A Feminist Reading of Game Design Books

I have a bunch of books in my library that deal primarily with game development or game design in some form. An overwhelming amount of them are written by men. Most of them seem to also be written for men. Even books that are intended to be thought provoking are only thought provoking to the point of a Western, white cis-man’s viewpoint.

Most of the time, the books also contain some form of misogyny or sexism. Preconceived notions about what women play, what women like, what women are like. Sometimes it’s obvious, like in Jesse Schell’s first edition of The Art of Game Design which I will have reason to return to. Other times it’s more subtle, such as in Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games, where women either don’t seem to exist, or exist only when their games are not what Bogost require them to be to live up to his idea of procedural rhetoric.

In most books, though, the white, Western, cis-male perspective seems to be the unspoken default. The player is a he. The world we live in is centered on a Western worldview. Capitalism is key. Anything outside those narrow constraints is considered an anomaly.

The tools used to analyse games are based on the work of other men. This is not that. This blog post is a feminist reading of Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games and hopefully it is the first such reading out of several that I will do. Bogost’s book just has the unfortunate distinction of being the first.

There is no She, only He

The player is consistently a he. The game developer is consistently a he. She or they only seem to appear when we’re talking quotes or criticism or children. Even children are mostly they or he. In this book, the language is totally skewed towards men. Men and boys seem to be the only people who play or make games, and if they’re not, the women involved are used as bad examples of game creators or as representations of crap culture. If you don’t think that this has an impact, think again.

Women make sub-par games

One thing that hit me fairly early in my reading of the book was this. Ian Bogost keeps returning to women as examples of people making sub-par games. It’s not super obvious in the text, but almost every time a woman’s name is mentioned in connection to a game, it is usually to comment that the game is not living up to Bogost’s idea of procedural rhetoric.

Procedural rhetoric according to Bogost (as I understand it and as Bogost summarises it) is the following:

Procedural rhetoric is a type of procedural literacy that advances and challenges the logics that underlie behavior, and how such logics work. Procedural literacy entails the ability to read and write procedural rhetorics – to craft and understand arguments mounted through unit operations represented in code. The type of “reading” and “writing” that form procedural rhetorics ask the following questions:
What are the rules of the system?
What is the significance of these rules (over other rules)?
What claims about the world do these rules make?
How do I respond to those claims?
– Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games, MIT Press, 2007

The one time a game is used as a positive example, The Landlord’s Game, the creator is not listed. She was a woman named Elizabeth Magie.

There are several examples of interesting conversations, such as the use of empathy in games to change minds, which seems to be okay when Bogost is discussing games such as Waco Resurrection and 9-11 Survivor, but not for a game like Darfur is Dying. Strangely enough, Darfur is Dying is the only game with a female lead. Additional criticism around Darfur is Dying concerns the complex situation that led to the refugee crisis in Darfur, the lack of insight into the circumstances that led to the situation. Agency is also a problematic subject according to Bogost, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue for the other games. Perhaps because they are set in the US, and because there’s a cultural context Bogost is leaning on – everybody already knows why Waco happened. Everybody already knows why 9-11 happened. There’s no need to go deeper. I’m not sure if this is the case, obviously, because I’m not always sure what differentiates the failed rhetoric from the successful one.

Leaving Darfur is Dying and looking at the rhetoric that Bogost uses to explain his standpoint, there are a couple of things that I find interesting. Bogost often makes statements in the book about how something is without having references or data to support the specific statement. He’s asserting that this is a way a person thought, but there’s nothing to lean on to confirm it.

In addition, the few occasions when Bogost speaks of cultural phenomena that are female coded, he is unfailingly critical of them. Again, it’s nothing obvious but there’s an undercurrent of dismissal at best, and contempt at worst. While I don’t particularly sympathise with J.K. Rowling at this point in time, Bogost goes a long way to criticise the Harry Potter books without any real reason to do so. They are, after all, not games. He is despite that saying how very flat the world is, and how black and white it is. He uses Spider-Man as a counter example, a hero created by men.

The interesting thing here is of course that the criticism he launches at Harry Potter may just as well have been about Star Wars, another very flat, black/ white story.

The reason Bogost brings up Harry Potter at all is because of a tie in game that deals with Quiddich, the made up sport played on broomsticks. His critique is that Quiddich is unplayable and that the rules as stated in the books are illogical. That’s very possible, in that I doubt that Rowling is a game designer. But it seems very important to dedicate a few pages to the failings of Harry Potter, despite that not really clarifying anything about procedural rhetorics. The only thing it clarifies is that Bogost doesn’t like Harry Potter.

Bogost uses a different approach and different language when discussing games he does not approve of if the creator is a man or men compared to if there’s a woman involved. When men are involved, the language is often neutral or compassionate. When women are involved, the language is dismissive. It’s a subtle change, but it’s there. Some games get the neutral treatment when discussing the drawbacks of their lack of procedural rhetoric. Some, like Darfur is Dying or Harry Potter get a mildly or obviously dismissive treatment. Guess which are associated with women?

Games about serving noodles get more compassion than games made by women. I find that to be significant, especially considering the subtlety with which it is done. I doubt Bogost himself is aware of it.

I find myself arguing with the book, doing what I sometimes do when I disagree with a movie or a TV-show. There are plenty of notes in the margins, most of them are exclamations such as “based on what data?!” and “yes, men are obviously so much better at game design! ugh!”

Having a Penis is a Universal Experience

There’s a passage in Persuasive Games where Bogost analyses The Toilet Training Game, made by Graphico in 2003. I think this is the passage in the book that really reinforces that Bogost isn’t writing from a wide point of view. He’s writing from a narrow definition of what being human is. A human has a penis, and can thus pee standing up.

The Toilet Training Game puts the player takes the role [sic] of a tipsy clubber who needs to relieve himself.
– Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games, MIT Press, 2007

I understand how this may seem somewhat blown out of proportion. What you have gotten in this blog post are vague statements about compassion for male game developers and critique of female game developers. It’s just a book, after all, written in 2007. But imagine instead that it was a game about tampons and tampon insertion. Would you agree that that is a universal experience?

Concentrating Tapper’s simulation of drunkenness, The Toilet Training Game focuses on one, unique experience, that of relieving oneself. J20’s salient product feature – relieving drunkenness – is tied to an activity apparently unrelated to dancing, socializing, or beguiling members of the opposite sex. But no matter the late-night activity, relieving oneself remains common to them all. Furthermore, the force of biology often draws clubbers and partygoers away from the noise and ruckus of the dance floor or the bar. It is only there, in the quiet of the loo, that a full recognition of the depths of one’s inebriation sets in.
– Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games, MIT Press, 2007

What about a game about hair texture, specifically curly hair? What then? But we don’t see those things as representative of the entirety of humanity. So why should peeing standing up be?

I’m not necessarily criticising only Ian Bogost’s book here. I’m concerned about a wider implication in the way we teach, think, write and learn about videogames.

The world we live in is not and should not be restricted to solely cis-men. We should not view Western, white, cis-men as the default, but yet we do, and we do it easily enough that the prerequisite for peeing standing up a.k.a. a penis, is glossed over. It’s just there. It’s the way it is, the way it’s supposed to be.

It is not. We should consider games, not just from the perspectives of people in power or people with penis. We should look at games using tools that are not solely derivative of a world view that places Black, Asian, Latino, indigenous, mixed race, non-binary, trans and women as secondary human beings, worthy only of “special interest” games.

Peeing standing up might be a weird thing to react to, but in all honesty, it makes it so incredibly obvious that the person writing didn’t even reflect on alternatives. Having the ability to stand up while peeing is a universal experience for them, to the degree that it becomes something they don’t even reflect on. Any other experience can be ignored.