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Tired of rules: Women and video game formalism

Posted March 21, 2015 by Rachel Weil

Electric Dreams, 1984

Video game formalism is the study of mechanics, structures, and logical reasoning in video game design. The special importance placed on these aspects of a video game has often bothered me. Until recently, I didn't know why. After all, I'm a big fan of puzzles and problem solving in games.

But then it struck me: Historically, when experts talk about reasoning and logic as integral to a certain discipline or field of study, the next breath is so often used to justify why women have been and should continue to be excluded from it.

Consider that in the late 1800s, for example, opponents to women's suffrage argued that women should not be granted the right to vote because they weren't capable of the logical thought that was inherent to democracy and voting in particular.

If the voters of this country could think always coolly, and if they could deliberate, if they could go by judgment and not by passion, our institutions would survive forever […] What we want in this country is to avoid emotional suffrage, and what we need is to put more logic into public affairs and less feeling. There are spheres in which feeling should be paramount. There are kingdoms in which the heart should reign supreme. That kingdom belongs to woman." —Sen. George G. Vest, 1887

And indeed, we can observe similar arguments on gender and logical reasoning in video game design texts as well. For example, Jesse Schell's popular game design textbook The Art of Game Design claims that the core of gaming is "mastering abstract formal systems" and therefore video games "at their core are an inherently more male than female activity." Schell goes on to write:

The introduction of affordable computers gave us a type of game that had all social aspects removed, had most verbal and emotional aspects removed, was largely divorced from the real world, was generally hard to learn, and offered the possibility for unlimited virtual destruction. It is hardly surprising that early computer and videogames were primarily popular with a male audience. As digital technology has evolved to the point that videogames can now support emotional character portrayals, richer stories, and the opportunity to play against real people while talking to them, the female audience for videogames has been commensurately growing."

Here, we see a number of wild claims, including the notion that women were uninterested in early computer games because they were "hard to learn." Interestingly, Schell also offloads responsibility for the gender divide in gaming to computing technology, suggesting that the medium—the computer software itself—is sexist rather than the people who build it. Early computers were only capable of playing games about "unlimited virtual destruction?" I disagree. A computer from 1977 neither knows nor cares whether it renders an 8-bit tulip or an 8-bit bomb. This matter is left to the game designer.

Is it true that men's brains are more capable of abstract reasoning? The evidence for this claim is dubious and continues to be called into question by scientific study. Yet it thrives in discussions of gender and gaming. Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun makes this same argument in the chapter "Different Fun for Different Folks," stating that women's brains are less suited to understanding abstract systems.

Video game design texts like those from Schell and Koster place abstract systems at the core of gaming, then later instruct us that womanly brains are incapable of understanding or enjoying these systems. In so doing, they are able to readily excuse the lack of women in gaming, especially in the early decades, as "mere scientific reality," without exploring other explanations or lived experiences.

Every time I read another scholar describe how important formal systems are to games, and that logic and rules and structure are the most essential components of video games, I'm immediately put on guard because I understand how arguments like these have been wielded against women. There is a long history of using the centrality of logic and reason as justifying why women "naturally" do not belong in a certain space. Perhaps there are other women like myself who see the language of video game formalism and are made weary by it, reminded of how so many of these arguments end.

Note: This article is based on Tired of logic: Video game design, women, and the language of formalism and has been edited for FEMICOM.

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