Archive: January 26th, 2009

Cassell and Jenkins: From Barbie to Mortal Kombat

[Readings] (01.26.09, 3:43 pm)

Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins: Chess For Girls? Feminism and Computer Games

The subject of this book is the girl games movement. The authors open by comparing the topic to a Saturday Night Live skit from December 6, 1997, “Chess for Girls”. The skit parodies girls’ disinterest  in chess, and poses a way to liven it up by making the pieces doll like, and having them prance around with the knights, which are ponies. The parody is important because it parallels the subjects of the girl games movement. Posing serious suggestions to the parody, the authors pose three ways of looking at the disparity. One option is to look at the cognitive activity, and ask if girls are not enjoying chess, or the cognitive effects of chess. Is the game sealed and need to be opened up to girls, and what form would such a thing have? Another way to look at the problem, as “endorsed” by the skit, is to think of chess in relation to other girl activities, so that chess for girls would associate with or resemble activities traditionally associated with girls. A final approach is market based, to think that only 50 percent of a potential market is spending money on chess games and products, and try to develop campaigns to cultivate players.

These approaches parallel many of those seen in the girl games movement. There exists an uneasy alliance between feminism and market approaches to girl games. The approaches both have the same goals, but are frequently at odds in terms of what is the right way to go about implementing them. Debates already existing within feminism come to surface in the matter of developing software and products, and this is made more difficult by the classically masculine audience for games. The goal of this book is not to push one approach or agenda, but to document the moment indicated by the girl games movement.

Gender in games is significant from three perspectives: women in game development, representations of women and the available gender choices within games, and the gender of the players themselves. The last perspective demands a study of the differences between girls and boys, especially as pertains to what they want out of games. This study is problematic, as it can be seen to naturalize gender dichotomies with generalizations (girls want, boys want). Within a culture, differences can be demonstrably found in gender based preferences. To deny that these differences exist is to overlook clear evidence. However, gender roles are culturally based, so the fact that girls and boys tend to want certain things in America at one point in time does not mean that these are universal desires or are biologically rooted.

Games have a huge problem with gender. They predominantly exclude women in favor of men in box covers, and the games themselves. Women are generally simply absent. When they do appear, they are normally in helpless roles or are otherwise misognyistically portrayed. Representations tend to fall under traditional stereotypes. The subjects of games are very predominantly oriented along violent action and exploration of space. Girls are very rarely incorporated into the demographics for these activities. It is frequently argued that there is nothing wrong with that, that girls have other activities they can enjoy, so why is it so important that they play games? Part of the reason for this motivation is along the technological lines, that games are an important step toward comfort with computers. Another motivation is purely economical. It is, after all, no coincidence that The Sims has been the greatest selling PC game of all time and it has a roughly even gender audience. Along the dimension of persuasive games, it can be argued that games are important cognitive tools and are important for thinking about the world systemically.

The concern in this book is to combine theoretical feminism with the practical issues of bringing girl games to market, which is rife with entrepreneurial issues. The most severe problem in girl games, is not to make games for girls who are already comfortable with video games, but rather to introduce games to those who are normally excluded, who are not already interested. This spurs several scholars and game makers to defensiveness over the feminist horror over games that continue the various pink Mattell franchises. They aim to support girls against the loss of self confidence experienced by girls as they enter into a culture that devalues their interests. Barbie is notable because the doll is present on a professional landscape it is a way for girls to think of themselves in professional roles. Other scholars are more critical. Theresa Duncan attacks the “earnest blandness” or girl games. Others argue that the approaches found by market research reinforce gender stereotypes and assumptions, that because of its cultural indoctrination, market research will narrow the understanding of what girls want, rather than broadening it. They argue that games must instead be opened to explore new formats and models of software.

An open question is whether to focus on games for girls explicitly, or simply focus on expanding the sense of games, period. This becomes notable when compared to the use of modern games, where the idea of a “gamer” has become itself a peculiar and narrow demographic, with hardcore players of games only a small subset of 18-35 year old males. A challenge in thinking about inclusive games is to get away from the gender divide in the first place. It is necessary to make generalizations and think about what girls want, to get any inclusivity at all. But it is also necessary to avoid the process of totalizing and demeaning quality of emphasizing only select few interests or lifestyle choices.

Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia M. Greenfield: Computer Games for Girls: What Makes Them Play?

This chapter is an analysis and discussion of Barbie Fashion Designer, written by the game designers. In earlier studies, the authors were struck by the partiality of games to male audiences, and how girls were generally uninterested in them, even if the games themselves were nonviolent. The authors analyze the success of Barbie Fashion Designer according to the study by Yasmin Kafai, who studied children who created their own games. The authors find that the success did not come from branding, but came primarily from watching and playing preferences.

Barbie Fashion Designer is interesting partly because of its profound success, but also from its unusual trans-media nature. It creatively connects the computer as a tool to play outside of the computer. The software allows the user to design clothes based on a variety of patterns, and they can then print the outfits out, and follow instructions to assemble these into actual clothes that can be worn by the dolls. The program leverages the software of the computer, but the focus of the play does not actually reside within the computer, but outside.

The authors discuss the elements in games, and how they relate to other media and activities, and how these play out with girls and boys.

  • Violence and violent action. This is pervasive in games and media culture for boys. Girls generally have a distaste for it. The differences between girls and boys are not uniform or universal, but they do exist. Removing violent action is important, but not the only thing necessary for success.
  • Themes. The narrative content and the manners of conflict resolution are another difference. Boys’ games tend to focus on exploration and finding things. In narratives, boys tend to gravitate towards stories with struggles between good and evil. Girls seem to prefer a variety of themes and social or negotiated means of resolving conflicts. Cooperative play is clearly important for successful themes.
  • Microworlds. Boys tend to prefer fantasy environments, while girls tend to prefer realistic ones, dealing with problems that might be encountered on an everyday basis. In this sense, girls tend to prefer software that are tools for other activities.
  • Characters. The most ostensible application to games and other media are the presence of girls within them. Girls also tend to prefer games which have characters in realistic roles that they can identify with.
  • Modes of interaction. Boys tend to readily adopt experimental methods toward engagement, using trial and error before understanding the rules. Girls might prefer games where the rules are more clear and the effects are more predictable. This relates to the styles of hard and soft mastery as described by Turkle. Hard masters prefer to bring the system under control, wheras soft masters are interested in bricolage and having control over the pacing and interaction.

A final point is that the project is critiqued along the lines of perpetuating gender stereotypes, by encouraging girls to play with fashion design. Along that line of reasoning, though, so do boys’ games. The matters of what boys and girls are interested in is subject to cultural flow. Another issue is whether Barbie Fashion Designer can be considered a game. But it is a tool/accessory around the Barbie world. Most games have tight rules, but this is looser, enabling a free social play.

Cornelia Brunner, Dorothy Bennett, and Margaret Honey: Girrl Games and Technological Desire

This chapter is concerned with what girls want out of technology. Brunner studied gender preferences and desires in technology in general and produced the following table: (Brunner 1994, on p. 76)

  • Women/Men fantasize about it as a MEDIUM/PRODUCT
  • Women/Men see it as a TOOL/WEAPON
  • Women/Men want to use it for COMMUNICATION/CONTROL
  • Women/Men are impressed with its potential for CREATION/POWER
  • Women/Men ask it for FLEXIBILITY/SPEED
  • Women/Men are concerned with its EFFECTIVENESS/EFFICIENCY
  • Women/Men like its ability to facilitate/grant SHARING/AUTONOMY
  • Women are concerned with INTEGRATING it into their personal lives / Men are intent on CONSUMING it
  • Women talk about wanting to EXPLORE worlds / Men talk about using it to EXPLOIT resources and potentialities
  • Women are EMPOWERED by it / Men want TRANSCENDENCE

The authors list several elements of design particular to games and these technological desires.

  • Technological sophistication. Girls are frequently interested in the ability for devices to interact with each other. Objects should be able to interact with each other in interesting ways within a game world.
  • Winning and losing. Girls tend to want to perfect themselves, while boys tend to be interested in power over others. Self improvement is notably not the same thing as leveling (which implies comparativity and power), damage is something that is internal (or possibly social).
  • Success and sacrifice. Girls are aware of the sacrifices that must be made in life’s choices. Some games emphasize resource management, but this is not the same thing as sacrifice.
  • Contradictions of femininity. Games have the potential to explore many dimensions of femininity.
  • Persuasion versus conquest. Women tend to value persuasion, not conquest. Persuasion is much more difficult to simulate than conquest. The ideas of spreading a rumor is a good game analogue.
  • Humor. The authors suggest that girls are less tolerant for humorlessness in games, because boys are more likely to have fun with conquest and victory. The ideal humor suggested is based on character and situation.
  • Adventure. The elements of adventure that are most interesting to girls should focus on defying conventions, rather than gaining authority.
  • Puzzles and obstacles. Girls tend to prefer puzzles that are integrated with the story.
  • Writing. Girls are interested in writing and communication, paying attention to how to say something, analyzing the meaning behind responses. “Girls might be interested in games that focus on how things are communicated, not just on what is being said.”
  • Being chosen. This generally has no analogue in boys’ games. Being chosen is complicated and it can open new friends and opportunities as well as close off old ones.
  • Mysteries. This suggests finding ways within games to look at material from a variety of perspectives, in interest of uncovering something hidden. There is usually a social dimension to this uncovering as well.

Yasmin B. Kafai: Video Game Designs by Girls and Boys

This study is about gender differences in game design. It takes place by actually having elementary school students design games for either science or math classes. Both boys and girls were interested in the activity of playing and designing games. The study analyzed the games created by the students to get a sense of their focus and content. Kafai breaks her results down into several analytic categories and finds that the gender differences are pervasive. She finds that boys are primarily interested in adventure games, while girls had a diversity of genres, that girls preferred realistic worlds, small casts, and self-identified characters. Kafai also found that the results from the boys were more diverse than originally expected. This small detail suggests the origin of the trend for mainstream games to dwell on a particular subset of males.

Interview: Brenda Laurel

Laurel discusses the game “Rockett’s New School”. The game “Rockett’s World” “allows players to rehearse different emotional responses to social situations and their consequences.” (p. 123)

Henry Jenkins: Complete Freedom of Movement

Game culture fills a space defined by traditional boy culture (specifically 19th century American). Games create new spaces offering limitless exploration in the modern, confined, urban world. The play worlds in 19th century boy culture is also inicative of social role preparation for adult life. Jenkins lists 8 bullets connecting boy culture to game spaces:

  1. Culture is characterized by independence from the realm of mothers and fathers, and fosters autonomy and self confidence. Games create personal and private spaces, instead of finding spaces outside, the spaces are internal (but are windows, representing external space).
  2. Social recognition among boys was gained by daring, stunts, or pranks (usually aimed against authority figures). Daring in games is proven through mastery of levels and systems.
  3. The central virtues of boy culture were mastery and self-control, and were implemented via setting and meeting challenges. These are characterized in game culture by examining how boys play games repeatedly in order to master challenging levels.
  4. Culture was hierarchical, where social status was gained through conflict and challenges. Game and arcade culture is hierarchical with proficiency and adeptness being measures of dominance.
  5. Boy culture was violent and aggressive, and children often hurt each other or were hurt in their play. Video games move violence into the symbolic realm, creating pretend violence rather than real.
  6. 19th century boy culture tends to be scatological, referring to growing bodily awareness. This is present in games usually through violent means, with depictions of blood and gore. This bodily focus also is used misogynistically to exclude or control women.
  7. Role playing was prevalent in culture especially in games of “Cowboys and Indians”, placing boys in fantastic roles. Video games make strong use of roleplaying as well.
  8. Play activities were opportunities for social interaction and bonding. Video games enable bonding through expression of common interests, discussing games and using them as a catalyst for interaction.

Jenkins compares boy and girl spaces to novels. Early novels were generally feminine, aimed toward female audiences, but gradually boy books began to emerge. Jenkins characterizes the differences in the interest in books to play spaces. Boy spaces are adventure islands, environments with potential for exploration and mastery, full of wildness, danger, and risks. Girl spaces are secret gardens, private and secret spaces. These spaces reward exploration, but do so at a slower pace, where the goal is not to overcome, but uncover. These spaces also follow along the lines of the gothic traditions, revealing repressed memories and emotions within the confines of the space. In books that feature this motif, often the female protagonist must sacrifice her personal space for the good of others. An alternative style of female space is the “play town“, which reincorporates urban characteristics into other spaces, and emphasizes character and connectedness. This is less explicitly feminine, but is still against traditional masculine roles.

The goal at the conclusion is to develop gender neutral play spaces, though I think that the play town comes close.

Justine Cassell: Storytelling as a Nexus of Change

This chapter is about the dilemma of games for girls, as it is messy to understand the flexible and complex issues of identity. Games should not shoehorn girls into fixed roles providing only a few possible forms of agency. The focus on narrative in some games enables some empowerment, but in these, usually the player is the listener, not the teller. Cassell’s goal is to establish a feminist game design. This requires two elements: 1) authority distributed to the users, where the game itself is about construction, and 2) focus should be interactive storytelling, giving the players the tools to tell their own stories and find their own voices.

Cassell outlines a few bullets characteristic of feminist approaches to design. (p. 303)

  • A rejection of “the desirability or even the possibility of value-free research”. It is impossible to factor out the point of view of the researcher in studying a problem.
  • A focus on the subjective, experiential, everyday lived experiences of individuals, moving away from objective truths.
  • An emphasis on collaboration.
  • An attempt to showcase a multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives.
  • An attempt to promote the distribution of authority among the members of a community.

Storytelling is seen as a core method for changing relationships between gender and technology. The focus is on story telling specifically, not just stories.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorCassell, Justine and Jenkins, Henry
TitleFrom Barbie to Mortal Combat
Tagsdigital media, games, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon