Tag Archives: Henry Jenkins

All Hail the Genderless Game

I remember my mother telling me a puzzle type dilemma when I was a young girl, as it was the first time I recall stereotyping gender. The puzzle goes something like:

The father was driving his son home and they got into an accident. The father was fine, but the son was sent to E.R. The surgeon replied “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son!”.

How were they related?

I couldn’t figure out the puzzle because I presumed the surgeon was a man, and so must of been his father too. When I was told the surgeon was his mother I was ashamed that I had presumed it was a man, and thus the puzzle stuck in my head ever since to remind me.

Whilst browsing through Henry Jenkins’ Confessions of an Aca/Fan, I came across an entry where he is discussing Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat in an interview with Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, and Jill Denner. One of the questions he asks is regarding whether games should be designed for girls, or if they should be “gender neutral”:

A decade ago, the core question was whether we should design games specifically for girls or so-called “gender neutral” games to be played by boys and girls together. Is this still a burning question? If so, what new perspectives have emerged over the past decade?

CARRIE: That question makes me schizophrenic. In the collection of research citations on gender and gaming that I have been curating, the two most frequent tags are “gender stereotypes” and “what women want.” The gender stereotype research tends to complain about girls and women are portrayed or conceptualized in stereotypical ways that ignore the wide diversity of female-ness. The what-do-women-want research reveals gendered desires and offers suggestions about how to create games to appeal to females.


In her chapter, “Are Boy Games Even Necessary?”, Nicole Lazzaro points out that designing for an extreme demographic reduces market size. An extreme male-typed game or an extreme female-typed game both leave out what players like most in most games. Games have changed enormously in the last decade, transitioning to become a mainstream medium and big business. With such an enlarged playing field, the answer from a business perspective is yes games for girls and games for boys and games for everyone. Gaming is large enough that it is beginning to resemble the magazine market. There can be very narrow market game franchises (paralleling the range of women’s interest magazines from Vogue to Ms.) and more mainstream game franchises (paralleling Time or Newsweek).


My own research with colleagues Brian Magerko and Ben Medler at Georgia Tech and Brian and Jillian Winn at Michigan State University is moving in the direction of considering player type and motivation. We are working to develop and study adaptive games that express different game features depending upon what each individual player enjoys the most. Thus, instead of creating a game for girls, or a game for everyone, we create a game that can transform to become better for each individual player.

: Can a game, or anything else for that matter, ever be ‘gender-neutral’? And who decides? Game design can and should be more inclusive; one doesn’t need to disrupt the narrative to offer more options for customization of characters or levels that are now common place for most games. That said, if we deal with younger players and school contexts, we need to be deliberate on what choices we offer in game designs to facilitate learning for various players.

This led me to think about “gender neutral” games, and how I believe that in order to create a game that is accepted, played and/or appreciated by each gender, then the in-game gender should be neutralized.

Hare-Mustin and Marecek (1990) are two psychologists who introduced the theory of Alpha and Beta bias in an attempt to explain two types of gender bias. Alpha bias is where differences between each gender are exaggerated, for example, there are obvious biological differences between men and women so they should be treated differently. Beta bias is where all differences are ignored, for example, believing that women and men behave in the same way, so should be treated the same way. Each bias has its pros and cons, and I find it difficult to choose which one I believe would work best. Instead, I have brought the two together and come up with: Biological differences in gender should be acknowledged, such as hormones affecting behaviours, whilst social differences can depend on each individual and so no individual should be treated in any way that would favour one gender from the other. Each individual should be treated as a distinct being for their individual social make-up, which includes the acknowledgement that the individual is male or female, black or white, Christian or Muslim etc. However, understanding there will be consistency between multiple beings that has been learned from social norms will be in be in play.

I hope that makes sense, that’s my attempt to transfer an abstract from my mind into words.

When I say ‘Genderless game’ I am referring to a game I will be playing where I don’t mind playing as either gender, for example, in Eternal Sonata you play as multiple characters throughout the game, changing from one to the other when in Battle Mode. However, when walking around the environments you control a boy named Allegretto. In my opinion, this games is genderless because I have no preference to any one character, male or female. Each character has equal but different abilities, and if they are kept the same level, the only difference is the weapon they are equipped with. There has been no point in the game where I felt they favoured one gender over the other, where any gender is made to look inferior or different to another.

Games where I am very aware I’m playing a certain gender usually use gender roles and stereotypes, for example in Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 it’s hard not to miss the high oestrogen levels of the women bouncing (literally) around in bikinis. From their high pitched squeels to the simple activites that seem to amuse these usually brutal fighters, such as rolling around in the sand taking photos of each other.

But is being genderless the answer? If gender is our identity and we eliminate it, then we are left with nothing. Not necessarily, in My Gender Workbook, Kate Bornstein suggests that we think of gender as one aspect of our identity.

Picture 1With the increasing amounts of women entering the games industry there is a higher chance that both these men and women will get together to help break down the issues of gender in games.