Grown up games, gender & identity

Following up on yesterday’s post, Fast Company has a great article surveying the growing “deep games” movement—a concerted effort by game developers exploring new kinds of aesthetics, procedurality, mechanics and affects made possible through the medium of gaming.

Funomena is part of the emerging “deep games” movement, where players “win” by becoming more enlightened, empathetic people—a radical idea in an industry that has traditionally catered to trigger-happy teenagers. In the past few years, a new crop of mostly small studios has released wildly inventive games that focus on narrative, aesthetics, and the exploration of intimate emotions rather than fast-paced action, competition, and tricky game play.

I love that more and more people are exploring the expressive possibilities of this medium. To make an analogy, it’s as if we’ve been stuck in a world where there are about three kinds of books—say, action/thrillers, kids books, and puzzle books—and suddenly authors realize, “oh, you mean we could actually write about anything we want? We don’t actually have to just write hero stories and make puzzles?”

This movement also recognizes the important fact that “gaming” has largely been associated with young male identity in US, and most games have been made with this target audience in mind. But the article cites an important Entertainment Software Association study that found that the average gamer is now 31 years old, that almost half of gamers are women, and that the number of female gamers over 50 increased by a 1/3 between 2012 and 2013. “Last year, for the first time, adult female gamers outnumbered boys under age 18 as the largest video-game-playing group in the U.S.”

And yet, as I found in my Simulation as Communication course this Fall, many women who play games don’t identify as gamers. In fact, for the first few weeks of class several of my female students adamantly insisted over and over that they “weren’t gamers” and “weren’t comfortable with game technology”– that is was something they left for their brothers. And yet, when we read TL Taylor’s chapter on women gamers and her critique of “pink games” (for example this kind of thing) in Play Between Worlds, these same students suddenly waxed nostalgic about the hours and hours they spend playing Barbie Dress-up Games growin up!

What this gets me thinking is that as we expand the genre of gaming to include more kinds of experiences and appeal to more kinds of players, it will be important to encourage a sense of ownership and identity around gaming. So much of the GamerGate controversy is centered on the argument that only hardcore, competitive, and violent games count as “real” games and only those who play them are real gamers. If we want consumers to be willing to explore the possibilities of the medium, we need to not only make better games, but also create new structures of identification around game-playing as part of cultural identity practices.

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