Games need to fit their own culture, not to be fitted into another

What are the most generic girls’ games you can think of? The term itself may not get much use nowadays, but it was all the hotness during the 1990’s and even in the 2000’s. It used to baffle me back in the day, much like edutainment did.  Girls’ games never had a good reputation to speak of and had a tendency to be lacklustre at best, something you’d find in a bargain bin, or at a stupidly high price because of their unique place among games like Duke Nukem 3D or Quake.

The sort of games we most often associate with girls’ games are the Barbie games, dress-up titles or non-violent adventure games like Chop Suey. You have the occasional 2D action game that concentrates on puzzles rather than mechanical skills, like Mary-Kate and Ashley: Get a Clue for the Game Boy Colour. It’s not uncommon to see a girls’ franchises to be adopted into games, just like the opposite is true for boys’ franchises. With boys being historically the larger consumers base for video and computer games, girls’ games usually got shafted.

The question whether or not sport games fall into either slot has never been raised as such, but maybe it’s a moot point to begin with. I used to have a discussion whether or not NHL games were neutral in their audience with few friends. One of them was adamant that the userbase of any sports game didn’t matter itself, as the games were solely based on real world sports and reflected it. The other argued that because the NHL titles didn’t include National Women’s Hockey League, and the main set of players were boys and men, the game was a boys’ game. The question I always posed was naturally Why didn’t they include NWHL into NHL games? The answer I got was the women didn’t buy NHL all that much.

Considering Super Mario Bros. seemed to be the game that had most equal split in a study done with Finnish students around 1999, the idea of needing your playable character to be the same sex or gender as the player does seem largely unnecessary. Mariosofia (2002) has a chart on the rest of the titles on page 119. The discussion about women needing more representation in video games thus seem to be a bit moot, as the character itself is often a blank state outside RPGs. This is an act of playing after all, and the avatar the player controls is merely an extension of the player; the true actor is the player, not the avatar.

Despite this, the idea of girls’ games stuck around. While in reality it was more than enough to make competent games that bring in excellent gameplay and content, these specific games got separated from the bunch and fitted into the framework of girls’ play culture. This sort of framework fitting doesn’t exactly fit all that right, because this can lead into games that look like something girls might want to play on the surface, but are not anything of interest. Part of this is because of the aforementioned lacking gamplay, and other is that the industry barely has any idea what they are to do with girls’ games. The answer of course is not to do any and concentrate on making good games. We can’t force a readily set media and culture to fit another.

That is not to say games push a certain section out. Electronic games, like any other play-related medium, expects competency from the consumer. It’s the only kind of medium where you can not advance without playing, much like a child’s play like Cop and Robber can’t advance if you don’t play your part actively.

There are also variety of games that generally can fit girls’ play culture despite not being designed around that, at least not initially. The Sims is a virtual doll house. Will Wright even described it as such after losing his home in 1991. Doll houses are associated with girls’ plays far more than with boys, though castle sets and such are essentially the exact same thing, just with a different theme.  Castle Grayskull is essentially a doll house just any Barbie Dreamhouse is. Because the The Sims allows choice what the player can do and with what sort of characters, it avoids the girls/boys issue. It’s not exactly a continuation of either play cultures per se, despite taking notions from both, but it is fully part of electronic game culture.

One thing that defines electronic games as a whole is a set of rules and the play they require. This is shared with all play cultures across the broad and nobody wants to deviate from this. While most of the competitive rules have been inherited what are generally seen as boys’ sports and plays, majority of these sports and plays have their girl equivalent or an outright version. In electronic gaming the differences dissipate even further if we concentrate on what the game culture is in itself. Perhaps a truly neutral game, if you will, is something like a Super Mario title, where the main character can be whatever sort of fellow who appeals across the board and the game content, and the world for the matter, does not weight to any other direction but to the game’s own visual design. Mario titles do not ooze masculinity or femininity. You can argue however much you want about the need to save the Princess, but that always gets tossed on the sideways because that is only a reason for the adventure itself. Like in any play, the act of playing is more important than finishing the play. Hell, the game’s play and its flow should be enough to warrant player wanting to continue.

Games are still a young medium, relatively speaking. Despite this, certain certainties have been solidified already. One of them is the slow dismissal of unnecessary divisions. While boys’ and girls’ games will always exist in terms of targeted market, the genres themselves seem to have gone underground. It would seem the winning formula is to allow the players to step into world of electronic games rather than trying it the other way around. Games are, after all, about the freedom of play and there exists more games than anyone of us knows. We just need to find the ones we like the most rather than try fitting existing ones into a framework we’d like to see them in.

Of course, there is an issue of game culture being a sub-culture under the overall culture, but that’s another post altogether.

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