'Remember not to die. All you have to do is not die and you'll win.
How easy is that?'
In this paper about girls and video games I shall criticise the notion that a central issue for girls is the kind of games available to them. Instead, I argue that many games offer one site for the production of contemporary masculinity (see Walkerdine 2002). If my analysis has anything to offer, what it demonstrates is that the task for boys and for girls when playing games is different in each case. If we think about this in terms of Foucault's ideas (Foucault 1986) about self management techniques, then the task of working to become masculine is certainly not easy for boys but perhaps more straightforward in terms of self-management practices. For girls, on the other hand, if the performance of masculinity is what is produced in relation to game play, their self management task is so much more complex. That is, they have to pursue the demands of contemporary femininity which blend together traditional masculinity and femininity. Trying to do this while playing games is a very complex and difficult task.
With this theoretical framework in mind I want to address some central issues of masculinity and then go on to discuss how girls play games. I shall interpret their play through a framework which assumes that they are managing contradictory positions of masculinity and femininity. The data for this paper comes from an Australian Research Council funded study of children in Sydney aged between 8 and 11 playing video games, together with interviews with the children and their parents.
Hollywood narratives of masculinity
Successful completion of many video games involves triumph over a series of obstacles. The character played by the player faces many challenges and is frequently in danger of being killed. What is very striking about the games narratives and plot structure is that they resemble the struggles for the achievement of masculinity described so clearly in 1970s film theory analyses of the classic Hollywood Westerns (cf. Neale 1983). In this analysis, the hero's attempt to recover from a number of defeats and to finally triumph is the psychic and cultural work of masculinity.
My argument, that the narrative structure of many popular video games closely resembles that of Westerns, gives us a clue to the way that intertextuality works to inscribe the game player inside narratives through which masculinity is accomplished. The video games implicitly refer not only to the classic Western but also the Hollywood action-movie genre that follows from them. What makes video games pleasurable is the achievement of masculinity despite (or because of) the many possible pitfalls along the way. Of course, the game player is not a film spectator, so how do we understand the inscription of the player into the game itself? The player has to manipulate a character, and in some games, choose that character who possesses certain particular characteristics such as special moves, which are vital to progress through the game. As the title of Stephen Poole's book. Trigger happy (2000) suggests, shooting is absolutely central to many games; that is, while the player controls the game console and manipulates the joy stick, it is the character who is actually progressing through the game. Stephen Poole says 'videogames are fun. But what kind of fun is it?' (p.28). For Poole, the answer lies in understanding the aesthetics of games and the way in which their particular aesthetic provides signs which inscribe the player. I would add that the pleasure in the aesthetic is about masculinity. As Poole himself says: '... the appeal of this kind of epic videogame is to be "an action-moviehero'" (p.114). He therefore concedes that the pleasure of games, as in action movies, is the production of an active and heroic masculinity. It is the achievement of that heroism which is pleasurable and makes games fun. If this is the case, the issue of gender in relation to video games becomes something quite other than whether games contain male or female characters, which is a fairly standard position in the literature on gender and video games (cf. …