What Games Made by Girls can Tell Us
Comments on Jill Denner's and Shannon Campe's chapter in Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming
Denner and Campe begin their inquiry by pointing to qualities of video games that make them particularly popular among boys and men.
“These games allow the player to act out fantasies, which include becoming a successful football player in the NFL, being a professional skateboarder, or testing one’s prowess as a soldier fighting a powerful enemy.”
This is true and I would myself like to see players of both genders have access to a significantly larger range of roles to play and identify with. But is this where we find the core of the allure of video games? I don't think so, but Denner and Campe seem to make that assumption throughout their account.
Living out fantasies is certainly a part of all play, but I do not believe it is a dominant part of video games. It varies greatly from genre to genre, however. In abstract puzzle games, it is a non-existent part, in point-and-click adventure games and interactive fiction it is an important part. But in general, there are so many other factors that determine whether a game is appealing and able to maintain one's interest. If a game feels good to control, has stimulating feedback, challenging problems, exciting moments, beautiful environments (which in turn often exert their attraction as fantasy holiday destinations), and so on, it doesn’t matter what role you get to play. For example, I am completely uninterested in sports cars, F1 and racing. I am especially indifferent to the drivers themselves and I would never think of watching car racing on TV. Yet despite this, I have throughout the years found myself enjoying racing games more than any other genre over time.
It might, however, be inevitable that particular settings and occupations seem off-putting before getting into the gameplay - especially if one lacks prior experience with the genre the game belongs to.
Denner and Campe then cite a variety of studies on what types of games that girls are attracted to. They do not seem to find a consensus. Do girls want to play gender-stereotypical roles in games specifically tailored to girls, or do they instead want greater freedom and to play with identities and roles that they do not have the opportunity to live out in their everyday lives as girls? The cited studies do not provide any clear answer on this matter.
To study what kind of games girls would actually create if given the opportunity, instead of studying what games girls say they like, is therefore a commendable approach and exactly what Denner and Campe dedicated themselves to in their Girls Creating Games project.
But it is highly doubtful whether generalizations about the types of games that girls prefer can be made based on the conclusions of the project. Denner and Campe themselves identify four problematic aspects to consider.
Most of the games were made by pairs of girls. There is a risk that the collaboration led to compromises, and that the social relationship hindered the individual girls from expressing their true thoughts, wishes and preferences regarding the design of the games.
The girls were not told explicitly to make the kind of games they personally wanted to play, but Denner and Campe assume that the girls at least created games that they themselves enjoyed.
The girls had very limited design options and could only create basic interactive stories, similar to the game/book hybrids that were popular in the 80s, sold in book form as “solo adventures” in Sweden, known as “game books” in England, and “choose your own adventure” in the USA.
Of the 45 games created, 33 were made in a school setting where the school administration instructed students to avoid language and sexual content that might be deemed offensive.
To truly understand what makes girls' game preferences unique, a control group of boys working with the same conditions would have been necessary.
But though we would gain some understanding of the distinct preferences between genders by comparing the two groups of boy's games and girl's games, I am sceptical that we would have gained much general knowledge about games and gender. Due to "problematic aspect no. 3", we would mainly learn what type of settings and stories that girls and boys prefer. While this knowledge is certainly relevant to video games, it is also relevant to film, books, and comics and does not provide unique insights into the specific characteristics of video games such as freedom, interactivity, control, rules and mechanics.
Ola Hansson, 2 maj 2011
(English translation, 24 January 2023)