ByAthena Veta, writer at
Games are about understanding and creating reality for ourselves. Let's explore how our virtual and physical worlds relate to one another!
Athena Veta

Words like "themes" and "mechanics" are tossed around in the gaming world, and sometimes it seems like they are used interchangeably. But I noticed a pattern when pulling up Let's Plays that illustrates how the two, while related, are different. I pulled up a Let’s Play of Destiny recently. And then I pulled up another because the sound balance was weird on the first video. And then I pulled up another video, because the second guy was very enthusiastic about everything. And then I pulled up another one. And then I noticed a pattern, so I pulled up yet another one, and another, and another.

Athena activates flame shield. It's super effective!
Athena activates flame shield. It's super effective!

What struck me as interesting was that I went through an entire page of YouTube videos and not one Let’s Player was a woman (with the possible exception of the one video that didn’t have any commentary at all).

Compare this to the first page of Portal Let’s Plays, which has two different playthroughs narrated by women.

This doesn’t seem like an important issue. After all, I hear you say, everyone should be entitled to play the video games they want to play regardless of gender. Well, intelligent reader, you are absolutely right and I agree with you completely. So why talk about this at all?

Snips And Snails And Puppy-Dog Tails

Let’s do an experiment. Think of a first-person game where the main character has a gun. Got the name? Now think of the person behind the screen playing the game.

I bet you all thought of and a 35-year-old woman with children, right? Let’s try a different one.

Think of a match-three game. Thought of one? Now, again, think of the gender of the players happily matching three “whatevers” of the game.

Well, now you’re onto me, so I bet you thought of Puzzle Quest and men.

All cheekiness aside, the point I’m trying to make is that we as a gaming community often mistake gaming mechanics for gaming themes, or worse, we lump them together as the same thing. By doing this, we may be limiting ourselves to the types of games we play, at the very least. At the worst, we as a community are limiting the types of games we develop.

Mechanics, Themes And Cooties

A lot of the above needs to be unpacked and expanded a little more, so let’s start with some definition. Game mechanics are the constructs by which players can interact with the game. Simply, they are the rules of the game and dictate whether the camera is in first or third person, how the character can move and interact with the environment, whether the game is card based or uses a dice roll, and other matters pertaining to the core build of the game. Usually, the game mechanics are used to define the type or genre of game, such as a first-person shooter, adventure, turn-based or platformer.

Themes in a video game are, by contrast, the elements that convey what the game is about, including graphics style, type of gameplay, what the main character looks like, the music, etc. This relates to theming, which refers to the use of themes to create a cohesive experience .

From these definitions, it’s easy to see how a mechanic does not lend itself primarily to one gender or another, but a theme can lend itself a great deal to gender. So when first-person shooter Call of Duty sells primarily to men, and match-three Candy Crush is enjoyed predominantly by women, we assume that the reason is because boys like and girls like match-three.

Portal was, for all intents and purposes, an FPS insofar as the game was in first-person perspective and utilized a gun for its entirety. But Portal didn’t appeal solely or primarily to males. This might have been because the theme of the game was not specifically gendered the way Call of Duty‘s machismo game style is gendered.

...versus this.
...versus this.

Puzzle Quest, on the other hand, is a match-three game, but takes place in the Warlords universe in a fantastically conceived RPG-meets-Bejeweled way. Even though match-three games are generally considered girl games, Puzzle Quest had a strong male following, because the theme of it was not gendered (or gendered in a way that was more acceptable to men/both genders).

Men Are From Omega, Women Are From Illium

While I’m willing to agree that men and women on average have different preferences in regard to video game themes, both genders can appreciate a mechanic. Wichita State University published a research article that suggests more males prefer violent video game themes than women do, and women prefer games with more social or puzzle elements. So far, so fair. But without a plethora of first-person games that aren’t themed toward male-preferred themes, it is difficult to conclude if women would like first-person shooters that appealed more to their preferred themes, as was the case with Portal. So we are left to guess whether it is the theme or the mechanic that separates genders.

Anecdotally, theming could be the culprit, because games that have deep stories and engaging characters are popular with women, even if they include violent elements. Games in the Dragon Age, Mass Effect or Final Fantasy franchises — which do include violence as a part of the game but have a stronger focus on story and characters — have a strong female following. More personally, I love the Metal Gear franchise, which includes violent aspects, but the characters and the story add a perspective to the shooting that appeals to me.

Sniper Wolf? Sniper Wolf?? Sniper Wooooolf!!!
Sniper Wolf? Sniper Wolf?? Sniper Wooooolf!!!

Further support for this hypothesis is that mechanics that are not themed toward one gender or another are popular across all genders, like adventure and racing games. Everyone can appreciate driving a fast car around a track and coming in first place, or exploring a new world.

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The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, the industry can develop games however it sees fit. Developers can continue to program FPSs with themes that appeal primarily to male gamers while ignoring the untapped audience that doesn’t like the violence or overtly masculine themes of the games that are produced. They can develop puzzle games that appeal to women while ignoring the other half of gamers who aren’t drawn in by the enjoyment of solving a puzzle for the puzzle’s sake. Worse, they are missing out on audiences — and therefore revenue — by limiting certain mechanics to certain themes, and we as players are missing out on experiencing certain types of games (read: game mechanics) because the themes don’t appeal to one gender or another.

This is not to say that men or women only like one type of theme or another, just that developers are limiting themselves by assuming mechanics, e.g., first-person shooters, are limited to gendered themes, e.g., not thinking about how to use first-person shooter mechanics in something other than a war or "male"-themed games.

Are game mechanics gendered? Do you think women and men inherently like different mechanics, or are themes to blame? Sound off in the comments.


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