Expert Advice

Games Women Play

Victoria Wurdinger | July 10, 2011 | 6:23 PM

Games Women Play

The hottest game online at RealNetworks, "Sally's Salon," wasn't meant to reflect reality-it's supposed to be fun.

There's no irony there-working in a salon is fun, but it's a whole lot more, too. Take Sally herself.

Developed by Games Café, the lead character Sally was intended to be "strong but not impenetrable, cute but not overtly sexy." To make her a character anyone can get next to, says Steve Shatford, CEO of Games Café, he and his team visited salons, talked to a variety of people and pulled from their unique experiences to create personalities for Sally and her clients.

So what did they come up with for a salon owner and stylist on the move? A celebrity anyone can relate to-Lisa Loeb.

"She's smart, sexy, intelligent and multi-talented," says Shatford. "Her cat-eye glasses give her a unique look that's not garish."

When Shatford looked closely at entrepreneurial stylists, he also saw they tended to progress professionally, which is why Sally starts at the mall and ends up as a Hollywood hairdresser-sort of like the Sally with the surname Hershberger.

To create a rich salon environment for their lead character, game developers created various client-types with different personalities. Think blue-hairs to faux-hawk fans.

One goal of the game: to give the client the style that makes him or her smile. (The pre-programmed one, that is; in real life you may have talked the client out of that Mohawk or pitched a plea for more dimensional color). The pay-off: Big tips.


Who's a Player

Before non-tipping salon owners start letter-writing, a little backstory.

A number of the game's developers had hairdresser wives, girlfriends and platonics, which is how they decided the salon theme was a gold mine. Their gal pals showed them that hairdressing is creative, energetic and fun.

The developers' real goal was to get more women to play casual games, loosely defined as ones anyone can learn fast and play in short increments of time without using elaborate controls. Their instincts paid off:  In terms of revenue, Sally's Salon was the best-selling game in 2007 at producer RealNetworks, where more than 40 million players a month checked it out.

Eighty-five percent of the game's players are female; their average age is 52. That's pretty close to the chair; 2002 data showed that 89 percent of salon owners were 35 or older, with a median age of 47. In 2006, 93 percent of U.S. hairdressers were female; in New Zealand-to get global-it's 87 percent.

By tweaking the components games require to hold ever-fleeting interest, the developers created ways to add services, change furniture, move locations, climb the ladder and more. To keep it upbeat, they left the complaining clients home. "There are no Bridezillas," says Shatford, "no negative experiences."

Developers also added business sense to the game because Sally is both creative and business savvy. However, warns Shatford, "The game is not a salon simulator."

Just the same, it's worth asking: How much like real life is it? After all, today's highly realistic pitched-battle online games are intended for reality escape, while casual games tend to tell stories and reward certain behaviors-read, life-related, at least in most player's minds. What happens in games matters because they create an overall impression about a profession and reinforce existing attitudes.

Games Women Play

Day in the Life

Speaking anonymously, an industry consultant agreed on the game's focus on tips as a reward. He says he's seen walkouts over any hint of mistrust about tips finding their way to the right person. "Tips should be kept in sealed envelopes, and if anyone messes with them, look out."

Cash is most definitely king. Although "Sally's Salon" was developed a few years back, it also understands stylists' need for the hottest $500 outfit-that's the cost if you want to splurge with your tips like real stylists tend to do. (Certain NYC salons require the staff wear designer duds.)

You can also get swanky furniture, buy upgrades for a couple grand or hire an assistant for $3,000-no indication how long a term that covers or if there's a non-compete. There's no 401(k), sadly reflective of reality, but it would have been nice to track if any players tucked it away for a rainy day.

On a recent gameplay, a $90 service netted a $6 tip-which seems near insult, until you realize the 5.4-percent tip came from a less-than-satisfied client who was left virtually "waiting" for far too long. At "Sally's," time management matters and you must be able to multi-task to make cash. Maybe it's a good thing real-time clients aren't so precise with a tip-to-wait-time formula.

What's really interesting about the game is that every action has an equal and positive reaction. Do good work: Move ahead. Make a profit: Get to upgrade yourself. Buy better equipment: Morph to happier, higher-paying clients. Stay on course: Reap reward. There are no know-nothing bosses, ego-trippers or underminers.

Okay, so it might give young and young-at-heart women pie-in-the sky ideas about the working world. But maybe it'll also offset a particularly irksome view of ‘dressers: That they are mainly a bunch of women who don't make real money.


She's Got Game

The first beauty-themed casual game was "Belle's Beauty Boutique," which reviewers called a bit of a "chore." "Sally's Salon" is a success precisely because it's all good. You get to interact and have fun without getting killed off by some mutant opponent. Making customers happy is the name of the game: Do it and you make good coin.

Hairdressers genuinely enjoy that aspect of real salon life, and divas and drama aside, many non-virtual women don't want careers with conflict.

So what's wrong with that? And why, then, have some bloggers taken aim at the game with reproachful remarks?

Exhibit A: "Ah yes ... doing its part to show women their place in the 21st century."

Exhibit B: "You are on the verge of killing 25 years of  feminine progress in America."

Exhibit C: "As a female who enjoys games like ‘Gears of War' and ‘Command & Conquer 3,' this is a little insulting-but if that's what older females have been begging for, they can have what they want."

As for the new female macho, we won't go there. The game's own stats do show an older age-group prefers it. 

Yet women who know how to play the real game of life as salon caregivers have become millionaires, traveled the world, taught thousands and showed off their artistry on global platforms to hundreds of thousands-all because they're real-life "Sallys."

Besides, demo-ing that the business is fun just might nudge the idea that hairdressing is a great career with a no-holds-barred future. More than a few women are hip to that fact: According to an article at, "In the U.S., black female salon owners are among the most successful entrepreneurs in their communities."

Just because a job is saddled with a "traditionalist" aura doesn't mean it's not for players. "Sally's Salon" may be spreading that message, and that's a good thing.

So, here's to all the "Sallys," Hershberger and otherwise monikered. Stay the course. Make a profit. And upgrade yourself to a blonde, redhead or brunette. It's a bona-fide hairdresser's tradition.


To play Sally's Salon, click here.

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