A new marital problem is arising in young, married couples that previous generations are not equipped to deal with. It’s a problem I’ve heard from many wives in their 20’s, and it goes something like this:
“My husband comes home from work and immediately starts playing videogames. He’ll play for hours with his friends. I want us to talk and spend time together, but he won’t. I’ve tried to talk to him about it and he says that he needs some time to ‘relax’. He’s asked me to play with him, but I don’t have the patience for it. I don’t understand why the games are so much more fun than me!”
Now, some people have legitimate video game addictions, but that’s not what I’m going to discuss. Instead, I want to explore the gendered nature of video games, and how it’s contributing to this issue.
Growing up, my sister and I did not own a gaming console. Instead, we played games on our family’s home computer. Our favorites included Roller Coaster Tycoon, Barbie Pet Rescue, Nancy Drew Adventures, and Harry Potter. Then we discovered the world of online flash games, and began to play games such as Fancy Pants, Bubble Trouble, and Chaos Faction. We loved to sit in the same chair, both of us sharing the same keyboard, and play together!
Sometimes I would visit the homes of male friends and watch them play console games like Halo and Call of Duty. I didn’t know how to hold a game controller or how to play a first person shooter, so I mostly sat off to the side and watched. For some reason, I didn’t think that those games were for me.
In high school, my boyfriend skipped out on a date we had planned so he could buy the new Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim. Instead of being mad, I took the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach: I asked him to teach me how to play. I was pretty horrible. I lacked the controller finesse necessary to accurately move my character and aim her attacks. So I asked to take the game (and his Xbox) home with me. I ended up playing all night, slowly improving.
When I got to college, I started to play more and more console-based games. I found out I loved them, but only when I was playing all by myself. I knew that compared to others, I was pretty horrible, and I was afraid that if others saw me playing so badly they would call me a “fake gamer”. That is, until I walked in on some of my male friends playing a computer-based game called Portal. They were stuck on a complicated level, and each of them were taking turns trying to beat it. “Can I try?” I asked from the back of the room. They turned and looked at me and nodded, a little puzzled. I sat down in the chair and held the mouse in one hand and the keyboard in the other. I felt just like I was back on my family’s computer, side-by-side with my sister. I beat the level on the first try.
I realized then that I’m not bad at gaming. I am an amazing gamer. Today, my husband and I play all sorts of video games together. Our favorite right now is Borderlands 2. But I’m an exception. Many women continue to feel like video games are “just not for them”.
It may come as a surprise, but the earliest video games were unisex. In the 1970’s, games like Pong were marketed to the entire family and were widely popular among adult women. In addition, both men and women were involved in the development of new video games. However, in 1983 there was a “video game crash” due to an oversaturation of the video game market and the rising popularity of home computers. Adults were no longer buying video games.
When Nintendo sought to release a new video game entertainment system in 1985, they decided to market to children instead. However, in the U.S., toys for children were separated based on gender. Nintendo had to pick which market to sell to, and they picked boys. Marketing began, with commercials showing mainly adolescent boys playing the Nintendo system (examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYVxHEs2T58). Other game companies soon followed their lead, marketing mainly to boys.
This decision was based solely on turning a profit. Marketing to a specific group was easier than marketing to a larger demographic. In addition, there was the opportunity to make twice as much money. Before, a family would buy one gaming console. However, if a company sold one type of game for boys and another type for girls, then they could get families to buy two types of gaming consoles!
In fact, this is largely what we see today. If anyone says that girls “just don’t like gaming”, they haven’t been studying statistics. In reality, more adult women play video games than teenage boys. They just happen to play them on a separate device: their phones.
Since 1985, little boys have grown up playing one kind of video game. Little girls grew up playing different kinds of games, and were told by marketing companies that many video games just weren’t for them. Now, these two demographics of people are trying to come together in a marriage, and the consequences of gendered marketing are causing unhappiness.
I used to be angry about the genderization of video games simply because it left me as an outsider. Now I see that gendered marketing has much wider-reaching consequences. It has contributed to a generation of men and women who spend their leisure time doing different things. This is not a case of men and women simply having different interests. The marital fight over video games has been formed over decades by corporate greed and cultural gender stereotypes.