On Girlish Counter-Playing Tactics (a response)

Today I stumbled into a “game studies” article that I found at best problematic. I should note that I use “game studies” here in as broad a way as possible, and by problematic I don’t mean that “it makes discussions of certain issues in the discipline more difficult”. What I found problematic is that this article, “Girlish Counter-Playing Tactics” by Rika Nakamura and Hanna Wirman (http://www.gamestudies.org/0501/nakamura_wirman/), sets back perceptions of female gamers by at least 10 years by using a fundamentally flawed study backed by unreasonable and unproven assumptions of female gamers.

But before we go into the authors’ ridiculous assumptions, let me address her flawed methodology. In this so-called “study”, the authors “analyze” three games – Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (2001), Warcraft III: The Reign of Chaos (2002), and The Sims (1998) – through what they define as a “feminist” counter-play perspective. Their study consisted of focusing on certain play assumptions (to be tackled later) while they “played the games through couple of times and used many tactics during this.” In order to determine whether these games were suitable for a female audience, the researchers themselves played through the game instead of having a test group and a control group. Granted, the authors’ approach is not uncommon in literary studies. However, when commenting on the classification of a text – presumably what the authors were attempting to do – researchers should use something more concrete than assumptions that don’t hold any water. Most interestingly, when performing a literary analysis, one must read the text carefully. The authors of the study, however, state that “because playing through the example games takes tens of hours, we did not play all the games through with ten tactical approaches.” In other words, their readings were not terribly thorough.

I shared this article with a friend and colleague, and she noted something curious. The actual objective of the study, according to the authors, is as follows: “this paper aims to show that there could be more entertaining and more interesting computer games for girl players than games presented in this article.” My friend pointed out that if a study was going to show that there are other more suitable games, then perhaps the study should focus on discovering whether those “more interesting girl games” are actually “girl games”.  As my friend eloquently put it, “then why aren’t you making a study on THOSE other games?”

My friend also agreed with me in that the authors were trying to make the analyzed titles fit into a mold they clearly didn’t. She stated that when analyzing a game’s appropriateness for a certain audience, what should be focused on is on the player. She said that ” games are static. You can study their attributes, but you cannot influence them into altering themselves.” (Myri)

Now on to the assumptions that the authors used to write their analyses of these titles.

The author assumes that there are certain “girlish counter-play tactics” that games should implement if they are to be girl friendly. Below are some of the ridiculous the assumptions:

  1. Girls want to play games with girl avatars.
  2. Girls want games with character development.
  3. Girls want games that focus on social relationships.
  4. Girls want games that are non-violent.



  1. Girls want games that focus on cooperation, not on competition.
  2. Girls want games where they can be caring.
  3. Girls want games with realistic (ordinary) settings.
  4. Girls want games where they can progress at a “peaceful pace”.
  5. Girls want games that focus on story.
  6. Girls want games that allow for alternative pathways.

I should notice that some of these assumptions actually address questions of design that most players, not just “girls”, prefer. For example, gamers who enjoy RPGs will prefer games that focus on story and character development rather than mindlessly blowing up stuff. Other assumptions, such as “girls want games where they can be caring”, are outright sexist, as they presuppose the concept of woman as caregiver.

Now, perhaps I am biased. My perception of “gaming” is one that comes from growing up in the 80s, where people simply played games, and even girls who played games saw “girl games” as ridiculous (anyone remember the Barbie titles?) Perhaps it’s because I don’t buy into the concept that Call of Duty 7and Madden XXVIII are for guys while Farmville and CakeMania are for girls, because I have a broader idea of what video games are than “guy games” and “girl games”, an idea that includes everything from Wario Ware and DDR to Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Infamous 2, or because I have never thought of grouping people in convenient groups that allow for discrimination and instead focus on the individual (so instead of thinking “girls like X type of games”, I think “that one girl likes X type of games”), but I don’t see how one study carried out by two individuals on themselves can be generalized to a broader group.

At any rate, that’s just my two very informal cents on this issue. It really might be that, as this article suggests, girls just want to play social nonviolent games with stories (Farmville and Cakemania, perhaps?), but I’m fairly certain that this kind of blanket statement, whether it is as a feminist (or anti feminist) statement or something about any group of people, is ridiculous.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on October 14, 2012, in Video Game Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Dear Dr Quijano,

    I am delighted to see how much effort you have put into analysing our paper from years back, from the time when we were still master’s students. I found your blog by accident just a couple of minutes ago. 🙂

    Accepting the self-correcting nature of science and academic research, I can assure you we have learned our lessons and you might for example find my PhD dissertation much more elaborate and exhaustive where it discusses female players. (http://www.hannawirman.net/)

    I do, however, see some strengths in our early text. As we say, we did not go on claiming who woman players are. Given the scope of our project, we approached three highly popular games at the time in order to demonstrate how they respond to those _assumed_ preferences women have as players. We did not say we agree with those assumptions, but the method was to through literature analysis recognise these preferences and then analyse existing games based on them. Indeed, no textual analysis on games can be entire exhaustive given their scale and the available tasks/goals/narratives etc. However, we did study the three example games thoroughly and the method of playing games yourself is a common method in something we might call cultural studies of games.

    I also wish to remind you of what game cultures were still at the time of writing our article in 2003-2004. It was a very different world that what we see in games today. Let alone those texts we referred to, from around 1999. And actually, things haven’t changed that much. I just gave a lecture this morning about women in games and had a slide with 20 game protagonists from last year. All from the best-selling games. I guess it does not come as a surprise to you that all of them were male. 😛

    Would be really nice to discuss gender and games with you. Please drop me an email.

    Best regards,

    • Thank you for leaving a message, it’s always nice to hear from a fellow scholar. I would hardly call this an analysis made with effort as much as a rant written with a bit of input from friends (the same ones I referenced in the post). I must say that I was not aware that you were M.A. students at the time. I wrote this under the assumption that you were, as most Game Studies contributors, at least Ph.D. students. I suppose that puts into perspective your absolutist language on the description and play practices of female gamers – most M.A. students I’ve met, myself included, have ideas that they want to be universal. In my case, I said that if schools put PS2 game systems with Final Fantasy 7 to X in every ESL classroom, students would learn English through play. As it turns out, there are more factors!
      At any rate, my biggest problem with this piece was the language and methodology. I have found that mixing social sciences formats and language (procedure, methodology, sample, etc) with literary approaches, as you did here, hardly works. Doing this leads to confusing language that fails to accurately describe the author’s actual intent.
      On the other hand, there were indeed, as you say, some valid ideas. I think that your piece does shed some light on how female characters were portrayed on the games analyzed, and I do agree with you that game culture as a whole was, and is, male-centered, chauvinistic, and perhaps even misogynistic. To say that all gamers, or all games, are like this, however, is a bit of a stretch. Furthermore, while there were several Bayonetta (who honestly seems to me more like a strong, self-reliant female who is comfortable with her sexuality than some floozy eye-candy, but let’s go with the whole “men’s fantasy” thing for argument’s sake) and Princess Peach types, there are also several Commander Shepards, women from Portal, Zelda/Shikis, Jades, and whatever you want to make in Skyrim (granted, not as many). Furthermore, if you look at male characters, they are just as one-dimensional and exploitative – they all are, perhaps even more so than women, the aesthetically perfect stereotype they are meant to portray, with no discernible feature beyond “being awesome”.
      And, of course, one can always argue that the female Shepard / Skyrim hero is just a reskin of the male version and they are, therefore, not really women, but I think it would be more accurate to say that whether you cast male or female into Shepard or Dragonborn, gender is actually irrelevant, as both of them are just skins for “soldier” and “epic quester”.
      Anyway, I will be sure to read your dissertation and some of your scholarship over the winter break and I’ll be sure to contact you by e-mail. It’s always fun to converse with others who share similar passions.

      – J

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