What a Girl Wants

by Bonnie Ruberg - March 19, 2005, 1:19 pm PST

Is it the puzzles? Is it the collectibles? Is it the chance to watch your Sim take a shower? Just what makes a game attractive to girls?

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I have a friend who’s addicted to The Sims. Okay, that’s a lie. I have multiple friends who are addicted to The Sims. They spend hours at their computers, or at their respective consoles, totally hooked. Even after months or years of addiction, they’re still fascinated by the ability to observe and manipulate characters, to create simulated lives. They watch their Sims get promoted, have their first kisses, go to the bathroom - and they’re proud. They feel accomplished. In response, they often giggle.

Yup, they’re just a bunch of Sims-crazy guys sitting around at the end of the day sharing quirky guess-what-my-Sim-did stories over a steaming pot of camomile tea. Right? Well, that’s probably not the image that comes to mind. You’re thinking, “Come on. Sims? Giggles? These are girls.” And, of course, they are.

Not to say that there aren’t boys out there who like The Sims, or who definitely fall under that self-proclaimed title: “addicted.” It does seem, however, that a game like The Sims has a particularly strong attraction for girls, even those who don’t otherwise play games or consider themselves gamers. In a broad sense, it has become regarded as, if not a girl game per se, certainly a girl-preferred one. It is perhaps one of the few titles for which the number of female players could potentially rival or exceed the number of male.

The Sims, though it’s the most wide-spread and well known example, is certainly not alone in this newly emerging genre of girl-acceptable games. Others, such as Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, are equally likely to draw women in, to promise them cuteness and the thrill of achieving somewhat realistic goals, only to leave them total simulation game-addicts. These games are, in nature, similar to The Sims; they require patience, persistence, and dedication to long-term goals. There’s no button-mashing, no fountain-like showers of blood, no cars to crash or hookers to shoot. Sure, over the years The Sims has gotten progressively more daring and, at times, risqué, but we’re not talking Grand Theft Auto here.

There are a lot of people for whom these sorts of games have no appeal. Let’s be honest, Harvest Moon is a game about getting things to grow; people who really enjoy Animal Crossing put a considerable amount of time and energy into deciding where to position their furniture. So, to recap, that’s farming and interior decorating. Hmm... We all know gamers who would think that sounds ridiculously boring. Heck, maybe you’re one of those gamers. The point is, simulation games of this sort appeal to a very specific type of people, and apparently a lot of those people are girls. But why?

For starters, the games mentioned above promote qualities that are, in our society, traditionally considered female: the ability to nurture growth, the desire to collect items and trinkets, the willingness to engage in long-term commitments. These games allow the gamer to take on a motherly role, even when supposedly interacting as a character. They also provide highly-controllable, almost voyeuristic environments where a player can treat the characters much as a little girl might treat her dolls. In addition, they require a level of careful planning and strategy paralleled by puzzle games, another type of game that girls are often drawn to. Girls, perhaps, find puzzles attractive because they are more cerebral than other games and, again, the consequences and rewards of the gameplay are less immediate.

The girl-acceptable category isn’t limited to simulation games. For many of the reasons discussed above, RPG’s are often a female pick; they allow the gamer to stop and think about her decisions before making a move. Again, girls aren’t looking for instant gratification (slashing at an enemy with a single press of a button), but rather strategy, as represented in the menu-based and turn-based systems.

Another common girl favorite is rhythm-based games. These include titles like Samba de Amigo, Donkey Konga, and, of course, Dance Dance Revolution. The main objective of these games is to interact with music, and though they can get really challenging and the competition really fierce, it seems almost everyone can agree that they’re fun. Rhythm-based games draw girls in for a number of reasons. First of all, they’re often presented in a party situation as a party game. It’s not like an RPG that a girl has to work at on her own. With rhythm-based games, she’s got friends cheering her on. And it’s okay if she doesn’t know what she’s doing at first, because everyone looks like a fool. Secondly, these games seem less intimidating and foreign to a girl who either has never gamed before, or who isn’t into typically “guy” things, like fighting or racing games. Plus, as mentioned, they rock.

But it seems to me, as both a girl and a gamer, there’s a different, more revealing force underlying the emergence of these games as girl-preferred that isn’t being addressed when we simply chalk everything up to gender preferences. Sure, to some extent this is about taste, but it’s really about power. The games that women choose to involve themselves in are those in which they are less likely to be intimidated or condescended to by guys. They pick games like the Sims, Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing - one player titles they can play on their own and avoid the problematic reality of being a girl among male gamers. They also select games that, if they do bring girls into direct competition with boys, provide an equal playing field. Male gamers have been raised on fighters, racers, action adventures; even if they’ve never played a particular game before they have a definite advantage over a girl who grew up in a culture that told her “girls don’t like games.” So instead of playing these games, girls pick rhythm-based games, a (relatively) new genre with non-traditional controllers where they have a fair shot. They also seek out puzzle games, which use parts of the mind they’ve already been cultivating through non-video games their whole lives.

This in itself creates something of a chicken/egg situation: Do girls pick peripheral games, or do games that open themselves up to a female audience become peripheral? In my opinion, girls aim for genres that are often out of the spotlight only to see them further marginalized by those male gamers who don’t know how to look at girls as people. For example, I’ve heard plenty of wise cracks about DDR being a wimpy game not worth the time of day from “serious” gamers. I’ve also heard it called a “girl’s game.” To which I say, “Just because girls are better at it than you, doesn’t mean it sucks. It means you suck.”

It’s also important to note that the idea that power dynamics play a role in girl game preferences isn’t necessarily one that a lot of girl gamers would admit to. It might not be something they’ve ever thought about. A lot of people, male and female, know what games they like and dislike; they don’t particularly care about why. These power-based decisions are most likely not made on a conscious, or even an individual, level. Girls gamers as a large group often like the games mentioned above. Within this group they learn from and mimic shared experiences and tastes.

Who are these girls anyway, who like these sorts of games? Are they brand-new gamers? After playing through one or two girl-preferred titles, do they continue gaming? And do they keep playing girl-preferred titles, or do they gradually move on to enjoy a wider variety of genres? The answers really vary. I’ve talked to a lot of guys who have said they could never get their friends/girlfriends/wives to game, until they came across Animal Crossing (etc.). Now these women are “hooked.” But does that mean hooked on games in general, or just that one? Again, the answer varies. Some seem to use these games as a starting point for entering the wider gaming world; others remain content with simulation, puzzle and rhythm-based games. Still others love one game, finish it, and never pick up a controller again.

And beneath the entire issue of “what makes a game attractive to girls” is the more basic question: “Is there something innately different between men and women that makes them want different things in a game?” What’s really in question here isn’t so much the games themselves as the nature of the players.

We’ve been taught to believe that, of course, boys want different things than girls. And, at first glance, it seems this whole case of the existence of girl-preferred games (which, while certainly not developed exclusively for girls, have proven of considerably less interest to boys) reinforces that idea. Boys like violence and action; girls, if they can tolerate gaming at all, like to farm, arrange furniture, and occasionally dance to techno remixes. The stereotype, in one form or another, is age-old. Girls are docile, non-confrontational. Boys are energetic and gruesome. It’s just how it is.

But it’s not. There are boys in the world who love simulation games, and girls in the world who love to shoot the heck out of things (I personally laugh like a crazy person every time I melee someone to death in Halo 2). These people aren’t messed up or weird or confused. They’ve just taken a little extra time to consider what they’d actually like to be doing. Gender expectations are a contrivance of the society, of the industry, of advertisements, and of convention.

With that said, it’s impossible for a girl (or anyone) to totally walk away from her past. You know you’ve grown up under certain social conditions; you want to be a “hardcore” gamer, but part of you also wants to break down and play My Little Pony games on the computer. Should you feel guilty for being attracted to girl-preferred games, and only girl-preferred games? Not that the ones mentioned here are any less than great, quality games, but aren’t you promoting a certain cultural stereotype by liking them? Or, are they okay, since they serve as a sort of gateway for girl gamers to get into other games? What’s the right thing to do? You could try and train to get good at traditionally “male” titles and then fight back against the system by beating guys at their own games. But then aren’t you putting all the power back in the hands of the guys since you’re focusing on your energy on beating them, instead of concentrating on yourself (Frag Dolls, I’m looking at you)? Is there a legitimate moral question here? Really, what’s a girl to do?

Here’s my answer: Ladies, do whatever the heck you want. Don’t worry, you don’t need to analyze the psychological and societal reasons why you like a game each time you sit down in front of your console. Just play. You only have to do one thing: keep an open mind. Someday you might like a game that girls don’t normally like, and that is totally fine. In fact, it’s really great. The same goes for guys. Go on, farm to your heart’s content. Don’t let anyone intimidate you out of it. In the end, just do what you want to do. Never be bound by expectation.

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