You probably remember playing the 2D yellow pac man game on an old personal computer (PC) - the primitive ancestor of today's sophisticated Wii Nintendo, Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation.
Interestingly, not only has the number of women gamers - playing online or software-based games - increased the world over in the last two-and-a-half decades (with most players from the US) but the number of games available to women has also exploded exponentially.
Even so, the demographics of gaming are still much skewed. Most games cater to 15- to 30-year-old men, who constitute about 60 per cent of the gamers. The industry is a huge multi-billion dollar spinner with the key players in the gaming industry based in the US, Japan, China, Korea and India.
While the media tries, on most occasions, to declare online games as having violent or sexual content and leaning towards appeasing the alpha male, Christopher Thompson, Vice President of Electronic Arts - Southeast Asia, that has more than 80,000 employees working in 75 countries worldwide, says, "Just as people have choices in reading books - so there are choices while choosing the kind of games people play."
Every game on the market takes about one to four years to create with a team of 10 to 15 people working on it and companies like Thompson's maintain standards and do not overstep guidelines in different markets just to make a quick buck.
There is a very wide array of online games to indulge in for every group of society, from infants to seniors. There are word games, puzzles and card games that allow users to compete with others online and in real time. Then there are games that educate and inform; those that tease and those that challenge. Some games take the player on a mission. Popular among women, Pogo captures the imagination of housewives and women who want a break from their daily chores. Fans say that Pogo is fun - and it's free.
Another game that has caught the interest of women is Sim City that gives a feeling of being in charge of a city. The game allows people to grapple with real life issues such as pollution - and encourages multitasking and learning skills like disaster management. Amazingly, some of these ultra sophisticated games allow users to create and manage alternate realities - complete with elaborate sound and visual effects - all carefully created with the end user in mind.
Alex, who runs a store selling software and hardware for such games on the glitzy Orchard Road in Singapore's shopping area, says six in 10 buyers of Nintendo's DS are women. They play for fun and entertainment, he explains. "Yes, I know some people who get addicted to gaming and might even get socially disconnected because of the time spent with games, but those are not too many." Of not being able to stock violent games or those that contain sexual material on the shelves, he grins, "It is regulated by law. As a man I would love to play them but I can't!"
On the same shopping strip, a nine-floor entertainment complex houses a huge gaming area. Here gamers rent time on consoles of their choice. More than 200 screens have young people playing away, totally packed on a weekend evening. And yes, about half of them are women, who actively play together.
With the growing popularity, Singapore's Media Development Authority (MDA) plays watchdog. MDA is a statutory board of the Singapore Government, under the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA). In fact, Singapore is said to be the only country to have banned the Xbox 360 game Mass Effect. The MDA later lifted the ban but gave the game an M 18 label, which meant that those under 18 years of age could not buy it.
And gaming is not just for housewives with a PC. Women on the move can often be found turning their attention to a small hand-held console. Rachel (not real name), 30, plays on a portable console, every day to work on the Singapore subway train. "It costs $350 (US$1=S$1.4) but it is my friend on the daily commute. I don't get bored," she says of her seventh-generation companion, which has about sixty games loaded into it.
But the hi-tech games are not merely entertainment. Even young students are being introduced to the games at schools. While the increasing use of technology will certainly not replace the paper and pencil, schools encourage the use of games in learning complex concepts. Take the case of the Canadian International School in Singapore. Software games are considered resource material for teachers and students to help them learn math from grade one onwards.
The games also bridge the gender divide: Azeemeh, 11, is an avid gamer and enjoys her adventure and sport games on her Wii Nintendo, Gameboy and Sony PlayStation. Understandably, she tries to finish her homework quickly so that she can be allowed to play with her favorite toys.
Her areas of interest are quite like those of Ishaan, also 11, who is a student at the United World College of South East Asia. Ishan is hooked to his gaming console and is passionate about playing soccer on his electronic screen. "I asked my parents to buy these for me because they are my favorite. I had an earlier version but this is so much more real," he grins.
The representation of women in the arena of online and software gaming is set to rise. And that is not just because of market sales. Almost all schools of higher learning in Singapore offer courses in digital media, animation and interactive art. While the number of women programmers still makes up only about 15 per cent of the workforce, it is steadily increasing as companies scout for talent. Singapore Polytechnic, Nanyang Polytechnic and the National University of Singapore offer programmes in interactive digital technology and animation, which will help students be on the cutting edge of technology when they graduate. Being creative and technically slick is key in producing games.
Serious gamers also find events, conferences and competitions all over the world. Take the case of Women in Games International, a body that works towards promoting women in gaming not only as a career option but also to help advance the global standards of the industry. Thus proving that while women gamers interact with each other online, cyber ties spill over into real life interaction as well and that many more women will soon be linking up.