Gender

The (Mobile) Games Women Play

Who counts as a gamer and what counts as games amount to data that is heavily skewed in its class, caste and gender perspectives.

Gameplay from the 'Freedom Fall' games. Source: Lisa Rye, Stirfire Studios/2013

Gameplay from the ‘Freedom Fall’ games. Source: Lisa Rye, Stirfire Studios/2013

While I was growing up in the sleepy town of Pune, many teenage girls made the most of their first cell phones by sending coy, flirty texts to their boyfriends and making plans about which Café Coffee Day to hang out at after school. Those blessed with early smartphones also had the privilege of uploading a new Facebook profile picture every week; the sort that racked up ‘likes’ in the hundreds.

Meanwhile, I was busy playing Snake 2 on my dinky Nokia 1101. Not all of us got to be cool kids. Making sure my pixelated snake didn’t eat its own tail got me through elongated periods of boredom and adolescent heartaches. I never progressed to that elusive four-digit high score, though, possiblybecause I had the uncanny ability to make phones disappear every six months.

Almost a decade later, when I climbed aboard the shaky freelance-writer-train, I found myself downloading Mean Girls: Senior Year onto my smartphone. After all, who would want to channel their free time into self-growth or learning to code when they could be personally victimised by Regina George instead?

For the un-inducted, the Mean Girls movie is an initiation into adulthood; a scathing satire about how terrible teenagers can be to each other, disguised as a chick-flick. Mean Girls: Senior Year was a basic, simulation role-playing game, with mostly-perfect animated versions of the movie characters. I chose what my character looked like (a side-shave for edge), what she was called (Willow Swanson, a homage to my love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Parks and Recreation) and then I got to decide how she interacted with other characters.

In many ways, Senior Year was amazingly vacuous. The game ignored all my character’s choices to be rude to her insipid, theatre-bro boyfriend, and instead, forced her to drop her Yale aspirations to canoodle with him. I know this because I played the game obsessively and finished it in two days. There’s something massively appealing about having animated men in cargo pants ask me if I would ‘like to go somewhere private and have a meaningful conversation about wage equality’.

Mean Girls: Senior Year gameplay, Pocket Gems (2015)

Mean Girls: Senior Year gameplay, Pocket Gems (2015)

Before that, I’d never been too keen on playing games on my smartphone, because I assumed that they were all inane versions of Fruit Ninja, a fruit-swiping game that doesn’t favour stubby fingers. Senior Year, however, tentatively opened the gateway to my mobile gaming experience. I started playing Spaceteam with my family, a multi-player game for which we hunched over our dining table and yelled gibberish instructions at each other (‘Soak Ferrous Holospectrum!’) about what tool to use to make sure our spaceship didn’t crash. It turned out to be more effective at destroying relationships than Monopoly.

Global consumer spending on mobile gaming was estimated to be worth 34.8 billion dollars in 2015 according to the market researcher App Annie. Over the past few years, there have been several reports talking about how India is on the ‘verge of a mobile gaming boom’. NASSCOM, an organisation that conducts research on the Indian software industry, estimates that there are approximately 50 million mobile gamers in India, who generate 150 million dollars of gaming revenue every year.

But what the numbers often fail to mention is that a large chunk of people playing mobile games are women.

In pop culture, we see gamers portrayed as awkward nerds who will brave a zombie apocalypse just to get back to their consoles. On the internet, we’re constantly reminded that gamers include people who threaten to rape you for being an impostor in their self-defined universe.

‘Make Love, Not Warcraft’, South Park (2006)

‘Make Love, Not Warcraft’, South Park (2006)

Maybe that’s why, despite my love for yelling at my family to ‘increase Astral Synth to 1!’ or the mania with which I play Pokémon Go, walking into playgrounds and almost weeping in front of children because I caught a Snorlax, I never considered myself a ‘gamer’.

That word carries a lot of vague baggage, and I was pretty sure that the bitchy trials and tribulations of Mean Girls: Senior Year didn’t fit the bill.

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When 46-year-old Janaki Badrinath’s children left their Coimbatore home for college a few years ago, she realised that she suddenly had a lot of free time to fill up. That’s when she discovered Candy Crush. The mobile puzzle game is a candy version of Tetris, but instead of squares and blocks, players match up lemon drops, jellybeans and other confectionary items in as few moves as possible to progress to the next level. Notoriously addictive, in part due to the constant validation the game throws at players (‘Sodalicious!’) when they do well, Candy Crush soon became Janaki’s most enjoyable pastime.

Candy Crush gameplay, King (2012)

Candy Crush gameplay, King (2012)

In fact, it was so time-consuming that she eventually uninstalled the game. ‘It reached a level of madness,’ Janaki tells me. ‘I was hooked. I kept telling myself “just one more level” and wouldn’t get any work done.’

The appeal of mobile phone gaming in India, especially for women, has a lot to do with how easy it is. Unlike console gaming, mobile gaming requires very little investment when it comes to time, money or effort. With simple gameplay and easy tutorials, these games have you invested at the get-go, and then keep challenging you so you never leave their sorry asses. They’re also really easy to access. You can pull out your phone wherever you are and fit in a quick game before hitting the pause button and continuing with your daily activities. Women play mobile games when they’re commuting, before they fall asleep, while they’re watching TV, and mostly when they’re, well, in the bathroom.

Kanika Unnikrishnan, a 33-year-old film producer, tells me that she plays puzzle and runner games whenever she has free time, clocking in more than an hour a day on games. Runner games involve endless motion, where you are running or flying or continuously collecting as many points as you can — before you die.

Her current favourite is Gordon Ramsay Dash, a simulation game in which the demanding celebrity chef barks orders at your character to create and serve meals — minus the cussing. When an actor on shoot has to get their makeup done, you’ll find Kanika sitting behind the camera in a casual shirt and bright sports shoes, tapping away at her screen. ‘I play when I wake up, before I go to sleep, during my commute or between shoots. It’s a great way to pass time,’ she grins.

Gordon Ramsay Dash gameplay, Glu Mobile (2016)

Gordon Ramsay Dash gameplay, Glu Mobile (2016)

It’s no surprise that these games are built to be addictive. The popular YouTube gaming channel, The Game Theorists, describes the science behind the addiction, explaining how the simple reward system (Candy Crush exclaiming ‘Sweet!’ as you work your way through the game) releases a rush of dopamine in the brain, creating a surge of satisfaction. As the games get harder after early levels, players feel more challenged, so every reward feels earned.

Sometimes, these games even regulate how long you can play them, cutting you off when you’re most invested and letting you wait around for them like you do for a text from that dude you’re pretty sure saw your message an hour ago.

Mobile games are also a really effective way to de-stress. Sarita Santoshini, a 24-year-old journalist, moved back home to Assam last year. The stories she reports are heavyweight, ranging from sex trafficking to corruption. And she finds that playing popular games such as QuizUp and runner game Temple Run often helps her relax. ‘I usually play when I’m in the middle of some writing or research. It helps if I am a bit stressed and need to do something mindless for a few minutes to calm down, or if I want to distract myself from overthinking at the end of the day,’ she says. When a game requires a player to completely invest her attention, there’s no room left for stray thoughts.

Mobile gaming looks like an incredibly solitary, anti-social activity, but for many women, it’s a way to connect with friends and family. Take Janaki, of the uninstalled Candy Crush fame. Though she’s taken to reading murder mysteries instead of matching lozenges, she fondly recalls how her family would clamour around her when they were at home on vacation to play the physics-based puzzle game Cut the Rope on their iPad. They’d lean over her shoulder to cut the correct rope and swing candy over to the loveable green character Om Nom.

Similarly, Sarita recalls how mobile games helped her interact with loved ones back when she was in college. Words with Friends, a game you can play online with other players, is a favourite among Scrabble players worldwide. Its chunky yellow blocks and grey digital board are the only features that distinguish it from the original, much-loved board game.

When Sarita was studying in Mumbai, she only met her family and boyfriend of five years twice a year — at best. She recalls, ‘I’d play [Words with Friends] with my dad, sister and boyfriend, all of whom were far away. It felt nice, like a way to connect in the middle of the day while you’re busy with other things. It reminded me of the times we spent laughing and fighting over a game of Scrabble when we were together in the past. It obviously wasn’t the same — but it was something.’

In fact, the 2016 book Mobile Gaming in Asia — Politics, Culture and Emerging Technologies speculates that one of the main reasons for the growth of mobile phones in Asian countries is ‘the community-based social environment that gaming creates, enhanc[ing] social ties with both strangers and community members through smartphones.’

Amidst all the self-loathing we harbour for being so addicted to ‘mindless’ games, mobile games are frequently replacing traditional table-top games in households, combining nostalgia with modern graphics, and bridging distances for families and friends scattered across the globe.

Perhaps mobile games aren’t so inane after all?

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Earlier this year, Indian gaming company Nazara invested in London game studio TrulySocial to create a ‘woman-centric’ game that is set to release later this year. The game combines ‘celebrity, dress up and travel’ which sounds lot like the hugely successful Kim Kardashian game to me.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood was an overnight hit, enticing a demographic of women who’d never played mobile games before, and even a bunch of men (‘I thought Kanye would be in it!’). Kardashian, who is possibly the most successful businesswoman of the century, is widely known for the oddest reasons — her reality TV show, her marriage to rapper Kanye West, her tush on the cover of Paper Magazine, and now a tongue-in-cheek multi-million dollar role-playing game where players aspire to become A-list celebrities by taking up acting jobs, buying different outfits, and going on multiple dates.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood gameplay, Glu Mobile (2014)

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood gameplay, Glu Mobile (2014)

But is Kim Kardashian: Hollywood the epitome of games that cater to a female audience?

Popular games like Candy Crush and Temple Run have already proved that games in which you decide whether your hair colour should be ‘Cayenne’ or ‘Fawn’ aren’t the only ones that appeal to a female demographic.

Chelsea Howe, the Creative Director at EA Mobile, is quoted saying, ‘Games can be violent and still appeal to women. Female perspective around storyline is all important.’ She goes on to add that playable female characters are super important, too. We often confuse what diversity in media means, by celebrating a ‘strong female character’ written by male writers. But often what media really requires is a woman writer who can create a three-dimensional woman character.

The same applies to mobile gaming.

Take Perth-based artist Lisa Rye. Rye knows that women players aren’t all looking for games full of sparkle to bring out their ‘nurturing’ sides. Freedom Fall, the game she designed, does have a princess though. A princess that traps your character in a castle, lays out grisly death traps to prevent you from escaping, and scrawls ‘Please die in a funny way’ all over her castle walls.

Freedom Fall gameplay, Lisa Rye, Stirfire Studios (2013)

Freedom Fall gameplay, Lisa Rye, Stirfire Studios (2013)

Or there’s Hopscotch app, a game that enables children to learn to code and programme through easy tutorials and fun games. Created by Jocelyn Leavitt and Samantha John, Hopscotch helps kids create mini-games that can be published and played instantly. How ‘girly’ a game looks is entirely up to the player.

The importance of women developers is undeniable, but the figures remain dismally low. An article in the Guardian reports that while 52% of the mobile gaming demographic in Britain consists of women, only 12% of game designers and 3% of programmers are women.

In India, the figures are even lower — but they’re slowly improving.

Poornima Seetharaman, the lead game designer of GSN Games, a game studio that created some of the most popular game apps in India, says that there are way more women in game development than when she started out 11 years ago. She tells me, ‘Companies are now starting to make an active effort to find more women developers, and to reach out to enough prospective candidates.’ If you’re catering to a huge female demographic, it makes sense to reflect that on the development end, too.

Moreover, having women at the development end means that there’s an added impetus to create a safe, fun community culture in and around mobile games. Games have already started laying down stricter guidelines regarding community interactions to ensure everyone has a pleasant experience regardless of their gender. QuizUp, which features a chat option, has strict policies against lewd comments and moderates forums diligently. Because nothing spells romance like aggressively badgering the girl who keeps beating you on the Game of Thrones quiz.

Ultimately, women aren’t a homogenous category, and nor are the games we play. But the first step to ensuring that characters in Mean Girls don’t have to choose between Yale or a boyfriend, and that sparkle doesn’t mean silly, is hiring more women developers. And it’s about time we start doing that.

Mean Girls: Senior Year gameplay, Pocket Gems (2015)

Mean Girls: Senior Year gameplay, Pocket Gems (2015)

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As I scramble on board the sweaty second-class ladies compartment of the Virar Fast at 6pm, it is a war zone. Those who haven’t got seats hold on to the hanging straps, asking the lucky seated few where they’re getting off and then aggressively calling dibs on their seats. Each three-seater houses four women, who share roasted peanuts with their friends or sit silently with their heads bent over their phones.

The compartment’s inhabitants are exhausted, and threaten to blow at the slightest provocation. There are very few things that can calm this rage, but playing mobile games seems to be one of them.

When I squeeze past the packed bodies and approach 31-year-old Anita Ingle, she’s busy playing the multiplayer game Ludo King with herself on her Samsung J1. Based on the board game, Ludo King is a mobile game in which players press the dice button for randomised numbers, letting them move their tokens over the green, yellow, blue and red squares. It doesn’t require an internet connection, and is impervious to fluctuating network.

Anita tells me that the only time she gets to play mobile games is during the commute from her home in Mahim to her housekeeping job in Goregaon. Married at the age of 14, Anita spent most of her life taking care of her family before taking up the job in Goregaon four years ago. Mobile games keep her company during her long, monotonous commutes.

Her work hours are long, but on the occasional Sunday she gets to play mobile games with her three daughters and one son. ‘They’re the ones that download the games for me,’ she says.

With the availability of cheap smartphones and data packs, mobile gaming has become a mode of entertainment that large numbers of people have access to — similar to what a television set was to a huge chunk of India in the 90s. This ease of access is compounded by the fact that most of these games are available for free, only requiring optional, easily ignorable in-app purchases.

Women are downloading, playing and sometimes even buying a vast array of mobile games across the world. In the UK, the percentage of female mobile gamers is estimated to be 52%. While the numbers are lower in India, since far fewer women actually own mobile phones than their male counterparts, in May 2016 Reliance Games estimated that women make up 44% of India’s mobile gaming market. Earlier this year, however, a survey by GamesBond put the figure closer to 22%, and other pieces of research suggest equally abysmal figures.

The numbers really don’t add up.

But that’s not really surprising. I’m guessing these numbers don’t include my 70-year-old grand-aunt in Kerala, who is a huge fan of Angry Birds. Or my domestic help who lives in Malad, and plays Tic-Tac-Toe on her Micromax Bolt S301. Or teenagers from low-income communities for whom Snake still holds the same allure that it did for me all those years ago.

Who counts as a gamer, what counts as a game, and which mobile phones are fancy enough to even get counted amounts to data that is heavily skewed in its class, caste and gender perspectives.

So much so that most women playing on their mobile phones don’t count themselves as gamers, either.

Kinjal Zanzkaria, a 24-year-old design researcher, is a huge fan of strategy games such as Clash of Clans. The multi-player mobile game is pretty similar to the popular 1997 PC game Age of Empires, albeit a less complicated, clunkier version. In Clash of Clans, players hoard their gold and elixir supplies and defend their clans from attack. But though she ardently loves and plays the game, Kinjal doesn’t really see herself as a gamer. ‘I never get too serious about it. I consider it a recreational activity, that’s all.’ She smiles. ‘That’s unless they launch Harry Potter GO.’

Clash of Clans gameplay, Supercell (2012)

Clash of Clans gameplay, Supercell (2012)

Himashree, a 50-year-old Army doctor, plays games like Candy Crush and Infinity Loop (a blissfully minimalistic game where you connect lines to create complete shapes) for more than thirty minutes every day. But she’s never considered herself a gamer either. ‘Playing mobile games is a not a must-do for me. It’s pretty low-priority,’ she says.

Regardless of the copious amounts of time they spend on these games, most of the women interviewed for this story feel that their gaming is just a frivolous pastime. When asked whether they consider themselves gamers, the majority replied that they weren’t even sure what being a ‘gamer’ meant.

But it often seems like self-proclaimed gamers can’t define it too well either.

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The word ‘game’ originates comes from the Old English ‘gamen’, which means ‘amusement’ or ‘fun’. Whether it was the games we played as children, such as pithoo, or the first computer text-based exploration games on old PCs, the main purpose of playing games has always been to amuse ourselves. To pass the time. And the advent of video-based games has only stretched the potential of amusement further, creating new immersive, intense experiences.

Somewhere along the way, players of video-based games started using tags such as ‘hard-core’ to express that they were invested in these games, spent money on them, and treated them as serious experiences versus just ‘time-pass’. In fact, taking yourself very seriously seems to be a de facto virtue of being a ‘real’ gamer, and isn’t entirely unrelated to the toxic culture this can result in.

In reality, these tags are totally arbitrary, but they’re so pervasive that they end up pushing other gamers to the fringes.

And if we don’t step back and figure out why these hierarchies crop up and who benefits from them, we’ll continue perpetuating the belief that some people deserve well-developed games with interesting storylines, while others are thrown to the mercy of marketers trying to make a quick buck with a ridiculous Flappy Bird clone.

Monument Valley gameplay, featuring a graceful, almost-genderless princess, Ustwo (2014)

Monument Valley gameplay, featuring a graceful, almost-genderless princess, Ustwo (2014)

Poornima has her own take on the division between ‘hard-core’ and ‘casual’ gamers. ‘For me, this segregation has less to do with the game and more to do with the player,’ she says. ‘At any point in time, you can fall into either segment depending on how invested you are in the game. But if we want the market to grow, we need to accept everyone regardless of where they fall on this spectrum.’

Whether you’re losing friends over Monopoly, playing Ludo on your long daily commute, or staying up till sunrise to traverse the open world of Skyrim, you’re a gamer. And if you have any doubts, just remember what the wise philosopher Britney Spears once said: ‘No shame in the game, just cut the shit’.

Everybody deserves a good game, after all.

This piece was originally published by Deep Dives as part of the series Sexing the Interwebs.