As I mentioned in my last column, discussions of male dominance in the video game market ignore, almost by definition, the "casual game" market, where consumers are over 60% female; "casual games" refer to various board game-esque programs available on sites like Yahoo! Games as well as the arcade-type games now commonly made available for cell phones. The majority of players, as noted, are female, and their games are not important—at least not in the cultural discourse on games. One might make the argument that they are far less a defined subculture than the user bases of console games or MMOGs, although I think it's a bit chicken-and-egg. We define those games as identity-worthy and so identities grow up around them, but ultimately, I don't think there's a huge difference between them, beyond basic content and interface, qualities that vary within particular kinds of games as well. Rather, it seems to me that the main way in which games differ is this: are they played alone, or with others either physically or virtually co-present?
This question is particularly relevant given the persistence, in the mainstream culture, of the image of the antisocial video game player. This may be another reason that "casual games" are not considered "real games" for the purpose of talking about video games; they're not masculine enough, but they're also not violent or antisocial enough. I would argue that this perception is extremely skewed, and that in fact, there is less of a difference between "casual games" and more "traditional" video games, even MMOGs, than one might initially think.
The majority of games are not played alone. Console games have multiplayer modes; this may involve turn-taking, combat, or even collaboration. Online games typically allow many, many players to play "together," and this doesn't just mean MMOGsit means the "casual games" as well. I used to be addicted to Literati, the Yahoo! Games non-copyright-violating version of Scrabble. I played it constantly, first when I was working as a computer lab attendant and spending long hours with nothing to do between printer jams, and later as a late-night relaxation activity at home. I never played with random strangers. I had a core group of friends, with most of whom I interacted primarily via the Internet, who all played, and whenever two or more of us were online at the same time we were likely to start up a game of Lit.
I played because I like Scrabble—even when you are legally not allowed to call it that—but more importantly because I liked the people with whom I played. When browser compatibility issues broke my chat box, it was intensely frustrating. Sure, I could still place my words and participate in the game, but the game itself was just the social drink in my hand. It wasn't the party. The sociologist Georg Simmel said about card games that they were a vehicle for "sociability," that is, non-goal-oriented interaction between people partaken of solely for its amusement value—trivial interaction, except that all work and no playful conversation makes most people pretty batshit pretty quick.
A friend of mine who is blind told me that she recently participated in beta testing of a similar "casual game" for the blind. Although it was billed as having a single-player mode, she said it wasn't very engaging, and it definitely wasn't what their beta users were looking for. They wanted to talk to other players. They barely cared about the game, which at first I found perplexing; why was anyone bothering to develop a game environment if the players weren't even interested? Certainly almost everyone prefers their online games to allow communication amongst players, but we don't require all communication to come with a game, do we? People still use chat rooms, right?
Actually, I don't know that they do—or rather, that they use them as much as they used to—but that's a discussion for another day. At any rate, many people still prefer to feel that they're "doing" something when they're talking to other people, and perhaps most importantly, a friendly game of whatever provides an automatic topic of conversation for people who may either talk so much that they don't necessarily have any news to impart at any given time, or for people who talk so little that they don't know what else to talk about. The common stereotype that video games promote antisocial behavior is belied not only by the experiences of gamers but by the interfaces of the games themselves—there is no multiplayer game that does not provide for communication amongst players, and that includes "serious" MMOGs like World of Warcraft as well as "frivolous" or casual games like the varied offerings of Yahoo!
Many people argue that women are more interested in communication than men are, and of course some form of communication is necessary to engage in coordinated action with others, but plenty of people also refer only half-jokingly to WoW as a graphic chat platform. The main difference between MMOGs and board game-esque casual games, other than minimum time commitment, seems to be that players in general take turns in the latter, while in the former, players are usually acting in concert. Sociability is, here, irrelevant, since it's something that a player may value or not in addition to game play. I'm not quite as talkative playing City of Heroes as I am playing Literati, but I still prefer to play with people I know, not just because I am fairly confident that they will not get me stupidly killed, but also because I like chatting with them in between kills.
Communication, in addition to being something that many people value in itself, gives people something to do in what would otherwise be dead time outside their turns. It serves a similar function at points in more collaborative play where action is delayed by various factors—waiting for a single party member, etc. Individual players may value it more or less; there are certainly Yahoo! Games addicts who perform the majority of their play with unknown opponents, although in most cases, they communicate, too, albeit with varying degrees of hostility—this seems comparable to PvP (player versus player) in MMOGs. It's important to remember that people pursue different kinds of sociability; just because I don't want to exchange rude remarks with other players about our respective parentage doesn't mean that some people don't honestly enjoy it.
Basically, if you are playing a game with other people, whether you're sitting in the same room holding controllers or sitting in rooms thousands of miles apart at your respective keyboards, possibly wearing headsets, you are going to communicate. There wouldn't be much point to playing with other people rather than NPCs if you weren't, beyond the fact that the other people are probably smarter. This does raise the question of the "challenge," which seems to be the point to many puzzle-solving games; think of Myst, or King's Quest. In games like that, you're completing a story by figuring out riddles and such, and some people feel very strongly about doing so without "help," i.e., without other people. One could make an argument for the community of these games as something that exists beyond the gameplay itself, on websites and forums where the games may be discussed and, possibly, hints given and received. I think it's a grey area.
But what about the cell phone games? Typically, they are not multiplayer. They are mostly single-player mini-arcade games: the pinnacle of streamlined time wasting. People play them. Women, especially, play them. Cell phone games seem to embody what many people consider the worst of cell phones: they're distracting, they let people ignore other people in public, they should never have become mobile devices in the first place.
I have already written about women's public use of cell phones in my personal blog, but I think that the points I made there bear restating here in reference to games, and how we should not be so naïve as to think that people who engage in antisocial behavior are unaware of the implications of that behavior.
Is playing Tetris on your phone at the bus stop antisocial? I would say yes. And I would say that in most cases, it is deliberately so. In her article "Analyzing Gender in Public Places: Rethinking Goffman's Vision of Everyday Life," Carol Gardner, following on Goffman's work on "street talk" and public places, detailed a number of strategies that women may use to display their unavailability for possible unwanted social interaction. Goffman's position was that women always had the choice to respond to street talk or not; Gardner argued that it was hardly so simple, and that essentially the best way to keep oneself from entering into unwanted interaction was to give off cues that such interaction was impossible, discouraging others from attempting to initiate it in the first place. She included Walkmans and dark glasses as methods of giving the impression that one is unable to hear or see attempts to engage one in conversation. The article was written before cell phones entered general use, but it seems to me that talking on the phone is a particularly strong way to signal two things: that one is not available to other potential interaction partners, and that one is in a position to summon help if one needs it.
Playing a cell phone game would signal the latter point less strongly, although the simple presence of the phone does of course signal the ability to call 911. Like earphones, however, being visibly engaged in gameplay does present the player as "busy," not someone to be bothered. It is antisocial for a purpose. Similarly, I have a friend whose husband routinely ignores her friends in favor of his PS2, and I don't think that he is just oblivious to us; I think he doesn't like us. At the very least, he doesn't want to talk to us, and he's willing to send strong signals to that effect. It isn't that game use can't be antisocial; it's just that in most cases, people know very well what they're doing. Once again, the game is not the thing. One could as easily pointedly read a magazine or become suddenly engrossed in yardwork.
Ultimately, games are almost always social things. The difference between an old-school board game, which for years now Hasbro has been encouraging us to use to spend more time with our families (surely the opposite of antisociability!), and Yahoo! Games Literati seems superficial to me at best. And when games are not social, they are not mindlessly so. People use them to suit their own personal purposes, just like any other technology. The "serious"/antisocial/social/"casual" game taxonomy, I think we will find, may similarly have much more to do with the players, and what they are working to accomplish through their play, than anything inherent in the games themselves. That doesn't make it terribly useful as a taxonomy per se, and that's why we need to consider talking about games in different, non-binary ways.
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