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A 36-24-36 Cerebrum: Gendering Video Game Play through Advertising

This is an article-length version of one of my dissertation chapters, currently in review at the journal Games & Culture
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  A 36-24-36 Cerebrum: Gendering Video Game Play through Advertising Sample of research for:Shira Chess17 State Street Apt. 6BTroy, NY 12180(518) 859-9637chesss@rpi.edu  Shira Chess: “ A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” A 36-24-36 Cerebrum: Gendering Video Game Play through AdvertisingBy Shira ChessIntroduction Until only recently, video games were often understood to be created by and for masculine audiences (Fron et al, 2007; Ray, 2004; Cassell & Jenkins, 1999). Now, in the past few years, an influx of video games (such as Wii Fit  ,  Brain Age , and  Diner Dash )has been increasingly marketed to a demographic previously ignored by the gamingindustry: adult females. As such, there are now more video games created specifically for (and marketed to) women. At the same time though, one does not have to look far to see adivision and gendered hierarchy between traditional (masculine) gamers and newer (feminine) gamers. Advertising is one way where this divisiveness becomes particularlyvisible. At its core, play is marketed differently to men than it is to women, andunderlying these marketing differences are deeper issues of gender and play.In what follows, I will be discussing video game advertising in magazines,showing how video game audiences are becoming simultaneously both broader andnarrower: video game appeals might be made to larger audiences—now often includingmore women. But at the same time, these appeals often narrow the kinds of play thatwomen are authorized to engage in. In order to illustrate this, I use content and semioticanalysis of advertising in two traditional video game magazines, showing how femininityis often excluded or marginalized from traditional gaming. Subsequently, I similarlyanalyze advertising in some non-video game magazines—mostly aimed at adult femaleaudiences, showing specific ways that video games and play have been pitched to womenin recent years. Gender, Video Games, and Leisure Much of the previous research on video games and gender has been limited to thequestion, “how do we get little girls to play video games?” Books such as,  From Barbieto Mortal Combat  (1999) helped to pave the way for discussions of the gendered natureof the video game industry (Cassell & Jenkins, 1999), yet research on young girls wasoften unfairly applied to research on women (Taylor, 2006). In turn, focusing on girlsrather than women (while perhaps more practical when studying play) ultimately ignores2  Shira Chess: “ A 36-24-36 Cerebrum”the possibility that play habits change through life cycle. Subsequent reports on videogames and gender, both in industry and academia, often result in discussions andassumptions that girls and women alike prefer casual games, social games, or narrativeheavy games (Ray, 2004; Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2000).While these discussions are useful, they do not always account for the culturalaffects of gender (as opposed to the biological effects of sex). Biology is often the focusof video game studies—both in industry and academia. For instance, researchers oftencite differences in cognitive abilities, stimuli, and reflexes (Isbister, 2006) as being the primary reason why women do not play the games created by an inherently masculineindustry. One recent Stanford study focused on the cognitive effects of rewards in termsof gender differences, concluding that men show more activity in the “mesocorticolimbiccenter” of the brain, which they associate with competition and addiction (Hoeft, et al,2008). This study puts forth the clinical claim that men and boys have more “fun” playingvideo games than women and girls.Recent studies have only begun to critique these issues. T.L. Taylor (2008,forthcoming) suggests that future studies on gender and games should move away fromthis biological focus and take gender and culture more deeply into account. Similarly, theLudica Group (a collective of gender game researchers) has begun focusing on some of the cultural logic surrounding varying tastes in video games (Fron, et al, 2007a), and hasdiscussed the hegemonies of masculine play (Fron, et al, 2007b). Royse et al (2007) begins to break older habits used in gender and video game studies by dividing its participants into three categories: power gamers, non-gamers, and moderate gamers.Thus, while several researchers have begun to open new avenues for ways to understandgender and video games, my study uniquely examines themes of productivity in gamesaimed at women, which track back to larger issues of gender and play. At the same time,when studying cultural affect, it is vital to consider media which might influence playhabits, such as advertising.Another major component to factor into gender and video game studies iswomen’s leisure. Since the late 1980s, researchers have discussed women’s leisure habitsas being easily interruptible (Modleski, 1988), done in quick snippets of time, and morefamily-oriented than personally fulfilling (Deem, 1987). As such, women’s leisure is3  Shira Chess: “ A 36-24-36 Cerebrum”often less absorbing and more about filling time and keeping other family membersentertained. Later, I illustrate how these patterns are reinforced in video game advertisingaimed at women audiences. Ultimately, I argue that the emergence of video games for women has reinforced these pre-existing themes of women’s leisure. Gender and Advertising Advertising stands at a precarious place in our culture. On one hand, itexemplifies some of the basest qualities of popular culture, using manipulative propaganda techniques. From this standpoint, it is easy to be dismissive of advertising asvacuous and shallow. But these disingenuous techniques hold a larger role in our society.For instance, many Marxist critiques of advertising suggest that it fosters false ideologiesand constructs desires that might not have existed otherwise (Leiss, et al, 1997). In asimilarly cynical vein, postmodern critiques suggest that advertising style and meaninghas been injected and diluted into all forms of culture. Baudrillard contends that,“Currently, the most interesting aspect of advertising is its disappearance, its dilution as aspecific form, or even as a medium” (1984/1990, p. 90). Thus, if Baudrillard’s contentionis true, it would seem foolhardy to dismiss a cultural form that currently affects so manyother cultural artifacts. What all of this means is that we can often understand advertisingas a barometer of our culture. According to William Leiss, et al (1997):Regarded individually and superficially, advertisements promote goods and services. Looked at in depth and as awhole, the ways in which messages are presented inadvertising reach deeply into our most serious concerns:interpersonal and family relations, the sense of happiness andcontentment, sex roles and stereotyping, the uses of affluence,the fading away of older cultural traditions, influences onyounger generations, […] and many others. (p. 1)Given this assertion, and bearing in mind the Marxist and Postmodern critiquesmentioned above, it seems naive to disregard advertising as simply shallow or artless:advertising messages show the trends, beliefs, and ideologies of a culture.Gender is often surprisingly unrepresented in studies of advertising. ErvingGoffman’s Gender Advertisements (1976/1979) was one of the first texts to consider howgender is portrayed in advertising and how it complies with already understood societal4
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