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Why Are Video Games so Gendered?

The chauvinistic gaming world has always been hostile to women. A new book looks at how it got that way.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

When I was in college, I became addicted to a browser-based word game featuring cute animals. I couldn’t resist it. I didn’t fail any courses, but compulsive play took precedence over studying. At the time I was living with several male roommates, and one of them, a seasoned gamer, scoffed when he saw me playing with the pink elephant in pirate garb on the screen. “Can I find you something to play that’s, like … a real game?”

In most conversations you have with gamers, “real” is synonymous with “hardcore.” These games have big development budgets and require hours of player dedication to complete; they generally refer to first- and third-person shooters, RPGs, and MMOs. You’re a soldier in WWI, or you’re a soldier in WWII, or you’re a soldier in WWIII, and there are aliens. These games don’t have cute animals. Often, they don’t even have too many colors: in a hardcore game like the blockbuster first-person shooter Call of Duty, the color palette is so dominated by greys and browns that the brightest color you’ll see is the red of your enemy’s blood after you shoot him.

University of Minnesota Press, 240 pp., $27.00

Ready Player Two, the new book by media critic Shira Chess, is not interested in that kind of game. Instead, the book investigates how the game industry perceives and markets femininity, with particular attention to what she calls casual games—ones that are “cheap, easy to learn, and can be played for variable amounts of time”—like Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, Candy Crush Saga, or Diner Dash. From the outset, Chess is clear that while women do play hardcore games, they are “considered outliers, marginalized, pushing their way into a space not originally intended for them,” And those women who play hardcore games aren’t really Chess’ concern. Rather, Ready Player Two looks at games that are designed for women— and because video games are a male-dominated industry, games created for women are often designed by men. Games’ gender binary, Chess argues, is itself a product of design, “often at odds with actual players.”

Chess makes this dissonance the topic of Ready Player Two, interrogating the very concept of what she calls “Player Two,” the industry’s feminine ideal. Player Two is the hypothetical female consumer, imagined by men, whose tastes drive games’ design and marketing to women. She is a white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class woman who yearns for domesticity and beautification, and whose leisure time exists in five-minute increments. The Player Two figure, Chess finds, makes a lot of assumptions about women’s lives and leisure: that women don’t have much time for games, for instance, and that the time we do have is spent on activities that mirror the emotional labor and domestic duties we’re presumed to perform in daily life.

Last month, I spent $24.99 on “pearls” in the free-to-play Sunken Secrets, a mobile game wherein a blonde princess tells me how to beautify her island. Sunken Secrets checks many of the boxes that Chess uses to describe games marketed to women: supernatural themes, lush aesthetics, few time constraints, nonsexualized characters, and low violence. This is absolutely not one of the “real games” my former housemate had in mind. “Games that are too centered on consumptive mechanics are often dismissed (such as free-to-play or fashion games) and are not accepted as part of the broader (masculine-based) gaming culture,” Chess explains. “Women players are theoretically able to buy their way into video game culture, but they are never able to fully embody the nuances of that culture.”

Unlike the more subtle bigotry of other creative communities, video game culture wears its misogyny, homophobia, and racism on its sleeve. The toxicity of gamer culture sure doesn’t seem nuanced: when a popular white male gamer yells racial slurs online, other white men rush to his defense; when white male Gamergaters dox female designers, other white male gamers rush to their defense. These aren’t people I want to be associated with, and they’re not usually people whose opinions of me I would pay much attention to. So why, when someone asks what I play, would I rather chew off my arm than admit to Sunken Secrets? I never had a hard time talking about my addiction to Fallout: New Vegas, a big-budget role-playing dystopia where you can kill and/or seduce non-player characters.

Trying on Player One’s masculine mantle can be a heady exercise in power fantasies for a female gamer, and there’s no shame, as a woman gamer, in admitting that you like to murder or have sex with pixelated bodies. But somehow there is shame in admitting that you want to craft anagrams to please cute animals, or use sparkly blue magic against a witch who looks like an anorexic Ursula. Fantasies coded as masculine—killing and screwing—are cool. Fantasies coded as feminine—nurturing and beautifying—are boring.

These ideas manifest most clearly in the player’s avatar. Protagonists in hardcore games tend to be muscular, broad-shouldered, alpha male archetypes, fulfilling a fantasy that the player is a strong man who can kill a bunch of enemies single-handedly with a comically oversized, phallic weapon. Even casual, short-play mobile games targeted at men feature “action mouth app icons (also known as “mobile games with an icon of a guy yelling”), suggesting dominance on a smaller screen. If women exist in hardcore games, their designers often have a curious understanding of women’s combat needs; a heroine’s armor frequently protects her nipples and pelvic floor but little else.

But in games targeting women, avatars have a conspicuously different look: “If buxom women are at the heart of games designed for masculine audiences, then slenderness is at the heart of games designed for feminine audiences. The most common visual image in time management games is a slender, ponytailed, white woman.” Indeed, the avatars of time management and fashion games are featureless and sexless, with monochromatic, usually white skin and one or two pixels suggesting a nose. Despite being unsexed, they still fall into categories of conventional Western hotness: thin, doe-eyed, predominantly blonde.

If murdering and yelling are the apotheosis of male power in the gaming imagination, inoffensive prettiness is the apotheosis of female power. Women and men alike are socialized to understand physical appearance as women’s central source of social capital, so perhaps it’s natural that “flawlessness” (i.e. featurelessness) is one of the main power fantasies marketed to women by this male-dominated industry. But the prevalence of these gendered designs and narratives in gaming raises some disturbing questions. Can this industry, and the men who control it, really only imagine men as angry, violent, hypersexual killers? Can they really only imagine women as pretty, featureless, and into cuddly animals? Ready Player Two does not pretend to be a comprehensive diagnosis of all the evils of patriarchy, but it does raise the specter of how far we haven’t come.

Despite some annoying academic jargon, Chess’s careful articulation works toward legitimizing the genre of women’s games—because, as game designer Sheri Graner Ray points out, “The game industry does not see women as a market. They see women as a genre.” Perhaps I could have defended my collegiate word game addiction if I’d understood why only über-masculine fantasies got classified as “real.” Maybe I could have made a better defense of those cute animals.

These days, it’s not too common for anyone to harass me about the fashion games on my phone, and when it happens, it’s hardly worth my time to explain that I can’t play Left 4 Dead on the subway. These conversations no longer make me angry, they make me bored. I would like to talk about something else. But discussing why women play what we play, and how we are understood as players, pushes the industry to treat women not as a genre, but a diverse audience. Ready Player Two moves us closer to the mark.