Genered Play Spaces — Identity

Article Summary

“Complete Freedom of Movement”:  Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces

by Henry Jenkins


This article has basically two themes, the first setting the stage for the second.  The first theme is that as backyard and neighborhood open play spaces are diminished, the need for exploratory play remains, and for many children, the “open spaces” of video games can fill the void.  The second theme is that there are differences in traditional “boy culture” and “girl culture”, and that many of the present day video games which fill the role of creative play for those without open spaces reinforce the stereotypical gender roles, or simply are designed “to gratify preadolescent males, not to empower girls” (p. 24).

Jenkins spends a lot of time describing the creativity inherent in spatial exploration of outdoor spaces, even if the outdoor space is a sidewalk.  He shares the value of freedom of exploration in an open space as opposed to the stifled play that can occur in a circumscribed way at places such as parks or playgrounds, which have been designed by adults for specific play. Jenkins goes on to show that due to our present day way of life, many children do not have backyards or open spaces, and video games can help fill the void for creative play and spatial exploration. He especially points out that although behavioral problems may have increased in children, we should not look to video games as the cause, but rather an inability to break out of a confined physical space as being the problem, and that video games may offer an alternative to this confinement.

Jenkins points out that in general, when we discuss physical play and play outside, we are really talking about boys and their play. Historically, he describes a “boy culture” as independence from adults, daring physical prowess bringing recognition from peers, need for mastery and self control, competition for “top dog” position, physical aggression and dominance, adult role playing, and bonding. Overall, he describes gender segregation in play, and shares that girl culture centered around staying close to home and mother and nurturing play with dolls.  The author describes written books which follow the same type of gender differences:  boy books about adventure and danger, such as Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn, and girl books about secret spaces, being alone, and meeting the needs of others, such as The Secret Garden and Little Women.

Video games have followed similar gender stereotypes, though the author spends quite a bit of time describing the Secret Paths in the Forest game by Purple Moon as being more of an open space for girls to explore which combines female nurturance and love of magic and secrets with spatial exploration (of secret paths and areas in nature) and mild risk taking. It is a game designed to foster interdependence and sharing among girls as well as to practice social strategies. Another game intended for girls is a game based on the book Harriet the Spy, in which spatial play within a town is combined with spatial exploration outside the town and its people, intended to develop a sense of curiosity and interconnectedness among the people and their spaces.

The author believes that since most existing video games are designed for the boy culture, fast paces and full of danger and competition, we need to design video games that can entice girls to play, since both genders need the outlet of a digital play space when true outdoor exploration is a thing of the past. Slower pace, less danger, believable characters, and places to discover may fill this need in video games for girls. Jenkins also points out that we don’t simply want to recreate the division in video games that already exists in books between “boy books” and “girl books”.  This will only foster the separation of the sexes. Providing themes that do not stereotype males and females is a key to providing the means for girls to explore their competitive side and develop confidence and for boys to slow down and explore character relationships and magical thinking. Perhaps then boys and girls can enjoy the same play space in a way in which they never have before.


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