Video games have a common—and increasingly outdated—image of appealing primarily to males. This misperception is perhaps due to the tendency of the media to focus on the “triple A” market—high-budget games, produced by established game corporations, that highlight violence and sex to appeal to a straight, male audience. At least one company, however, was aware of the potential for a female market for video games in the 1980s. Atari Coin-Op Divisions Collection, 1972–1999, reveals how Atari conducted marketing research to investigate what types of video games girls and women liked to play. But Atari’s game-by-game method of research failed to consider the wider cultural problems that kept women out of arcades.

Ten years after the introduction of the arcade video game in 1971, coin-operated game producers in America noticed a major problem: they were not attracting as many women as men to their products. The unusual success of the Japanese game Pac-Man among female players highlighted this market gap and revealed that the right game could attract both female and male players. To that end, Atari, still the largest coin-op producer in America in the early 1980s, began to actively address the lack of female players by developing new questions and methods to identify what girls and women wanted to play. Unfortunately, a combination of industrial reticence, in addition to a preexisting culture of masculinity within arcade cultures, may have doomed Atari’s attempts from the beginning.

While Atari did organize gender-specific focus groups for some of its games, notably Star Wars and Road Runner, the majority of these studies separated players into age groups and skill levels rather than gender groups. In each  case, women were frequently a minority or sometimes not included at all. Furthermore, Atari listened to women’s concerns only in regards to whichever game was currently under consideration, rather than assessing wider demographic and thematic concerns from women. For example, the members of the women’s focus group for Star Wars noted their dislike of  “space games” and were therefore unlikely to play the game in an  arcade setting. However, an interoffice memo regarding Star Wars stated  “the space theme has proven to be more than a flash fad,” suggesting more space-themed games regardless of women’s interest in them. Indeed, Atari seemed to take the wrong lesson from this study. Return of the Jedi, tested around the same time, did include a section starring Princess Leia, who players had suggested might draw women to Star Wars, but the focus group that made that suggestion was entirely male. For Atari, the answer to solving women’s dislike  of space games was  seemingly to stop testing these games among women.

The player surveys for games created a bigger issue, however. As part of its research, Atari conducted field tests in popular arcade game locations, polling people who played the game. Each survey included the question of whether or not players  felt that “girls would like the game.” There was just one problem: many times, very few women actually played the games in question. In research notes for the game Packrat, for example, surveyors didn’t question any  female respondents, stating that most “females” were seen “hanging out” and not playing any of the games. Yet the survey responses indicated three-fourths of those surveyed thought the game would appeal to women. This implies that if Atari was only asking play testers then they were asking men and boys what they thought girls would like. In other words, Atari’s game-centric approach resulted in a lack of feedback from actual female players.

By the 1990s, Atari had finally given up on generating a female market for video games. Mary Fujihara, Atari’s marketing lead, noted almost wistfully in an internal product review memo that one of the company’s games would be “not aggressive or gory enough for the male adolescent market, and there is no other market for coin-op these days.” For arcade games, at least, the attempt to engage women had failed, leaving Atari to focus exclusively on a market of young males. Perhaps, if Atari had surveyed the wider arcade culture first, they may have found a way to reach female gamers more effectively.

Elizabeth Badger is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota and a past research fellow at The Strong.