*Please note that this is not meant to evaluate how fun this game is, but rather its educational merits and relevance to art history (and not necessarily precise historical accuracy, either).
The interaction between architecture and ancient imperial Roman society spans many different levels of social history, from the nature of everyday life, both commercial and domestic, to the long-term planning of urban spaces. To gain a better understanding of how the buildings and spaces in which ancient Romans lived and operated shaped and influenced their culture and society, one must understand how the public spaces and architecture functioned, how they were built (by whom and for whom), and how they affected those who worked and lived within them.
Cities in ancient imperial Rome were designed for pedestrians and physical proximity, and as such, the urban areas containing public buildings such as businesses, the forum, theaters, and baths saw much intermingling between various classes. Cities were built carefully, arranged with grid-like patterns, conveying a sense of order. However, not all cities were granted the same status. The Romans categorized cities in a hierarchical fashion in order of importance, mirroring the hierarchy of rank among its citizens and dwellers. Favored Roman colonies that were granted tax exemption were followed by other colonies which were not granted such privileges. Municipalities followed them, and finally, the outlying cities and villages existed, living under their own cultural customs and laws. What did this all mean for the daily lives of those who existed in different strata of city, and how is this reflected in video games whose main concept is designed around the functioning of ancient Roman colonies? Did buildings that fall under the same typology function similarly in different cities? How did the public spaces differ from each other in different colonies? How did the buildings and monuments reflect the desires of the individuals who commissioned them in expressing power and identity? Is this something that a video game can express and expand upon?
There are numerous video games focusing on giving a player the chance to experience ancient Roman cities and architecture: what they looked like, what they were constructed of, and even what it might have been like to serve as a city-planner. CivCity: Rome is one such game in which players are given the chance to either strategically build a functioning ancient Roman city, sandbox style, or partake in various missions that involve governing civic functions to help out particular cities or colonies in trouble. By comparing how this game presents and defines ancient Roman monuments, spaces, and other architectural features in comparison to their actual physical counterparts, one may gain a better understanding as to the insights and problems, that a game like CivCity: Rome may provide for the understanding of Roman architecture, social history, and those who had the power to plan and build. More importantly, it will reveal the answer to the main question I wish to pose: Does the interface of CivCity: Rome allow for a player to experience how these monuments and spaces shaped what is known of ancient Roman social history in a way that may grant more insight than a textual or literary source? To explore this question further, the interactions between history, digital media, and video game theory must be consulted.
II. Video Game Theory
Tom Taylor, a scholar of history, states that the relationships between historical phenomena and causation may be understood in a more complex way through digital media, of which video games are a subset. He outlines the three characteristics of this medium that contribute to understanding as “interactivity, representation of complex process in a dynamic, visual and integrated manner, and presentation of the past as it was experienced by those who lived it.” On the surface, a video game such as CivCity: Rome seems to attempt to offer up all of those factors. As with other video games that strive to recreate historical circumstance, CivCity: Rome references historical knowledge in its creation of an interface that attempts to duplicate a Roman city, considering everything from buildings to fashion to religion. However, an examination of actual game-play, or how the interface of the game allows the player to interact with the information and visuals will reveal if this is the case.
In the early stages of game development, video games have been approached by the industry as extensions of both narrative and drama, much like film. Gonzalo Frasca, a scholar of video game theory, argues that this model does not realize the full potential of video games with relation to the learning of any given subject. He states that “video games are not just based on representation but on an alternative semiotical structure known as simulation.” While he agrees that narratives and simulation share some common elements such as settings and events, he states that their mechanics are fundamentally different, and that each offers its own distinct rhetorical device. Using traditional semiotics and literary theory to explore the realm of simulation is problematic, because video games that incorporate simulation are not just made of sign sequences, but operate as machines of sign generators. Frasca then turns to “simulation semiotics,” or simiotics, to further explain video game simulation. He states that simulation not only retains the characteristics of an object, but also models its behaviors in an interactive environment, unlike narrative in film or literary sources. Video games offer to a player the chance not only to interpret an object (much like film or books), but to also manipulate and influence an object. In the case of historical video games, importance is placed not just on accuracy, but also the dynamics in which social history has been framed. A player may “live” the experience (to an extent) of an ancient Roman bathhouse through a video game in ways not possible when being exposed to a narration or the presentation of one in other sources.
What does manipulation and influence in a video game mean for the player’s relationship to an object or experience? Torben Grodal, a scholar of media studies explains:
Video games may have some high-order motivations, but for a series of reasons games will often also have a strong focus on the execution of low-level (sub)goals like simple navigation and handling processes. An intro to the game may provide the superior motivation, say, to crush an evil empire, and this will provide motivation for the lower-order processes.
In short, the player will have an emotional and embodied experience with the simulation of gameplay, based on the motivations that the interface and story of the game provide. This may very well prove to be the vehicle through which a player is allowed to experience in an embodied fashion the role of an emperor or civic leadership figure, furthering the understanding of the creation of ancient Roman social identities and power structures through simulated and interactive construction.
Claudio Fogu, a historian with interests in the relationships between continental philosophy and visual culture, contextualizes and defines the purpose of historical gaming. He states that historical games “replace representation with simulation and presence with virtuality,” and allow “history to replace poetry and philosophy as the realm of the possible.” This conclusion might explain the eagerness of some historians to embrace digitalization, or video games more specifically, as they allow for more complex analyses of historical subjects. Video games which focus on historical themes or subjects encourage a shift (from literary models) from issues of representation to experiences of interactivity and “sensory immersion” that attempt to redefine history as “the experience of the virtually past.” This shift may be better explained in a case study.
Taylor describes such a study in which his students played the empire-building game Civilization in addition to learning Paul M. Kennedy’s theories concerning shifting global powers. While the game is not designed to be a replication of Kennedy’s argument, the students noted that the game helped them to “see and experience Kennedy’s arguments.” Instead of remaining static, factors such as geography, technology, and leadership style became interactive and visual learning tools that fit within Kennedy’s model. Not only did the students get to experience Kennedy’s theories, but they also became active participants in the construction of the model itself. The motivation to succeed within the game was carried out by a bodily and interactive experience with the game interface, and influenced by the learning of Kennedy’s theoretical model. A video game such as Civilization does not simply invite a player to participate in the recreation of historical events, but allows one to interact with both historical processes and experience theoretical models in an engaging and visual way. Can it do the same when faced with a more narrowly-focused building simulation concerning the cities of Rome? Does a game which focuses on a more narrow and precise building concept open up even more possibilities for experiencing these theoretical models? An overview of the functions and motivations for Roman architecture and city-planning with relation to social history will help lay the foundation for such a study.
III. Roman Culture, City Planning, and Identity
“I found Rome of clay; I leave it to you of marble.”
While this quote – genuine or otherwise – may have captured the spirit of the emperor Augustus and his successors, the city of clay (brick) still survived in what Lionel Casson, a scholar of travel in the ancient world, called “middle- and lower-class quarters.”  Near the forum, the Senate House, the temples, and the spacious colonnades were spaces that contained blocks of cramped apartment houses, shops, and buildings of flats that reached four stories or more. Since there was much intermingling of classes within urban areas, the understanding of shared public spaces may grant more insight as to the lives of both the elite and the common.
James C. Anderson, Jr., a scholar of Roman architecture and archaeology, states that public buildings in the ancient Roman Empire fall into three categories: sacred (religious), civic or municipal, and recreational (entertainment). He also states that in traditional architectural scholarship, one would generally separate the sacred from the civic and the recreational, and lump the latter two together into one topic called “public.” However, in studying architecture as a reflection of a particular society, it may be more helpful to study each space as a distinct part of a greater whole. For instance, a forum and a bathhouse would have served entirely different purposes, and grouping such spaces together as one topic may be problematic for the understanding of their relation to both each other and the people who functioned within them.
Roman cities housed a great deal of specialized public buildings and spaces, ranging from structures utilized for entertainment to honorific monuments. Building aesthetics and functions then, just as now, were affected by both the economy and political environment. However, as Mark Jones, an architectural historian states, the details of such interactions between ancient society and architecture are best found in the study of the actual monuments and buildings. He also raises the issue of interpretation. New art history is becoming aware of the problems of the subjective, and as such, one should be aware of the distinction between context and the historically probable when attempting to determine how the study of ancient buildings frame social history.
Eve D’Ambra, an art historian specializing in antiquity, defines a relationship between Roman cities and culture. She states that the Roman Empire consisted of many cities connected by a network of roads. It was arguably the first civilization in the ancient western world to have such an urban landscape, and as such, the creation and planning of Roman cities served as the building blocks for culture and identity. Public buildings and structures such as those for administration, theaters, baths, aqueducts, and fora were placed in each city and conquered territory, assimilating those newly under Roman rule, and serving as attractants for others. Monuments were erected by imperial figures to display and solidify their identity and power. The emperor was viewed as the embodiment of Rome (the empire), and Roman culture was found in its network of cities, each modeled in some fashion after the original capital city, Rome.
Naturally, ancient Romans were highly aware of the concept of city planning. O. F. Robinson, a scholar of ancient Roman law, states that Roman authorities were attuned to the effects of city planning on the individual. However, it was not the governing body that planned out each building and monument, as emperors and private citizens also individually commissioned these works of art. Whether the purpose of erecting a new monument or public building was to create an identity or reinforce the power of the imperial cult, or perhaps both, these structures that constitute the Roman city directly affected the social lives of those who lived within its borders.
IV. CivCity: Rome and the Interactive Experience of an Emperor
CivCity: Rome places its players in an interactive space, one that has the potential to allow a player to experience theoretical models of how Roman cities were built, planned, and what effects these might have had on those who dwelled within their boundaries. Can experiencing in a video game the direct effects that the building of monuments, public spaces, and infrastructures had on the social framework and cultural identities of ancient Roman peoples place the player in the position of a virtual emperor, or one whose power and identity were marked by these structures? Taylor’s case study describes a situation in which students were able to better understand the theoretical models surrounding global powers by playing Civilization, a game that interactively simulates the expansion of ancient civilizations. Can the embodied and interactive experience that a player has within a game such as CivCity: Rome, one that places motivation on the completion of goals such as expanding a city through planning and building, further the understanding of the motivations of those who used buildings and public spaces to create an identity and solidify power? Or does this understanding fall directly into line with the experience of learning information through other sources? A description of the flow of game-play in CivCity: Rome contrasted with the previously discussed historical and video game theory models reveal the dynamics of interactivity that a player may experience.
Immediately after loading the game, a player will have access to many functions. Before actual game-play, a player may access the game’s Civilopedia, which serves as an encyclopedia for many of the game’s objects, themes, and functions. This Civilopedia hosts many interesting facts and visuals concerning the architecture and social history of ancient Rome. While revealing nothing about the mechanics of actual game-play, the information found in the Civilopedia provides a useful backdrop to Roman culture. Players may click on topics (which are represented as visuals) to learn more about Roman entertainment, housing, food, economics, and even marriage. This textual and visual display provides a framework for linking the functions of Roman buildings to the activities that may have taken place within them, and serves to assist a player in visualizing and conceptualizing important aspects of daily life for Romans. The Civilopedia is not a necessary task that players may undergo (they may skip straight to game-play and ignore this function entirely), but it offers much basic information that supports objects that are utilized during game-play nonetheless. As players progress through the game, they will also find that the Civilopedia is available as a reference tool during campaigns.
When actual game-play is initiated, players are given two options: to embark on a campaign that consists of various pre-set missions, or to simply start building a city. The campaign is meant to be played first, and also serves as a tutorial, teaching new players about the many goals, sub-goals, and achievements that CivCity: Rome has set up for completion. The various tasks that players may complete to reach these goals are outlined in the various levels of the campaign. It becomes apparent after the first few tutorial levels that the campaign is designed to place a player in the position of one who is striving to be a leader. The in-game motivations to complete tasks are based on a desire to gain recognition from the capital city, Rome, and also encourage a player to create a self that is attempting to build individual power and prestige. While there is no actual avatar for a player to complete actions through, there are various visual and dialogue-oriented cues that strongly imply the role of the player as one whose ambition is to become a civic leader.
Creating this role (and ultimate goal) for a player in the campaign levels is achieved by a combination of narrative, dialogue, the revealing of sub-goals to the player, and direct interaction from the player. The first mission in the campaign begins in Lavinium, which is not represented as a city, but as open terrain, or the site for a potential city. It is interesting that the campaign should start with this location, as Lavinium is the city that the mythical Aeneas was said to have founded. While the game does not seem to imply that the player is a mythical figure, as Rome seems to already exist in the game at this point, it nonetheless provides a location that is tied to pre-Roman mythical tradition. The player is then told of their objective during this mission: to settle the terrain, build stone camps, and deliver a shipment of stone to Rome. The player’s in-game advisor, Gaius Peitonus, states that this mission will help support the enterprising capital city of Rome, and also implies that this area was recently acquired by Rome, setting the player up as one sent by (or designated by) the empire to begin colonization efforts. The player must then perform several actions if he or she is to complete the mission successfully.
These actions include planning out a very basic city-structure. The player is provided with various buildings, roads, and other structures that he or she may place onto the terrain. Each structure serves a specific purpose within the game, and while most are self-explanatory on the surface (a warehouse will store goods, a well provides water), there are also combinations of relationships that arise due to interactions between structures. For example, if a shack, which is a basic housing unit, is within proximity of a set of structures that may provide its inhabitants with luxury goods such as olive oil and wine, or services such as education and religion, the wealth of the shack will increase and it will eventually “upgrade” to a hut. The more goods and services that are provided to the families within these housing units will also cause more upgrades to occur. It is possible for a shack to eventually become an insulae (an apartment building that may also house shops), a domus (a small private house), and eventually, a villa (a large house usually located outside of the urban center of a city). Players must also make sure to provide jobs, food, protection, and entertainment, all in the form of structures, or these “upgrades” will not occur. For example, building a farm provides food, jobs, and goods for trade. While this model of simulation may not turn out to be particularly historically accurate, as players may manipulate game mechanics to create a “perfect” city with equal access and no poverty, it nonetheless provides a player with a basic idea of the type of city-planning that a civic leader must be aware of for a Roman colony to successfully function. If a city is lacking several structures that provide services or goods, for instance, its inhabitants will become unhappy, riots will ensue, and people will eventually leave.
While the mechanics and game-play of CivCity: Rome at this point may be loosely applicable to any city-building simulation, there are further features of the interface that solidify this game’s attempt to narrowly define a particular culture. After the first few levels of the campaign, a player will be granted access to buildings and structures, that when combined, produce a culturally Roman landscape. Aqueducts, bathhouses, and polytheistic temples eventually become necessities within the cities featured in the campaign. If the multitudes of buildings which keep getting introduced become overwhelming for a player, he or she may always reference their Civilopedia entries to learn more information. As each new specifically Roman building is introduced for a player to utilize, an emphasis is placed on the creation of Roman identities. For example, when the bathhouse is introduced (and citizens taking baths becomes its own sub-goal within a level of the campaign), the player’s advisor states:
Now we must breathe some civilization into your streets and show Rome what you have achieved here. There is no greater mark of civilized man, than to take a regular bath and this is what you will provide for Tarentum. When water flows not only in Rome but into a second city of the empire, our triumph will be complete.
The bathhouse is just one example of a structure that is emphasized within the game as a necessity for a civilized culture. When the bathhouse is introduced, the aqueduct and cistern are as well, and a player must manage the relationship that the combination of these architectural structures produces within the game. The player’s in-game identity as one who is attempting to gain prestige as a leader is continually reinforced, as well as the virtual citizens’ identity as Romans.
What also stands out during game-play with regards to the creation of a Roman identity through city-planning and building are the various interactions with the capital city that a player must undergo, as well as the moments of dialogue that occur with Roman officials or leaders. The first few missions of the campaign all involve establishing trade routes with the capital city, providing Rome with various goods and commodities such as wheat, rock, marble, wood, and wine. As levels progress, Rome starts to make requests of the player, and if these requests are fulfilled, the player is awarded with “empire points,” which raises overall score. It becomes clear that the sub-goals that the player is encouraged to strive for are part of the larger goal of becoming recognized by Rome, not only by providing the capital with goods, but also “Romanizing” the colonies presented in the campaign with combinations of structures such as bathhouses, polytheistic temples, fora (town squares), aqueducts, and eventually, colosseums, theaters, and monumental architectures.
If a player successfully manages to place these combinations of structures so that citizens utilize them and become more Roman, he or she will gain recognition from various advisors from Rome. One mission in Capena involves building temples to various polytheistic deities (Diana, Mithras, and Mercury to start) and encouraging citizens to marry. Upon successful completion of this mission, an advisor will meet the player in a bathhouse and confer the title of Quaestor (one who has financial jurisdiction as a representative of the state) upon him or her. Previously, the advisor will have addressed the player simply as a citizen. Upon completion of other missions, a player may obtain the title of Censor (one who oversees the census), a Praetor (a magistrate ranking below Consul), and so forth. The implied objective of the campaign, aside from successfully planning and building Roman cities, is to climb the ranks of the political Roman hierarchy.
While each public structure’s purpose is outlined within the Civilopedia, giving the player an idea of how these buildings functioned within the Roman Empire, their visual qualities and history are not emphasized. Once a player has passed the initial stages of the campaign tutorial, certain monuments and a wider variety of buildings and public structures are available for use. These include colonnades, lavish gardens, fountains, wineries, more temples, and arenas. However, while a player may become acquainted with the basics about how these structures functioned within ancient Rome, their individual historical qualities in the game are de-emphasized in favor of various ratings that determine success on a mission. For example, a theater and a colosseum may have the same value and both grant a player a higher “entertainment” rating, whereas gardens and monuments both boost a player’s “splendor” rating. This contributes to the player organizing these structures within broad conceptual categories if he or she wishes to complete objectives. However, this may be helpful when attempting to visualize general theoretical models concerning city planning and identity in ancient Rome.
An interesting aspect of the use of structures to increase ratings include the game’s presentation of monuments. There are various monuments that a player may build at certain points in the game. Each of these monuments requires the collection and utilization of numerous resources, as well as a significant amount of time. One such monument is Trajan’s column, which was originally a commemorative sculpture depicting Rome’s victory over the Dacians. The way the monument may be utilized in the game is bizarre, as players may build it at any time (and as many as they want) to increase their “wonders” rating. In CivCity: Rome, the column does not represent a unique work of art that is meant to showcase Roman military might and identity, but is treated much like standard Roman structures such as bathhouses and theaters, used only to increase ratings and gain attention from the capital city.
While CivCity: Rome does not place much importance on relaying to the player an in-depth analysis of the visual qualities of the architectural structures he or she may utilize within the game, it nonetheless attempts to convey to the player through interaction the connections between city-planning, the use of Roman structures (the “Romanization” of colonies), and the creation of a Roman identity to gain power. This game provides a model for how the interactive medium of video games may give players the motivation to complete objectives that contribute to the understanding of theoretical models revolving around city-planning and the structures of identity within the Roman Empire.
However, the structure of this building simulation may also be problematic. While players are given the chance to directly affect the layout of a virtual Roman city, working through an interface that allows a player to experience what it meant to be Roman, they also are allowed to simulate historically inaccurate economical situations. The game’s objectives, which include managing finances to maintain a steady flow of denarii (Roman coinage), allow a player to create an unrealistically wealthy city in which all housing units may become villas. It is not the game’s purpose to be as historically accurate as possible, but it is clear that the mechanics of the game do not allow player interactivity and accurate historical simulation to occur at the same time. Nonetheless, CivCity: Rome does allow a player to experience a rise to power through the city-planning of ancient Roman colonies. It emphasizes identity, or more specifically, what it meant to be a Roman. It also depicts the relation of the capital city to outlying colonies, and how Rome functioned as a network of urban spaces connected by roads.
Ultimately, CivCity: Rome may not serve as a replacement for literary and other textual sources concerning art historical theories about Roman cities and the structures that comprise them, but it can serve as an interactive medium through which these theories are better understood. Much like Taylor’s experience with Civilization, the structure of this city-building simulation reveals how it is possible for video games to provide a virtual experience for players that may help them to understand better the dynamics of ancient Roman urban spaces and the formation of an Roman identity, or more specifically, one who utilizes public structures to gain power within the political framework of the Roman empire.
 James C. Anderson Jr., Roman Architecture and Society (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), xx-xxii.
 D. Brendan Nagle, The Ancient World: A Social and Cultural History (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006), 340-341.
 Tom Taylor, “Historical Simulations and the Future of the Historical Narrative,” Journal of the Association for History and Computing 6 (2003): 1, accessed February 28, 2013. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jahc/3310410.0006.203?rgn=main;view=fulltext.
 Gonzalo Frasca, “Simulation versus Narrative,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003), 221-222.
 Frasca, 222-225.
 Torben Grodal, “Stories for the Eye, Ear, and Muscles: Video Games, Media, and Embodied Experiences,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003), 131.
 Claudio Fogu, “Digitalizing Historical Consciousness,” History and Theme 47 (2009): 103.
 Fogu, 113-114.
 Taylor, 1.
 Taylor, 1.
 Cassius Dio, Roman History 56.30.3
 Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 30-31.
 Casson, 30-31.
 Anderson Jr., 241.
 Anderson Jr., 242.
 Frank Sear, Roman Architecture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 30-31.
 Mark Wilson Jones, Principles of Roman Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 2-4.
 Eve D’Ambra, Roman Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 59-61.
 O. F. Robinson, Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration (London: Routledge, 1994), 14.
 Richard Van Eck, “Building Artificially Intelligent Learning Games,” in Games and Simulations in Online Learning: Research and Development Frameworks, ed. David Gibson and Clark Aldrich (Hershey: Information Science, 2007), 296.
 Zach Waggoner, My Avatar, My Self: Identity in Video Role-Playing Games (Jefferson: McFarland, 2009), 9.
 Howard H. Scullard, A History of the Roman World: 753 to 146 BC (London: Routledge, 2003), 48-49.
 Mary Beard and Simon R. F. Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 12.
 It may be worth noting that the name of this advisor is suspiciously similar to Gaius Petronius, author of the Satyricon and a courtier during Nero’s reign.
 L. Richardson, A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 111-112.
 CivCity: Rome, 2K Games, 2006.
 Paolo Squatriti, Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 22.
 Stefan Grundmann, The Architecture of Rome (Berlin: Edition Axel Menges, 1998), 8-10.
 Allan Chester Johnson et al., Ancient Roman Statutes (New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange, 2009), 271.
 Johnson, 270-272.
 C.M. Wells, The Roman Empire: Second Edition (London: Harvard University Press, 1995), 316.
 Michael H. Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 1-7.
*Please note that this work was written for an audience that is not familiar with video games.
During the early 1990’s, marketing for video games began its sharp shift from the idea of “family fun,” embodied largely in puzzle games such as Tetris, to games made specifically for males. Various developers began to mass-produce masculine-oriented games aimed directly at males aged 13-25, leaving a large portion of the gaming community – females – unaddressed. Some notable examples include the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat series, and a slew of first-person shooters, starting with Doom. With much difficulty, publishing companies such as Her Interactive started releasing what they called “video games for girls.” These games, such as Barbie Fashion Designer and Cosmo Virtual Makeover presented the masculine-dominated game market with a variety of titles specifically aimed at female (or feminine) youths. However, dividing the video game market into two unequal parts in a way that mirrored patriarchal societal beliefs concerning gender norms seemed to create and perpetuate a distinct gender binary within the content of video games, with masculine traits such as violence and action directed at males, and feminine attributes such as beauty and passivity at females. While games structured around “family fun,” those that were abstract and thus largely gender-neutral, were still being produced, more often than not a published game was aimed at one of these two gendered markets, and mostly toward males.
Coinciding with the perpetuation of a distinct gendered binary in video game content was the rise of the console-driven visual role-playing game pioneered by the publishing company Square Soft and their hit game, Final Fantasy. Many games followed in the footsteps of Final Fantasy, such as the two popular titles Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana, and of course, many other titles in the Final Fantasy series. These games presented the player with an avatar to control and complete tasks with in a fantasy-driven virtual environment. These tasks, such as fighting enemies, would most often culminate in a serious and complicated quest in which the avatar and his or her friends would end up changing the (fantasy) world in some dramatic way, ultimately serving as heroes. The avatar functions as an agent for the player, and allows the player to create a self to identify with in his or her manipulation of the avatar’s actions.
Since the avatar and the world of the role-playing game is represented in a visual and interactive manner, the representation of the avatar and its actions combined with the elements of escapism that a fantasy realm offer may also serve as agents for gender socialization in the creation of a virtual self. Gender socialization, the process through which the values and normative behaviors associated with particular genders (usually a gendered binary: male and female) in a society are learned, is no stranger to the realm of video games. Video games function as gendered play spaces, and distinct genres of games have developed and are marketed according to the previously-mentioned gendered binary. Alongside the division of masculine and feminine amongst game genres, games marketed toward males are generally linear and goal-driven, whereas games marketed toward females are typically non-linear and exploratory.
A vast majority of the more popular role-playing video games are marketed to males and feature a core concept that is masculine-driven, focusing on violence, action, and heroism. These games also marginalize and sexualize women in both representation and concept, offering to the player a hyper-masculine avatar to create a self through. Combined with a game’s ability to draw a player into immersion through interactivity and fantasy elements (escapism), the creation of a self becomes problematic as heteronormative values are perpetuated. However, there may be an exception, which I will propose as the basis for my thesis. The video game Earthbound provides mechanics, an interface, and an urban setting that parody most fantasy narratives and role-playing games, creating a world in which immersion and escapism are challenged and conceptualized in the forefront of the gaming experience. This creates an outlet through which the fiction of the gender binary is made present in the creation of the self. I will argue that all of these factors allow Earthbound to highlight the construction and instability of normative gender values, even while it appears to, on the surface, promote them.
An examination of how Earthbound highlights the construction and perpetuation of gender norms and the resistance of gender socialization through the interactive medium of video games may also present an interesting and largely underrepresented field of study. Video games are a type of interactive media that convey symbolic messages about gender roles and social reality through both the physical depiction of females and the occupation of certain roles by female characters. Studies have shown that the video games which have gained the most popularity among consumers most often focus on violence and portray femininity with negative representations, with female characters shown as hyper-sexualized with exaggerated feminine features and scant clothing, often also playing a passive or supportive role such as a submissive or victimized character. The absence of female characters combined with overly negative portrayals of females in video games which promote violence reinforce gender stereotypes such as the valuation of beauty over intellect. These concepts discourage females from playing video games as they struggle to identify with these characters. This further perpetuates the idea that the market for video games should be aimed toward males. By working through the methods that Earthbound has used to both highlight and break down these constructions, perhaps a basis for the awareness of the gender divide and how gender socialization functions within video games may be developed. This game provides a potential model for changing both the gendered content of video games and the marketing decisions of the industry that produces them, ultimately leading to a deconstruction of the stark gender division.
II. Feminism and Video Game Gender Theories
An overview of both Judith Butler’s feminist theories and video game gender theories will lay the groundwork for this argument. Butler argues that gender, sexuality, and the body are all constructs defined by the heteronormative systems of power, systems that put constraints on what is perceived as viable in our society. She states that gender is not inherent or automatic. It involves doing and performing, even if within sets of boundaries. Most of this performing occurs for something or someone outside of oneself, just as the constraints and terms defining gender performativity also exist outside of oneself. The qualifications for the subject of gender, that which traditionally and stereotypically designates one either a man or a woman, are the products of social systems and unstable. Some have theorized that the totality of the systems represent an inherently masculine and oppressive normative value through which everything else (such as femininity and women) is judged against. However, to vertically combine all of these systems is to unnecessarily designate a linear and universal path that contributes to the identification of gender.
There is no primary cause for the polarized gender binary that seems to influence every aspect of our social spheres, but rather, many causes that are influenced and perpetuated by gender socialization. The practices which regulate gender formation and difference contribute to the creation of an identity. However, these practices also have largely succumbed to the values which constitute heteronormativity, making it culturally impossible for certain identities to exist, such as those which do not fall into the oppositions of male and female, or more specifically, feminine and masculine. Video games as gendered play spaces, or agents of gender socialization, serve as interactive representations of such systems, practices, and causes, and as such, may either perpetuate or push against the normative values of a particular society concerning sex and gender. Semiotics may be utilized to understand further how video games present gendered ideologies and values. Like any other media which presents visual images, video games offer a construction based on symbolic association. Certain signifiers may become associated with various values that promote and perpetuate a gender binary associated with biological sex. Semiotics and video game gender theory conclude that promoting the ideas that uphold a gender binary based on masculinity and femininity limit societal roles, and also the imagination of humans.
How might video games like Earthbound resist the promotion of a gendered binary through interactivity and socialization? The answer may be in its blatant portrayal of the binary through both character representations and actions, which will be returned to at a later point. Most analyses of the relationships between video games and gender focus on two main concepts: the dominance of what are considered masculine game themes, and the representation of a gender (predominantly that which is considered female) within games. For the second issue, combined with a general lack of character presence, females in games are most often represented within narrow stereotypes, such as the damsel in distress or subjects for the male gaze. These characters are also linked to what are considered feminine attributes or characteristics, such as passivity in the face of male action or caretaker/supportive roles.
Sexuality must also be taken into account. Most often in video games, heterosexuality functions as a normative social value, and strongly affects how characters develop and how storylines are formed. A multilevel approach must be taken when studying sexuality in games, and how represented sexuality plays out in the depiction and reception of the concept of gender. Character representation – appearance, mannerisms, dialogue, and situations – must be taken into account, as well as game-play performativity, or the experience of manipulating a character and performing actions under a given sexual identity or gender.
The genre in which Earthbound functions is also important. The genre of fantasy role-playing games allows the playing of a character (either chosen, customizable, or fully pre-determined) which may often gain experience points for performing tasks or participating in battles. These games more often than not portray male heroes that encourage a player to explore a masculine role as they perform actions relevant to the game-play. Heroism, as presented in video games, reflects various cultural understandings of the roles of women and men when it comes to both fighting the bad and upholding the good in any given society. These presentations might reflect traditional gender roles or contradict them entirely. Male action heroes are often presented as masculine, active, goal-oriented, and aggressive, using violence to fight enemies. Being young or handsome does not seem to matter for this role, but having the ability to captivate the women they are rescuing or assisting does. While male heroes may express sensitivity and warmth at given moments, they generally do not give into these feelings. Female action heroes tend to offer a more mediated and negotiated gender representation. They often possess traditionally masculine attributes such as aggressiveness and strength, yet also reflect at the same time a type of hyper-femininity in their beauty, youth, and sexuality. They play masculine roles, and yet at the same time are expected to operate within traditionally-outlined structures that support male power and reinforce beauty, sexuality, and other feminine traits (patriarchal ideas of the feminine). Ultimately, female heroes are depicted as stronger, faster, and more aggressive than normal human beings, but also fitting within traditionally and stereotypically defined gender roles.
While female characters as heroes are often present in role-playing games, they are outnumbered by the male characters and mostly serve to support the male characters through the storyline, their attributes, or pre-defined actions. Experience points that are gained through completing goals are spent in different ways on male and female characters to advance certain traits. Male characters are often given boosts in strength and agility, while female characters are more likely to be given magical boosts that enable them to support the male characters, such as magical spells which may grant a male character higher defense.
III. Earthbound: Highlighting the Construction of Gender through Blatancy, Parody, and Resistance to Immersion
It is pertinent to apply these various theories and themes to Earthbound to present how both games within it exemplify and reject traditional modes of video game gender socialization in their structure and representation. Earthbound was created by a team headed by Shigesato Itoi in 1995, and is now supported by a large cult following. In this game, the player may control an avatar represented by a young boy named Ness. The player also has partial control, essentially choosing battle actions, over three other characters, two more boys named Jeff and Poo, and a young girl named Paula. Both Ness and Paula are visually represented as characters that would fit nicely into a typical 1950’s idyllic American (white) narrative. Ness is presented as an “average” young boy who wears a red and blue baseball cap, striped tee-shirt, and a backpack. Paula wears a pink dress and sports two red bows in her hair. Ness’s primary weapon is a baseball bat. Paula’s is a frying pan. The differences in gender traits are already becoming stark in the visual description of these two characters. Ness, while not given a blatant weapon such as a sword or gun, is nonetheless given a fighting object which is representative of a traditionally male and action-oriented sport. Paula, as a girl, is essentially given a kitchen tool to use in battle. While both characters possess magical abilities, Ness’s are the more powerful ones, whereas Paula is given element-oriented magic, connecting her psychic powers to nature.
Sprites depicting Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo
The addition of two other male characters to this duo heavily skews the team toward the masculine, as Paula becomes a minority in both sex and feminine traits. Jeff is marked as the most intelligent member of the team, and is the only character that is able to fix broken machines and construct weapons such as rocket launchers and chemical sprays. He wears glasses and what appears to be a male school uniform. Intelligence is clearly linked to the male in his case. Poo is a bit more complex. The player encounters Poo in Dalaam, a setting that is a mash-up of a variety of buildings and objects that are stereotypically thought of as Eastern. He wears what appears to be a Karate gi and has a shaved head with a topknot. Poo is revealed to be the crown prince of Dalaam, which is full of female characters that all seem to be enamored with him. He relies on martial arts and magic to fight, and can use many of the element-oriented magic spells that Paula is in possession of. While he is clearly marked as masculine in his abilities to attract female attention and use the strength of his body effectively, he is also curiously linked to the East and the spells which connect Paula, as a female, to nature. In these four characters we see a mirroring of Western heteronormative values reflected in the character representations that are exemplified by gendered attributes, sex, and race. The masculine attributes which constitute the concept of male in a Western society are dominant and powerful, while the feminine qualities are marginalized and also associated with the “otherness” of the East. The player is essentially invited to play these characters and create a self in a fantasy world that reflects popular societal beliefs in the “real” world.
The situational backgrounds of both Ness and Paula reflect a heteronormative, gendered binary as well. Ness lives in a suburban house with his mother and sister who both fulfill supportive roles for him. His mother will cook for him upon demand (replenishing his health), and his sister will store items not in use for later retrieval. His father is able to be contacted via the telephone, but is absent from the home throughout the entire span of the game, whereas his mother and sister never leave the house. Ness may obtain money from his father, however, by calling him. If Ness has beaten enough enemies, his father will deposit money into his ATM account. This reinforces the notion of the normal Western family where the women serve as caretakers within the home and the men are away from the home working and earning money for the family. The player is put in the situation of the enterprising male youth, who freely ventures throughout the world with both types of support from his parents.
Paula’s gendered identity as a female is reinforced through two tropes, that of the female-as-caretaker/supporter and the damsel-in-distress. Paula’s home is also a pre-school, where she and her mother serve as caretakers to the children that attend. To obtain Paula within the player’s controlled team, the player (as Ness) must first rescue her from Mr. Carpainter, the leader of a bizarre blue-worshipping cult. He must then deliver her back to her mother and the pre-school, who grants Paula permission to travel under the supervision of Ness. It is implicit that Paula’s role to the children of the pre-school is motherly in nature, and that her position as a female does not grant her the same sort of freedom that Ness is granted. As a sidenote, both Poo and Jeff are granted explicit freedom to travel on their own, Jeff sneaking out of a boarding school right in front of his supervisor, and Poo charged with the important mission of helping Ness, leaving from his palace with the blessing of his father and mentor.
The other characters that the team of Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo interact with give the player an overall sense that the forces that have influence over the world are all male-gendered. A representative sampling of characters from Onett, the first town that Ness must complete tasks in, brings up no females that have a significant impact on Ness’s actions or the completion of goals within the game. There are female characters which populate the town, but none of these characters provide meaningful interactions which produce an impact on in-game events or add insightful information to the storyline. Ness must interact with the mayor of the town, the police chief and his force, and the local gang leader, all of whom are male, violence or leadership oriented, and also serve as key checkpoints for the completion of goals within the game. This trend follows throughout the rest of the game as well.
An examination of minor (non-player) characters, such as those who populate the towns and other locations but have little to no bearing on the completion of any tasks or goals provide some interesting differences in representation. Doctors, healers, officers, bodyguards, and salesmen are depicted as male, whereas nurses and fast-food workers are female. There are disproportionate amounts of males and females represented in general, with males outweighing females significantly. There are also strange differences in depiction between males and female. There are a set of sprites for females that feature an almost grotesque smile reminiscent of lipstick being smeared across a face. None of the male sprites feature such bizarre facial characteristics, but are represented with simple lines that denote facial features such the eyes and mouth. The “otherness” of women may be seen in this difference, or at the least, these depictions of females differ greatly in appearance from the majority of other characters, which are male.
So far, Earthbound seems to fall completely in line with both the theories of Butler concerning heteronormative values and the gendered binary within the content of video games. The characters, their attributes, and the settings surrounding them present a masculine-oriented game based on action with male dominance in character representation. However, this begins to break down with the introduction of Mr. Saturn, an interesting character that fails to present a clearly-defined gender based on socio-normative values. Mr. Saturn, or rather, the multitudes of Mr. Saturn that occupy a village that is pivotal to the storyline of Earthbound present a figure reminiscent of a human with conflicting attributes. Mr. Saturn is visually depicted as a round, flesh-colored figure with a face that dominates its figure. Its appendages include a large nose, feet, and whiskers. It has one hair with a large red bow attached protruding from the top of its figure. Eyebrows and two small dots for eyes complete the figure of Mr. Saturn. All of Mr. Saturn’s characteristics seem to mimic human features, but do not coalesce into an actual human figure. Previous to the introduction of Mr. Saturn, a player was presented with human figures that were clearly gendered as well as a multitude of male characters whose roles in the game were defined as both masculine and influential.
Mr. Saturn breaks down those clear boundaries and presents the player with a figure which is both important, yet unclear with regards to gender. Its prefix is “Mr.” which denotes male, yet it wears the red bow that Paula also bears. Mr. Saturn is gentle and generous, serving at times as a caretaker for the team, yet it is also intelligent, providing Ness with information and insight that is unable to be garnered elsewhere. Even the text through which Mr. Saturn speaks is different from the text providing the rest of the speech and narrative for the game, depicted in strange, almost child-like scribble. Mr. Saturn is highly influential and becomes important to Ness’s team at two points in the game, one of which determines the outcome for the most important battle. The village offers Ness and his team items that are unparalleled, granting immense health boosts and powerful weapons. Mr. Saturn, with its undecipherable gender and strange circumstances, brings to the forefront the issue of gender instability in this constructed fantasy world.
In addition to presenting the confusing figure of Mr. Saturn to the player, Earthbound also resists immersion and the acceptance of heteronormative values through its elements of parody. Rather than providing to the player a high-fantasy landscape with potential for the creation of a masculine self that is able to play out grand dreams of heroism and adventure, Earthbound gives its players characters and settings which seem to parody American culture and beliefs as well as the traditional model for fantasy role-playing games. While recognizing aspects of parody, or even that the game itself is a parody, may be tricky for those who are not thoughtful or mindful of such attributes, it is still insightful to note what the game presents as attributes of parody that attempt to subvert the overt themes of gender distinction.
Earthbound takes place in the world of Eagleland, a continent not composed of magical kingdoms, enchanted forests, or expansive mines, but full of urban cities, small towns, department stores, and highways. Ness does not embark on adventures to fight dragons and warlocks, attracting the attention of beautiful princesses along the way, but encounters enemies such as the “annoying old party man,” “abstract art,” and “the third strongest mole.” The actuality of death and violence when fighting these enemies is also suppressed, as it is explicit that Ness does not actually kill anything he fights, but rather bashes it until it “comes back to its senses.” Fight scenes are also not animated, and “bashing” or the casting of magical spells on enemies does not provide any realistic visuals to the player.
Taking into account the elements which create a parody of the aspects of traditional role-playing games and American urban life, the blatant depiction of a gender binary in which the concept of male is the normative value is brought into stark relief. Ness is a male, and must complete masculine-oriented action-based goals, but he also lives in a land that is itself a parody, with funny and bizarre enemies, and tasks that result in a mundane outcome. For instance, one of his first tasks to complete involves convincing some police officers to remove a roadblock. The officers manning the roadblock make it clear that they are not sure why the roadblock is necessary, nor do they seem to consult reason when faced with someone who wishes to cross it. It is these quirky tasks which parody the experiences that a player might have in reality that resist the immersion into a fantasy world, and also bring the fiction and instability of the gender difference the game constructs into the forefront.
There are also times when the game reveals its awareness of the player to the player, essentially breaking down any walls of immersion between the player and the game. It is these moments in which the player is reminded of the fact that he or she is a player and not a character within the game. There are instances in which the game pauses its fiction to ask the player questions, such as when character action is halted and the game itself asks the player what his or her name is. There is also a point in which one of the characters receives a phone call which is intended for the player to respond to in which another character asks the player a question. The game itself is mentioned within the game, such as a billboard that announces a meeting for the developers of Earthbound 2 (which does not exist) and a sign that reads, “I sense that you have a controller in your hands.” This happens so often that the player’s immersion and creation of a self is constantly being disrupted, or at the very least challenged. It is almost as if the game does not want the player to relate to its constructed world, genders, and narrative in the creation of a self, but rather wants the player to remain aware of his or her status as a player, the game’s status as simply a game, and gender and societal values as constructs.
To summarize, Earthbound presents an interesting model for a game that both blatantly portrays and deconstructs a performed gender binary. Through its character development, the motivation for the completion of goals through gendered acts, and narrative, Earthbound presents to a player a clear representation of gender roles filtered through a heteronormative value system. However, the creation of a virtual self through this interactive medium is disrupted through the inclusion of the Mr. Saturn characters, elements of parody of both the genre of role-playing games and American society, and the game’s reluctance to allow a player to become immersed within a fantasy realm.
Even if the elements of parody are lost on a less-thoughtful player, leading to heteronormative (and oppressive) values being reinforced throughout the performative aspects of game-play that lead to the creation of a self, Earthbound nonetheless provides an interesting example of how gender roles may be constructed (and deconstructed) within video games. Earthbound highlights the power that video games have with regards to the manipulation of gendered values, and ultimately, the factors through which gender socialization functions within this medium. Perhaps the content of non-abstract video games does not have to fall in line with normative gender values which may limit both the roles and imagination of those who play them.
1 Sheri Graner Ray, Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market (Hingham: Charles River Media Inc., 2004), xiii.
2 Steven L. Kent, The Ultimate History of Video Games (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), xv.
3 Yasmin B. Kafai et al., “Preface: Pink, Purple, Casual, or Mainstream Games: Moving Beyond the Gender Divide,” in Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming, ed. Yasmin B. Kafai et al. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), xi-xii.
4 Ray, xiii-xv.
5 Kent, 539-541.
6 Zach Waggoner, My Avatar, My Self: Identity in Video Role Playing Games (Jefferson: McFarland, 2009), 8-9.
7 Waggoner, 11.
8 Carolyn Corrado, “Gender Identities and Socialization,” in Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, ed. Jodi O’Brien (London: Sage Publications, 2009), 356-363.
9 Carolyn Cunningham, “Video Games: Representations of Femininity,” in Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, ed. Mary Kosut (London: Sage Publications, 2012), 407.
10 Cunningham, 408.
11 Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993), 1-16.
12 Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1-4.
13 Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 2-14.
14 Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 16-17.
15 Amy M. Corey, “Semiotics and Gender Studies,” in Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, ed. Mary Kosut (London: Sage Publications, 2012), 326.
16 Jo Bryce and Jason Rutter, “Gendered Gaming in Gendered Space,” in Handbook of Computer Game Studies, ed. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 303.
17 Mia Consalvo, “Hot Dates and Fairy-Tale Romances: Studying Sexuality in Video Games,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003), 172-173.
18 Melissa Camacho, “Heroes: Action and Super Heroes,” in Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, ed. Mary Kosut (London: Sage Publications, 2012), 161.
19 Camacho, 161.
20 Camacho, 162.
21 Robin Johnson, “Video Games: Representations of Masculinity,” in Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, ed. Mary Kosut (London: Sage Publications, 2012), 411.
22 Anna Anthropy, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art (New York: Seven Stories, 2012), 44.
23 At one point Ness’s dog joins his team, as well as his neighbors Pokey and Pickey, but only for a minimal amount of time.
24 Iver B. Neumann, Uses of the Other: “The East” in European Identity Formation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 2-7.
25 David Popenoe, Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and Decline in Modern Societies (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1988), 58.
26 J. Meryl Krieger, “Tropes,” in Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, ed. Mary Kosut (London: Sage Publications, 2012), 399-401.
27 A count based on minor non-player characters who serve no role in task completion brings up a 5:2 ratio in favor of male.
29 Mr. Saturn is both the name of their race and each of their individual names.
30 Helene A. Shugart, “Mediating Modalities: Practicing Popular Politics,” in Public Modalities: Rhetoric, Culture, Media and the Shape of Public Life, ed. Daniel C. Brouwer and Robert Asen (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 186-187.
31 Anthropy, 45.
32 Grant Tavinor, The Art of Video Games (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 57.[img]
Super Mario Bros. and Yume Nikki: Abstraction, Structure, and Gender
by Vanessa Leong (vlesditor)
*Please note, I wrote this with the intention of it being a preliminary thesis for my MA (Art History). Some of the language is very basic because I was presenting this to an audience with little to no knowledge about video games. Otherwise, I hope this offers a view of (two) video games from a slightly different point of view.
Video Games are for Boys?!
While there are huge debates regarding the social usefulness and functionality of video games, there is no doubt that they constitute an influential force as a type of interactive visual media, even if they are nearly always categorized under the catch-all concept of “low culture.” The widespread popularity of this media among American consumers has inevitably led these video games, and the publishers that produce them, to fall prey to the trends of contemporary gender socialization. This essay will examine two different games, Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985, referred to hereon as Mario), produced for a consumer market, and a more recent game developed as freeware by a single designer, Yume Nikki (Kikiyama, 2005). It will compare the structure and use of abstract concepts and visuals within the two games, and discuss how these elements combine to give insight into the ways they bypass contemporary gender socialization, offering players other worthwhile outlets or concepts.
Starting in the early 1990’s, the video game market began to shift from the idea of “family fun,” embodied in largely gender-neutral puzzle games such as Pong, to “video games are for boys!” Various publishers began to mass-produce games aimed directly at males aged 13-25, leaving a large portion of the gaming community – females – unaddressed. Some notable examples include the violence-riddled Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat series, and a slew of even more violent first-person shooters starting with Doom. With much difficulty, publishing companies such as Her Interactive started releasing “video games for girls.” These games, such as Barbie Fashion Designer and Cosmo Virtual Makeover presented the male-dominated game market with a variety of titles specifically aimed at female youths. This was to be the beginning of a market for video games based on a distinct gender binary, with violence and action directed at males, and make-up and fashion at females. While games structured around gender-neutrality, or “family fun,” were still being produced, more often than not a published game was aimed at one of these two gendered markets, and mostly toward males.
Honestly, any gender can appreciate *this* level of violence, right?
Mario: The Fantasy World Falls Apart
Many children of the 1990’s grew up either playing video games, or with the knowledge of how they worked. Super Mario Bros., a game released in America in the latter half of the 80’s, was a consumer staple in millions of households bearing a Nintendo, a video-game console, but at that point, the study of video games outside of sporadic consumer-based reviews was practically non-existent. No one really thought about how the visual and mechanical structure of Mario, its unique and abstract elements combined, formed a game that nearly anybody could interact with, more specifically, boys and girls. While not completely abstract and gender-neutral like Tetris, a game in which the player controls the movement of falling blocks in various different shapes, Mario nonetheless combines a structure, numerous abstract concepts, and visuals that resist the “video games are for boys” mentality. In a sea of video games that only seem to perpetuate potentially harmful consumer culture, the structure of Mario and other games like it may help to at least alleviate the burdens of a gender-dichotomy within this type of consumer collective.
Any person familiar with the storyline behind Mario may argue at this point that this game promotes a common gendered trope, that of the hapless (and helpless) female requiring rescue by a hero-type male. It may also be argued that Mario was specifically constructed for and advertised toward the young male crowd. However, the structure and back-story of the game itself is so abstract that the trope and advertisement campaigns are hardly reinforced during game-play. Like most video games, Mario is based off of a story that presents first a problem, and then a goal for the main character or avatar, controlled by a human player, to strive toward. For Mario, this story is barely cohesive, lacking depth and connection to actual game-play. In the game, players are presented with a fantasy-world setting named “The Mushroom Kingdom.” The princess of this kingdom, named “Toadstool,” has been kidnapped by “Koopa-King,” a giant turtle (presumably from another land). Mario, a fat man resembling a plumber, represents the player-avatar, or that which must be controlled by the player via button-pressing on the control pad in coordination with visuals presented on a television screen. Mario’s goal is to rescue Princess Toadstool. Players first learn of the storyline through a brief excerpt in the instruction booklet provided with the game:
"One day the kingdom of the peaceful mushroom people was invaded by the Koopa, a tribe of turtles famous for their black magic. The quiet, peace-loving Mushroom People were turned into mere stones, bricks and even field horse-hair plants, and the Mushroom Kingdom fell into ruin. The only one who can undo the magic spell on the Mushroom People and return them to their normal selves is the Princess Toadstool, the daughter of the Mushroom King. Unfortunately, she is presently in the hands of the great Koopa turtle king. Mario, the hero of this story (maybe) hears about the Mushroom People's plight and sets out on a quest to free the Mushroom Princess from the evil Koopa and restore the fallen kingdom of the Mushroom People. You are Mario! It's up to you to save the Mushroom People from the black magic of the Koopa!"
This instruction booklet provides somewhat of a bare-bones storyline, which was probably constructed based on the mechanics of the game rather than the opposite. While elements of the back-story seem to resemble something out of a fantasy novel or fairy-tale, giving the main role of the male-hero to the player, actual game-play is anything but, and also serves to further dissolve the gender-binary that the storyline is based on. A large aspect of the problem presented – the princess being kidnapped (or captured, the player is not even sure how she got into Koopa-king’s hands) – is not even represented in game-play; players only experience working toward the goal. In another excerpt from the instruction booklet, players are taught how to play:
"As this game proceeds the screen gradually advances to the right. The Mushroom Kingdom is made up of a number of worlds, and each world is divided into 4 areas. The fourth area of each world ends in a big castle. The Princess, as well as her mushroom retainers, are being held in one of the castles by the turtle tribe. In order to rescue the Princess, Mario has to make it to the castle at the end of each world within the given time. Along the way are mountains, pits, sea, turtle soldiers, and a host of traps and riddles. Whether or not you can make it to the last castle and free the Princess depends on you. You're going to need sharp wits and lightning reflexes to complete this quest!"
These instructions may seem to again provide the basis for an engaging fantasy novel, but are soon followed by the “real” instructions, which explain time limits, button functions, and “extra lives.” The instruction booklet describes what avid game-players now refer to as a “platformer” type game, one in which the field of game-play is not restricted to the size of the screen (the game may scroll from right to left, left to right, and even up and down), and player-controlled avatars often engage in action-type moves such as running and jumping.In Mario, the player is faced with a field of play that when compared to television, or the display of the range of human capability, is rather unique. Rather than giving the player any insight to the hero’s mind, or any sort of action that may reinforce the common ideas behind the man-rescues-woman trope, we are given a chubby, pixilated block-like character that is only able to perform limited actions. These actions consist of running and jumping, which are controlled by the player via button-pressing. Mario is unable to talk, punch, kick, or even sit down (although he can duck, which makes him look like a smashed block). His movements, due to the lack of graphical ability possessed within game consoles at this time, are jerky and unrealistic. While running and jumping may easily be related to human experience, these activities alone do not construct a clear picture of the avatar-character, nor do they invite players to immerse themselves or even “fill in the blanks.” Rather than becoming a masculine hero with an inner dialogue, a picture that may be painted with words in a novel, Mario remains a pixilated block of colors that moves around the screen. His goal is fulfilled by performing the two actions of running and jumping to complete levels, and abstractly quantified by a set of points whose total appears in the upper-left hand corner of the screen, with points being doled out seemingly arbitrarily for various completed actions such as jumping onto an enemy.
Mountains Pits, and Sea... or Blocks, Blocks, and Blocks (and Goombas)
What Mario, or the player, does with these actions to interact with the setting around him may be even more abstract. Mario must use running and jumping to engage with and evade various objects and enemies. While Mario does appear to be held by some law of gravity to a ground, he is able to jump extremely high, or more than double his height. The player may have him jump to avoid an enemy, or jump to place him onto a floating platform. These floating platforms and abstract structures made out of brick-looking squares are prevalent in the game, and provide players of Mario with varied and unique obstacles, which further serve to divorce the setting of the game from any sort of perceived reality. While the instruction manual boasts that Mario will encounter “mountains, pits, and sea,” these various landscapes are relegated to large blocks of mostly-solid colors in the background behind the playable field, and except for the “sea” setting, are unable to be interacted with in any manner resembling a real encounter. The limited color palette of Mario further abstracts the setting. While colors that can be recognizably attributed to landscapes are used (the sky is blue, a mountain is green), only limited shading or tone changes occur within objects. The game, due to 8-bit graphical limitations, is designed to be two dimensional in all aspects.
Encounters and interactions with enemies follow the same trend. If not for the clear list of enemies within the instruction booklet, one would find it difficult to define what constitutes an enemy force in Mario aside from Koopa-king (aka Bowser). Most enemies do not appear to attack Mario, or come after him in any sort of hostile fashion. They include such beings as “goomba,” a tiny brown mushroom that aimlessly wanders around flat surfaces (his intelligence seems limited, as he will end up walking off of a cliff if allowed), and “koopa-troopa,” a turtle that may walk around or float in one area. Mario may “kill” these enemies by jumping on their heads or shooting a fireball at them, but if he touches an enemy in any other manner, such as walking into it, he will lose power or die. The structure of the enemy system makes it difficult to relate Mario’s experiences with real life, or even fantasy-life, as simply touching a turtle rarely results in death, and would make for a boring concept in a novel that contains no other methods of fighting or conflict resolution. Players find that they cannot manipulate Mario to act in a more hero-like fashion, such as brandishing a sword and engaging in a skillful battle. Conversely, it is difficult to avoid all enemies entirely, or “run away.” Moving Mario to the right inevitably produces more enemies, while moving him to the left will ensure that nothing will happen, time will run out, and the level will not be completed. The player is essentially forced to move to the right and have Mario interact with the enemies. However, the violence of killing enemies, typically played-up in “boy” video games, is downplayed in Mario, as there is no blood, and enemies disappear after they are dispatched.
That turtle is too close for comfort.
Mario also introduces aspects of visuals and concepts in the game-play that have little or no base in reality whatsoever. Mario may engage with another interesting aspect of the scenery, floating square bricks or question marks, by jumping directly underneath them and hitting the underside of the brick. These interactions will have one of a few effects: a power or life-giving mushroom or flower will pop out of the top of the brick, rendering the coloring of the brick solid and further impenetrable to being struck again; if Mario is large the brick will break, awarding the player with 50 points; a flashing star will pop out, rendering Mario invincible to enemies (he can still fall off of cliffs and die); or the brick will produce one or more coins that Mario may collect toward another life before turning a solid color. Before the advent of Mario, one would hardly imagine that a princess-saving hero’s role would involve jumping onto floating bricks, let alone striking the undersides of these bricks to collect mushrooms for extra lives. The fact that Mario has the ability to gain extra lives downplays the ideas of preciousness and caution that are attributed to human lives. While the game is considered difficult to manipulate, and it is certainly easy to lose all of one’s lives and have to start over, there is no finality in death. When Mario falls off of a cliff and “loses a life,” he is simply able to start over again from some point in the game completely intact (to the dismay of the player if it happens to be the beginning). Because a player is inevitably invested in the amount of time her or she took to complete a level, some frustration may occur when all of Mario’s lives are lost. However, the lack of anything immersive that would make Mario relatable to the player, such as a personality, distances this frustration from a death of Mario, and attributes it more to “time lost” while not progressing within the game’s levels. The failure in “losing a life” to some may also serve as a necessary contrast to winning, causing a player’s progression through levels to feel more worthwhile and enjoyable.
Mute by Nature?
In addition to having Mario’s action-functions be limited to jumping and running, as well as abstracted in concept, the game’s designers also decided to avoid inserting various clues that would cue the player into the storyline. While Mario himself cannot talk, and was actually unable to due to the limitations in technology, there are other ways the creators of Mario could have inserted some information that played into Mario’s gender role, such as revealing Mario’s feelings or some plot-twists through text, or adding text or visual details about the Princess’s plight. None of these elements are included, and instead players are given numerous sub-levels in which Mario is invited to simply run, jump, swim (a variation on jumping in water levels), and enter pipes from left to right at the whim of the player, avoiding obstacles and eventually reaching the end of the level, which is designated by a flag. At the end of each group of sub-levels, Mario must progress through a castle-type setting (more reminiscent of a dungeon), at the end of which he is reminded of his ultimate goal in saving the princess. However, instead of encountering different monsters, puzzles, or intriguing situations that expand the storyline, the player finds that Mario comes across the same Koopa-boss and a large humanoid mushroom who tells him, “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” This happens seven times before the princess is actually rescued and the game draws to a close. This certainly does not invite the type of immersion into a plot that is present in fantasy novels or movies, and if the game-play was written into a book as-is, Mario would be classified as repetitive and boring. The game is often compared to a “psychedelic drug-trip,” but outside of this, the game-play experience isn’t equated with any sort of fantasy or literary theme. The back-story of Mario appears to be a sort of flimsy binding of the visuals that the player encounters during game-play, and not designed to immerse a player within a plot.
I would have killed that Toad if I could have.
Not All Doom and Gloom
The concept that really stands out in Mario are the functions and mechanics of the actual game combined with player involvement, or more specifically, the visual manifestation of timing and the exercise of building one’s hand-to-eye coordination skills. Mario is about testing a player's visual-dexterity skills in a real-time fashion, about knowing how to press the right buttons at the right times. A player is able to set the pace within the game, and more often than not, must learn how to maneuver Mario quickly to beat a level within the allotted time. Because of this, game-play is exciting and interactive, and is reminiscent of a competitive sports environment lacking intense physical involvement. The competition is safe and non-threatening, and offers steady feedback to players. One is even able to compete with another player on two-player mode (the second player plays Mario’s brother Luigi) and have a chance to show-off one’s skills without having to engage the other player directly, as players take turns completing levels. This is perhaps why this game seemed to have a more even fan-base of both males and females, since the game structure itself did not fit into a gendered category of consumer culture, which often equates competition with violence. To avid players, Mario is not about being a hero and completing the goal in rescuing the princess, but rather, being able to jump over a series of three goombas and five koopa-troopas and not lose a life, an aim any boy or girl can aspire to. The sense of accomplishment that comes through successfully “beating” the game may be expressed on the same level as anyone else. Although Mario has since expanded extensively, boasting television shows, merchandise, numerous spin-off games, and a wealth of fan-art, later Mario platformers follow this same structure, though their visuals and mechanics have been cleaned up as game technology improved.
Yume Nikki: Player Controlled
While Mario utilizes abstraction and a rigid structure to divorce a player from the reality of gender socialization, Yume Nikki (which translates to “Dream Diary”) appears to utilize abstraction and a loose, open structure, inviting players to have different and individual, possibly immersive experiences while playing the game. Yume Nikki, a game created not by a corporation for the consumer market, but in 2005 by the lone Japanese designer Kikiyama (using the platform RPG Maker 2003), was not advertised on television or in magazines, but quickly developed a large fan-base on the internet in Japan, China, and America, and eventually the rest of the world. While it has a traditional computer-game structure in playing-style, the fact that this game was the product of an independent designer and distributed as freeware places it closer to a public realm separated from a capitalist consumer culture. It is much like a work of public art in that anyone who wishes to may download and play it, experiencing the design and visuals of the game for free (provided one has access to a computer). In addition, Yume Nikki is not a test of one’s skills involving timing and hand-eye coordination like Mario, but rather, a game in which players can “explore” an expansive world with numerous abstract visuals and make several choices about where to guide the player-avatar, a female named Matsudoki. Unlike Mario, Yume Nikki does not come with an instruction booklet that describes a plot, goals, or enemies. In fact, at the start Yume Nikki appears to possess none of these elements, and while players are given an avatar in the form of a human female to play, no back-story or other information is given about where exactly Matsudoki is, what she can do, or if she has a goal, although players familiar with Japanese culture may recognize as they play the game that Matsudoki may display traits of hikikomori, or social withdrawal. The game invites players to make discoveries as they explore the field of play, and the structure of Yume Nikki leaves many of the game’s aspects up to interpretation by the player. While the player is essentially asked to control a female-avatar (a rarity in games not centered around fashion or other gender stereotypes), most elements of game-play within Yume Nikki resist a gender-binary, but in vastly different ways than Mario does.
The fact that Yume Nikki possesses no definable goal, or even alludes to one, forces the player to think about what he or she is actually accomplishing during game-play. At the start of the game, rather than consulting an instruction booklet, players are presented with introduction-screens outlining a concise set of actions that the player-avatar may take, corresponding to various buttons on the keyboard. Matsudoki may perform more actions than Mario, but they are still limited, as she is only able to walk, “interact,” and “drop an effect” on the field of play, and any other action must be taken in a menu screen that players may access at any point. However, one will find that the field of play allows these actions, especially the “interact” function, to open up a range of possibilities to the player. The introduction screens also outline a few of these possibilities in a “game flow” chart. The player learns that he or she is able to make Matsudoki “get in bed,” “dream,” “wake up,” and that the game presumably starts in what is called “my room.” “Dreaming” is outlined in a separate screen, where players learn that they can “check characters to get new effects,” “activate effects to get new abilities” and “drop effects in the door room.” There is also a screen dedicated to how to save the game. These instructions appear to be rather confusing, as players are given no context to place them in. Once the player is finished reading the introduction screens, they are plopped, as Matsudoki, directly in the middle of what appears to be a studio apartment. The view shows the whole room from a top-down three-dimensional perspective. One can only wonder what will happen at this point if Matsudoki begins interacting with the objects in the room, or goes to sleep and dreams. Already it becomes apparent that Matsudoki has more freedom of movement than Mario, who is confined to the scrolling two-dimensional screen.
Clean your room!
This freedom of movement signifies that this game will possess a more expansive and interactive world. Players may choose to walk around the room at this point, interacting with various objects. They quickly learn that while pressing the “interact” button in front of these objects causes them to change in some manner, there is little to do in this room, and players are unable to move Matsudoki through the front door. They are invited to put Matsudoki to sleep, and discover that when she crawls into bed, the room fades out and back in, but with some noticeable changes. Matsudoki is dreaming. The player may now move through the front door, but what awaits them is unexpected. In Matsudoki’s dream world, the front door leads to an abstract space containing several free-standing doors of varying design. These doors lead to a number of expansive worlds containing some recognizable, but mostly abstract elements. In one world, Matsudoki finds herself walking over what appears to be endless black space dotted with lamp-posts. Upon “interacting” with the lamp-posts, a player will find that he or she is able to turn them off and on. After further exploration, one will discover that one particular lamp-post will actually transport Matsudoki to yet another world, one filled with bizarre floating visuals. It is apparent that as compared to Mario, Yume Nikki’s avatar is given more freedom of movement, more room to explore, and allows players to make varying choices about how they will move her through the various worlds she encounters. While Mario is meant to be moved through a largely two-dimensional space in which the goal is to avoid enemies and overcome obstacles within a specified time limit, it quickly becomes clear that players are encouraged to have Matsudoki take her time in exploring the worlds she encounters, interacting with various objects and beings.
Just too many choices.
Like Mario, Yume Nikki gives players both abstract and recognizable visuals. Unlike Mario, it is not clear how these visuals are meant to be interacted with. Players of Mario learn quickly that their avatar’s main functions, running and jumping, are used to avoid and dispatch enemies and obstacles. Players of Yume Nikki are given the ability to walk and “interact,” which appears to be a pretty open function. Often, interacting with recognizable or abstract objects or beings will bring little to no effect. They serve to simply give a player something to look at and think about, contemplating how they relate to either Matsudoki, or the space she occupies. For instance, players may come across a “zipper wall” which leads to a long staircase while exploring Matsudoki’s dream world. Eventually they will encounter a tall and multicolored gelatinous being who seems to only be interested in gently stroking the railing alongside the staircase. Having Matsudoki interact with this being produces no effect. This is a far cry from what players are given in Mario, in which every object or creature seems to have a clearly defined purpose, even if the purpose is simply to block Mario’s way. A player of Yume Nikki may wonder who or what this gelatinous being may represent, as it is not simply written off as an enemy or obstacle. The visuals presented to the player of Matsudoki most often take the same structure as this gelatinous being, which may be recognizable to the point that a player is able to discern that it is some sort of functioning sentient being, one with a face and appendage (designed to continuously stroke a railing), but past that, have no clue as to what its purpose or origin is. Most of these visuals do not guide players to think about Matsudoki, or themselves, in terms of an easily-definable gender-binary, but rather, invite them to contemplate the existence and meaning of Matsudoki’s dream-world. Because of the wealth of visuals in Yume Nikki, players have the chance to even experience recognition of these visuals on a personal, empathetic level, Matsudoki’s dream-visions possibly becoming a vehicle for self-reflection.
I don't think that knife will do any good here.
The exclusion of any dialogue, in combination with these recognizable and unrecognizable elements also invites the player to project their own individual experience into their contemplation, something that players of Mario are not encouraged to do during game-play. While there are brief moments in Mario in which dialogue is used to inform a player that more levels need to be completed, no dialogue is given in Yume Nikki, giving players no insight as to the thoughts of Matsudoki or any other sentient being. In essence, the player is allowed to become the narrator of the game. This allows game-play of Yume Nikki to revolve around a player’s thoughts and feelings about the game’s visuals and structure, rather than focusing on real-time competition, completing a defined goal, or the building and testing of one’s manual skills. The exclusion of anything that could be perceived as an “enemy” serves the same purpose. Matsudoki is unable to be harmed by anything, and while there are moments when a player may engage Matsudoki in violence (using a knife to stab sentient beings), nothing is gained from these interactions. While the reality of the necessary violence players must have Mario perform is downplayed, in Yume Nikki violence may be present, but is not encouraged with reward or aligned with a gender. If a player interprets Matsudoki as performing an activity that relates to a specific gender, it is likely that he or she is doing so through a projection of his or her own values.
Another point of difference between Mario and Yume Nikki lies in the inclusion of “effects” that Matsudoki may pick up from interacting with objects or beings, and the exclusion of enemies, as nothing in the game may harm Matsudoki in any way. While some of the effects that Matsudoki acquires over the course of game-play have utilitarian functions, most exist for the same purpose as the abstract visuals found in exploration, to provoke thought about why they exist. Since Yume Nikki has no clear structure or goal for the player to achieve, the collecting of these effects quickly become something for a player to strive toward while exploring the dream-worlds. Some mark small changes, such as the effect which simply turns Matsudoki’s hair from brown to blonde. Others make a larger impact, such as the knife effect, which equips Matsudoki with a large blade that is able to dispatch any sentient creature she may stumble across in the dream-worlds, or the bicycle effect, which doubles Matsudoki’s movement speed. Others are used to initiate small events, triggering the player to witness bizarre scenes of flashing colored lights, or causing some sentient being to move around in a different manner. None of the objects are able to be used with one another, and may be picked up in any sequence as a result of exploration and interaction. A player will learn that collecting effects does not lead to any knowledge of Matsudoki possessing a goal, and like the visuals encountered during exploration, invite players to experience individual thoughts and feelings when contemplating the actual effect of an effect. None of the effects paint a clear picture of Matsudoki’s character, and although players know she is a female, most of the effects are able to be conceptually paired with either gender, such as the fat, frog, and midget effects. Just as the manipulation of Mario’s abilities may be construed as something acceptable for both males and females to perform, the ambiguity of any effects that Matsudoki may come to possess make it difficult to place her firmly in a location within a socially-constructed gender-binary. An extremely dedicated player of Yume Nikki may even discover that collecting all of the effects the game has to offer (and dropping them within the door-room) leads to the ending of the game. The ending is marked by an extremely disturbing event, one that neither resolves Matsudoki’s existence, nor displays the completion of any goal (remember, there was none to begin with). A player that has reached this point in the game is invited to engage in even more contemplation.
In essence, Yume Nikki is not about “beating” or finishing a game, but rather, engaging with a world that is not so easily definable. Unlike Mario, players are not given a fantasy type “Mushroom Kingdom” to complete a pre-defined goal within, a space in which the meaning of the game is contained, but rather, an expansive dream-world belonging to an elusive (and possibly reclusive) character, Matsudoki. Players are encouraged to explore this expansive world, experiencing visuals, sounds, and events that offer a combination of both abstract and recognizable elements, but give the player nothing concrete to latch onto. In the process of exploration, players come across objects, beings, and scenery that remind them that they are playing within Matsudoki’s dream-world. However, even if these elements represent various pieces in the puzzle that is Matsudoki’s mind, it is difficult to pin them together. Players and fans of Yume Nikki have developed many theories as to what the elements within Matsudoki’s dream represent, but none of them point in any one direction.Yume Nikki is a game in which players are invited to engage in thought about what they see and experience while playing. They are also able to project their individual experiences and feelings onto the elements of Matsudoki’s dream-world without being largely constrained by the stereotypes and social constructions of the gender dichotomy which exists in contemporary culture. In contrast, Mario abstracts and distances any sort of gendered recognizable visual elements from players, and focuses on the functions of game-play itself. While there could be a debate as to the structure of which game, if any, is more useful to society, it is clear that neither fall into the trap of reinforcing a gender binary through contemporary socialization methods.
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