Game Design: Gender Roles In Mechanics Part 2

So I recently finished Jesper Juul’s book “Half-Real,” and I felt that it gave me enough insight to revisit my old theories regarding gender roles in mechanics. This goes deeper into games as a medium and what gave rise to gender roles, so think of it as a supplement to my first essay on the topic.

Jesper Juul in his book”Half-Real” describes a new approach to thinking about video games not only as technology, but also as historical artifacts and products of culture. The traditional view of video games presents them as an escapist form of entertainment, but Juul demands a more nuanced view. In “Half-Real,” he breaks down the specific elements of gaming using a historical, technological, and cultural context. This perspective lends new insight into how we engage in games (and entertainment as a whole), and what that engagement says about us as a culture.

The title “Half-Real” refers to the difference between real rules and fictional worlds, and how games are an intricate combination of both. Take, for example, the game of chess. Every piece in chess is governed by a set of rules: pawns move forward, bishops move diagonally, move on top of another piece to capture it, etc. However, every piece in chess is also governed by a fictional persona: pawns are grunt soldiers, bishops have higher ranking, etc. If chess were to be reduced to merely a set of rules with no fictional world attached, every piece would be referred to by an identification code and all aesthetics would be thrown out. On the other hand, if the opposite occurred and chess was only observed in terms of its fiction, it would be a linear story about two warring kingdoms that players have no control over. Juul elaborates more on both the rules and the fiction of games in separate chapters of the book, and it’s necessary to understand both sides independently before attempting to merge them together.

It’s difficult to define what exactly a rule is in terms of game design, so Juul presents multiple different interpretations. Does a card game like poker follow the same kinds of rules as a sport like soccer, or a digital game like Mario? Who decides on the rules, and what medium enforces them? Juul’s argument builds off of one core postulate: rules limit player behavior. In chess, rules are in place to control various behaviors: how players win the game, where players can move their pieces, and even when players are allowed to act. These rules are necessary in order for a game to be played the way it’s meant to be played.

However, this leads into the question of how we define “player behavior”, because there is no rule in chess that prevents players from flipping the board over or punching their opponent in the face. Thus, Juul introduces the concept of “potential actions, actions that are meaningful inside the game but meaningless outside,” referring to the goals that players strive to achieve within a game’s set of rules. Under the previous example, a player who punches their opponent in their face will (usually) experience less satisfaction than a player who successfully places their opponent in checkmate, because checkmate is more meaningful. In this way, rules can be designed in a way that creates structure.

Rules and their accompanying potential actions give rise to strategies, or the methods that players will use to reach their goal. In a simple game like tic-tac-toe, players quickly discover that the dominant strategy is to play first and place their mark in the center of the 3×3 grid, and no other strategy is viable in comparison, so the game becomes boring. On the other hand, a similarly simple game like Pong provides enough room for a variety of strategies, because there is an infinite amount of possibilities: the ball can be anywhere on the screen, and at any given position of the ball each of the two paddles can be anywhere along their respective Y-axes. Is it better to constantly follow the ball’s path, or to stay in the center and only move when necessary? Strategies are an important product of a game’s rules.

Games can combine rules, potential actions, and strategies in a variety of ways: the two primary ways that Juul outlines are categorized as “emergent games” and “progressive games.” A game of emergence is one with a wide variety of strategies, whereas a game of progression is one that can only be solved by a very specific set of actions. A word search puzzle would be a game of progression because it has one answer that is reached by a specific strategy (looking at the image until all the words are found), whereas a Sudoku puzzle would be a game of emergence because there are many strategies that can be employed (i.e. trial and error, cross hatching). However, emergence/progression is also a spectrum: certain games like golf employ both emergence and progression (emergence in the decision before making a swing, and progression in the linear advancement through a course). We can use the terms of rules, potential actions, strategies, and emergent/progressive gameplay to sufficiently understand the real/technology side of games, and use that understanding as a precursor to analyze the fictional/cultural side.

Juul refers to “game fiction” as the world that players imagine as they engage in a set of rules. There are many ways that a game can do this: for example, in chess every piece has a name, a carved model, and a two-dimensional icon. This way, people can envision chess as a medieval war led by kings and queens, rather than just an abstract set of rules. A game’s fictional world can be understood in terms of abstraction: whereas chess may represent kings and queens with three-dimensional sculptures, a card game like poker represents kings and queens only with two-dimensional images printed on cards, and a game like checkers takes abstraction even further by foregoing representation completely and instead denoting kings by stacking pieces together.

The theory of the “magic circle” describes the extents and limits of a game’s fictional world. Under the magic circle theory, the real world can be seen as a circular space, and the game world is a smaller circle enclosed within the real world. Juul cites two other game theorists, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, who described the magic circle as such: “As a closed circle, the space it circumscribes is enclosed and separate from the real world… In a very basic sense, the magic circle is where the game takes place”. For example, the bounds of a basketball court are classified as the “magic circle” of basketball (even though a basketball court is not circular), because the game doesn’t exist past the court. Although a game’s core strategies are determined by rules, the game’s magic circle is determined by its fictional world.

It’s important to consider real rules and fictional worlds in conjunction with each other, because the full game experience is a combination of both. Games of progression often employ techniques from traditional narrative writing and advanced graphics rendering to create immersive fictional worlds, whereas players of emergent games often ignore the fictional world to focus instead on their strategies within the set of rules. Sometimes, a game will sacrifice fictional integrity for the sake of rule-based gameplay: in chess, it makes no logical sense that a pawn can turn into a queen, but promotions are an important dynamic in the game. Other times, a game will do the opposite and emphasize the imagined world more than the rule-based one, such as the hot lava game played by children in which they imagine that the floor is lava and must take great pains to avoid coming in contact with it. If a player does not want to participate in the fiction, they do not have to, because nearly all digital games allow players to customize the quality of the graphics that they view, and running a game with low-quality graphics boils away the fictional world while keeping the rules intact. Whereas a game’s rules are decided by the designer, the game’s fictional world is decided by the player, and is thus reliant on the player’s cultural background.

Games have existed since the beginning of humankind, but only recently have games begun to make significant deviances from the norm. The advent of new technologies have begun to blur the line between real rules and fictional worlds. Before computers were invented, analog/physical games had very clearly defined magic circles: whether they were board games or sports, the game had boundaries. When computers were invented, those magic circles were still fairly clearly defined because games could not extend past the screen that they were played on. However, with more recent technologies such as online networking, mobile devices, and touchscreen controls, games have been pushing the boundaries of their magic circles further and further. Real rules and fictional worlds were no longer separate entities, but instead started to blur and merge together.

The fictional worlds of modern games are no longer in control of the player: they are now a product of cultural views as a whole, because those worlds have been expanding and developing with each new technology developed. Gender stereotypes in games are just one of the many cultural views prevalent in modern game design, because those views are reliant on a game’s fictional world. As technology evolves, games and other entertainment mediums have moved away from focusing on the individual fantasy and instead deliver an experience generalized for society as a whole. In terms of identity, that means delivering an experience that follows up on stereotypes and cultural norms.

Chess is a game that existed before the technological explosion, and it is free of gender norms because it places emphasis on the game rules rather than the game world. One might argue that chess is patriarchal: the king is the most important piece, and all the other pieces exist to serve the king. On the other hand, one could just as easily argue that chess is matriarchal: the queen is the most powerful piece on the board, and the king is the weakest. But either way, it is a debate over chess’s fictional world, which is not the core of what chess actually is. Anyone can simply switch the king’s and queen’s names, so that victory is attained when the queen is in checkmate and the king has free movement in eight directions, and the game would still be the same. In fact, novelty chess sets often replace the king and queen with other characters, further illustrating how little significance the gender identities are for the game. In chess, the rules are more important, and gender does not exist in the rules. Other early video games like Spacewar (released 1962) and Pong (released 1972) were similarly gender-neutral, because just like chess they focused more on rules than on fiction.

When graphics technology became advanced enough to start rendering characters on screen, game developers began populating those characters with gender norms. Donkey Kong (released 1981) put players in the role of a typical everyman who must save a helpless woman from a malicious ape. Pac-Man (released 1980) and Ms. Pac-Man (released 1982) were functionally very identical and had similar rules, but for the latter version the fictional world was tweaked to make the protagonist a female. Rampage (released 1986) featured several characters who turned into giant monsters who rampage through cities, some of which were women. At this time, novel-style characterization and personality was not necessary nor possible, so the character’s gender mattered less than the fact that the character had an identifiable gender in the first place.

Later, narrative-based games became popular, and since many such games follow a progression format they needed well-developed fictional worlds more than they needed potential actions and strategies. Final Fantasy 6 (released 1994) presented an epic tale centered around Terra Branford, a girl with magical powers who is caught up in a war against an evil empire. Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (released 1996) guided the characters Nicole Collard and George Stobbart on a Chrichton-ian search for the Knights Templar in modern Paris. The Longest Journey (released 1999) let players direct a girl named April Ryan through a series of puzzles in an interdimensional sci-fi/fantasy setting. These kinds of games were essentially interactive novels, so the characters needed ample development in order to be relateable and likable, and gender is a part of “ample development.” In these cases, that was fine, because these games focused more on their fictional worlds than on rule-based play.

The problem arises when fictional worlds and rule-based play begin to merge together, and designers attempt to create game rules with gendered development in mind. Rules are only rules: they do not carry gender, just like how the piece that moves any amount of spaces in any direction in chess is not necessarily a female. However, recently designers have been trying to make games that incorporate gender into not only fictional worlds, but also rule sets. For example, Dead Island (released 2011) allowed players to hunt zombies as a female feminist cop named Purna, who does more damage to male zombies than female ones. Not only is this bad game design, it also perpetuates gender stereotypes in such a way that players experience those stereotypes firsthand. More and more technologies are being made that blur the line between rules and fiction, and as a result the industry is churning out games that have fiction built into the rules, when it should be the other way around.

A thorough understanding of history, technology, and gender in game design requires Juul’s half-real theory of game analysis. Games are made of both real rules and fictional worlds, and we need to look at each half separately before we can look at the whole. Gender stereotypes in modern video games are a prevalent problem for both the game industry and society’s entertainment system as a whole, and Juul’s book gives us the tools to observe and understand the problem.


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