Spore, “girl games,” “boy games,” and getting it right.

The video game Spore arrived at my house a few days ago, and today I finally got my brothers to let me have a few hours to play it myself. I’m mid-way through the creature stage, and I absolutely love it.

It’s the ultimate gender-neutral game, in terms of character creation– your character is always female by default (no, really– you’re always the one laying eggs) but that fact is completely unobtrusive, and only relevant in certain 10-second cutscenes. The rest of the time, you look like whatever you want to look like, and if you want to make something humanoid with gendered characteristics, you can…but it’s more fun to make a furry bird-scorpion (with its hand at the end of its tail).

It’s also gameplay-style-neutral.

Now, I just made that word up, so let’s explain what I’m talking about. You know how supposedly, boys like making war and killing everyone, but girls want to build communities and make friends with everyone? Games get sorted into categories based on the “style” of play– whether there’s fighting involved or not, giving us “girl games” and “boy games.”

Now, I am solidly entrenched in my love of “girl games.” I refuse to kill things in any game, because honestly, I think fighting is about the most boring thing someone can do in a video game. It’s almost as pointless as sports. Even Mario and Zelda have too much fighting for me, most of the time. So I either play “boy games” with the assistance of my brothers, who handle the fighting, or I play “girl games” under my own power. I love my DS, because it has so many options for “girl games”– I’m absolutely in love with Animal Crossing, all the gameboy Sims options, Brain Age, Harvest Moon…

Did you notice anything about that list? Those are all gender-neutral games, except for Harvest Moon, where you play as a guy. And yet, they’re “girl games,” because anything that has non-aggressive gameplay carries the stigma of being “popular with women” and somehow “not a serious game.” Both those statements are rubbish.

First, the idea that only non-aggressive games (“girl games”) are popular with women. I personally know a ton of women who think I’m crazy for preferring non-aggressive games– they bought Halo as soon as it came out, and played Team Fortress 2 for weeks. Plenty of “boy games” are popular with women; everyone just pretends those women are invisible. Not to mention the fact that plenty of “girl games” are popular with men.

But the thing is, we don’t sort games into “girl games” and “boy games” based on the demographics of the populations that buy them. What we do is, we assume that all games are for boys, unless the game is non-aggressive, in which case it’s for sissies, and therefore a “girl game.” It’s based on our cultural stereotyping about the genders, rather than facts. And because of the way that “feminine” is conflated with “not serious,” non-aggressive games are, by dint of their association with the feminine, not “serious” games, despite the fact that they are almost by definition more original (because it’s easy to come up with an excuse to get your main character killing stuff, but it’s a lot harder to come up with a completely different kind of activity to do.) It also means that despite the fact that I love my DS more than anything, and spent 40 hours playing the last game to catch my fancy, I often question whether or not I should consider myself a “gamer” at all. After all, I don’t play any of the “real” games.

The devaluing of one gameplay-style over another drives me absolutely batty, but in a stroke of brilliance, Spore has completely subverted the whole idea of categorization. It lets you choose which way you want to go. As a cell, I was herbivorous, and as a creature I’m social (because that suits my gameplay-style), but one of my brothers was carnivorous, then a predator; the other was omnivorous, then adaptable. They can fight all they want, but I don’t even need to defend myself most of the time– I just run or sneak away.

These classifications persist throughout the game as you keep evolving, and they’re decided based on what kinds of things you do. I’ll almost certainly continue in my making-friends-with-everything ways, because I find that to be the most fun, but the game will also tailor itself well for people who prefer fighting, or like a mix of both. You get different abilities and bonuses as you go along each path, making it easier for you to do things your preferred way. And, of course, there’s nothing gendered about it– it’s all based on preferred play styles.

This is something that I don’t think any game has ever managed to do, before, and I’m absolutely thrilled. A gameplay-style-neutral game– I didn’t even think it was possible.

Now if only I could talk my brothers into letting my have another turn.

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9 Responses to Spore, “girl games,” “boy games,” and getting it right.

  1. Danny says:

    You say you like games that aren’t real eh? In the last few years I’ve been getting into “unreal” games myself. Have I bored with the old formulas? Maybe. Have I grown to appreciate different things in the games I play? Perhaps. One thing I have noticed in recently in the video game scene is there seems to be tension growing between the hardcore gamers and the casual gamers.

    Game companies have begun to notice that there is money to be made with casual gamers (fact of the matter is there are more casual gamers and hardcore gamers) and the hardcore gamers don’t like it.

    BTW if you’re a DS fan you may want to give Hotel Dusk:Room 215 a try. Its an interactive detective story that uses the stylus almost exclusively.

  2. eloriane says:

    Yeah, I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m one of those “casual” gamers that no one’s totally figured out how to reach yet.

    I’ll definitely take a look at Hotel Dusk– I’ve heard of it before, and it sounds a lot like Trace Memory, which is possibly one of my favourite DS games ever. Funds are super-tight right now, but if I do pick it up, I’ll be sure to critique it here.

  3. Alexbutt says:

    Hey, you know, most of the time I read your stuff and I’m caught between vaguely agreeing, and wanting you to relax and have a drink or something; but I think I’m going to “amen” the whole post on this one. Now, if you please, I will ramble for a bit.

    I haven’t actually played Spore (despite having invested in a new computer half a year ago just to have a system that could handle the game), but given what I know about the gameplay, I can imagine it does a good job of being gameplay-style neutral. Good. Let me tell you about my gameplay style.

    Zeus is a civilization building game. I like to build the most efficient (and pretty!) city possible, make sure all the citizens are happy, make allies out of all the other cities, and be left alone for the first half of the game until I am good and ready to attack the bajeezus out of all of my allies and take over the whole freaking world.

    Heroes of Might and Magic is turn-based strategy involving world exploration and gathering of resources. I like to stay out of the way of the enemy heroes while I have fun building a kingdom, an army, strong heroes, and gathering artifacts — but then I lose interest and really like chasing down all the enemies until I destroy their last pitiful castle and take over their land.

    You know what Pokemon Gold is about. I like to explore the terrain, talk to every single NPC I find, poke into nooks and crannies for really no specific purpose, while battling Pokemon just because they insist on popping out of the grass. Eventually, though, I take great joy in massacring the Pokemon of every fool gym leader/Team Rocket cronie, for as similarly little purpose.

    So what’s my gameplay? Do I have to check the “other” box?

    Here’s my point: I’m always bullying games into accomodating my playing style, and this has allowed me to see that lots of games are gameplay-neutral, but it’s up to the player to mold the game’s mechanics into a style that’s the most fun for them. Yeah, some games are much more flexible about this than others, and I’m guessing Spore is (so far) the epitome of that, but whatever. I don’t need every videogame to spoonfeed me my preferred game mechanic.

  4. Alexbutt says:

    And another thing: you are way spot on about “girl games” being somehow less “real gaming.” I’ve actually been kind of astonished to discover this feeling even within myself! If I’m talking about preferred games, I mention Animal Crossing with a self-mocking eyeroll/shrug combo, in recognition of the fact that it is not “serious.” Why?

    Well, there are gamers like a certain Brother of ours who scoffs at the Sims and turns back to mastering yet another street-fighting game, certain of the superiority of his kind. But this is a symptom of the larger problem — the problem of any kind of gamer feeling superior to fellow gamers for reasons other than victory in a well-defined competition setting. Why don’t other people see that more gamers (be they casual) is better than less gamers (however hardcore)?

    No, I do not think of myself as a “serious” gamer. But in defiance of the elitists, it is not because I like Animal Crossing, or play the Sims, or, yes, occasionally feed my Nintendog. I will accept my “casual gamer” status only because I probably can’t kick your ass in Team Fortress 2, tend to die constantly in Secret of Mana, and still do not have the reflexes to master the original Doom. These are good reasons; preferred gameplay style is not one of them.

  5. eloriane says:

    I think that people exist on a spectrum of aggression in games (kind of like there’s a spectrum of sexuality), but just like I’m 100% gay, I’m 100% non-aggressive. As soon as the game makes me feel like an invader, it’s not fun anymore. This isn’t a value judgment, it’s an observation about my own preferences: I just don’t enjoy being a conqueror.

    From the sounds of things, you’re pretty far over on the aggressive side. And if eventually killing everyone is required to win the game, then the game itself is also pretty far over on the aggressive side. Neutral to me means you can do it whichever way you want, and it’ll never impose either style of gameplay on you.

    My trouble is, I don’t want to go attack anyone, ever. I JUST want to build my cities and design pretty buildings and make everyone happy. If, at any point, the game is going to make me go shoot at people, it’s not fun anymore. So unless Zeus will let me just hang out with my allies forever, and let us have awesome parties, and doesn’t ever require me to fight anyone (which I doubt) it’s not a gameplay-neutral game. It’s an aggressive game, with varying levels of aggression.

    Non-aggressive games do this too, like the Sims; you can murder your sims as much or as little as you want, but in order to succeed, but since the game absolutely requires a certain level of non-aggression, it’s still not gameplay-neutral.

    Even Spore, actually, is not all that gameplay-neutral… now that I’ve made it to the civilization stage, I have to go out and attack people. Sure, I’m shooting “religion” at them instead of bullets, and they all dance and throw flowers when I win, but the fact remains that I’m rolling out tanks and shooting the bejeezus out of them, and I hate that. I don’t want to forcibly convert them; I don’t want to use force at all. I enjoyed playing music and giving them fruit and having them decide they liked me. I don’t like the army-management aspects at all and actually, having never played a real-time strategy game before, I can no longer play by myself any more. I need my brother to explain the basic game mechanics. In other words, I’ve stopped playing Spore, and I’ll probably write a post soon about how disappointed I am.

  6. Alexbutt says:

    P.S. What about Phoenix Wright? Respected amongst all, is it not?

    P.P.S. I’ve played Hotel Dusk! For all of three minutes on somebody else’s DS, until I managed to fail spectacularly on the very first challenge in what I was assured was a hitherto undiscovered speed of losing the game.

    P.P.S. You could try playing Medic in TF2! Yes, okay, people will still try to kill you (probably extra hard, actually) but you’ll definitely be best friends with all your teammates! :D?

  7. Alexbutt says:

    Yeah, you can stay in happy ally land in Zeus forever. You can have a Heroes game with no enemies heroes. But even for the games where you EVENTUALLY have to attack someone, the idea is: don’t go there!

    Play until you have to attack someone, then stop, go back to the beginning and play the fun part again. In the same way, if all you want to do is murder Sims — go ahead! No, you won’t be the richest of the most successful by the game’s standards, but piss on the game’s standards — it’s still a successful game because you’re having fun.

    I think it’s pretty unfair for you to write Spore off as a disappointment when you really enjoyed the first few parts of the game. There’s nothing stopping you from going back and playing the fun part over and over again until you’re sick. For you, the game simply ended at the point where it stopped being fun, and that’s fine.

    Instead of blaming the creators for not customizing the game to your very particular preferred playing style, you should take the very flexible set of options they have offered you and pick what you like; just like the people who enjoy the aggressive part of the game will choose to speedplay through what is boring for them, and really enjoy the part that is not fun for you.

  8. eloriane says:

    I didn’t say the game was a disappointment, I said I was disappointed. It was going so well, I was really excited about the later stages. And I really, really enjoyed designing all the buildings and vehicles for my city! I might play the early stages again (or I might do one of a bazillion other things that are fighting for my time) but I think I’m allowed to be disappointed that the game is only 3/5 as fun as I thought it was. It’s still a great game, just not a great game for me.

    And I think I need to reiterate that I’m not making value judgments. It’s not that I hate games with fighting in them– I just don’t care about them. They bore me. So I don’t play them. End of story. Instead, I seek out games that DO cater to how I like to play, and I play those a lot.

    And I’m aware that I’m a minority in the gaming world (though probably because other people who are like me don’t want to go through all this rubbish to get the games they want and just read books instead). But it’s still true about me, and my experiences are still valid.

    Honestly, there are a lot of games that I find fun to play. I love sandbox games like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, and I love storyline games like Phoenix Wright and the Sims (for Gameboy), but ultimately, games are competing with books and movies for my time, and so they have to give me characters to care about. Either I need to have a highly-customizable avatar whose awesomeness I can build up, or I need to have an engaging storyline, complete with satisfying ending. I can’t get either of those things by just playing the first parts of real-time strategy games, and I can’t get them from FPS games, and so I just don’t play those games. Why would I spend money on a game if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted? Games are expensive! I’m perfectly happy just saving my money for something I will enjoy all of, and leaving the other games alone.

    Seriously, I only wrote about Spore because it looked like it was giving me what I want in a game, and I was impressed that it did so while still accommodating gamers who want other things. I’ll probably write about it again to say that I’m still impressed with the range of gameplay it offers, but I’m going to have to stick to the games that were made specifically for people like me.

    And for the record, Team Fortress 2 is in no way a game made for me. So I’m not going to buy it. It’s that simple.

  9. Alexbutt says:

    So it’s kinda tough to tell when someone’s being shirty online, but let’s neither of us be that way, okay? I guess I didn’t see that line between you stating personal preferences and making overarching judgements, which is my bad, but my point is more that I think everyone should give everything a chance (barring some obvious exceptions). So, in a shocking and not at all serious turn of events, all I’m saying is give violence a chance. 😛

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