Videogaming is the most popular form of media entertainment worldwide. Sales of games regularly outstrip launches of new films at the box office and vast swathes of users engage with games daily. We often typify these players as spotty male teenagers angrily playing Call of Duty . However, the reality of gaming is more complex. From the commuter playing Candy Crush to the preschooler learning about shapes in Peppa Pig: Paintbox , “gamers” are not that easily categorised.
Shira Chess’ Ready Player Two examines a consistently underexplored aspect of gaming – that of the non-male gamer. In doing so, she asks deeper questions about who plays games, and why half of them are seemingly ignored, by the media, by academia and by the games industry itself. If 50 per cent of gamers identify as female – a statistic that has remained consistently stable for 15 years – why do such strong stereotypes of players persist?
By diving deeper into the world of “Player Two”, a player who often actively refuses the title of “gamer”, Chess finds that games made for women are changing the monetary, ideological and rules-based structures of games. In Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood, the player becomes a successful fashionista; in Gardenscapes, she embraces early retirement to restore the decrepit grounds of a Vanderbilt-style mansion. Both of these games have sold in their millions. However, Chess argues that Player Two is as much a fiction as her cis-male counterpart, and that these games present us with idealised, troubled versions of wish-fulfilment similar to those found in the more well-known, louder games. In an interview, designer Sheri Graner Ray argues that “the game industry does not see women as a market. They see women as a genre.”
Chess suggests that one reason for this downplaying might be the trivialising of female-orientated media. Romance and erotic fiction are best-sellers, but continually derided in a way that, say, the most recent Fast and Furious movie is not. She also challenges the assumption that Player Two games do not serve their audience. As an older demographic, their needs have evolved. These games feed their players bite-sized chunks of play instead of long-drawn-out sessions, understand that playing might be a “guilty pleasure”, and present aspirational topics in place of violence. Consequently, the ways that games are constructed and marketed is changing.
In recent years toxic behaviour has been rife in gamer culture, largely caused by the hate movement #gamergate. This group has threatened and harassed prominent female members of a community that was starting to recognise that it was inadvertently stifling diversity. This book addresses this by presenting Player Two as a vital part of our leisure time. Chess demonstrates that we have reached a point where wider questions about game design are needed. This is a vital step forward in the field of games studies, and will resonate strongly in wider critical arguments about gendered play and leisure activities.
Esther MacCallum-Stewart is associate professor of games studies at the University of Staffordshire. Her work examines love, sex and player narratives in and about games.
Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity
By Shira Chess
University of Minnesota Press, 240pp, £89.00 and £21.99
ISBN 9781517900687 and 0694
Published 1 October 2017