I am almost always hesitant to express any strong opinion on gender, only because it is such a nuanced and tumultuous category to discuss. Jenkins’ article, “Complete Freedom of Movement,” offers an argument on which I can begin to speculate as he writes about “boy culture.” Through comparisons to the 19th century, Jenkins outlines qualities of boy culture that are as prevalent through its translation into digital games, specifically “energy, self-assertion, noise, and a frequent resort to violence” (337). Having played four-player co-op mode with three other males, it is not difficult to see how these characteristics are relevant, both for the male players and (interestingly) also through my own play experience.
NSMBW follows the conventional 2D side-scrolling platform mechanic usually seen with the Mario franchise; the introduction of multiplayer gameplay, however, is where boy culture is best exemplified. “Self-assertion” is an interesting quality insofar as it is usually results in “noise” and “a frequent resort to violence.” Along with new gameplay mechanics, there are many, many opportunities for treachery in NSMBW. For instance, players can carry the other, which (in my experience) inevitably leads to players throwing other players into enemies, pits, or other equally dangerous (and frequently fatal) situations. Similarly, in levels where Yoshis are present, a player riding a Yoshi can store another player in the creature’s mouth, where the player remains as such until the rider decides to release him or her. “Self-assertion” is particularly evident in levels with automatic scrolling, where one friend of ours is well-known for running ahead in the level (i.e. resorting to violence), thus killing off the rest of the players that get left behind off-screen. This, consequently, results in a noisy, vocal protest from the three, recently-dead players. In this way, aforementioned friend asserts his role as an individual (also as an asshole) playing through the level, which in turn sacrifices his comrades-in-play.
One way to explain the lack of Toadette is to look at the production environment of video games, as Ludica does in “The Hegemony of Play.” As one quote states, “games are made by white males, for white males” (Ludica 3). This is not to suggest that the decision to leave Toadette out of the game (and, unsurprisingly, the decision to center the game around the kidnapping of Princess Peach) is a malicious one, intended to exclude the female population. Rather, there is a particular environment that tends to encourage and feed into its own existence, which in turn breeds hegemony. More importantly, however, this article raises larger questions (to me, anyway) of tradition and nostalgia, which are extremely prevalent in the contemporary video game industry. This is also suggested by another quote used: “Games either make it or don’t, then copy the ones that do” (ibid). By creating games according to established “industry standards,” this not only stifles creativity, but this also continues a pattern of male-, euro- and heterocentric practices that allow values to remain unchallenged. This is why such a seemingly benign decision—such as leaving Toadette out of a new Mario Bros. game—is so disconcerting to me, both as a gamer and as a female (albeit mostly the former).
The question of values in the industry is one that Laurel tackles in Utopian Entrepreneur. Though the book largely focuses on notions of economics, as well as the video game industry as a business, she writes about it from a female perspective. One particularly memorable passage in the text focused on the insidious banality of values: “Stories, movies, videogames, and Websites don’t have to be about values to have a profound influence on values. Values are everywhere… (Laurel 62). This, to me, is important because it is indicative of my own mixed feelings toward arguments about gender. My original reaction to my outrage about the lack of Toadette was that I was overreacting. The decision to leave Toadette out was a seemingly trivial one; I don’t doubt that many male gamers (and almost certainly those involved with the production of NSMBW) would make this same argument. However, it is this excerpt from Laurel that only serves to reaffirm my original sentiments. It is because values are so embedded in video games (among other media artifacts, of course) that it is all the more important to pay attention to (seemingly) frivolous decisions like this. When values become commonplace, this is precisely when people begin to stop questioning them.
That being said, I am still not completely convinced that arguments over gender in video games are always necessarily fruitful. My hesitation comes from what I perceive to be a catch-22: in arguing that spaces are gendered, there is an implication that there is something of a stable notion or understand of what “gendered” is which, to a certain degree, necessarily plays into ‘gendered-ness.” While I have always been ‘that girl’ arguing against this, I—by the same token—cannot deny that spaces (particularly in video games) absolutely, very clearly gendered. This tension with the paradoxical became especially evident when reading the other Ludica article, “A Game of One’s Own.” In it (among other publications), there is a claim of what is and isn’t ‘female.’ One such claim is that secrets in levels tend to lean more towards male-gendered game spaces (Ludica 3). To a certain degree, I completely agree with this insofar as it does require a particular level of skill and exclusivity, which are typically traits associated with masculinity. Secrets are not, of course, an uncommon appearance within the Super Mario franchise. By the same token, however, I can also argue that secrets are a way of encouraging more exploratory gameplay, which is typically associated with female gamers (you, yourself, outlined this in one of your lectures this year). Even a cursory analysis (like this one) begins to reveal the various layers of ‘gendered-ness,’ which is why I find it so frustratingly impossible to form any single argument about the topic.
To return to the title of my blogpost—that is, Toadette herself—my experience playing NSMBW raised one other question that is more specific to this game, specifically. For the majority of time spent playing, Brian and I were debating the gender of the two Toads. He argued that the yellow one was not Toadette, but rather a generic female member of the Toad species. I disagreed. He claimed that the pitch of the Yellow Toad’s voice was slightly higher than that of the blue Toad, thus making ‘her’ female. It wasn’t until we noticed that both Toads were shirtless that we agreed on the gender of both Toads. We also agreed that Toad, as a character in general, is fairly sexually ambiguous, which is and of itself an argument that is as powerful as the lack of Toadette in the game. This is not to say, of course, that ambiguity is a negative trait with respect to gender, only that it certainly complicates the process of thinking and writing about it—especially when it comes to an already tumultuous realm, such as video games.
Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (Fullerton et al) (2007). "A Game Of Ones Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Game Space." In Proceedings, Digital Arts & Culture 2007, Perth, Australia, September 2007.
Fron, J., Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (Ludica) "The Hegemony of Play." In Situated Play: Proceedings of Digital Games Research Association 2007 Conference. Tokyo, Japan, September 2007.
Jenkins, Henry. "Complete Freedom of Movement: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces" The Game Design Reader, ed. Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman.MIT Press:Cambridge, MA, 2006. 330-363.
Laurel, Brenda. (2001). Utopian Entrepreneur. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.