Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Games, Gender, and Glitch

I have never played a "game" before I played Glitch. I've played games, but not GAMES games. Like MMO games, WoW (I don't even really know what this stands for- I think the second "W" is for something about war, but whenever I try to say it, "Witchcraft" comes out.) I've played card games online, scrabble, you know, really intricate things like that. I defaced myself before people were playing games on there all the time- or maybe they were playing games on Facebook already, but I wasn't into it. What I'm getting at is that this is Very New to me. Maybe this is just a really long caveat, though I've thought about it for long enough to stand behind what I'm going to say.

About a week ago, a man posted on the Glitch forums (which get REALLY cranky between tests) that he suspects Glitch of being "too estrogen driven to attract male players." He explained his position: he's a "normal" guy a little older than me with a wife and kids, enjoys the game, but finds it "girly"- my word, not his- the original quote is his. In short, the game is too pastel, there aren't enough wardrobe options that are masculine (they might even have been designed by gay males, conflating gender and sexuality), and the mark of a subscriber is a pink heart. The poster was ripped a new one, chastised, and generally told to fuck off. The thread spiraled more and more out of control and in different directions. As I've been known to, I managed to stick in my $200 and "take it too far." I've decided to reformat and reshare my thoughts on the gender implications of Glitch here now that you've got my caveat and context (you bored yet?).

Of course, I took it too far, and got a take home message that the original poster probably didn't intend at all. For me, the bigger point about gender and Glitch (and games in general!) is actually far from cosmetic, though cosmetics are clearly part of the package. The genuine question in the poster's question: is glitch a "girl's" game? I think the original poster was asking this, although crudely, by saying he'd have to "hang my masculinity on the wall" to play the game. What kind of online games, specifically MMOs are appropriate for men? What kind of games are just "games"? Is there such a thing? On a most basic level, I'm clearly not implying that (as the poster almost suggested) girls should play princess" and boys should play "shoot 'um up," but we are socialized this way from very young, and from the tiny bit I've dipped my toe into the vast world of MMOs out there for the it seems like that's still how adults are playing.

Some examples from real life virtual games: Many of the players at Glitch call themselves "FS" refugees. Faunasphere was a game you played through Facebook (I believe), that went under earlier this year. Some descriptive language from FS's FB page:
Adventure waits in a mysterious, abandoned world, overrun with living pollution. Charming creatures known as Fauna have survived in this beautiful yet inhospitable environment. Join your friends and build a new, clean world.
and a nice summary from Joystiq. If you hadn't read any of the above description and just looked at the picture immediately below, who would you think would be most likely to play this game- men or women? While the game is also marketed to children, but the "FS refugees," as they call themselves in Glitch, are primarily adults. The adults, I believe, are majority female.

On the other hand, there's World of Warcraft. (The second "W" in WoW.) Check out this picture and guess the marketing bias. I'm not making this shit up, though I may be taking it to far. For an idea of where i'm coming from, check out the awesome site Sociological Images.) Think about who "shoot um up" games are marketed to, and gun toys, and war games, from a very young age: boys. Then think of the kind of things that are marketed to girls: playing house, barbies, ezbake ovens, paper dolls etc. We grow up from kids who play kids' games with these things to adults who play adult games with naked ladies and blood or cute animals. Of course, there are human exceptions, no denying it.

And, there are game exceptions, and in my opinion, Glitch is one of them. On the face of it, Glitch is not an exception, and this is where we come full circle to the poster in the Glitch forums who has a great point: many of the window-dressings *are* girly. On the surface, Glitch is a more traditionally feminine game: if I asked who it is marketed to according to mainstream, heteronormative, patriarchal tropes, the clear answer is women. Players dress avatars like they are paper dolls, tend garden patches and plant trees, and there are no weapons. Until the last test, players couldn't even do anything when an "attack" occurred- all they could do was cooperatively revive animals after the fact.

art 2
(photo courtesy of Fae)

The awesome part, though, is that glitch is subversive, in that it's not a particularly "girly" setup, *because* of all of the cosmetic things mentioned above. The avatars are androgynous, the clothes are cheeky, the sexual innuendos are (as far as I've bothered to read into them, being the prude that I am) not particularly "sided" (correct me if i'm wrong!). Glitch is probably not "different" enough to appeal to people who like "manly" games. People who want to bomb things and destroy things and kill people and see blood, men or women, probably aren't going to want to discover how to make salt, or be thrilled to get random kindness from a garden patch. I stand by my theory that Glitch has something to offer for the gamer who wants to opt-out.

The game also allows for both cooperative and competitive play- another area traditionally thought of as divided by gender. Players do not cooperate to destroy other players, but to do structured things like open new areas of the game, or less structured activities (like the art project pictured above). There are leaderboards, but they are deemphasized (I played for weeks before I knew where the leaderboards were) which suggests that they are not the focus. Glitch is not a game that thrives on competition. Glitch is not about winning or losing: when the player closes the window, a dialogue window pops up telling the player they were "just about to win the game!" Dying is encouraged. On the other hand, competition is not frowned on: players can take androgynous, cross-dressed avatars, and, without a weapon away. There are trophies and badges and levels, and some players say they compete against each other and some argue that they're only challenging each other.

More: A great interview from far more knowledgeable people at Joystiq about gender and video games.

An explanation of a recent study of demographics of MMO's from Geekery, using the the Bartle Test.