Video games are becoming increasingly accepted as an innovative and legitimate art form of interactive storytelling. When engaged with responsibly, they have the capacity to train hand to eye coordination, planning ability and strategic thinking, as well as social and cooperative skills. Despite this potential, video games have undergone a gendered period in their history and are stigmatized to this day as of primarily male interest.
As gender equality is a UN Sustainable Development Goal, this article will challenge the above notion in the hopes of encouraging anyone so inclined to engage with such a promising medium. It is important therefore, to understand how video games became gendered to begin with. It started with the Great Video Game Crash of 1983.
Before the crash
In the time leading up to the crash, the market for video games had been booming and interest was at an apex. The sales for consoles were multiplying and that meant an ever-increasing demand for new titles. This was met with an overproduction of shallow, low-quality games, leading to infuriation and loss of trust in part of the consumers. A lot of new titles were clones of existing games while in other cases false advertising led to further apprehension.
This lack of consumer and retailer confidence in videogames eventually caused the 1983 video game crash. In its wake, millions of unused cartridges found their way from discount bins to landfills. The demand for video games plummeted. At least that was the case for adults.
A different approach
The crash coincided with Nintendo's plans to release Famicom, the family computer entertainment system, in the United States. The release was met with disappointing results stemming from the still collapsing market and Nintendo decided to try another method. They would rename the Famicom into NES, and attempt to entice a younger audience by presenting it as a toy.
Nintendo re-established the favour of the toy business by presenting its Nintendo Entertainment System as more of a toy and less as a game. In the mind of retailers, nobody was buying video games anymore, but people were still buying toys
This however, led to a new dilemma. Was the NES a toy for girls or for boys, and why did it matter? There are arguments that the need to decide on which isle of toy stores to market is what caused video games to be perceived as a hobby for boys. While not all toy stores would have different isles for boy toys and for girl toys, gendering has been more important in terms of advertising which needs to be targeted to a specific audience for maximum economic effect.
Knowing that you have limited funding, you can't just market shotgun. You can't just go after anybody… You need to have a very clearly differentiated and specific brand because that's going to play into where you're running your ads and what kind of ads you run
Given a choice between the two groups there is strategic value in marketing towards a male audience. That is because girls playing with "boy toys" has been more socially acceptable than boys playing with "girl toys", especially in the '80s. Therefore by marketing to boys, some girls might purchase the product, but by marketing to girls no boys would. If the only motive behind a decision is the increase of profit, then the above choice is understandable but not ethical.
A vicious cycle
The NES was received positively and after establishing a market, Nintendo attempted to expand its audience. The company aimed at the untapped market of girls, particularly in the time leading up to 1991. Meanwhile however, the console's competitors vied for dominance. New systems like the SEGA Genesis threatened Nintendo's control of the market through more powerful hardware and better pricing.
The advertising for these doubled down on the focus to a male audience, with the newest ads claiming that the product "separates the men from the boys". Nintendo might have been attempting progress for both genders but a Nintendo of America commissioned study soon found that:
Younger kids and girls liked Nintendo, but the trendsetters in the video-game world, young teenage boys, were talking Genesis
The result has been a vicious cycle. Perception of trendsetters became skewed by gender and that made it seemingly beneficial for new titles to aim at only one group. Thus, video games became a "boy's hobby", through the power of marketing - not because of gender differences.
Understanding the origin of the idea that "girls don't play games" is a vital step to dismantling it. To engage with storytelling is an act uniquely human and it goes against all decency to let anyone feel excluded on account of gender. If video games became gendered after the impact of corporate greed and through advertising, then it is possible to restore gender equality through increasing awareness and by encouraging mindful marketing.