Page last updated at 13:43 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

Valley Girls: Nancy Smith

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

ea Nancy smith at railing
Nancy Smith said she never expected to stay at EA as long as she has

Nancy Smith, who got her career break as the "token woman," is now riding high in a world dominated by men.

For Ms Smith it has mostly always been so as she worked her way up the ladder from selling spreadsheets and word processing packages to becoming one of the most influential women in video gaming.

She has a track record going back nearly a quarter of a century with Electronic Arts (EA), one of the most dominant players in the gaming space.

Her time with the company has included executive roles in publishing, sales, and distribution as well as that of vice president and president of the The Sims Label, the best selling PC franchise of all time with over 100 million sales.

Just last month she embarked on a new, as yet undefined, path within the company. While that is being fleshed out she will look after special projects for The Sims, which lets users create and control the lives of simulated people.

"I was in the business application area when Electronic Arts launched. It was then I became interested in the idea of entertainment and games and frankly it wasn't a hard decision to make: games or spreadsheets?"

Lunchtime play

The decision was made even easier by her upbringing. "I grew up in a family that played a lot of games, but it was board games and card games," she said.

But in those early days selling spreadsheets, she found herself involved in very different games - a community that was almost illicit in its nature.

the Sims
The Sims is the biggest selling franchise in the world

"In the 70's in San Francisco I had several good friends who were in the tech business and they were selling mainframe computers. At lunch we would go over when the mainframes where shut down from all the accounting processes and we'd bring our lunch and play games.

"It was the same programmers and analysts who were running payroll for Wells Fargo bank that were creating these games we would play."

Today she can hardly believe how far the industry has progressed since 1984, when she started at EA as Western Regional sales manager.

"It was all independent dealers. The first year we started shipping games, there were 5,000 independent mom and pop dealers. No one even owned two stores at that time.

"Then retailers like Babbages started to grow with multiple store locations. In that retail climate, our customers were those store managers and store owners who played our games and sold to the converted."

Hard sell

Slowly the industry evolved and bigger retailers started to spring up. That then presented other hurdles.

"When it got really challenging was six or seven years into it. It was when the industry started moving into mass merchants and different types of retail record stores where you were dealing with traditional retail buyers who were looking for specific business metrics.

ea posters
Electronic Arts is one of the world's largest third-party publishers of games

"The problem was they really didn't have a sense of who the customer was. They had to believe that we as an industry would drive consumers to their stores."

Of course, Ms Smith noted that today the business of selling games is a lot easier, with third quarter sales up 60% on last year.

"For many years now it has been one of the fastest growing aisles in Wal-Mart, in Target, in Best Buy. So those retailers understand how valuable game entertainment is to driving footsteps and driving growth and profit for them."

'Token woman'

While the sales figures have changed much, the demographics haven't. The face of the industry today remains largely male with just 20% of females making up the workforce and only 3% employed as game programmers according to Game Developer Magazine.

When Ms Smith first started out, that figure was a lot less.

"I spent the first 15 years of my career being the only woman in every meeting I ever attended whether it was with external partners, art, retail, licensing groups, design meetings outside of EA. There were just not a lot of women in the business."

That turned out to be a boon for getting her first job, in the American Express card division.

"They were given a mandate that they had to hire one woman and one minority," she said. "I was the woman they hired and I joined with a black man who was the minority candidate for them."

Far from being insulted, Ms Smith used the situation as an ice-breaker.

ea Nancy smith in lobby
The Sims "broke the code that brought women into gaming" said Ms Smith

"It was a wonderful jumpstart for my career. I would embrace the opportunity and I would introduce myself as 'I'm Nancy Smith, the token woman in the Western Region of American Express card division.'"

Community spirit

So what of the future?

For Ms Smith it's a new executive position within Electronic Arts as it downplays talk of a takeover following a dismal share price amid a gloomy economy.

For The Sims label, it is a new version of the game which is expected next year along with a Hollywood movie. For the industry as a whole, Ms Smith sees a major shift that was started by The Sims.

"It's about connecting consumers. It's not just creativity, but its the community element that has always been there with The Sims.

"Now people want that in all their entertainment. They want to be connected. They want to play with other people. They want to share. And I think that is really transforming the gaming business and the entertainment business."

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