What women want?

Right Casino Media’s Live Roulette site in the UK won plenty of media coverage this summer with figures on the contrasting gaming habits of women and men. Covering Baccarat, Blackjack and Roulette, it painted a picture broadly matching more serious studies: while men are the majority of players (82 per cent of regular users, in Live Roulette’s case) and bet more (an average deposit of £94, or $149, against £67, or $106, for women), women do play for longer (9 hours a month, against 6.5 for men).
“As with most appetites, men tend to be ‘hungrier’ and consequently more reckless with gambling,” a Live Roulette spokesperson said.
And indeed, it’s tempting to see gaming behaviour as representative of stereotypic gender differences: the accepted wisdom is that men play for competitive thrills and prefer games like Poker with an element of skill (also over-estimating the contribution that their own abilities have made to any win), while women are what Vicki Wilson and Deborah Phillips, authors of “Gambling and Gender”, call “escape gamblers” – opting for non-strategic games like slots to lull them into relaxation.
In other words, it’s just a case of evolved gender characteristics expressing themselves in a modern context: the excitement of mammoth-hunting for men, a more patient, more risk-averse, stay-at-home role for women, right?
Maybe not. The majority of detailed research (at a rather more rigorous level than Live Roulette’s) has been into gender’s influence on problem gambling specifically, rather than normal, non-problematic recreational gambling. But a few academics have looked at how the games that men and women play differ.
For example, a team from the Harvard Medical School conducted a study in Iowa (published in the “Journal of Gambling Studies” in 2006) that brought into question whether which half of the population a player belongs to has a role at all. They concluded that gender on its own made a “minimal contribution” to gambling patterns and that factors such as marital status, race, legal problems, and income were more reliable “predictors of play preferences”. (Of course, gender may influence some of those factors.)
That Harvard team also observed that a “progressively more egalitarian social milieu”, rather than their gender as such, may be the reason that women are more and more entering the traditionally male preserve of gaming.
Many do, however, still seem unwilling to enter the land-based casino or betting shop on their own. And that’s where online comes in. Even if the jury remains out on whether there are specifically female types of play, it appears indisputable that women especially in the 25-to-34 age bracket are taking to some gaming Websites in large numbers.
While Live Roulette, for example, claims only 18 per cent of its regular user base is female, others that have consciously targeted women – not just with their game mix, but also with the cliched likes of pink-based colour schemes, male imagery to replace the usual scantily-clad bimbos, and horoscopes – report much higher figures. For example, Cashcade’s Getmintedbingo.com says 80 per cent of its customers are female.
There is also some evidence supporting this from research into problem gambling. In the UK, for example, women account for only about a quarter of gambling addicts overall, but are believed to be a much bigger proportion of online problem gamblers. (However, in the interests of not jumping to conclusions, it’s worth bearing in mind that there could be other explanations for this: among them several studies suggesting that women who are headed in that direction become problem gamblers much more quickly than men. It could therefore be that the large number of female online gambling addicts is not solely down to women’s embrace of the particular gaming channel, but also derives from the ease of spending all day online, compared with the inconvenience of visiting a land-based venue.)
So, what’s the bottom line for operators seeking to tap the female gaming market via the Internet? Not, I think, hunks-and-roses, despite Cashcade’s apparent success; that aesthetic may well attract some women but it’s equally likely to repel many, as well as most men. Rather, design that is not obviously pandering to exaggeratedly “female” or “male” tastes, with an easily manageable interface, is never going to fail to satisfy users.  
Possibly the game mix is not as important as often believed, as the Harvard work suggests; though gender surely needs to be considered, at least, in the pre-launch market research informing that decision.
A tougher decision does loom ahead with the rise of social gaming and its progression into widespread pay-to-play. Anecdotally, most women (as in 99 per cent with quite a few nines after the decimal point) who use social media extensively have at one point or another grown thoroughly fed up with being hit on by strange guys. That is an online vulnerability that is largely exclusive to their gender, and it is one that any operator integrating a social element into their virtual casino must grapple with.
But the big lesson about women in e-gaming could be that there isn’t any big lesson, except that they want a pleasurable experience. Build a site that works well, don’t sweat the gender-specificity, put in place policies and practices to deal with that (tiny) minority of strange guys if you’re going social, and “the female user base” becomes just part of “the user base”.