Friday, March 29, 2013

Feminine Aesthetic in Game Design

I've been thinking about how gender influences design and narrative style in videogames.

In my graduate seminar on Western-American literature, we discussed the book Borderlands: La Frontera. The book is written by a woman who sees herself on the border in the ways she defines herself: in her ethnicity, her sexuality, and her culture. We talked about how a writing style can be masculine or feminine (of course using very stereotyped definitions of masculine/feminine). Academic writing is, according to this theory, very masculine: it's highly linear, hierarchical, orderly, and institutionalized (in its publication, who can write it, etc.). Feminine writing is more circuitous, expressive, and personal. Maybe feminine isn't a great word for it; maybe it should be called experimental or expressionist. But I wonder if gender plays into it.

If you've read Anthropy's Rise of Videogame Zinesters (I reviewed it), it's a good example of a "feminine" non-fiction narrative style. It includes personal experiences, videogame history from a non-AAA point-of-view, how-tos and inspiration for making your own games.

Recently I've been playing Magical Diary. It's a scheduling-type game where your decisions and stats determine how you pass your exams and who your romantic interest is. You need to play through the game more than once to see all the possible options; for this reason I'll label it "circuitous." This is different from a New Game + where your character is stronger or the bosses are harder on a 2nd playthrough. There are a few conversations where you get to decide what to say, so I'd say it's also kind of expressive.

Recently, many personal games have been coming out of the Twine scene, many written by women (not that a man couldn't write in a feminine style, just that he often chooses not to). They're experimental, personal, and/or branching. So I think if I were to apply this idea of feminine aesthetics to game design, it would look like this (and I don't think any one game is completely feminine or non-feminine; just some ideas):

  • circuitous, non-linear, cyclic
  • expressive: the emotions of the player or player character are central to the game's "message"
  • personal: since many games by women are made by small teams or individuals, they can put others in their shoes in an eye-opening way. Think dys4ia or Mainichi or Actual Sunlight.
Aspects of masculine design could be the inverse... but they don't have to be. For instance, Oblivion is a very non-linear game, but its hierarchical quest and level structure are very masculine aspects of the design. So masculine design aspects would be:
  • linearity or being "on rails" 
  • empowering: the game makes players feel powerful or special
  • hierarchical: tied to empowering; a linear structure enables a game to scaffold the player's learning (like in Portal), or familiarity with an arbitrary combat system (leveling, quests, etc.). 
This ties into videogame publishing and feminist aesthetics. This article, in describing the background of feminist aesthetics, describes the fear as "the systems of representation that are available in Western culture are so irredeemably male that a woman can only be heard if she adopts a male perspective, if she speaks as a man." Since self-publishing is easier, women's voices are out there, but are they being listened to?

Otome dating sims, where you're a girl looking for romance, are kind of hard to find. There are a few good publishers and they're small. There are a lot of visual novels out there too, and it's kind of hard to find excellently written ones. Is it because the feminine aesthetics that brought them into being are fundamentally opposed to an orderly distribution service like Steam? Or is it because Steam (or other large downloadable publishers) only listens to women's voices when the speak "as a man"? 

There are other games that include many feminine aspects but are still masculine in their design. Take Portal. You're making paths instead of killing people; your character is a mistress of the void, yet you are carefully led through a linear series of puzzles. I think Tomb Raider especially suffers from this conflict between masculine and feminine design aesthetics, but I haven't played it so I don't feel like I can write much more about it. 

I'm trying out ideas here; is it silly to designate some design aspects as "masculine" or "feminine"? Or do you think it's a distinction worth thinking about?

I consulted this feminist aesthetics article when writing this.