Are Housewives Desperate For Games?

A new PC-game, created by Buena Vista Games, based on the ABC television series, Desperate Housewives, was one of the titles that generated a great deal of buzz at E3 this year. The game is loosely modeled on The Sims in that it involves the simulation of domestic life within a suburban community (the world of Wisteria Lane as depicted on the series); the players adopt the role of a previously unknown housewife who awakes one day with amnesia and seeks to find out more about who she is and how she fits within the community. USA Today qoutes Mary Schuyler, the producer of the title:

As fans of the show would expect, the game is loaded with gossip, betrayal, murder and sex -- you know, all the things women like.

Every so often, a media property emerges that allows us to glimpse future directions for branded entertainment. Desperate Housewives looks like such an example: one that helps us to take inventory of core trends which are going to be shaping the media industry in the next few years. I haven't played the game. I haven't even seen the game. So this isn't an endorsement. I am just interested in what the existence of a Desperate Housewives game suggests about the current state of convergence culture.

1. The Desperate Housewives game represents another interesting experiment in transmedia storytelling.

Scott Sanford Tobis, one of the TV series' writers, wrote more than 13,000 lines of original dialogue and structured the plots for the game.

In an interview with USA Today, Tobis described the game as an "additional episode" , offering new insights into the characters and introducing new situations into the story. Danny Elfman's music from the series plays throughout and narration is provided by actress Brenda Strong (as late housewife Mary Alice Young). The game's locations are modeled precisely on the familiar neighborhood from the hit series.

As such, the game represents a continuation of a trend which I identify in my forthcoming book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide :

A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best -- so that a story might be introdced in a film, expanded through television, novels and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. Each franchise entry needs to be self contained so you don't need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice-versa. Any given product is a point of entry into the franchise as a whole. Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption. Redundancy burns up fan interest and causes franchises to fail. Offering new levels of insight and experience refreshes the franchise and sustains consumer loyalty.

We can see further evidence of this trend at play through the upfront announcements of the major networks last month: several of the networksspent as much time discussing their digital strategies as they spent talking about their broadcast strategies.

2. The Desperate Housewives game represents the latest effort by the games industry to attract more female players.

Let's face it: pretty much every male in America who has the slightest interest in games is probably already playing. All that the games industry can hope to do is to redivy up the pie when it comes to the core male demographic: it's hard to even imagine games companies succeeding in getting men to spend more hours each week playing games. All future growth has to come through either keeping players engaged with games later in life or attracting more female players. (Of course, this has been true for the better part of a decade and yet one should never underestimate the amount of resistance that exists within the games industry to broadening the "boys club" to allow the Kooties-carrying segments of the population access. If you don't think current games are produced and marketed primarily for men, ask yourself why a key piece of hardware is called the game boy and whether most of the people who own it would have purchased it if it had been called, say, the gamegirl.)

Indeed, there has been a dramatic growth in the number of women playing games over the past decade, as was marked by a conference hosted by UCLA in conjunction with E3. For two days, more than fifty leading feminist games scholars and designers met to talk about the emergence of the female games market and what it meant not simply for the economic future of the games industry but also in terms of women's access to technologies and technologically related skills. Again and again, we learned that women outnumber men in online and causal games sectors and are a growing segment of the games market overall. Women still spend less time playing games and see games as less central to their cultural lives. In other words, a relatively small number of women consider themselves to be hardcore "gamers" (a group represented at the UCLA event by a spokesperson for the Frag Dolls, among others) but a growing percentage of them do play games.

Mimi Ito, a USC anthropologist who does work on games culture in Japan, argues that a key factor in closing the gender gap among gamers there had to do with the integration of game content into larger "media mixes", such as the transmedia strategies which have emerged around hot anime and manga properties. She argues that girls in Japan embraced games as another source of content that interested them as it flowed organically from one medium to the next. In that regard, the use of the already successful Desperate Housewives brand to create a space for older female players makes perfect sense.

It also makes sense, given the appeal of casual games for women, to base the game heavily around a series of mini-games, including the integration of cooking challenges and card games as core activities within a larger

framework. This will allow the Desperate Housewives title to build a bridge from causal games that require short investments of time into longer play experiences. Several of the female players at the conference remarked that they didn't play longer titles because they didn't feel like they had the time to devote to really exploring them, yet they found themselves playing "just one more game" with their favorite casual titles and thus playing for several hours at a sitting. Such women may well be ready to move into more extended play experiences if the themes and structure of the game facilitate their interests.

That said, the women who attended the conference had pretty strong responses to the idea that cooking games and gossip were "all the things women like." They saw this push towards stereotypically feminine content as a return to some of the pink box thinking that doomed previous generations of experiments at creating "girls games." Many have argued that the key to getting more women as players is to create games that men and women want to play together and diversifying the range of genres on the market, rather than producing games which appeal exclusively to one gender or another.

3. The Desperate Housewives game represents a new effort at product integration in games.

A Partnership with Massive will result in an unprecidented amount of ingame advertising and product placement. Here's what IGN had to say about these aspects of the game:

Most of the products in the house will be real-world name brands. Thanks to a deal with Sears, washers, dryers, and vacuum cleaners will all have familiar logos on them. When your character walks out to the mailbox, coupons will arrive from time to time. Thanks to a print option, you can take these coupons to their respective store (in the real world) and use them towards a purchase.... Not only bringing ads to the table, Massive has also incorporated a system to stream ABC content onto the TVs within the game itself.

At the UCLA conference, I argued that advergaming could be an important force in expanding the female market for games. Right now, advertisers are using games to reach the young male demographic that has been abandoning television. Yet, historically, women are the key decision-makers shaping many of the most heavily advertised brands. Those brands are also going to want to deploy games to reach consumers and they are going to be searching out new kinds of game content that reflects the tastes and interests of their desired demographics. While games publishers may have an interest in continuing to tap their most hardcore consumers, advergaming will have a different incentive -- to broaden the game market to allow them to reach their most desired demographics. Witness the participation of Sears and other domestically-focused brands in the Desperate Housewives game.

4. The Desperate Housewives game represents another important step towards an episodic model for game content.

For some time, observers of the games industry have questioned whether the current models for content will serve the interests of even the core gamer market for much longer. The average gamer pushes older each year simply because people are continuing to play games later in life than anyone would have imagined. The generation that grew up playing Super Mario Brothers is now entering young adulthood. They now need to manage their game play time alongside expectations from spouses and offspring. Women often complain that the units of time demanded by most games are impossible to negotiate around the expectations they face within their families. All of this points towards the desirability of developing games which come in smaller units of playtime.

Across this same period, leading thinkers in the games industry have suggested that episodic content -- games structured more like television series -- might prove both creatively interesting and commercialy viable. My CMS associate David Edery recently entered into the industry debate about episodic content. What he has to say on this topic warrents a close read.

Details about the episodic structure of Desperate Housewives remain vague, as does the business plan that will support this content: early interviews describe the game as composed of eight smaller episodes that combine to form a larger story arc, each representing roughly two hours of game play. The most likely scenario is that these episodes will all ship as levels within a single game unit, but there has been speculation that there may be opportunities to refresh the game content over time, as occurs in many massively multiplayer games, especially given the ability to provide streaming content from ABC directly into the game world. One can imagine game content that gets updated in response to new information unveiled in the aired episodes, thus changing the game world throughout the television season. Such steps would insure not only viewer loyalty to the television series (in hopes of new content updates for the game) but also persistent engagement with the game itself (with new interest delivered with each aired installment). Such tight coordination between the television series and the game may be premature given the current infrastructure and business models, but the Desperate Housewives propery is certainly a rich space to experiment with new forms of episodic content.