Geek girls unite around games, comics and a 'Buffy' sing-along

By Lisa Richwine, Reuters

Posted at Aug 10 2012 11:58 AM | Updated as of Aug 10 2012 08:00 PM

Erica McGillivray grew tired of being asked by comic book store employees if she was buying the latest issue of "Batwoman" or "Birds of Prey" for her boyfriend.

So McGillivray, a 28-year-old "Star Trek" and comics fan, joined a group that believed women like her needed a geeky celebration to call their own.

McGillivray is now president of GeekGirlCon, the female answer to the male-dominated Comic-Con pop culture conference. The organization will hold its second convention this weekend.

The first GeekGirlCon in October 2011 drew numbers so large that organizers had to turn people away. So for its second convention the group found a bigger venue, trading seven rooms of meeting space for a downtown Seattle conference center.

Some 7,000 attendees are expected over Saturday and Sunday from throughout the United States and from as far away as Australia -- some dressed as Princess Leia, Wonder Woman or other geek heroes and heroines.

Big companies are taking notice of women's interest in all things geek. Video game maker Electronic Arts signed up to sponsor GeekGirlCon and will bring some of its titles, including an NHL game with a female hockey player.

"Women have always been a part of geek culture," said McGillivray, who started watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation" at age 3 with her mother. "We've just been in such small numbers, or kind of pushed to the fringes, that we haven't really been seen before."

Bring on girl gamers

GeekGirlCon has emerged as the ranks of females among video game players has risen to 47%, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

Much of the female gaming increase comes from casual and social games played on mobile phones and Facebook, said Jesse Divnich, an analyst at video game research firm EEDAR. Female buyers will help push the $50 billion worldwide market up 3% to 5% a year through 2015, Divnich estimates.

"The myth that video games are for teenage boys has been proven wrong," Divnich said. Manufacturers are taking steps to understand women's gaming habits and preferences, in some cases adding female protagonists.

"It's something all the major players in this industry are striving for," he said.

In the past two years, Geeknet's online retailer ThinkGeek, which generates $18 million in quarterly revenue, has seen an upswing in purchases of items such as geek-themed jewelry and women's-sized T-shirts, according to PR manager Steve Zimmerman.

Women buy more than men from the company's website, although it is unclear how many are purchasing for themselves or for gifts. Sales of "Doctor Who" merchandise are about evenly split between men and women, Zimmerman said.

Comics to coding

Still, women and girls are often overlooked in geekdom, one reason behind the creation of GeekGirlCon. Run by a 40-person, all-volunteer staff, the organization and convention celebrates and supports female geeks of all types.

The movement came together after the 2010 Comic-Con, when a panel discussion called "Geek Girls Exist" attracted a standing-room-only crowd.

The packed room inspired a group of women to start their own conference for females who enjoy everything from The Hulk and "Dungeons & Dragons" to computer coding or rocket science.

The first GeekGirlCon drew 4,000 people over two days. This year, guests will move among discussions on topics from robotics to computer programming, and comic-book fashions to female characters in "Star Wars".

Jane Espenson, a writer and producer for sci-fi TV shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Once Upon a Time," will speak about her new Web series, "Husbands." Comic book writer Gail Simone will appear with the "Batgirl of San Diego," a woman who spoke out at last year's Comic-Com - dressed as Batgirl - about the lack of female representation in comics. Female scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory also will speak.

One panel, titled "Go Make Me a Sandwich," will tackle a hot topic: the hostility and harassment women face from some male geeks. Anita Sarkeesian, who campaigned to raise money for a project to explore female stereotypes in video games, will talk about hateful comments and threats leveled at her online, and how women rallied to her support.

On the lighter side, women at an evening entertainment program will sing along to a musical episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." A gaming floor will provide a chance to enter tournaments or try out new titles.

Wanted: Even more inclusion

Electronic Arts is bringing its NHL game, which last year added a female avatar option after a 14-year-old girl wrote a letter complaining that it was "unfair" and "not fun" to be represented by a male player on screen.

To help attract more women, EA acquired PopCap Games, maker of social and casual games such as "Bejeweled" and "Plants vs. Zombies" in a deal worth up to $1.3 billion.

Ginger Maseda works as EA's diversity and inclusion manager, a job created to help recruit women to the company and increase the female appeal of games. Maseda, a gamer most of her life, said sponsoring GeekGirlCon "makes sense for us, so we have a chance to really relate and understand what (females) want to see and what they want to play."

McGillivray said that although progress has been slow, she has seen more products geared toward women, an increase in female protagonists and women creators behind the scenes.

One goal of the conference, McGillivray said, is to raise awareness of how many passionate female geeks exist. She hopes that companies will start thinking: "Oops, we are missing half our market or more. How can we capitalize on that?"