(STAR) By Lea Banua - Fourteen-year-old Charmaine Ferro is a typical girl with twinkling, chinky eyes and a shy smile. She enjoys surfing the Web and hanging out with friends.

However, once Charmaine plays O2 Jam, a rhythm-based massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) distributed locally by IP e-Games, her unassuming nature vanishes. In-game she becomes Asia, a true gaming aficionado.

Charmaine or Asia, her O2Jam in-game name, is considered to be one of best O2 Jam players around and constantly ranks among the top O2 Jam players in the country. She recently placed third in the game’s latest event, the Jammin’ to Jakarta tournament.

“Girl gamers are pretty much like male gamers when it comes to gaming,” says Charmaine. “What boys can do in-game, girls also can.”

The female interest

Charmaine is just one of the growing number of female gamers making a name for themselves in the “male-dominated” gaming industry. The number of female players has grown considerably for the better part of the decade and it has become one of the major marketing niches in gaming.

The female gamer is unquestionably becoming a force to be reckoned with.

“Female gamers add up to the population of computer gamers,” says Prof. Josephine Aguilar-Placido, a sociologist from the University of Santo Tomas, Faculty of Arts and Letters. “And just like males, they are also entitled to be entertained by the games.”

In the third annual report of the Nielsen “Active Gamer Benchmark” released in October 2006, it said females account for two-thirds of the total population of online gamers.

The report said that while males dominated the video game segment, it was a different matter when it came to online gaming. The study found that nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of online gamers were women.

And the numbers continue to rise. According to the 2007 Essential Facts report of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), women make up 38 percent of the entire gaming population. In fact, women aged 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (31 percent) than boys aged 17 or younger (20 percent). This was up from 30 percent last year.

And the market has taken notice as well. More games are being created to cater not just to male but female gamers as well.

“One of the factors female gamers tackle is that they are pegged to two or three games,” observes Prof. Aguilar-Placido. “Most probably we need to introduce more games which will be of the female interest. We must have games which have a female interest also.”

Take for example The Sims, the blockbuster simulation title from EA Games. The success of The Sims was massive because it appealed to a broad range of gamers, particularly females. According to Will Wright, The Sims creator, almost half of the players are women.

In addition, Prof. Aguilar-Placido also comments that shooter games such as Counter-Strike have their own share of hardcore female gamers. She points out that the female interest in games is actually broader, and that game developers and publishers should somehow avoid pegging female gamers to stereotype.

Raising it up a notch

In the Philippines, most of the girl gamers playing online get hooked in casual MMOGs like O2 Jam, Dreamville and Audition Dance Battle from e-Games, Gunbound from Mobius, and Pangya and Oz World from Level Up.

According to Paolo Olbes, casual games product manager for IP e-Games, Audition Dance Battle’s ratio between male and female players is close to 50/50. Female “Audistas” form all-girl clubs and communities and they are considered to be the most active. One of the more notable groups is the Dream Girls Club, comprising more than 100 hundred female players.

“When Dream Girls started out, its main objective was simple and that was to unite all female Audistas,” recalls Kristel Eniego, leader of the Dream Girls. “From something as simple as that, we raised it up a notch and wanted to actually empower women.”

Eniego observes that more and more female gamers are getting hooked but they are also getting better and even excelling in games as well. “A lot of these girls are really, really good. They don’t use pilots or bots but I have been a witness that they can really turn those keys up. The good thing is that people are actually starting to notice.”

According to Mon Macutay, marketing manager of Level Up Philippines, up to 20 percent of their games’ players are females.

“Some females are slowly disproving the ‘might and dominance’ of the males in games,” says Macutay. “In the near future, we will see an increase of competitive female gamers.”

More and more women are also taking active part in game-related community relations, Macutay observes. “In fact, most of our community managers are girls — who can pack a punch versus any guy.”

And they can be hardcore like any male gamer. While some female gamers prefer online casual games, Grapes Carandang, a 19-year-old college coed, plays RAN Online, a leading massively multiplayer online role playing game. She has also mixed it up with male players during RAN Online’s Battle Royale online tournaments held this year. She was part of a RAN Online guild that participated in Battle Royale and she duelled with other players, throwing offensive and defensive spells with the best of them.

Female gamers are truly empowered now and we are seeing it even behind the scenes. For instance, the lead Game Master (GM) of RAN Online is a woman. GM Amethy leads the group of GMs who handle the everyday activities inside RAN Online.

“Being a GM is really a tough job,” admits GM Amethy. “And I am a hybrid GM for MMORPGs. Hybrid, meaning I handle the community and can work also for some technical tasks.”

Aside from being an in-game administrator, GM Amethy also handles out-of-town events and mall tours. She also started organizing an all-girl guild for RAN Online.

Online prejudices

But in this Internet age, millennia-old prejudices still linger, and happen even in the online gaming scene. GM Amethy relates how she deals with players, including rude ones, and how she gets to witness in-game gender discrimination. “Most guys think that girls are weak and they target girls first, especially during PK (Player Kill) periods. Also, in the in-game Market Zone, a boy would approach a girl vendor and says that he’ll buy the items if the girl gives her Friendster account,” she relates.

These are only some of the things female gamers risk when playing online games, particularly MMORPGs. PJ Punla, a.k.a. NineMoons, a well-known writer and blogger for the MMORPG Granado Espada (GE), said she is no stranger to these online prejudices. “People try to make sure that I’m really female, or who insist that I must really be male in real life because I’m playing at all,” she says. “On occasion, too, people try to hit on me, which is kinda weird and very occasionally annoying.”

Punla has written several articles in her blog concerning the role of female gamers in the online gaming industry, and has commented on these rather subtle shots to the feminine gender.

“Female gamers in the industry have now become recognized as a main target demographic and have achieved a sort of equality with the guys in that sense,” adds Punla. “Gender discrimination can and does exist however, and of necessity should be stamped out.”

Making it big

Prof. Aguilar-Placido believes that, like in any other field, females should not be discouraged in playing online games. “If they have reasons like to while away the time, there’s no problem, it’s one of the reasons (why girls should play online games). And why not allow the female populace to show their techniques and methods in playing the game?”

Macutay echoes the same. “I think that we have to strive better to make them aware of the benefits of games as a valid form of entertainment. There are a lot of choices out there but I think that the way we convey the message and how we treat our current and future female community will spell success,” she says.

While she didn’t win the Battle Royale tournaments, Carandang plans to join next year’s Battle Royale tournament.

“My guild mates and I are honing our in-game skills and adopting the best strategies for Battle Royale. My goal is to be the first female RAN player to win the Battle Royale grand finals,” Carandang says.

For Ferro’s part, she is now busy leveling up a new character as part of a new O2 Jam event and she will represent the country in O2 Jam international tourneys.

Aside from O2 Jam, Ferro also has a level 147 Shaman in RAN Online and a level 76 character in Pirate King Online. She also has several characters for Audition and War Rock, a first-person shooter MMOG. She definitely has the makings of a world-class cyber athlete.

“Male players are dominating the gaming scene, and yeah, I hate to admit it, most games are meant for boys,” says Ferro. “But we’re showing them that we can play with them toe-to-toe. We are now given a break and we are making it big in the gaming community.”

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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