A Space for the Boys: Considering the Gendered Quality of Arcade Culture

This week my colleague, Mark Filipowich, wrote an article discussing how female characters serve not merely as objects in video games, but as objectives (“Searching for the Other Castle: Women as Objectives”, PopMatters, 19 February 2013). This is a topic that I have written about a few times myself (see, for example, ”Other Princesses, Other Castles: The Problem with Playing Romantically in Video Games “, PopMatters, 25 October 2011), and thus, I agree with a number of Filipowich’s observations. Near the end of the article he posits that “[g]ames are not just for teenage boys,” a fair enough assessment of the current state of video games, and then follows up with the claim that “[g]ames have never been just for teenage boys,” which is also a true statement but one that does ignore some of the cultural history surrounding the development of video games, a history that might be relevant in understanding some of the frustration that some critics feel about video games and their representations of gender.

The earliest successful effort to mass market the experience of playing video games in America is probably the release of the Atari 2600, a machine that was targeted as some kind of family entertainment system (though do note that many of the commercials and the like selling the system often focused on the notion of fathers and sons enjoying this machine together, not mothers and daughters).

Also, bear in mind that the Atari console and video game software were generally classified in the late 1970s and into the1980s as “toys” (some of the earliest software development got started at toy companies, like Bandai). These were systems ostensibly designed largely for children to “play with.”

The more significant cultural and social space, though, that arose during the 1980s surrounding video games was the arcade (especially given the eventual collapse of Atari as a dominant force in home video game consoles and the brief period in which home consoles largely disappeared as a significant medium — that is, prior to the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System).

Of course, arcade games were machines not merely confined to arcades themselves. Businesses who purchased these machines seemed to perceive them as a way of extracting some cash from that part of their clientele that was spending time in a place of business just killing time. Arcade games were common staples in grocery stores and pizza parlors during the 80s, as they could keep kids occupied while mom was doing some shopping or while the pizza was being cooked. In essence, the near ubiquitous presence of arcades in shopping malls during this same period of time existed for the same reason — just on a grander scale. Arcades, spaces loaded with gaming machine options, were places to drop boys off at or for boys to wander into while mothers and daughters shopped.

I do say boys specifically here because quite honestly arcades were spaces dominated by a male presence. My own arcade was called the Gold Mine and featured a facade of a nineteenth century mine entrance as the portal to entry. Greeting one inside, though, were simply rows of machines spread across a rather filthy and threadbare carpet and a cacophony of bleeps and bloops. The arcade was dark and generally otherwise quiet. Few players spoke much as they dropped quarters into machines and occasionally milled about watching other players playing. There was also usually a rather sweaty, heavy set, bearded fellow who ostensibly maintained the machines and spent some of his time trying to keep the stoners at the back end of the place from selling pot to one another. Most often there was nary a girl in sight.

I would like to suggest some sort of ratio of young boys to young girls occupying the arcade, something like 10 to 1 or 20 to 1, but honestly, most often when I was there (and I was there for hours at a time), the place was populated exclusively by boys. A sister might show up to tell her brother to meet mom and dad at the car, but they were rarely there to play. Very occasionally one might run into a couple of girls playing Galaga or Centipede (the “older” games) somewhere near the back, but still, even that was an infrequent occurrence at best.

The sort of unisex or inclusive quality of the earliest arcade game classics like Pac-Man, Frogger, and Q*Bert gave way at some point (perhaps, around the mid to late 80s) to games like Contra and Double Dragon. These types of games tapped into and aped imagery from “boy culture” to an enormous degree, allowing players to take on the role of someone like a Rambo (in the case of Contra) or, perhaps, a character from The Warriors (as may be the case with Double Dragon). I have seriously never seen a girl play a Contra arcade machine in my life (and I spent a really unhealthy amount of time hanging out by and playing that machine during the 80s). I’m quite sure that at some point such a thing has happened, but such players seem in my experience at least to have been the exception and not the rule.

Alongside games like Contra and Double Dragon came the release of Super Mario Bros., kind of the princess saving game, or in other words, the most influential game that featured the conceit of a female character as objective (though, of course, Mario had already fallen into the role of savior of “princesses” in his previous turn in Donkey Kong and likewise computer games like Karateka already existed as well, which also featured this conceit). More significantly Super Mario Bros. became the flagship title for Nintendo’s console when it was ported from the arcade to the home console with the initial release of the Nintendo Entertainment System.

And, in many ways, the Nintendo’s original software line-up made the machine generally look like an arcade port machine. Nintendo initially released versions of their own classics, games like the original Mario Bros. along with less well known titles like Ice Climbers for the console. Players also got the opportunity to play games like Popeye in their own home, a game whose objective was to save Olive Oyl, which I bring up because the Nintendo in many ways was really a reflection of the tastes of the arcade gaming culture of the time. That culture was very much geared towards the little boy, the pre-adolescent and adolescent player, as its dominant consumer. Games about ninjas and cyborgs and cyborg ninjas were prevalent as were games about playing the hero and getting the girl.

Nintendo’s marketing seemed largely targeted at boys at the time, and even the more expensive boxed version of the Nintendo came with peripherals like a gun and a robot, “toys” again, and more specifically toys that were very much gendered at the time. Boys played with guns and robots during the 80s. Girls played with Care Bears and My Little Pony.

In this regard, Nintendo seemed to have released a machine for a demographic that they understood emerging from arcade culture, young, male gamers. That Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda arrived in a huge way in American culture and in so many American homes is unsurprising, and their significance as games that have made saving the princess a staple in gaming is equally unsurprising. At that point in the cultural history of video games, the notion that “video games were just for boys” was one that was largely assumed to be true. It also seems to me unsurprising that in the wake of the mainstreaming of video gaming culture, beginning with the arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System on the scene, that these kinds of games and this kind of attitude remains foundational in a a lot of game developers’ minds.

While certainly most video games were initially designed by Baby Boomers and there are a fair amount of 20-somethings entering the industry, many of those that are currently serving in leadership positions in game development tend to be in their late 30s and early 40s. Like myself, these guys grew up in the arcade, grew up with the Nintendo, and grew up in a culture of gaming that largely seemed to be a space created for and that caters to boys.

Now, I am not suggesting that I believe that video games are just for boys, nor am I suggesting that those game designers in my age cohort believe that either. However, what I am saying is that a lot of our sense of this medium was developed during a period of time when this assumption was, more or less, taken as a given. For a time — and an extremely influential time in the origins of the medium — the video game was treated as an extremely gendered toy and gaming as an extremely gendered pasttime.

This isn’t to say that men in the industry haven’t realized that gaming is something that can appeal to both genders. After all, little boys do grow up and do discover that the world isn’t exactly what they thought it was or might be. But it does take some effort to “unlearn” the lessons of our youth, and the industry as something that itself is still maturing may still have some work to do in “unlearning” its own previous assumptions about who games are for and how important the most “classic” motifs are in following as templates for the future.

While the arcade as an influential cultural institution seems largely to have disintegrated, the truth is that the industry has not yet entirely lost its taste for that space. I think that we will probably find our way out of the Gold Mine eventually, but one can’t forget the influence that growing up in the dark might have had on how we see what games have been and what they might be. Forgive us, as we come blinking and squinting into the daylight as we open that exit door.