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Posted December 27, 2008 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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She's a gamer

video games
Ashley Hartnett and Leigh Snyder battle on a Wii badmitton game. Dennis Grundman/Daily

girls playing video games
Ashley Hartnett, left, and Leigh Snyder battle on a Nintendo Wii badminton game at Play N Trade, a video game store at Riverton Commons, north of Front Royal. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Video games used to be almost exclusively a male domain. But a new profile of the virtual 'geek' is emerging, and the industry is taking notice.

By James Heffernan -- Daily Staff Writer

FRONT ROYAL -- Ashley Hartnett and Leigh Snyder wrap the wireless game controllers around their wrists and fix their gaze on the wall-mounted LCD monitor in front of them, where a pair of female badminton players are set to do battle.

Snyder positions her character and tries an underhand serve. The shuttlecock arches high over the net, and Hartnett lifts her virtual racket above her head for an overhead smash. She misses, and the projectile lands harmlessly on her player's side of the net.

The two women chuckle. Though both are familiar with the host Wii video game console at Play N Trade at Riverton Commons, neither has attempted badminton before.

Snyder, a sales associate at Play N Trade, serves again and this time a short rally ensues, ending in Hartnett's well-placed shot down the line.

Hartnett, 21, admits she's competitive and a bit of a tomboy when it comes to video games. She has been known to break a sweat while playing All-Star Baseball or Dance Dance Revolution at home on her family's new Wii system, which allows for player movement in three dimensions.

One of her recent purchases was a pink steering wheel for the popular racing game Mario Kart.

"I may be a tomboy, but I'm also a girl. I have to have pink," she says.

Hartnett and her boyfriend, 24-year-old Pierce Hodges, a fellow video gamer, enjoy competing against each other.

"It's like you're going on a free date," she says. "Instead of paying to go bowling, you can stay home and bowl."

Hartnett, who works at the AT&T store at Riverton Commons, stops in Play N Trade a couple of times a week to browse and try out new releases, one of the franchise's selling points. She estimates she has spent $400 this year on video games and accessories.

Meghan Groos, 18, who works a few doors down at Tropical Smoothie, is also a regular at Play N Trade. She says she grew up with video game systems, and today's games are more life-like and interactive than ever before.

"It beats playing board games," Groos says. "Instead of being a piece on a board, you're actually playing somebody else."

Hartnett and Groos are not alone. A new profile of the video-game "geek" is emerging.

According to the Entertainment Software Association's 2008 report, more than 40 percent of gamers are women. In fact, women 18 and older now represent a larger portion of the video game-playing population (33 percent) than boys under 17 (24 percent).

The number of games geared toward women, or that feature strong female characters, may be helping fuel the trend, according to local Play N Trade franchise owner Will Lawrence.

"Games such as 'American Idol,' 'Guitar Hero,' 'The Sims' and even 'Tomb Raider' are appealing to females, and so the market is changing," Lawrence says.

Play N Trade is attempting to meet the demands of this new demographic by increasing its inventory to reflect female gamers' tastes.

"We've seen firsthand how both girls and women are gaining interest in video games and making up a big part of our customer base," Lawrence says.

Store employees are also educating them on what types of games they may like that are new to the market, he says.

Play N Trade carries all the popular titles and video game consoles, including Nintendo's Wii, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3. Each of the systems has something unique to offer, but for many females, Wii serves as their introduction to the virtual world, Lawrence says.

One of the hottest Wii consoles this year is Wii Fit, which features a balance board that can read the player's real-life movements -- not unlike Wii's wireless hand controller -- and bring them to life on the screen. Wii Fit targets the health-conscious consumer with games that combine fitness and fun.

"It's a next-generation exercise program," Lawrence says.

With games like 'My Fitness Coach,' 'All-Star Cheer Squad' and 'Cooking Mama,' Wii is winning over new female fans.

Hartnett says her mother, who recently had a stroke, has used Wii to help regain her balance and motor skills. "It's been therapy for her."

Some of Play N Trade's video game tournaments are geared toward females, Lawrence says.

"We held a Wii bowling tournament last month, and we had just as many females there as males."

And with the trend comes more video-game blogs and Web sites dominated by girl gamers, he says, as well as new marketing campaigns.

As the number of female gamers grows, the motivation for women to move into career fields such as video-game development and programming becomes a possibility, Lawrence says.

"It's exciting to see women getting involved and becoming gamers," he says. "It opens up a whole new world of concepts.

"They are force-driving and reshaping the gaming industry. It'll be interesting to see how things unfold."

* Contact James Heffernan at jheffernan@nvdaily.com

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