Women are Gamers; Casual Games are Games

September 12, 2010 § 5 Comments

by ADI

For those who don’t follow that strange beast that is video game journalism, the last couple weeks have been full of surprises. Among those: 1990s throwback Duke Nukem is (theoretically) actually getting released, and tons of games news has gotten unveiled at the booth-babe-free Penny Arcade exposition. And serious business not-lady gaming is coming to mobile phones.

I’m talking about the Unreal Engine, which was unveiled last week for the iPhone, a console which has already been derided as too feminine by marketers for competing phones. In an interview with gaming site Gamasutra, Epic Games head Mike Capps talks about his vision of “core games” for the iPhone. What are “core gamer” games? Well, the kind played by men:

Gamasutra: [iPhone game Broken Sword is] definitely a high-power, high-3D kind of experience.

Capps: Yeah. It’s a game for guys. Or folks who enjoy it.

G: People who like Xbox.

C: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it’s a core gamer game, right?

I don’t mean to excoriate Capps unduly about this. It’s not a large part of the interview, and I don’t think his intent was to deride female gamers or to imply that women are less capable of playing “core” games than men are. But it’s part of a larger trope, one about the femininity and dispensability of casual games, and now I’m in a bind. There are at least three ways to respond to this, and I’m not really sure how to do it.

The first way is the strikingly non-feminist one. “Well, maybe most girls play casual games,” I could say, “But I don’t! I’m a real gamer! I shoot things in my games! Lots of things!”

I don’t do that, and for good reason. Being a token woman may sometimes be the easiest way to respond in these situations, but it’s a strategy that ultimately backfires, because you’ll end up spending more time than it’s worth deriding your gender, and even from a purely selfish standpoint, a token always starts from a position of non-power, forced to prove herself every time rather than being taken for granted as a real human being.

Then there’s the second option, which is somewhat better. “There’s no point in equating casual games with women,” I might say. “Myself and many of my female friends play games that aren’t traditionally coded female, and every one of the people I know who enjoys the casual game Angry Birds is male.”

This would be true–especially because my boyfriend and male roommate love Angry Birds. And it gets at what I feel is part of feminism: That genders shouldn’t be put into boxes and forced to enjoy particular things. But I don’t think it quite strikes the root of the problem. For me, feminism is about justifying femininity as much as justifying femaleness, and simply pointing out that many women aren’t traditionally feminine doesn’t quite solve that problem for me.

Capps’ and others’ comments on casual games are a tautological little package: Women aren’t real gamers because they play casual games, and casual games aren’t real because women play them. It’s easy enough to debunk the former, but the latter, to me, is similarly pernicious, especially because, as far as I know, more women do play casual games than men (according to this paper, the casual games sector is something like 71% female, compared to 38% for the games industry as a whole.) Compounding this is the fact that without the gender stereotypes, there’s little reason to consider casual games a less important part of the gaming landscape. They provide a different experience, certainly, but if arcade games like Pac-Man can be considered part of the serious gamer experience, why not casual physics-based iPhone games or resource-management games on Facebook?

I hate stereotyping, but as vital to debunking them as proving that they’re not universally correct is defanging the hierarchies that underly them. Were feminine things like casual gaming not automatically considered less-than, the stereotype that only women play casual games would be robbed of much of its vitriol.

This isn’t just for gaming. Many of the stereotypes that we fight–that women aren’t good at math, that we aren’t physically capable–rely just as much on definitions as they do on misinformation: The idea that mathematics are the pinnacle of academic study; the idea that strength, rather than agility or flexibility, is the most valuable physical characteristic.

I’m not saying that we should embrace these stereotypes–especially not when I’m the anecdotal counterpoint to so many of them, and find that they annoy me to death. But to me, it’s important to realize not just the falsity of them, but the reason that they sting. If that reason is based on a faulty premise, so much the better.


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§ 5 Responses to Women are Gamers; Casual Games are Games

  • […] “But you’re a girl!”. I was supposed to be playing Myst, I guess. Anyway, check this post about gender and gaming: comments on casual games are a tautological little package: Women aren’t […]

  • le Singe says:

    as a gamer I’m sure you will love the pac-man video this swiss artist made http://monkeybusiness1.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/avant-garde-atari/

  • vesta44 says:

    It’s funny, but my husband has a paid subscription to Pogo, and he plays most of the games on there, and I would call those casual games. He’s not into the other kind of gaming at all, even though we have a Wii (we have the sports games for it, more casual games). He’s the one who introduced me to Pogo, and I also have a paid subscription. So there are men out there who are more into casual games and not into “core gaming” at all. Stereotyping doesn’t do much for the gaming industry, other than alienate potential customers, I would think.

  • Elena says:

    at SCAD, there is a higher female-to-male ratio. Even in majors such as game design, animation, and sequential arts. Maybe once this crop of students graduates, there will be a more open-minded perspective on gender and gaming.

  • inCobalt says:

    I was a little concerned when I saw the title of this post, but then you brought that concern to the forefront and dispelled it. I’m rather happy that you approached this in a more encompassing tactic, by showing three different arguments you could make about the situation.

    The statistics for percent gender playing casual games I find to be a bit suspect. Admitedly, there are few solid statistics for casual gaming, but I suspect that the numbers have changed since 2006. ESA reports have been slowly showing that the margin between men and women as gamers is closing overall, and the margin is even smaller for online gaming (which is, according to them, dominated by genres that are often found in casual games). Further, the paper itself is male/female divide pandering, and your choice in using it for any reason is a bit confusing.

    I think this is still a social learning issue. Although it isn’t as bad as it used to be, young girls are still being fed softness and weakness. Girls are told that they don’t want to play with the trucks, but with a little doll instead. I’ve always believed that this is the core problem causing the statistics, sterotypes and research reported in the paper mentioned above. If girls are told that they aren’t supposed to be gamers, or if they only want to play certain kinds of games (design games, pet games, cooking games, casual games, etc.), then it’s more likely that they will do just that, and grow up doing just that, with a small percentage rebelling. Tendencies, desires and modes of enjoyment are formed very early in life. Deviating from what one was guided towards in childhood is a difficult task.

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