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.