"COMPLETE FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT": VIDEO GAMES AS GENDERED PLAY SPACES
by Henry Jenkins
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A Tale of Two Childhoods
Between my house and the school, there was another forest, which, for the full length of my youth, remained undeveloped. A friend and I would survey this land, claiming it for our imaginary kingdoms of Jungleloca and Freedonia. We felt a proprietorship over that space, even though others used it for schoolyard fisticuffs, smoking cigarettes or playing kissing games. When we were there, we rarely encountered adults, though when we did, it usually spelt trouble. We would come home from these secret places, covered with Georgia red mud.
Of course, we spent many afternoons at home, watching old horror movies or action-adventure series reruns, and our mothers would fuss at us to go outside. Often, something we had seen in television would inspire our play, stalking through the woods like Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman or “socking” and powing” each other under the influence of Batman. Today, each time I visit my parents, I am shocked to see that most of those “sacred” places are now occupied by concrete, bricks, or asphalt. They managed to get a whole subdivision out of Jungleloca and Freedonia!
My son, Henry, now 16, has never had a backyard. He has grown up in various apartment complexes, surrounded by asphalt parking lots with, perhaps, a small grass buffer from the street. Children were prohibited by apartment policy from playing on the grass or from racing their tricycles in the basements or from doing much of anything else that might make noise, annoy the non-childbearing population, cause damage to the facilities, or put themselves at risk. There was, usually, a city park some blocks away which we could go on outings a few times a week and where we could watch him play. Henry could claim no physical space as his own, except his toy-strewn room, and he rarely got outside earshot. Once or twice, when I became exasperated by my son’s constant presence around the house, I would forget all this and tell him he should go outside and play. He would look at me with confusion and ask “Where?”
But, he did have video games which took him across lakes of fire, through cities in the clouds, along dark and gloomy back streets, and into dazzling neon-lit Asian marketplaces. Video games constitute virtual playing spaces which allow home-bound children like my son to extend their reach, to explore, manipulate, and interact with a more diverse range of imaginary places than constitute the often drab, predictable, and overly-familiar spaces of their everyday lives. Keith Feinstein (1997), President of the Video Game Conservatory, argues that video games preserve many aspects of traditional play spaces and culture, maintaining aspects that motivates children to:
learn about the environment that they find themselves living in. Video games present the opportunity to explore and discover, as well as to combat others of comparable skill (whether they be human or electronic) and to struggle with them in a form that is similar to children wrestling, or scrambling for the same ball - they are nearly matched, they aren't going to really do much damage, yet it feels like an all-important fight for that child at that given moment. Space Invaders gives us visceral thrill and poses mental/physical challenges similar to a schoolyard game of dodge-ball (or any of the hundred of related kids games). Video games play with us, a never tiring playmate.
Feinstein’s comment embraces some classical conceptions of play (such as spacial exploration and identity formation), suggesting that video game play isn’t fundamentally different from backyard play. To facilitate such immersive play, to achieve an appropriate level of “holding power” that enables children to transcend their immediate environments, video game spaces require concreteness and vividness. The push in the video game industry for more than a decade has been towards the development of more graphically complex, more visually engaging, more three-dimensionally rendered spaces, and towards quicker, more sophisticated, more flexible interactions with those spaces. Video games tempt the player to play longer, putting more and more quarters into the arcade machine (or providing “play value” for those who’ve bought the game) by unveiling ever more spectacular “microworlds,” the revelation of a new level the reward for having survived and mastered the previous environment. (Fuller and Jenkins, 1995)
Video games advertise themselves as taking us places very different from where we live:
Say hello to life in the fast lane. Sonic R for Sega Saturn is a full-on, pedal-to-the-metal hi-speed dash through five 3D courses, each rendered in full 360 degree panoramas....You’ll be flossing bug guts out of your teeth for weeks. (Sonic R, 1998)
Who wouldn’t want to trade in the confinement of your room for the immersion promised by today’s video games? Watch children playing these games, their bodies bobbing and swaying to the on-screen action, and it’s clear they are there — in the fantasy world, battling it out with the orcs and goblins, pushing their airplanes past the sound barrier, or splashing their way through the waves in their speed boats. Perhaps, my son finds in his video games what I found in the woods behind the school, on my bike whizzing down the hills of the suburban back streets, or settled into my treehouse during a thunder storm with a good adventure novel — intensity of experience, escape from adult regulation; in short, “complete freedom of movement.”
This essay will offer a cultural geography of video game spaces, one which uses traditional children’s play and children’s literature as points of comparison to the digital worlds contemporary children inhabit. Specifically, I examine the “fit” between video games and traditional boy culture and review several different models for creating virtual play spaces for girls. So much of the existing research on gender and games takes boy’s fascination with these games as a given. As we attempt to offer video games for girls, we need to better understand what draws boys to video games and whether our daughters should feel that same attraction.
Video games are often blamed for the listlessness or hyperactivity of our children, yet sociologists find these same behavioral problems occurring among all children raised in highly restrictive and confined physical environments. (Booth and Johnson, 1975; van Staden, 1984). Social reformers sometimes speak of children choosing to play video games rather than playing outside, when, in many cases, no such choice is available. More and more Americans live in urban or semi-urban neighborhoods. Fewer of us own our homes and more of us live in apartment complexes. Fewer adults have chosen have children and our society has become increasingly hostile to the presence of children. In many places, “no children” policies severely restrict where parents can live. Parents, for a variety of reasons, are frightened to have their children on the streets, and place them under “protective custody.” “Latch key” children return from school and lock themselves in their apartments (Kincheloe, 1997).
In the 19th century, children living along the frontier or on America’s farms enjoyed free range over a space which was ten square miles or more. Elliot West (1992) describes boys of 9 or 10 going camping alone for days on end, returning when they were needed to do chores around the house. The early 20th century saw the development of urban playgrounds in the midst of city streets, responding to a growing sense of children’s diminishing access to space and an increased awareness of issues of child welfare (Cavallo, 1991), but autobiographies of the period stress the availability of vacant lots and back allies which children could claim as their own play environments. Sociologists writing about the suburban America of my boyhood found that children enjoyed a play terrain of one to five blocks of spacious backyards and relatively safe subdivision streets (Hart, 1979). Today, at the end of the 20th century, many of our children have access to the one to five rooms inside their apartments. Video game technologies expand the space of their imagination.
Let me be clear — I am not arguing that video games are as good for kids as the physical spaces of backyard play culture. As a father, I wish that my son could come home covered in mud or with scraped knees rather than carpet burns. However, we sometimes blame video games for problems which they do not cause — perhaps because of our own discomfort with these technologies which were not part of our childhood. When politicians like Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Ct.) target video game violence, perhaps it is to distract attention from the material conditions which give rise to a culture of domestic violence, the economic policies which make it harder for most of us to own our homes, and the development practices which pave over the old grasslands and forests. Video games did not make backyard play spaces disappear; rather, they offer children some way to respond to domestic confinement.
Moving Beyond “Home Base”: Why Physical Spaces Matter
One of the clearest expressions of the benefits of continuity in the urban landscape was the way in which children used it as an outdoor gymnasium. As I walked along a Mill Hill street with Paul, he continually went darting ahead, leapfrogging over concrete bollards, hopping between paving slabs, balancing along the curbside. In each study area, certain kids seemed to dance through their surroundings on the look out for microfeatures with which to test their bodies....Not only did he [David, another boy in the study], like Paul, jump over gaps between things, go ‘tightrope walking’ along the tops of walls, leapfrogging objects on sight, but at one point he went ‘mountain climbing’ up a roughly built, nine-foot wall that had many serendipitously placed toe and handholds. (p.72)
These discoveries arise from active exploration and spontaneous engagement with their physical surroundings. Children in the same neighborhoods may have fundamentally different relations to the spaces they share, cutting their own paths, giving their own names to features of their environment. The “wild spaces” are far more important, many researchers conclude, than playgrounds, which can only be used in sanctioned ways, since they allow many more opportunities for children to modify their physical environment.
Children’s access to spaces are structured around gender differences. Observing the use of space within 1970s suburban America, Hart (1979) found that boys enjoyed far greater mobility and range than girls of the same age and class background. In the course of an afternoon’s play, a typical 10-12 year old boy might travel a distance of 2452 yards, while the average 10-12 year old girl might only travel 959 yards. For the most part, girls expanded their geographic range only to take on responsibilities and perform chores for the family, while parents often turned a blind eye to a boy’s movements into prohibited spaces. The boys Hart (1979) observed were more likely to move beyond their homes in search of “rivers, forts and treehouses, woods, ballfields, hills, lawns, sliding places, and climbing trees” while girls were more like to seek commercially developed spaces, such as stores or shopping malls. Girls were less likely than boys to physically alter their play environment, to dam creeks or build forts. Such gender differences in mobility, access and control over physical space increased as children grew older. As C. Ward (1977) notes:
Whenever we discuss the part the environment plays in the lives of children, we are really talking about boys. As a stereotype, the child in the city is a boy. Girls are far less visible...The reader can verify this by standing in a city street at any time of day and counting the children seen. The majority will be boys. (p.152)
One study found that parents were more likely to describe boys as being “outdoors” children and girls as “indoor” children (Newson and Newson, 1976). Another 1975 study (Rheingold and Cook), which inventoried the contents of children’s bedrooms, found boys more likely to possess a range of vehicles and sports equipment designed to encourage outside play, while the girls rooms were stocked with dolls, doll clothes, and other domestic objects. Parents of girls were more likely to express worries about the dangers their children face on the streets and to structure girls’ time for productive household activities or educational play (Matthews, 1992).
Historically, girl culture formed under closer maternal supervision and girls toys were designed to foster female-specific skills and competencies and prepare girls for their future domestic responsibilities as wives and mothers. The doll’s central place in girlhood reflected maternal desires to encourage daughters to sew; the doll’s china heads and hands fostered delicate gestures and movements (Formanek-Brunnel, 1998). However, these skills were not acquired without some resistance. Nineteenth century girls were apparently as willing as today’s girls to mistreat their dolls, cutting their hair, driving nails into their bodies.
If cultural geographers are right when they argue that children’s ability to explore and modify their environments plays a large role in their growing sense of mastery, freedom and self confidence, then the restrictions placed on girls’ play have a crippling effect. Conversely, this research would suggest that children’s declining access to play space would have a more dramatic impact on the culture of young boys, since girls already faced domestic confinement.
Putting Boy Culture Back in the Home
What E. Anthony Rotundo (1994) calls “boy culture” emerged in the context of the growing separation of the male public sphere and the female private sphere in the wake of the industrial revolution. Boys were cut off from the work life of their fathers and left under the care of their mothers. According to Rotundo, boys escaped from the home into the outdoors play space, freeing them to participate in a semi-autonomous “boy culture” which cast itself in opposition to maternal culture:
Where women’s sphere offered kindness, morality, nurture and a gentle spirit, the boys’ world countered with energy, self-assertion, noise, and a frequent resort to violence. The physical explosiveness and the willingness to inflect pain contrasted so sharply with the values of the home that they suggest a dialogue in actions between the values of the two spheres — as if a boy’s aggressive impulses, so relentlessly opposed at home, sought extreme forms of release outside it; then, with stricken consciences, the boys came home for further lessons in self-restraint. (p.37)
The boys took transgressing maternal prohibitions as proof they weren’t “mama’s boys.” Rotundo argues that this break with the mother was a necessary step towards autonomous manhood. One of the many tragedies of our gendered-division of labor may be the ways that it links misogyny — an aggressive fighting back against the mother — with the process of developing self-reliance. Contrary to the Freudian concept of the oedipal complex (which focuses on boy’s struggles with their all-powerful fathers as the site of identity formation), becoming an adult male often means struggling with (and in many cases, actively repudiating) maternal culture. Fathers, on the other hand, offered little guidance to their sons, who, Rotundo argues, acquired masculine skills and values from other boys. By contrast, girls play culture was often “interdependent” with the realm of their mother’s domestic activities, insuring a smoother transition into anticipated adult roles, but allowing less autonomy.
What happens when the physical spaces of 19th century boy culture are displaced by the virtual spaces of contemporary video games? Cultural geographers have long argued that television is a poor substitute for backyard play, despite its potential to present children with a greater diversity of spaces than can be found in their immediate surroundings, precisely because it is a spectatorial rather than a participatory medium. Moore (1986), however, leaves open the prospect that a more interactive digital medium might serve some of the same developmental functions as backyard play. A child playing a video game, searching for the path around obstacles, or looking for an advantage over imaginary opponents, engages in many of the same “mapping” activities as children searching for affordances in their real-world environments. Rotundo’s core claims about 19th century boy culture hold true for the “video game culture” of contemporary boyhood. This congruence may help us to account for the enormous popularity of these games with young boys. This “fit” should not be surprising when we consider that the current game genres reflect intuitive choices by men who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when suburban boy culture still reigned.
(1) Nineteenth century “boy culture” was charactered by its independence from the realm of both mothers and fathers. It was a space where boys could develop autonomy and self confidence. Twentieth century video game culture also carves out a cultural realm for modern day children separate from the space of their parents. They often play the games in their rooms and guard their space against parental intrusion. Parents often express a distaste for the games’ pulpy plots and lurid images. As writers like Jon Katz (1997) and Don Tapscott (1997) note, children’s relative comfort with digital media is itself a generational marker, with adults often unable to comprehend the movement and colored shapes of the video screen. Here, however, the loss of spacial mobility is acutely felt — the “bookworm,” the boy who spent all of his time in his room reading, had a “mama’s boy” reputation in the old “boy culture.” Modern day boys have had to accommodate their domestic confinement with their definitions of masculinity, perhaps accounting, in part, for the hypermasculine and hyperviolent content of the games themselves. The game player has a fundamentally different image than the “book worm.”
(2) In 19th century “boy culture,” youngsters gained recognition from their peers for their daring, often proven through stunts (such as swinging on vines, climbing trees, or leaping from rocks as they cross streams) or through pranks (such as stealing apples or doing mischief on adults.)
In 20th century video game culture, children gain recognition for their daring as demonstrated in the virtual worlds of the game, overcoming obstacles, beating bosses, and mastering levels. Nineteenth century boys’s trespasses on neighbor’s property or confrontations with hostile shopkeepers are mirrored by the visual vocabulary of the video games which often pit smaller protagonists against the might and menace of much larger rivals. Much as cultural geographers describe the boys’ physical movements beyond their home bases into developing home territories, the video games allow boys to gradually develop their mastery over the entire digital terrain, securing their future access to spaces by passing goal posts or finding warp zones.
(3)The central virtues of the 19th century “boy culture” were mastery and self-control. The boys set tasks and goals for themselves which required discipline in order to complete. Through this process of setting and meeting challenges, they acquired the virtues of manhood.
The central virtues of video game culture are mastery (over the technical skills required by the games) and self-control (manual dexterity). Putting in the long hours of repetition and failure necessary to master a game also requires discipline and the ability to meet and surpass self-imposed goals. Most contemporary video games are ruthlessly goal-driven. Boys will often play the games, struggling to master a challenging level, well past the point of physical and emotional exhaustion. Children are not so much “addicted” to video games as they are unwilling to quit before they have met their goals, and the games seem to always set new goalposts, inviting us to best “just one more level.” One of the limitations of the contemporary video game is that it provides only pre-structured forms of interactivity, and in that sense, video games are more like playgrounds and city parks rather than wild-spaces. For the most part, video game players can only exploit built-in affordances and pre-programed pathways. “Secret codes,” “Easter Eggs,” and “Warp zones” function in digital space like secret paths do in physical space and are eagerly sought by gamers who want to go places and see things others can’t find.
(4) The 19th century “boy culture” was hierarchical with a member’s status dependent upon competitive activity, direct confrontation and physical challenges. The boy fought for a place in the gang’s inner circle, hoping to win admiration and respect.
Twentieth century video game culture can also be hierarchical with a member gaining status by being able to complete a game or log a big score. Video game masters move from house to house to demonstrate their technical competency and to teach others have to “beat” particularly challenging levels. The video arcade becomes a proving ground for contemporary masculinity, while many games are designed for the arcade, demanding a constant turn-over of coins for play and intensifying the action into roughly two minute increments. Often, single-player games generate digital rivals who may challenge us to beat their speeds or battle them for dominance.
(5) Nineteenth century “boy culture” was sometimes brutally violent and physically aggressive; children hurt each other or got hurt trying to prove their mastery and daring. Twentieth century video game culture displaces this physical violence into a symbolic realm. Rather than beating each other up behind the school, boys combat imaginary characters, finding a potentially safer outlet for their aggressive feelings. We forget how violent previous boy culture was. Rotundo (1994)writes:
The prevailing ethos of the boys’ world not only supported the expression of impulses such as dominance and aggression (which had evident social uses), but also allowed the release of hostile, violent feelings (whose social uses were less evident). By allowing free passage to so many angry or destructive emotions, boy culture sanctioned a good deal of intentional cruelty, like the physical torture of animals and the emotional violence of bullying....If a times boys acted like a hostile pack of wolves that preyed on its own kind as well as on other species, they behaved at other times like a litter of playful pups who enjoy romping, wrestling and testing new skills. (45)
Even feelings of fondness and friendship were expressed through physical means, including greeting each other with showers of brickbats and offal. Such a culture is as violent as the world depicted in contemporary video games, which have the virtue of allowing growing boys to express their aggression and rambunctiousness through indirect, rather than direct, means.
(6) Nineteenth century “boy culture” expressed itself through scatological humor. Such bodily images (of sweat, spit, snot, shit, and blood) reflected the boy’s growing awareness of their bodies and signified their rejection of maternal constraints.
Twentieth century video game culture has often been criticized for its dependence upon similar kinds of scatological images, with the blood and gore of games like Mortal Kombat (with its “end moves” of dismemberment and decapitation), providing some of the most oft-cited evidence in campaigns to reform video game content (Kinder, 1996). Arguably, these images serve the same functions for modern boys as for their 19th century counterparts — allowing an exploration of what it’s like to live in our bodies and an expression of distance from maternal regulations. Like the earlier ‘boy culture,’ this scatological imagery sometimes assumes overtly misogynistic form, directed against women as a civilizing or controlling force, staged towards women’s bodies as a site of physical difference and as the objects of desire/distaste. Some early games, such as Super Metroid, rewarded player competence by forcing female characters to strip down to their underwear if the boys beat a certain score.
(7) Nineteenth century “boy culture” depended on various forms of role-playing, often imitating the activities of adult males. Rotundo (1994) notes the popularity of games of settlers and Indians during an age when the frontier had only recently been closed, casting boys sometimes as their settler ancestors and other times as “savages.” Such play mapped the competitive and combative boy culture ethos onto the adult realm, thus exaggerating the place of warfare in adult male lives. Through such play, children tested alternative social roles, examined adult ideologies, and developed a firmer sense of their own abilities and identities.
Boy culture emphasized exuberant spontaneity; it allowed free rein to aggressive impulses and revealed in physical prowess and assertion. Boy culture was a world of play, a social space where one evaded the duties and restrictions of adult society...Men were quiet and sober, for theirs was a life of serious business. They had families to support, reputations to earn, responsibilities to meet. Their world was based on work, not play, and their survival in it depended on patient planning, not spontaneous impulse. To prosper, then, a man had to delay gratification and restrain desire. Of course, he also needed to be aggressive and competitive, and he needed an instinct for self-advancement. But he had to channel those assertive impulses in ways that were suitable to the abstract battles and complex issues of middle-class men’s work. (55)Today, the boys are using the same technologies as their fathers, even if they are using them to pursue different fantasies.
(8) In 19th century “boy culture,” play activities were seen as opportunities for social interactions and bonding. Boys formed strong ties which formed the basis for adult affiliations, for participation in men’s civic clubs and fraternities, and for business partnerships. The track record of contemporary video game culture at providing a basis for a similar social networking is more mixed. In some cases, the games constitute both play space and playmates, reflecting the physical isolation of contemporary children from each other. In other cases, the games provide the basis for social interactions at home, at school and at the video arcades. Children talk about the games together, over the telephone or now, over the Internet, as well as in person, on the playground or at the school cafeteria. Boys compare notes, map strategies, share tips, and show off their skills, and this exchange of video game lore provides the basis for more complex social relations. Again, video games don’t isolate children but they fail, at the present time, to provide the technological basis for overcoming other social and cultural factors, such as working parents who are unable to bring children to each other’s houses or enlarged school districts which make it harder to get together.
Far from a “corruption” of the culture of childhood, video games show strong continuities to the boyhood play fondly remembered by previous generations. There is a significant difference, however. The 19th century “boy culture” enjoyed such freedom and autonomy precisely because their activities were staged within a larger expanse of space, because boys could occupy an environment largely unsupervised by adults. Nineteenth century boys sought indirect means of breaking with their mothers, escaping to spaces that were outside their control, engaging in secret activities they knew would have met parental disapproval. The mothers, on the other hand, rarely had to confront the nature of this “boy culture” and often didn’t even know that it existed. The video game culture, on the other hand, occurs in plain sight, in the middle of the family living room, or at best, in the children’s rooms. Mothers come face to face with the messy process by which western culture turns boys into men, and it becomes the focus of open antagonisms and the subject of tremendous guilt and anxiety. Sega’s Lee McEnany (this volume) acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of complaints game companies receive come from mothers, and Ellen Seiter (1996) has noted that this statistic reflects the increased pressure placed on mothers to supervise and police children’s relations to popular culture. Current attempts to police video game content reflect a long history of attempts to shape and regulate children’s play culture, starting with the playground movements of progressive America and the organization of social groups for boys such as the Boy Scouts or Little League which tempered the more rough-and-tumble qualities of “boy culture” and channeled them into games, sports, and other adult-approved pastimes.
Many of us might wish to foster a boy culture that allowed the expression of affection or the display of empowerment through nonviolent channels, that disentangled the development of personal autonomy from the fostering of misogyny, and that encouraged boys to develop a more nurturing, less domineering attitude to their social and natural environments. These worthy goals are worth pursuing. We can’t simply adopt a “boys will be boys” attitude. However, one wonders about the consequences of such a policing action in a world that no longer offers “wild” outdoor spaces as a safety valve for boys to escape parental control. Perhaps, our sons—and daughters — need an unpoliced space for social experimentation, a space where they can vent their frustrations and imagine alternative adult roles without inhibiting parental pressure. The problem, of course, is that unlike the 19th century “boy culture,” the video game culture is not a world children construct for themselves but rather a world made by adult companies and sold to children. There is no way that we can escape adult intervention in shaping children’s play environments as long as those environments are built and sold rather than discovered and appropriated. As parents, we are thus implicated in our children’s choice of play environments, whether we wish to be or not, and we need to be conducting a dialogue with our children about the qualities and values exhibited by these game worlds. One model would be for adults and children to collaborate in the design and development of video game spaces, in the process, developing a conversation about the nature and meanings of the worlds being produced. Another approach (Cassell, This Volume) would be to create tools to allow children to construct their own playspaces and then give them the space to do what they want. Right now, parents are rightly apprehensive about a playspace which is outside their own control and which is shaped according to adult specifications but without their direct input.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the “boy culture” is its gender segregation. The 19th century “boy culture” played an essential role in preparing boys for entry into their future professional roles and responsibilities; some of that same training has also become essential for girls at a time when more and more women are working outside the home. The motivating force behind the “girls game” movement is the idea that girls, no less than boys, need computers at an early age if they are going to be adequately prepared to get “good jobs for good wages.” (Jenkins and Cassell, this volume) Characteristically, the girl’s game movement has involved the transposition of traditional feminine play cultures into the digital realm. However, in doing so, we run the risk of preserving, rather than transforming, those aspects of traditional “girl culture” which kept women restricted to the domestic sphere, while denying them the spacial exploration and mastery associated with the “boy culture.” Girls, no less than boys, need to develop an exploratory mindset, a habit of seeking unknown spaces as opposed to settling placidly into the domestic sphere.
Gendered Games/Gendered Books: Towards a Cultural Geography of Imaginary Spaces
Adventure Islands: Boy Space
Alex looked around him. There was no place to seek cover. He was too weak to run, even if there was. His gaze returned to the stallion, fascinated by a creature so wild and so near. Here was the wildest of all wild animals — he had fought for everything he had ever needed, for food, for leadership, for life itself; it was his nature to kill or be killed. The horse reared again; then he snorted and plunged straight for the boy. (27) — Walter Farley, The Black Stallion (1941)
The space of the boy book is the space of adventure, risk-taking and danger, of a wild and untamed nature that must be mastered if one is to survive. The space of the boys book offers “no place to seek cover,” and thus encourages fight-or-flight responses. In some cases, most notably in the works of Mark Twain, the boy books represented a nostalgic documentation of 19th century “boy culture,” its spaces, its activities, and its values. In other cases, as in the succession of pulp adventure stories that form the background of the boys game genres, the narratives offered us a larger-than-life enactment of those values, staged in exotic rather than backyard spaces, involving broader movements through space and amplifying horseplay and risktaking into scenarios of actual combat and conquest. Boys book writers found an easy fit between the ideologies of American “manifest destiny” or British colonialism and the adventure stories boys preferred to read, which often took the form of quests, journeys, or adventures into untamed and uncharted regions of the world — into the frontier of the American west (or in the 20th century, the “final frontier” of Mars and beyond), into the exotic realms of Africa, Asia, and South America. The protagonists were boys or boy-like adult males, who have none of the professional responsibilities and domestic commitments associated with adults. The heroes sought adventure by running away from home to join the circus (Toby Tyler), to sign up as cabin boy on a ship (Treasure Island), or to seek freedom by rafting down the river (Huckleberry Finn). They confronted a hostile and untamed environment (as when The Jungle Book’s Mowgli must battle “tooth and claw” with the tiger, Sheer Khan, or as when Jack London’s protagonists faced the frozen wind of the Yukon.) They were shipwrecked on islands, explored caves, searched for buried treasure, plunged harpoons into slick-skinned whales, or set out alone across the dessert, the bush or the jungle. They survived through their wits, their physical mastery, and their ability to use violent force. Each chapter offered a sensational set piece — an ambush by wild Indians, an encountered with a coiled cobra, a landslide, a stampede, or a sea battle — which placed the protagonist at risk and tested his skills and courage. The persistent images of blood-and-guts combat and cliff-hanging risks compelled boys to keep reading, making their blood race with promises of thrills and more thrills. This rapid pace allowed little room for moral and emotional introspection. In turn, such stories provided fantasies which boys could enact upon their own environments. Rotundo (1994) describes 19th century boys playing pirates, settlers and Indians, or Roman warriors, roles drawn from boys books.
The conventions of the 19th and early 20th century boys adventure story provided the basis for the current video game genres. The most successful console game series, such as Capcom’s Mega Man or Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers games, combine the iconography of multiple boys book genres. Their protagonists struggle across an astonishingly eclectic range of landscapes — desserts, frozen wastelands, tropical rain forests, urban undergrounds — and encounter resistance from strange hybrids (who manage to be animal, machine, and savage all rolled into one). The scroll games have built into them the constant construction of frontiers — home regions — which the boy player must struggle to master and push beyond, moving deeper and deeper into uncharted space. Action is relentless. The protagonist shoots fireballs, ducks and charges, slugs it out, rolls, jumps and dashes across the treacherous terrain, never certain what lurks around the next corner. If you stand still, you die. Everything you encounter is potentially hostile so shoot to kill. Errors in judgement result in the character’s death and require starting all over again. Each screen overflows with dangers; each landscape is riddled with pitfalls and booby traps. One screen may require you to leap from precipice to precipice, barely missing falling into the deep chasms below. Another may require you to swing by vines across the treetops, or spelunk through an underground passageway, all the while fighting it out with the alien hordes. The game’s levels and worlds reflect the set-piece structure of the earlier boys books. Boys get to make lots of noise on adventure island, with the soundtrack full of pulsing music, shouts, groans, zaps, and bombblasts. Everything is streamlined: the plots and characters are reduced to genre archetypes, immediately familiar to the boy gamers, and defined more through their capacity for actions than anything else. The “adventure island” is the archetypal space of both the boys books and the boys games — an isolated world far removed from domestic space or adult supervision, an untamed world for people who refuse to bow before the pressures of the civilizing process, a never-never-land you seek your fortune. The “adventure island,” in short, is a world which fully embodies the “boy culture” and its ethos.
Secret Gardens: Girl Space
If it was the key to the closed garden, and she could find out where the door was, she could perhaps open it and see what was inside the walls, and what had happened to the old rose-trees. It was because it had been shut up so long that she wanted to see it. It seemed as if it must be different from other places and that something strange must have happened to it during ten years. Besides that, if she liked it she could go into it every day and shut the door behind her, and she could make up some play of her own and play it quite alone, because nobody would ever know where she was, but would think the door was still locked and the key buried in the earth. (71)---Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911), The Secret Garden
Girl space is a space of secrets and romance, a space of one’s own in a world which offers you far too little room to explore. Ironically, “girl books” often open with fantasies of being alone and then require the female protagonist to sacrifice their private space in order to make room for others’ needs. The “girls book” genres were slower to evolve, often emerging through imitation of the gothics and romances preferred by adult women readers and retaining a strong aura of instruction and self-improvement. As Segel (1986) writes:
The liberation of nineteenth century boys into the book world of sailors and pirates, forest and battles, left their sisters behind in the world of childhood — that is, the world of home and family. When publishers and writers saw the commercial possibilities of books for girls, it is interesting that they did not provide comparable escape reading for them (that came later, with the pulp series books) but instead developed books designed to persuade the young reader to accept the confinement and self-sacrifice inherent in the doctrine of feminine influence. This was accomplished by depicting the rewards of submission and the sacred joys of serving as ‘the angel of the house.’ (171-172)
If the boys book protagonist escapes all domestic responsibilities, the girls book heroine learned to temper her impulsiveness and to accept family and domestic obligations (Little Women, Anne of Green Gables) or sought to be a healing influence on a family suffering from tragedy and loss (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm). Segel (1986) finds the most striking difference between the two genre traditions is in the book’s settings: “the domestic confinement of one book as against the extended voyage to exotic lands in the other.” (173) Avoiding the boys books’ purple prose, the girls books describe naturalistic environments, similar to the realm of readers’ daily experience. The female protagonists take emotional, but rarely, physical risks. The tone is more apt to be confessional than confrontational.
Traditional girls books, such as The Secret Garden, do encourage some forms of spatial exploration, an exploration of the hidden passages of unfamiliar houses or the rediscovery and cultivation of a deserted rose garden. Norman N. Holland and Leona F. Sherman (1986) emphasize the role of spacial exploration in the gothic tradition, a “maiden-plus-habitation” formula whose influence is strongly felt on The Secret Garden. In such stories, the exploration of space leads to the uncovering of secrets, clues, and symptoms that shed light on character’s motivations. Hidden rooms often contained repressed memories and sometimes entombed relatives. The castle, Holland and Sherman (1986) note, “can threaten, resist, love or confine, but in all these actions, it stands as a total environment” (220) which the female protagonist can never fully escape. Holland and Sherman claim that gothic romances fulfill a fantasy of unearthing secrets about the adult world, casting the reader in a position of powerlessness and daring them to overcome their fears and confront the truth. Such a fantasy space is, of course, consistent with what we have already learned about girls’ domestic confinement and greater responsibilities to their families.
Purple Moon’s Secret Paths in the Forest fully embodies the juvenile gothic tradition — while significantly enlarging the space open for girls to explore. Purple Moon removes the walls around the garden, turning it into a woodlands. Producer Brenda Laurel has emphasized girls’ fascination with secrets, a fascination that readily translates into a puzzle game structure, though Secret Paths pushes further than existing games to give these “secrets” social and psychological resonance. Based on her focus group interviews, Laurel initially sought to design a “magic garden,” a series of “romanticized natural environments” responsive to “girls’ highly touted nurturing desires, their fondness for animals.” She wanted to create a place “where girls could explore, meet and take care of creatures, design and grow magical or fantastical plants.” (Personal correspondence, 1997) What she found was that the girls did not feel magical animals would need their nurturing and in fact, many of the girls wanted the animals to mother them. The girls in Laurel’s study, however, were drawn to the idea of the secret garden or hidden forest as a “girl’s only” place for solitude and introspection. Laurel explains:
Girls' first response to the place was that they would want to go there alone, to be peaceful and perhaps read or daydream. They might take a best friend, but they would never take an adult or a boy. They thought that the garden/forest would be place where they could find out things that would be important to them, and a place where they might meet a wise or magical person. Altogether their fantasies was about respite and looking within as opposed to frolicsome play. (Personal correspondence, 1997)The spaces in Purple Moon’s game are quiet, contemplative places, rendered in naturalistic detail but with the soft focus and warm glow of an impressionistic water-color.
The world of Secret Paths explodes with subtle and inviting colors — the colors of a forest on a summer afternoon, of spring flowers and autumn leaves and shifting patterns of light, of rippling water and moonlit skies, of sand and earth. The soundtrack is equally dense and engaging, as the natural world whispers to us in the rustle of the undergrowth or sings to us in the sounds of the wind and the calls of birds. The spaces of Secret Paths are full of life, as lizards slither from rock to rock, or field mice dart for cover, yet even animals which might be frightening in other contexts (coyotes, foxes, owls) seem eager to reveal their secrets to our explorers. Jesse, one of the game’s protagonists, expresses a fear of the “creepy” nighttime woods, but the game makes the animals seem tame and the forest safe, even in the dead of night. The game’s puzzles reward careful exploration and observation. At one point, we must cautiously approach a timid fawn if we wish to be granted the magic jewels that are the tokens of our quest. The guidebook urges us to be “unhurried and gentle” with the “easily startled” deer.
Our goal is less to master nature than to understand how we might live in harmony with it. We learn to mimic its patterns, to observe the notes (produced by singing cactus) that make a lizard’s head bob with approval and then to copy them ourselves, to position spiders on a web so that they may harmonize rather than create discord. And, in some cases, we are rewarded for feeding and caring for the animals. In The Secret Garden (1911), Mary Lennox is led by a robin to the branches that mask the entrance to the forgotten rose garden:
Mary had stepped close to the robin, and suddenly the gusts of wind swung aside some loose ivy trails, and more suddenly still she jumped toward it and caught it in her hand. This she did because she had seen something under it — a round knob which had been covered by the leaves hanging over it....The robin kept singing and twittering away and tilting his head on one side, as if he were as excited as she was. (80)Such animal guides abound in Secret Paths: the curser is shaped like a lady-bug during our explorations and like a butterfly when we want to venture beyond the current screen. Animals show us the way, if we only take the time to look and listen.
Unlike twitch-and-shoot boys games, Secret Paths encourages us to stroke and caress the screen with our curser, clicking only when we know where secret treasures might be hidden. A magic book tells us: As I patiently traveled along [through the paths], I found that everything was enchanted! The trees, flowers and animals, the sun, sky and stars — all had magical properties! The more closely I listened and the more carefully I explored, the more was revealed to me. Nature’s rhythms are gradual and recurring, a continual process of birth, growth, and transformation. Laurel explains:
We made the "game" intentionally slow - a girl can move down the paths at whatever pace, stop and play with puzzles or stones, or hang out in the tree house with or without the other characters. I think that this slowness is really a kind of refuge for the girls. The game is much slower than television, for example. One of the issues that girls have raised with us in our most recent survey of their concerns is the problem of feeling too busy. I think that "Secret Paths" provides an antidote to that feeling from the surprising source of the computer. (Personal correspondence, 1997)
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “Secret Garden” (1911) is a place of healing and the book links Mary’s restoration of the forgotten rose garden with her repairing a family torn apart by tragedy, restoring a sickly boy to health, and coming to grips with her mother’s death: So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determined not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow-faced, sickly, bored and wretched child....When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children...with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day....there was no room for the disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired. (294)
Purple Moon’s Secret Paths has also been designed as a healing place, where girls are encouraged to “explore with your heart” and answer their emotional dilemmas. As the magical book explains, “You will never be alone here, for this is a place where girls come to share and to seek help from one another.” At the game’s opening, we draw together a group of female friends in the treehouse, where each confesses their secrets and tells of their worries and sufferings. Miko speaks of the pressure to always be the best and the alienation she feels from the other children; Dana recounts her rage over losing a soccer companionship; Minn describes her humiliation because her immigrant grandmother has refused to assimilate new world customs. Some of them have lost parents, others face scary situations or emotional slights that cripple their confidence. Their answers lie along the secret paths through the forrest, where the adventurers can find hidden magical stones that embody social, psychological, or emotional strengths. Along the way, the girl’s secrets are literally embedded within the landscape, so that clicking on our environment may call forth memories or confessions. If we are successful in finding all of the hidden stones, they magically form a necklace and when given to the right girl, they allow us to hear a comforting or clarifying story. Such narratives teach girls how to find emotional resources within themselves and how to observe and respond to others’ often unarticulated needs. Solving puzzles in the physical environment helps us to address problems in our social environment. Secret Paths is what Brenda Laurel calls a “friendship adventure,” allowing young girls rehearse their coping skills and try alternative social strategies.
The Play Town: Another Space for Girls?
Harriet the Spy opens with a description of another form of spatial play for girls — Harriet’s “town,” a “microworld” she maps onto the familiar contours of her own backyard and uses to think through the complex social relations she observes in her community. Harriet controls the inhabitants of this town, shaping their actions to her desires: “In this town, everybody goes to bed at nine-thirty.”(4) Not unlike a soap opera, her stories depend on juxtapositions of radically different forms of human experience: “Now, this night, as Mr. Hanley is just about to close up, a long, big old black car drives up and in it there are all these men with guns....At this same minute Mrs. Harrison’s baby is born.” (6) Her fascination with mapping and controlling the physical space of the town makes her game a pre-digital prototype for Sim City and other simulation games. However, compared to Harriet’s vivid interest in the distinct personalities and particular experiences of her townspeople, Sim City seems alienated and abstract. Sim City’s classifications of land use into residential, commercial, and industrial push us well beyond the scale of everyday life and in so doing, strips the landscape of its potential as a stage for children’s fantasies. Sim City offers us another form of power — the power to “play God,” to design our physical environment, to sculp the landscape or call down natural disasters (Friedman, 1995), but not the power to imaginatively transform our social environment. Sim City embraces stock themes from boys’ play, such as building forts, shaping earth with toy trucks, or damming creeks, playing them out on a much larger scale. For Harriet, the mapping of the space was only the first step in preparing the ground for a rich saga of life and death, joy and sorrow, and those of the elements that are totally lacking in most existing simulation games.
As Fitzhugh’s novel continues, Harriet’s interests shift from the imaginary events of her simulated town and into real world spaces. She “spies” on people’s private social interactions, staging more and more “daring” investigations, trying to understand what motivates adult actions, and writing her evaluations and interpretations of their lives in her notebook. Harriet’s adventures take her well beyond the constricted space of her own home. She breaks and enters houses and takes rides on dumbwaiters, sneaks through back allies and peeps into windows. She barely avoids getting caught. Harriet’s adventures occur in public space (not the private space of the secret garden), a populated environment (not the natural worlds visited in Secret Paths). Yet, her adventures are not so much direct struggles with opposing forces (as might be found in a boys book adventure) as covert operations to ferret out knowledge of social relations.
The games of Theresa Duncan (Chop Suey, Smarty, Zero Zero) offer a digital version of Harriet’s “Town.” Players can explore suburban and urban spaces and pry into bedroom closets in search of the extraordinary dimensions of ordinary life. Duncan (this volume) specifically cites Harriet the Spy as an influence, hoping that her games will grant young girls “a sense of inquisitiveness and wonder.” Chop Suey and Smarty take place in small Midwestern towns, a working class world of diners, hardware stores, and beauty parlors. Zero Zero draws us further from home — into fin de siecle Paris, a world of bakeries, wax museums, and catacombs. These spaces are rendered in a distinctive style somewhere between the primitiveness of Grandma Moses and the colorful postmodernism of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Far removed from the romantic imagery of Secret Paths, these worlds overflow with city sounds — the clopping of horse hooves on cobblestones, barking dogs, clanging church bells in Zero Zero — and the narrator seems fascinated with the smoke stacks and signs which clutter this man-made environment . As the narrator in Zero Zero rhapsodizes, “smoke curled black and feathery like a horse’s tale from a thousand chimney pots” in this world “before popsicles and paperbacks.” While the social order has been tamed, posing few dangers, Duncan has not rid these worlds of their more disreputable elements. The guy in the candy shop in Chop Suey has covered his body with tattoos. The Frenchmen in Zero Zero are suitably bored, ill-tempered, and insulting; even flowers hurl abuse at us. The man in the antlered hat sings rowdy songs about “bones” and “guts” when we visit the catacombs, and the women puff on cigarettes, wear too much make-up, flash their cleavage, and hint about illicit rendezvous. Duncan (this volume) suggests:
There's a sense of bittersweet experience in Chop Suey, where not everyone has had a perfect life but they're all happy people. Vera has three ex-husbands all named Bob....Vera has problems, but she's also filled with love. And she's just a very vibrant, alive person, and that's why she fascinates the little girls.
Duncan rejects our tendency to “project this fantasy of purity and innocence onto children,” suggesting that all this “niceness” deprives children of “the richness of their lives” and does not help them come to grips with their “complicated feelings” towards the people in their lives.
Duncan’s protagonists, June Bug (Chop Suey), Pinkee LeBrun (Zero Zero), are smart, curious girls, who want to know more than they have been told. Daring Pinkee scampers along the roofs of Paris and pops down chimneys or steps boldly through the doors of shops, questioning adults about their visions for the new century. Yet, she is also interested in smaller, more intimate questions, such as the identity of the secret admirer who writes love poems to Bon Bon, the singer at the Follies. Clues unearthed in one location may shed light on mysteries posed elsewhere, allowing Duncan to suggest something of the “interconnectedness” of life within a close community. Often, as in Harriet, the goal is less to evaluate these people than to understand what makes them tick. In that sense, the game fosters the character-centered reading practices which Segel (1986) associates with the “girls book” genres, reading practices which thrive on gossip and speculation.
Duncan’s games have no great plot to propel them. Duncan (this volume) said, “Chop Suey works the way that real life does: all these things happen to you, but there's no magical event, like there is sometimes in books, that transforms you.” Lazy curiosity invites us to explore the contents of each shop, to flip through the fashion magazines in Bon Bon’s dressing room, to view the early trick films playing at Cinema Egypt or to watch the cheeses in the window of Quel Fromage which are, for reasons of their own, staging the major turning points of the French revolution. (She also cites inspiration from the more surreal adventures of Alice in Wonderland!) The interfaces are flexible, allowing us to visit any location when we want without having to fight our way through levels or work past puzzling obstacles. Zero Zero and Duncan’s other games take particular pleasure in anarchistic imagery, in ways we can disrupt and destabilize the environment, showering the baker’s angry faces with white clouds of flour, ripping off the table clothes, or shaking up soda bottles so they will spurt their corks. Often, there is something vaguely naughty about the game activities, as when a visit to Poire the fashion designer has us matching different pairs of underwear. In that sense, Duncan’s stories preserve the mischievous and sometimes anti-social character of Harriet’s antics and the transformative humor of Lewis Carroll, encouraging the young gamers to take more risks and to try things that might not ordinarily meet their parent’s approval. Pinkee’s first actions as a baby are to rip the pink ribbons from her hair! Duncan likes her characters free and “unladylike.”
In keeping with the pedagogic legacy of the girls book tradition, Zero Zero promises us an introduction to French history, culture, and language, Smarty a mixture of “spelling and spells, math and Martians, grammar and glamour,” but Duncan’s approach is sassy and irreverent. The waxwork of Louis XIV sticks out its tongue at us, while Joan D’Arc is rendered in marshmallow, altogether better suited for toasting. The breads and cakes in the bakery are shaped like the faces of French philosophers and spout incomprehensible arguments. Pinkee’s quest for knowledge about the coming century can not be reduced to an approved curriculum, but rather expresses a unrestrained fascination with the stories, good, bad, happy or sad, that people tell each other about their lives.
Harriet the Spy is ambivalent about its protagonist’s escapades: her misadventures are clearly excite the book’s female readers, but the character herself is socially ostracized and disciplined, forced to more appropriately channel her creativity and curiosity. Pinkee suffers no such punishment, ending up the game watching the fireworks that mark the change of the centuries, taking pleasure in the knowledge that she will be a central part of the changes that are coming: “tonight belongs to Bon Bon but the future belongs to Pinkee.”
Conclusion: Towards a Gender-Neutral Play space?
On the other hand, in our desire to open digital technologies as an alternative play space for girls, we must guard against simply duplicating in the new medium the gender-specific genres of children’s literature. The segregation of children’s reading into boy book and girl book genres, Segel (1986) argues, encouraged the development of gender-specific reading strategies — with boys reading for plot and girls reading for character relationship. Such differences, Segel suggests, taught children to replicate the separation between a male public sphere of risk taking and a female domestic sphere of care taking. As Segel (1986) notes, the classification of children’s literature into boys books and girls books “extracted a heavy cost in feminine self-esteem,” restricting girl’s imaginative experience to what adults perceived as its “proper place.” Boys developed a sense of autonomy and mastery both from their reading and from their play. Girls learned to fetter their imaginations, just as they restricted their movements into real world spaces. At the same time, this genre division also limited boys’ psychological and emotional development, insuring a focus on goal-oriented, utilitarian, and violent plots. Too much interest in social and emotional life was a vulnerability in a world where competition left little room to be “lead by your heart.” We need to design digital play spaces which allow girls to do something more than stitch doll clothes, mother nature, or heal their friend’s sufferings or boys to do something more than battle it out with the barbarian hordes.
Segel’s analysis of “gender and childhood reading” suggests two ways of moving beyond the gender-segregation of our virtual landscape. First, as Segel (1986) suggests, the designation of books for boys and girls did not preclude (though certainly discouraged) reading across gender lines: “Though girls when they reached ‘that certain age’ could be prevented from joining boys’ games and lively exploits, it was harder to keep them from accompanying their brothers on vicarious adventures through the reading of boys’ books.” (175) Reading boys books gave girls (admittedly limited) access to the boy culture and its values. Segel finds evidence of such gender-crossing in the 19th century, though girls were actively discouraged from reading boys books because their contents were thought too lurid and unwholesome. At other times, educational authorities encouraged the assignment of boys books in public schools since girls could read and enjoy them, while there was much greater stigma attached to boys reading girls books. The growing visibility of the “quake girls,” female gamers who compete in traditional male fighting and action/adventure games (Jenkins and Cassell, this volume), suggests that there has always been a healthy degree of “crossover” interest in the games market and that many girls enjoy “playing with power.” Girls may compete more directly and aggressively with boys in the video game arena than would ever have been possible in the real-world of backyard play, since differences in actual size, strength, and agility have no effect on the outcome of the game. And they can return from combat without the ripped clothes or black eyes that told parents they had done something “unladylike.” Unfortunately, much as girls who read boys books were likely to encounter the misogynistic themes that mark boys’ fantasies of separation from their mothers, girls who play boys games find the games’ constructions of female sexuality and power are designed to gratify preadolescent males, not to empower girls. Girl gamers are aggressively campaigning to have their tastes and interests factored into the development of action games.
We need to open up more space for girls to join — or play alongside — the traditional boy culture down by the river, in the old vacant lot, within the bamboo forest. Girls need to learn how to explore “unsafe” and “unfriendly” spaces. Girls need to experience the “complete freedom of movement” promised by the boys games, if not all the time, then at least some of the time, if they are going to develop the self confidence and competitiveness demanded of contemporary professional women. Girls need to learn how to, in the words of a contemporary best-seller, “run with the wolves” and not just follow the butterflies along the Secret Paths. Girls need to be able to play games where Barbie gets to kick some butt. However, this focus on creating action games for girls still represents only part of the answer, for as Segel (1986) notes, the gender segregation of children’s literature was almost as damaging for boys as it was for girls: “In a society where many men and women are alienated from members of the other sex, one wonders whether males might be more comfortable with and understanding of women’s needs and perspectives if they had imaginatively shared female experiences through books, beginning in childhood.” (183) Boys may need to play in secret gardens or toy towns just as much as girls need to explore adventure islands. In the literary realm, Segel points towards books, such as Little House on the Prairie or Wrinkle in Time, which fuse the boys and girl genres, rewarding both a traditionally masculine interest in plot action and a traditionally feminine interest in character relations.
Sega Saturn’s Nights into Dreams represents a similar fusion of the boys and girls game genres. Much as in Secret Paths, our movement through the game space is framed as an attempt to resolve the characters’ emotional problems. In the frame stories that open the game, we enter the mindscape of the two protagonists as they toss and turn in their sleep. Claris, the female protagonist, hopes to gain recognition on the stage as a singer, but has nightmares of being rejected and ridiculed. Elliot, the male character, has fantasies of scoring big on the basketball court yet fears being bullied by bigger and more aggressive players. They run away from their problems, only to find themselves in Nightopia, where they must save the dream world from the evil schemes of Wileman the Wicked and his monstrous minions. In the dreamworld, both Claris and Elliot may assume the identity of Nights, an androgynous harlequin figure, who can fly through the air, transcending all the problems below. Nights’ complex mythology has players gathering glowing orbs which represent different forms of energy needed to confront Claris and Elliot’s problems — purity (white), wisdom (green), hope (yellow), intelligence (blue) and bravery (red) — a structure that recalls the magic stones in Secret Paths through the Forest.
The tone of this game is aptly captured by one Internet game critic, Big Mitch (n.d.): “The whole experience of Nights is in soaring, tumbling, and freewheeling through colorful landscapes, swooping here and there, and just losing yourself in the moment. This is not a game you set out to win; the fun is in the journey rather than the destination.” Big Mitch’s response suggests a recognition of the fundamentally different qualities of this game — its focus on psychological issues as much as upon action and conflict, its fascination with aimless exploration rather than goal-driven narrative, its movement between a realistic world of everyday problems and a fantasy realm of great adventure, its mixture of the speed and mobility associated with the boys platform games with the lush natural landscapes and the sculpted soundtracks associated with the girls games. Spring Valley is a sparkling world of rainbows and waterfalls and Emerald Green forests. Other levels allow us to splash through cascading fountains or sail past icy mountains and frozen wonderlands or bounce on pillows and off the walls of the surreal Soft Museum or swim through aquatic tunnels. The game’s 3-D design allows an exhilarating freedom of movement, enhanced by design features — such as wind resistance — which give players a stronger than average sense of embodiment. Nights into Dreams retains some of the dangerous and risky elements associated with the boys games. There are spooky places in this game, including nightmare worlds full of day-glo serpents and winged beasties, and there are enemies we must battle, yet there is also a sense of unconstrained adventure, floating through the clouds. Our primary enemy is time, the alarm clock which will awaken us from our dreams. Even when we confront monsters, they don’t fire upon us; we must simply avoid flying directly into their sharp teeth if we want to master them. When we lose Nights’ magical, gender-bending garb, we turn back into boys and girls and must hoof it as pedestrians across the rugged terrain below, a situation which makes it far less likely we will achieve our goals. To be gendered is to be constrained; to escape gender is to escape gravity and to fly above it all.
Sociologist Barrie Thorne (1993) has discussed the forms of “borderwork” which occurs when boys and girls occupy the same play spaces: “The spatial separation of boys and girls [on the same playground] constitutes a kind of boundary, perhaps felt most strongly by individuals who want to join an activity controlled by the other gender.” (64-65) Boys and girls are brought together in the same space, but they repeatedly enact the separation and opposition between the two play cultures. In real world play, this “borderwork” takes the form of chases and contests on the one hand and “cooties” or other pollution taboos on the other. When “borderwork” occurs, gender distinctions become extremely rigid and nothing passes between the two spheres. Something similar occurs in many of the books which Segel identifies as gender neutral — male and female reading interests co-exist, side by side, like children sharing a playground, and yet they remain resolutely separate and the writers, if anything, exaggerate gender differences in order to proclaim their dual address. Wendy and the “lost boys” both travel to Never-Never-Land but Wendy plays house and the “lost boys” play Indians or pirates. The “little house” and the”prairie” exist side by side in Laura Wilder’s novels, but the mother remains trapped inside the house, while Pa ventures into the frontier. The moments when the line between the little house and the prairie are crossed, such as a scene where a native American penetrates into Ma Wilder’s parlor, become moments of intense anxiety. Only Laura can follow her pa across the threshold of the little house and onto the prairie and her adventurous spirit is often presented as an unfeminine trait she is likely to outgrow as she gets older.
As we develop digital playspaces for boys and girls, we need to make sure this same pattern isn’t repeated, that we do not create blue and pink ghettos inside the playspace. On the one hand, the opening sequences of Nights into Dreams, which frame Elliot and Claris as possessing fundamentally different dreams (sports for boys and musical performance for girls, graffiti-laden inner city basketball courts for boys and pastoral gardens for girls), perform this kind of borderwork, defining the proper place for each gender. On the other hand, the androgenous Nights embodies a fantasy of transcending gender and thus achieving the freedom and mobility to fly above it all. To win the game, the player must become both the male and the female protagonists and they must join forces for the final level. The penalty for failure in this world is to be trapped on the ground and to be fixed into a single gender.
Thorne finds that aggressive “borderwork” is more likely to occur when children are forced together by adults than when they find themselves interacting more spontaneously, more likely to occur in prestructured institutional settings like the schoolyard than in the informal settings of the subdivisions and apartment complexes. All of this suggests that our fantasy of designing games which will provide common play spaces for girls and boys may be an illusive one, one as full of complications and challenges on its own terms as creating a “girls only” space or encouraging girls to venture into traditional male turf. We are not yet sure what such a gender neutral space will look like. Creating such a space would mean redesigning not only the nature of computer games but also the nature of society. The danger may be that in such a space, gender differences are going to be more acutely felt, as boys and girls will be repelled from each other rather than drawn together. There are reasons why this is a place where neither the feminist entrepreneurs nor the boys game companies are ready to go, yet as the girl’s market is secured, the challenge must be to find a way to move beyond our existing categories and to once again invent new kinds of virtual play spaces.