Tired of rules: Video game design, women, and the language of formalism

Last week, I was on a SXSW panel with the always-lovely Davey Wreden (Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide), George Royer (God of Blades, Monstrocards), and Shawn Sprockett. In our panel, titled “Design Perspectives on Meaningful Choice,” we discussed whether game designers can actually design meaningfulness into games through mechanics and opportunities for players to make choices. The discussion veered into the topic of video game formalism, and I hinted at a little personal skepticism on the topic. I thought I’d take the opportunity to expand on those thoughts in a more appropriate forum… the internet!

The belief that video game mechanics, structures, and logical reasoning are the core of or most essential part of a video game has often bothered me, and until recently, I didn’t know why. After all, I’m a big fan of logic puzzles and problem solving.

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, eternal as the foundations of the continent itself […] 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 kinds of connections between gender and “logical reasoning” in game design texts as well. For example, Jesse Schell’s popular game design textbook The Art of Game Design claims that video games “at their core are an inherently more male than female activity” due to the author’s belief that the core of gaming is “mastering abstract formal systems.” 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.” Not only does Schell suggest that women are not smart enough to learn how to play a video game, he offloads responsibility for the gender divide in gaming to computing technology. Schell’s discussion of gender appears under the sub-heading “The Medium is the Misogynist?,” again framing the discussion in terms of the idea that the medium, the computer, the technology, is sexist rather than the people who build and interpret it.

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. But its veracity is almost irrelevant from my perspective.

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 me.

I don’t believe that video game formalists are sexist or don’t want women to participate in game development or culture. What I do believe is that there is a long history of using the centrality of logic and reason and abstract thinking as justification for the suggestion that women “naturally” do not belong in a certain space. In the case of video games, these connections can unfairly offload responsibility from the people who make and think about games and on to things like “brain differences,” “the core of gaming,” and “computer technology.” 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.

by Rachel Weil on Saturday, Mar 21, 2015