed at 26 with more than 42% between the ages 25 - 40 and a “Surprising 8%... in the over 40 group.” [4] Other magazines and those in the industry seem to back up these notions and suggest that overall women made up just over a 1/3 of arcades customers during the brief golden era of the coin-op arcade.  

Despite making up an important part of the arcade population women and their participation in arcade culture has been ignored and led to the misconception that women did not play or participate in video games. This portrayal of women as gaming outsiders extends into the home market as well. But it is in the home market that women had even larger impact than they have been given credit for and that it was through home consoles that women found themselves masters of the video games.  Again, writing in Electronic Games magazine Joyce Worley points out that “home gaming has proven even more attractive to women [than the arcades]. There, she continues “in friendly surroundings, [women] can concentrate on beating boyfriends and spouses high scores without distraction.”[5] A survey tracking women’s home console playing time in 1982 reported that a little over a third of women who game spent more than 10 hours a week in front of a console. Those hours of play were rewarded in home console gaming tournaments staged by Atari and Mattel won by women in 1981, 1982 and 1983. Their competition success and the high scores they posted to a variety of early gaming magazines suggests women were becoming home video game experts.  Just as women were beginning to excel and becoming a force in home gaming, the video game market crashed. 

But three years after the crash, Nintendo and Sega entered the home console market replacing Atari, and the other early consoles in American homes and finding a market of woman and girls gamers hungry for new games. The success of these gaming companies especially Nintendo, ushered in a golden age of home video games. Nintendo’s Entertainment System (NES) came to the US in late 1985, by 1987 the NES had revived the home console market. In 1988 alone Nintendo sold more than 7 million units and as 1990 came to a close just over a third of Americans had an NES in their homes. 

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            Within months of the launch of the NES, Nintendo began releasing popular titles like Super Mario Bros., the Legend of Zelda and the arcade favorite Donkey Kong. These games like many others were not marketed specifically to boys. In fact, the NES was originally marketed as a family toy and sold in toy store chains and department stores in the children’s department. There was, according to early games developers no specific market for their games, male or female. In an interview, Activision developer Carol Shaw said, “she never got the sense that the games she made were for one gender or another, and there was never a mandate from higher-ups to target a certain audience.” “We” she continues, “didn't discuss gender or age. We just did games we thought would be fun.” Lori Cole a personal computer games developer who worked for Roberta Williams cofounder and game designer at Sierra Games, said in an interview, “many of Sierra's audience were women in their 30s. They were by no means the majority. But the studio knew, based on the feedback it got, that it had a diverse audience…the attitude that games were for men didn't exist, at least it didn't exist at Sierra at that time [the mid 80s].” While it is difficult to determine who was playing the video games in their homes the attitudes of early developers and games designers certainly suggest they were creating games for both boys and girls. 

When one explores Nintendo’s Fan Club and the later released Nintendo Power Magazine there is further evidence that women and girls were an important part of Nintendo’s home console story. The staff of the Fun Club and nearly half of the editorial staff of the magazine were made up of women including, Editor in Chief Gail Tilden, Senior Editor Pam Sather, and several women writers and other content creators. With that kind of editorial control women took a central role at the magazine. Women also had an important role on the magazines heavily advertised the Nintendo Powerline a call-in service where frustrated players could call a games councilor for hints, tips and tricks for finishing a game. Throughout the tenure of the service, women made up a substantial number of the gaming experts on this team. To be a counselor one had to be skilled player of the most popular games with the patients to deal with angry and frustrated Nintendo fans. Whether patronizing or not, most at the magazine believed women were particularly well suited to this role and their biographies were frequently highlighted in the magazine’s “Counselors Corner section.” Women thus had a powerful voice in Nintendo’s messaging to its players creating an environment seemingly friendly to women and girls.   

The content of Nintendo Power Magazine also reveals both a welcoming attitude toward girls and women who played, and it served as an outlet for them to express the joys and frustrations they experienced playing the NES. Nearly all issues of the magazine featured columns, stories, and advertisements that depicted women or girls as active gamers, controllers in hand playing the newest releases. Rarely, were they portrayed as passive cheerleaders waiting in the wings as brother or boyfriend vanquished a foe. The “celebrity corner” section often highlighted women sports stars or actresses who gamed on Nintendo systems and encouraged the magazine’s readership to do the same.  Of the letters and envelope art, published during the run of the magazine nearly half were written by women or girls. These letters were often effusive in their praise for Nintendo, explaining how the system had helped them earn the moniker player/gamer and how much they wanted to share their experience with others. Additionally, the magazine also published monthly Power Rankings of the high scores of the magazines subscribers. Charting these scoreboards from the late 80s until the magazine’s demise in 1999 shows that women were an active part of the hobby and proud enough of their top scores to send them in for publication. In fact, an average of roughly 15 - 25 % of the top scores, depending on the year, were held by women or girls and these numbers increase later in the 90s with the popularity of the Gameboy. 

Unlike the popular image of gamers in the Arcades, popular and media culture seemed happy to show women and girls as home gamers.  For instance, a 1988 20/20 news special report called “Nuts for Nintendo” featured interviews and game play footage featuring children and teens. Whether a conscious decision or not, the report featured and interviewed an equal number of girls and boys who enthusiastically answered John Stossel’s questions why they played. When asked why she plays one little girl said, “I just like jumping on things and killing them and shooting things.” In the images of the girls playing, they are shown with an equal intensity to the boys and they like the boys, report playing for hours and ignoring their homework. The girls’ expertise in play was never questioned and they were held, at least in this and other news reports, as the exemplars of the Nintendo player. 

Television was replete with images of women and girls playing home consoles. Popular afterschool and Saturday morning TV schedules were filled with live action home video game competitions. Shows like Starcade, Video Power, POW, and Game Pro TV featured girls who challenged and often succeeded against men and boys in both home console and coin-op games.  Advertisers also understood the role of women and girls in video games often featuring their product alongside video game playing women and girls. For instance, a 1980’s co-promotion between Atari and McDonalds features several women attempting to scratch and win Atari 2600 games systems and games cartridges, several are shown excited to have won the latest games. A similar promotion just two years later featured women prominently in the ad both as consumers of McDonalds and as obvious players of video games. Girls also had a starring role in video game based cereal ads like PacMan, Ms. Pacman, Nintendo, and Donkey Kong cereals. Even other food companies trying to capitalize on the popularity of video games Nestle Quik, Chef Boyardee and Pepsi used their products alongside images of boys and girls playing video games to sell their stuff. From the perspective of advertisers, girls were equally import games consumers. 

            By 1990, the power of the “girls’ market” was evident and games companies began to actively seek out the girl gamer.  In an interview on Good Morning America, December 20, 1990, Howard Phillips Nintendo’s Game Master offered up an interesting set of statistics from the company’s own data. After admitting that the company’s marketing strategies in the late 80s targeted boys he revealed that “30% of our users are female.” “It’s no longer a boy toy it’s a form of entertainment.” As he says this the GMA video cuts to young girls playing the latest Mario game in a Toys R Us.  This sentiment was echoed in a Nintendo earnings call in 1989 in which Peter Main president of Nintendo America says about Gameboy’s marketing that, “We’re expecting these titles to appeal to the diverse player franchise Game Boy has already created for itself…we have a very  healthy…37 percent female…user [base]— in this our first few months of sales.” These sales, Main continues, are consistent with early NES numbers and would be further supported by “a substantial, dedicated marketing program with advertising, promotion merchandising and public relations elements” geared toward women and girls.

Even Sega known for its aggressive anti-Nintendo ads (“Sega Does what Nintendon’t”) and for its over the top marketing of “Bro-Games,” had high hopes of expanding their market share of women/girl players. In 1990, Sega released ‘Mickey Mouse and the Castle of Illusion” a game marketed directly to girls but this was a strategy they would ultimately abandon. As Ian Bogost has said, "[the] shift to toy culture in the mid-'80s with the NES and its followers,” was followed by “the shift to what we now call 'dude-bro' games… in the early '90s.” Sega was on the cutting edge of this trend and PC games, and later consoles Playstation Series and Xbox would follow, giving rise some would argue to the toxic masculinity of the current online gaming world. But Nintendo stuck to its guns, producing games for the Gameboy, Super Nintendo and eventually the Nintendo 64 that would continue to diversify its market share and make it the platform for women in gaming.The Entertainment Software Association’s most recent annual report reveals that women make up 41% of the domestic video game players in the United States, worldwide statistics are closer to 50%. These numbers seem impressive when compared against statistics taken in the early 2000s but when compared to numbers from the 70s and 80s where women made up over a 35 or so precent of the market for console and other video games it seems that women have always been a force in gaming, their activity was just hidden behind the doors of their homes.   

[1] Kocurek, Carly A. Coin-Operated Americans Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

[2] Ibid., 65.

[3] Berlin, Leslie. "The Inside Story of 'Pong' and Nolan Bushnell's Early Days at Atari." Wired. November 16, 2017. Accessed September 26, 2018.

[4] Worley, Joyce. "Women Join the Arcade Revolution." Electronic Games Magazine, May 1982, 30-32.

[5] Ibid., 31.