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A 36-24-36 Cerebrum: Gendering Video Game Play through Advertising

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Shira Chess
17 State Street Apt. 6B
Troy, NY 12180

(518) 859-9637
chesss@rpi.edu
http://www.shiraland.com
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 2

A 36-24-36 Cerebrum: Gendering Video Game Play through Advertising


By Shira Chess

Introduction
Until only recently, video games were often understood to be created by and for
masculine audiences (Fron et al, 2007; Ray, 2004; Cassell & Jenkins, 1999). Now, in the
past few years, an influx of video games (such as Wii Fit, Brain Age, and Diner Dash)
has been increasingly marketed to a demographic previously ignored by the gaming
industry: adult females. As such, there are now more video games created specifically for
(and marketed to) women. At the same time though, one does not have to look far to see a
division and gendered hierarchy between traditional (masculine) gamers and newer
(feminine) gamers. Advertising is one way where this divisiveness becomes particularly
visible. At its core, play is marketed differently to men than it is to women, and
underlying these marketing differences are deeper issues of gender and play.
In what follows, I will be discussing video game advertising in magazines,
showing how video game audiences are becoming simultaneously both broader and
narrower: video game appeals might be made to larger audiences—now often including
more women. But at the same time, these appeals often narrow the kinds of play that
women are authorized to engage in. In order to illustrate this, I use content and semiotic
analysis of advertising in two traditional video game magazines, showing how femininity
is often excluded or marginalized from traditional gaming. Subsequently, I similarly
analyze advertising in some non-video game magazines—mostly aimed at adult female
audiences, showing specific ways that video games and play have been pitched to women
in recent years.

Gender, Video Games, and Leisure


Much of the previous research on video games and gender has been limited to the
question, “how do we get little girls to play video games?” Books such as, From Barbie
to Mortal Combat (1999) helped to pave the way for discussions of the gendered nature
of the video game industry (Cassell & Jenkins, 1999), yet research on young girls was
often unfairly applied to research on women (Taylor, 2006). In turn, focusing on girls
rather than women (while perhaps more practical when studying play) ultimately ignores
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the possibility that play habits change through life cycle. Subsequent reports on video
games and gender, both in industry and academia, often result in discussions and
assumptions that girls and women alike prefer casual games, social games, or narrative
heavy games (Ray, 2004; Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2000).
While these discussions are useful, they do not always account for the cultural
affects of gender (as opposed to the biological effects of sex). Biology is often the focus
of video game studies—both in industry and academia. For instance, researchers often
cite differences in cognitive abilities, stimuli, and reflexes (Isbister, 2006) as being the
primary reason why women do not play the games created by an inherently masculine
industry. One recent Stanford study focused on the cognitive effects of rewards in terms
of gender differences, concluding that men show more activity in the “mesocorticolimbic
center” of the brain, which they associate with competition and addiction (Hoeft, et al,
2008). This study puts forth the clinical claim that men and boys have more “fun” playing
video games than women and girls.
Recent studies have only begun to critique these issues. T.L. Taylor (2008,
forthcoming) suggests that future studies on gender and games should move away from
this biological focus and take gender and culture more deeply into account. Similarly, the
Ludica Group (a collective of gender game researchers) has begun focusing on some of
the cultural logic surrounding varying tastes in video games (Fron, et al, 2007a), and has
discussed the hegemonies of masculine play (Fron, et al, 2007b). Royse et al (2007)
begins to break older habits used in gender and video game studies by dividing its
participants into three categories: power gamers, non-gamers, and moderate gamers.
Thus, while several researchers have begun to open new avenues for ways to understand
gender and video games, my study uniquely examines themes of productivity in games
aimed at women, which track back to larger issues of gender and play. At the same time,
when studying cultural affect, it is vital to consider media which might influence play
habits, such as advertising.
Another major component to factor into gender and video game studies is
women’s leisure. Since the late 1980s, researchers have discussed women’s leisure habits
as being easily interruptible (Modleski, 1988), done in quick snippets of time, and more
family-oriented than personally fulfilling (Deem, 1987). As such, women’s leisure is
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often less absorbing and more about filling time and keeping other family members
entertained. Later, I illustrate how these patterns are reinforced in video game advertising
aimed at women audiences. Ultimately, I argue that the emergence of video games for
women has reinforced these pre-existing themes of women’s leisure.

Gender and Advertising


Advertising stands at a precarious place in our culture. On one hand, it
exemplifies some of the basest qualities of popular culture, using manipulative
propaganda techniques. From this standpoint, it is easy to be dismissive of advertising as
vacuous and shallow. But these disingenuous techniques hold a larger role in our society.
For instance, many Marxist critiques of advertising suggest that it fosters false ideologies
and constructs desires that might not have existed otherwise (Leiss, et al, 1997). In a
similarly cynical vein, postmodern critiques suggest that advertising style and meaning
has been injected and diluted into all forms of culture. Baudrillard contends that,
“Currently, the most interesting aspect of advertising is its disappearance, its dilution as a
specific form, or even as a medium” (1984/1990, p. 90). Thus, if Baudrillard’s contention
is true, it would seem foolhardy to dismiss a cultural form that currently affects so many
other cultural artifacts. What all of this means is that we can often understand advertising
as a barometer of our culture. According to William Leiss, et al (1997):
Regarded individually and superficially, advertisements
promote goods and services. Looked at in depth and as a
whole, the ways in which messages are presented in
advertising reach deeply into our most serious concerns:
interpersonal and family relations, the sense of happiness and
contentment, sex roles and stereotyping, the uses of affluence,
the fading away of older cultural traditions, influences on
younger generations, […] and many others. (p. 1)

Given this assertion, and bearing in mind the Marxist and Postmodern critiques
mentioned above, it seems naive to disregard advertising as simply shallow or artless:
advertising messages show the trends, beliefs, and ideologies of a culture.
Gender is often surprisingly unrepresented in studies of advertising. Erving
Goffman’s Gender Advertisements (1976/1979) was one of the first texts to consider how
gender is portrayed in advertising and how it complies with already understood societal
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stereotypes about gender. In this book, Goffman looks at how positioning and facial
expressions manifest into portrayals of subordination and lower social status of women
through everyday advertising. He is primarily concerned with ritual and how it is used to
create and reproduce gender expectations. Goffman uses several categories to illustrate
ways that women show subordination in advertising, including the relative size of the
man and woman, the use of a “feminine touch”, function ranking between people
portrayed, ritualized subordination, and licensed withdrawal. Later, I will discuss these
categories in more depth, and use them to illustrate how women are portrayed and
marginalized in typical video game advertisements.
Since Goffman’s seminal book, others have expanded on some typical
constructions of gender in advertising. Diane Barthel’s Putting on Appearances: Gender
and Advertising (1988) discusses how the “beauty role” is constructed through
advertising. Barthel goes significantly deeper than Goffman, discussing more feminist
implications of gender constructions in advertisements. For example, in advertisements
aimed at women, she shows how the “voice of authority” is used to put feminine
audiences in the position of the child, through various authority figures (older women,
scientists, celebrities, or other experts). Thus, rather than showing just how women are
portrayed (such as Goffman does) Barthel manages to draw a fuller picture of how
specific appeals are made to women to sell them both products and self-images.
Similarly, in Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media
(1994), Susan Douglas writes about how the mass media has sold certain images (both
empowering and disempowering) to women. She explains that often advertising in recent
years have twisted notions of women’s liberation into excuses for narcissism and working
on self appearances. She explains:
Women’s liberation became equated with women’s ability
to do whatever they wanted for themselves, whenever they
wanted, no matter what the expense. These ads were geared
to the women who had made it in the world, or who hoped
she would, and the message was reward yourself, you
deserve it. (p. 246)

Advertising, per Douglas, provides a means of simultaneously selling products and


reinforcing ideologies about gender. While these ideological strongholds are not
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necessarily deliberate, they do help to reaffirm stereotypes and beliefs that are already at
play in our culture.
In their essay “The Hegemony of Play” the Ludica Group (Fron, et al, 2007b)
briefly discusses some of issues with video game advertising, many of which I will be
elaborating on later in this essay. The Ludica Group explains, “Many videogame
advertisements tend to disenfranchise and alienate women, further contributing to the
self-fulfilling prophecy that ‘women don’t play games’” (p. 316). In this essay, the
Ludica Group also discusses Nintendo setting their sights on a different kind of gamer
(women), in their more recent advertising campaigns, and that this represents signs of
“subtle but tectonic shifts.” While, admittedly, the advertising campaigns that I discuss in
the following are targeted at women audiences, I would argue that the generalizations and
essentializations about feminine play at the heart of these advertisements do not
necessarily escape the “hegemonies of play”, entirely.
I argue that gender, advertising, and ideologies are all part of an inseparable and
symbiotic relationship, where advertising very often reinforces and reaffirms gender roles
and stereotypes already a part of dominant ideologies. In as much as products are sold to
audiences, the same advertisements are also often reinforcing normative gender roles
already present in the products and culture they are from. In what follows, I focus on how
video game advertisements are punctuated with gender stereotypes. Alternately I also
explore advertisements and campaigns specifically for the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo
Wii and some of the ways they have been specifically marketed towards women.

Typical Video Game Magazine Advertisements


Methodologies
In a survey I conducted of Play Magazine and Game Informer Magazine—two
popular video game magazines—from July 2006 through June 2007. Game Informer had
a total of 395 advertisements and Play had a total of 274 advertisements throughout the
course of the year (See Table 1). Of the advertisements for video games (59% of the total
ads in Game Informer and 64% of the total ads in Play), 32% of the video game
advertisements in Game Informer had any images of women, while 57% of the
advertisements in Play did. Many of these advertisements ran several times (and between
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magazines) and ultimately there were a total of 93 distinct advertisements over the course
of the year that had any women in them (in major or minor roles). Because this included
characters in advertisements that were in minor roles (such as part of small screen shots,
characters that were significantly smaller, less lighted, more abstractly drawn, or were not
the overall visual focus of the page) it was necessary to determine how many of these
advertisements had women or girl characters in major roles, to fairly determine how
women were depicted in these advertisements. By ruling out women and girls in screen
shots, who were significantly smaller, or more abstractly drawn, I determined that there
were a total of 47 distinct advertisements over the course of the year, in both magazines,
that featured female characters in major roles.
Using Goffman’s criteria in Gender Advertisements, I studied each of these
advertisements to determine several factors in how female characters were depicted: their
facial expressions, eye positioning, “feminine touch”, and the potential of powerfulness
depicted through size, stance, relative positioning, function ranking, and “licensed
withdrawal”1, as well as my own factors which include looking clothing and whether the
woman shown was playing the game or a character in it (see Table 2). One of the most
striking things is that despite being written in the 1970s, Goffman’s text still can be used
to describe many advertisements today. While several of the advertisements had more
than one female character (making some of these things more difficult to assess), I
attempted to factor all of these things into my findings. In what follows I will give a brief
description of some of my findings over the year’s worth of magazines, and then use
semiotic analysis to analyze some specific advertisements more carefully. It is also
important to note, here, that my analysis is not of the games themselves—what interests
me here is not how women are depicted in video games, but rather, how they are
presented to readers. By illustrating this, it becomes easier to show how women might be
marginalized by the advertisements in typical video game advertising, and how this might
affect purchase and play of these video games.
In addition to using Goffman’s categories, I also use semiotic analysis to more
thoroughly analyze a few specific advertisements. In Mythologies (1957/1972) Roland
Barthes discusses the value of using semiotic analysis to better understand cultural myths

1
I will later explain the Goffman categories in more detail.
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—including advertising. Per Barthes, a myth is a type of speech which is a “mode of


signification” (p. 109) for a culture. As such, he explains how one can use semiotic
analysis—the study of sign and sign systems—to decode cultural mythologies. Barthes
describes the process of decoding mythologies into sign systems as part of a “tri-
dimensional pattern”: the signifier, the signified, and the sign. Using an example of
flowers, Barthes explains:
Take a bunch of roses: I use it to signify my passion. Do we have
here, then, only a signifier and a signified, the roses and my
passion? Not even that: to put it accurately, there are here only
‘passionified’ roses. But on the plane of analysis, we do have three
terms, for these roses weighted with passion perfectly and correctly
allow themselves to be decomposed into roses and passion: the
former and the latter existed before uniting and forming this third
object, which is the sign.” (p. 113) [emphasis his]

The sign, signifier, and signified can be used as a roadmap to understand imagery and
text in any cultural mythology, including advertisements. Thus, one can use Barthes’
system of semiotic analysis to decode cultural myths by looking at many of the smaller
components and examining them as sign systems.

Video Game Magazine Advertisement Analysis


Two factors that play a large role in Goffman’s analysis of gender in advertising
are facial expressions and eye positions (where the subject is looking). These, he
contends, play a role in how women and femininity are depicted. Of facial expressions,
Goffman explains that women often are seen smiling and wearing non-threatening facial
expressions: “Smiles, it can be argued, often function as ritualistic mollifiers, signaling
that nothing agonistic is intended or invited, that the meaning of the other’s act has been
understood and found acceptable, that, indeed, the other is approved and appreciated” (p.
48). This is the case with many of the women depicted in the video game advertisements
that were smiling or smirking in some way: in 28% of the advertisements one or all of the
female characters depicted were smirking or smiling (see Table 2). Thus, even the more
powerful figures in these advertisements are often portrayed as dependent and ultimately
powerless.
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Regarding the position and eye line of the subject Goffman explains, “The
lowering of the head presumably withdraws attention from the scene at hand, dependency
entailed and indicated thereby. The gain is that one’s feelings will be momentarily
concealed—although, of course, not the fact that one is attempting such concealment […]
Mere aversion of the eyes can apparently serve similarly” (p. 63). It’s striking that 66%
of the advertisements that featured feminine characters in Play and Game Informer had
women or girls with averted eyes, or who were not looking directly ahead—most either
lowered or off to the side (see Table 2).
Another major factor that Goffman refers to is “licensed withdrawal.” He
explains, “Women more than men, it seems, are pictured engaged in involvements which
remove them psychologically from the social situation at large, leaving them unoriented
in it and to it, and presumably therefore, dependent on the protectiveness and goodwill of
others who (or might come to be) present” (p. 57). In addition to the aforementioned coy
smiles and off-screen glances, licensed withdrawal often is portrayed through placing a
hand on or near the mouth or body to indicate an emotional response. At the same time,
as Goffman noted, licensed withdrawal connotes dependence. In the advertisements in
Play and Game Informer, 66% had women or girls who displayed licensed withdrawal
(see Table 2).
In Gender Advertisements, Goffman also discusses how positioning on the page,
relative size, and function ranking all play a large role in how gender is constructed in
advertisements. According to Goffman, women are generally depicted both as smaller
than men, both height and width and in ways that their function ranking is physically
visible. Height and size of the women and girls varied considerably, but in 21% of the
advertisements women or girls were smaller than then men. In 34% of the
advertisements, the women were positioned behind the men.
Goffman also discusses the use of hands or the “feminine touch.” Goffman
explains that, “Women, more than men, are pictured using their fingers and hands to trace
the outlines of an object or to cradle it or to caress its surface (the latter sometimes under
the guise of guiding it), or to effect a ‘just barely touch’ of the kind that might be
significant between two electrically charged bodies” (p. 29). While on one hand there is
a utilitarian purpose to holding weapons in a game where there is fighting, the use of
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hands, and the specificity of seeing ungloved fingers in each of these ads is telling. The
feminine character in these advertisements are not so much fighting as they are
displaying a weapon in a way that gives it the sexual affect described by Goffman. 57%
percent of the advertisements that had women in them were either touching themselves,
displaying their hands, touching weapons, or touching others (see Table 2).
Other factors that I analyzed that were not part of Goffman’s analysis (but are
shown in Table 2) were how revealing the female character’s clothing is, and whether the
person depicted was a player or a game character. 66% of the women and girls were
wearing sexually provocative or revealing clothing—a statistic which is generally
unsurprising for the genre. Additionally, only 1% of the women and girls depicted in the
advertisements were shown as players rather than in-game characters. Unto itself, this
number is not surprising—the majority of characters in video game magazines
advertisements tend to focus more on game characters than on players. This statistic
becomes far more compelling when compared to some of the advertisements discussed in
the second half of this study—almost all of the advertisements in women’s magazines
showed players rather than in-game characters.
Ultimately, these advertisements help to construct a feminine marginalization in
the typical video game world. This marginalization, I argue, reflects who is being
authorized to play video games. In the following, I analyze specific advertisements that I
feel highlight this feminine marginalization. It is my contention that not only do the
following advertisements help to marginalize potential women players who might happen
upon them, they also create an image that women and girls do not belong in this overall
playscape. While all games are not aimed solely at masculine audiences, the fact that the
two magazines that I reviewed which both specialized in video game topics have so many
advertisements that essentialize or ignore femininity illustrates how overwhelmingly
marginalized women and girls are in the video game industry.
The first advertisement is for the game Lzuna, (see Figure 1). The ad, which
appeared in several months of Play Magazine in 2007, features the title character, alone,
holding a sword over her shoulder. The advertisement’s text brags, “Finally, a Dungeon
RPG strong enough for a man… but played as a hot CHICK.” This headline, of course, is
a play on the popular deodorant advertisement (“Strong enough for a man but made for a
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woman”). The difference between the original deodorant advertisement and the
advertisement for Lzuna is the distinction between “made for” and “played as”: in no way
does this advertisement infer that anyone but a man is meant to “play as” this “hot
CHICK.” The image of the woman to the left of the text shows the reader the “hot
CHICK” they are able to play as. Lzuna’s is presented as sexually attractive, with her
face partially hidden by hair, and profiled in the aforementioned sense of licensed
withdrawal. Her eyes are also averted downward. Lzuna’s pose is almost prostitute-like:
most of her body is visible and her hip, pointed outward, displays her curves and bare leg.
She holds a very long sword over one shoulder (her arm, in part, hiding her face), her
fingers only lightly grazing the sword handle. Her arms reaching upwards also manage to
display a profile of her (clothed) breasts for the audience. Despite being more clothed
than the characters in many other video game advertisements, she wears fishnet sleeves—
again an inference of prostitution. Lzuna has a slight smile on her face, and her eyes are
focused off in the distance—a facial expression of licensed withdrawal—once again, per
Goffman, showing her as ultimately powerless. For a character that is “strong enough for
a man,” Lzuna is hardly menacing.
The text below the headline, though, is even more telling of how this
advertisement might marginalize feminine video game players. It explains, “You have the
privilege of controlling the cutest ninja ever, lzuna (that’s me!), through all these
different dungeons. Customize my weapons and unleash devastating ninja spells to
destroy monsters and score major treasure. Let’s face it, I need the cash” (emphasis,
mine). The word “controlling” is key here. The potential player is not being told they can
role-play as a feminine character, but rather as advertised in the headline, that they can
control a “hot chick,” a decidedly masculine phrase for woman. Because it has already
been established that the game is “strong enough for a man” it is clear that this
“controlling” is not to be done by a female player, but is expected to be done by a male.
Further, the final line (“Let’s face it, I need the cash”) reinforces this control theme with
the hint of prostitution: by spending money on the game the player is able to control the
actions of “the cutest ninja ever.” Thus, this advertisement reinforces a notion that
feminine players have a limited role in the gaming world, and are only controllable
avatars.
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The second advertisement (Figure 2) is not for a specific game, but for the
Playstation Portable (PSP) system, which appeared in September 2006 of Game Informer
Magazine. This advertisement, somewhat similarly to Lzuna allows game play to provide
a substitute for desire and sexuality. In this advertisement, a small diorama stage sets the
“PSP Theater” wherein two finger puppets are playing the roles of Romeo and Juliet. The
Juliet character, on a makeshift balcony, declares the expected, “Romeo, Romeo, where
art thou Romeo?” But rather than the obligatory rejoinder, Romeo scoffs, “I am busy
playing PSP Greatest Hits for $19.99, so call someone else’s name like Frank or
something.” This advertisement is compelling on several levels—first because of the way
the feminine figure (finger) is marginalized from video game play both physically and
psychologically. The Juliet character is pleading for romance in an entirely essentializing
way—wearing all white and claiming a somewhat chaste desire. The male character not
only dismisses her by verbally professing his love for PSP games (over her love), but by
physically showing desire towards the games rather than the heteronormative scenario
that has been presented to him. As can be seen in the advertisement, because the Romeo
finger is being played with a Thumb, half of a pointer finger juts out below him, arguably
showing a simulated erection—not towards Juliet, but rather, towards the images of the
games. These games, on puppet-like popsicle sticks (continuing the makeshift theater
theme) embody a third character—technological play. Given the masculine finger’s
simulated erection, romantic and heterosexual desire is thus being replaced by video
game play and technological desire.
While the feminine character does not necessarily embody all of the previously
mentioned Goffman themes (we are unable to glean her facial expression, and “feminine
touch” is a useless concept for a finger puppet), her physical separation from both the
masculine finger puppet and the games is indicative of both function ranking (she is apart
from the play, on a balcony) as well as licensed withdrawal. The reader/viewer is being
shown that femininity has a specific role (or lack of role) within video game play.
The advertisement for Viva Piñata, (Figure 3) does not use sexuality in reference
to video game play, but instead presents an overall feminine disdain for unstructured
play. The advertisement for the virtual piñata game shows a family in the aftermath of a
birthday party where a piñata game has presumably gotten out of hand. A boy is
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removing his blindfold and has lowered the piñata stick, and a large hole in the fence is in
the shape of an escaped piñata. The center of a birthday cake has been trampled through
due to the renegade piñata. The boy who has presumably hit the piñata to its current state
looks slightly confused (likely due to needing to remove his blindfold). A mother figure
stands to the right of a picnic table, her head turned towards the broken fence (and away
from the camera) with one hand on her chest and the other serving fruit punch from a
pitcher. The two girls standing at opposite ends of the table both have physical or facial
expressions of panic: one is screaming with her hands upward, and the other one is
similarly holding her hands in the air with her fists closed (her back, like the mother is
turned to the camera). Two other masculine figures—a father and another boy, stand
looking out of the fence, while both seem mildly curious and surprised, neither seem
nearly as hysterical or shocked as the female characters do.
The advertisement is striking because other than the smaller text on the lower half
of the page (and the fact that it was in a video game magazine) one would not necessarily
ordinarily assume that this advertisement was for a video game. In fact, the play that is
being represented is not part of newer play technologies, but rather, older (and family-
oriented) kinds of play. But just as with the advertisements that are more clearly for video
games, femininity is being marginalized in this playscape. Thus, while it was a boy who
spun the piñata out of control, and men who are calmly assessing the situation, the
women and girls are the ones reacting aversely towards the play gone awry: the girls are
presented hysterically and the mother is withdrawn, holding her hand to her chest. Once
again, even in older forms of play, this advertisement is suggesting that women and girls
are not equipped for the unexpected mayhem that play might produce.

Advertising Aimed at Feminine Audiences


The next part of this chapter looks at an entirely different kind of video game
advertising—advertising not aimed at traditional gamers (as was seen in Play and Game
Informer) but those which have been aimed specifically at women audiences. These
advertisements primarily have been for one of two newer Nintendo systems: the handheld
gaming system the Nintendo DS Lite, and the home console system the Nintendo Wii.
Since approximately Spring 2006, Nintendo has begun advertising these systems in
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venues where women might encounter them. The following section does not analyze the
specific games in detail, but rather, analyzes ways that these games are advertised and
sold to this new demographic. As I did with the previous advertisements that I discussed,
I will be looking at how advertising constructs images of feminine play. Many of the
advertisements that I will be discussing do not necessarily highlight the playful potential
of the video games they are promoting, but rather their productivity as well as for their
ability to supposedly bring families closer together.

Methodologies
In this section I review magazine advertising that specifically targets feminine
audiences. All of the advertising that I discuss appeared between May 2006 and August
2008. Obviously, there are several differences, methodologically, with how I dealt with
this material as opposed to the video game magazine advertising I analyzed in the first
part of this study. Because there were considerably fewer video game advertisements in
non-video game magazines, I decided that it was necessary to encompass a larger time
period in my study—a total of 28 months. The months selected were not arbitrary—my
study begins a month before the release of the Nintendo DS Lite (when it is first being
marketed to feminine audiences), through the release of the Nintendo Wii, up until the
release of the Wii Fit game. Because advertising for video games were sporadic (and
often there was not more than one advertisement for a video game or video game system
per month) as well as redundant (several ads ran in several magazines) statistic results
and percentages would not necessarily hold the same relevance as they did in Table 2.
Table 3, instead, illustrates the 28 month spread of video game advertisements in
magazines, by platform.
While time and resources limited the number of magazines I researched for video
game advertising, I tried to get a cross-section which included women’s and men’s
general interest magazine, as well as magazines that have more gender neutral audiences.
I charted video game advertisements in nine popular magazines2 (see Table 3) noting
both full page advertisements as well as small promotional ads that were on larger pages
2
The magazines I reviewed were Real Simple Magazine, Oprah Magazine, People Magazine,
Good Housekeeping, Martha Stewart Living, Redbook, Esquire, Wired Magazine,, and Time
Magzine.
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with several other featured items of the month (in Table 3 referred to as “promo” ads). I
did not include actual magazine articles in this study, and also did not include
advertisements for video game systems that were specifically for children or babies (such
as the V-Flash system) as I did not feel this was relevant to my study3. While,
unfortunately, this does not provide a fully comprehensive tally of every time every
advertisement appeared in any magazine, I feel fairly confident that my cross-section
covers the majority of the major Nintendo advertising campaigns (aimed at this
demographic) over this time period, and that additional magazines would have been
mostly redundant.
Finally, readers might note that this study primarily focuses on Nintendo
products. This is not brand preference on my part, but rather because very few
advertisements appeared for non-Nintendo games and products in magazines aimed at
women (Wired had other consoles and games, but these advertisements were, other than
when noted, similar to the game advertisements in Play and Game Informer). Thus, the
few incidences of advertisements for other video game systems appeared as part of
pullouts or larger advertisements for stores such as Target and Wal-Mart. Generally,
these advertisements were suggesting gaming systems as family gifts, and not about the
women readers, themselves, playing games (see Table 3).

Nintendo DS Lite: Doing Something with Your Nothing


The Nintendo DS (standing for Dual Screen) was unusually positioned to enter a
more feminized video game market from its inception. The DS Lite, released in June of
2006, is a handheld (portable) game system with two screens: the upper screen has visual
output, while the lower has a touch screen which can be manipulated with a built-in
stylus. The small system was quickly positioned by Nintendo as a potential “accessory”
and one Nintendo executive was quoted in a news article saying, “It definitely should be
part of every purse […] you have your cellphone, your iPod, and your DS Lite” (Harris p.
F15). Thus, from its inception, the DS Lite began to use various marketing methods to
target feminine audiences. The DS Lite entered the market with the slogan, “Lighter,
3
Because I am specifically studying women’s play and video games that are aimed at women,
educational games or game systems that are meant solely for children were tangential to my
research.
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 16

Brighter” and was immediately advertised in a variety of magazines, on billboards in


commuter zones, and on television commercial spots: each showing women playing with
the handheld game system (Harris, p. F15). What is particularly compelling about these
advertising campaigns is that, for the most part, they did not always attempt to sell “play”
to these new feminine consumers. Instead, a theme of productivity through leisure
became a constant theme throughout many of the Nintendo DS Lite advertisements—
generally through either self improvement games or so-called “casual games4”.
One of the more compelling examples of this productivity was part of a “Do
Something With Your Nothing” advertisement slogan that appeared in DS advertisements
in several women’s magazines. One such advertisement (Figure 4) which appeared in the
September 2006 issue of Oprah Magazine, shows three people—two women and one
man—in a waiting room. One of the women is playing with a Nintendo DS (and smiling)
while the other man and the woman are slumped over in their seats, clearly bored while
waiting to be called. The advertisement’s main text suggests, “The average wait in a
doctor’s office is 23.4 minutes. Do something with your nothing.” The advertisement is
clearly targeting a feminine readership, and suggesting a proper time and place for video
game play. While the woman playing the video game is the focus of the ad (wearing a
much brighter red than the other two people in the waiting room), the other woman is a
secondary focus—slumped over the side of her seat, and decidedly less happy than the
woman who is playing. The man is set back further than the two women in this
advertisement, and is more about background: the advertisement is highlighting the
women.
Similarly, another advertisement in this campaign (Figure 5) shows three people
standing at a bus stop—two men and a woman—and this time a man who is happily
playing with his Nintendo DS, while the other two are slumped over the sides of the bus
stop. This ad suggests, “The average wait for a city bus is 12.8 minutes. Do something
with your nothing.” While this advertisement does not show the woman playing the DS,
it is the woman the advertisement is speaking to. The woman is more well-lit than the
other characters in the advertisement and is the only person standing—and is therefore

4
Casual games are games that are low in narrative, can be played for very short snippets of time,
and are easy to learn.
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 17

one of the primary focal points. Like the other advertisement, the two men are now
positioned behind the one woman who is the person situated closest to the reader.
Arguably, it is her that the advertisement is making the appeal to “do something with
[her] nothing.”
Both of the advertisements are telling about the kind of play that had begun to be
promoted to women during the summer of 2006. These advertisements are targeting non-
playing woman—not because of the value and importance of play but rather to fill all
available time. Each of the women in the advertisements are chastised to “do something
with [their] nothing” (as are those women who are reading the magazine). These
advertisements are not necessarily highlighting the value of play, but rather insist on the
value of productivity: all time must be spent in some productive way. Thus, these
advertisements are some of the first to set an important trend where video games are not
advertised to women for their play-potential but for their value as ways to use up any
excess time in a woman’s schedule.
Specific Nintendo DS games have also been advertised similarly, reinforcing
gendered themes and pitching productivity as a goal for play. A perfect example of this
was for two advertisements for the brain improvement game Brain Age: Train Your
Brain in Minutes a Day which ran in May and June of 2006 in both men’s and women’s
magazines. The first advertisement (Figure 6) appeared in magazines including Real
Simple, Oprah Magazine, and People Magazine. The second advertisement (Figure 7)
appeared in magazines including Wired Magazine and Time Magazine. As a contrast, the
two ads are compelling both for their similarities and their vast differences.
Both advertisements are structured like an advertorial (giving the impression of
being more of an informational magazine article than an advertisement). Both have a
person (one a woman and one a man) playing the game in the left hand corner of the ad.
The advertising copy is structured similarly on both pages, and in some places the
advertising copy is identical in both advertisements. It is the similarities of these ads that
make the highly gendered differences so compelling, highlighting how games are
marketed differently to men and women.
Both advertisements are composed of almost equal amounts of image and text. In
these advertisements, the text is key to understanding how gendered play is constructed.
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 18

The title of the masculine advertisement (in all caps) reads, “CAN YOU USE A VIDEO
GAME TO REWIRE YOUR BRAIN?” which suggests a highly technologically focused
message. Written in all-caps, the text is yelling at the audience. Conversely, the feminine
headline uses a subtler and softer statement (not a question): “What the Japanese have
discovered about the fountain of youth.” While both headlines suggest self improvement,
the headline for the advertisement with the woman immediately infers beauty, self care,
and health, while the masculine advertisement automatically discusses video games,
technology, and the brain. It is significant to note that the phrase “video game” is never
used at all in the feminine version of the advertisement.
In effect, the feminine ad goes on to suggest that taking care of one’s brain is part
of the daily beauty regimen that all women should be partaking in. At one point it
concludes that “A 36-24-36 cerebrum is just a few exercises away.” This striking phrase
manages to not only equate mental fitness to physical fitness, but does so by using sexist
imagery to describe an “ideal” of feminine beauty. The masculine advertisement,
conversely, suggests that playing this game might help them become more competitive
with their co-workers. Both advertisements preach a kind of productivity (a “do
something with your nothing,” if you will) but the feminine implications of health and
beauty suggests more about self-maintenance, while the masculine advertisement
suggests a more playful form of agonism—similar to typical video game advertising.
Visually these advertisements reinforce what their text says outright: that play and
technology is a masculine domain that can only be entered into by women under the
guise of beauty and self-care productivity. Coloring is a key factor in how these
advertisements are constructed. Both in the masculine and feminine advertisements the
heads of the models have light attached to them—the man’s head is lit up like it is wired
with circuitry, while the woman’s head produces a haloed effect. There is a harder light
against the darker page in the masculine ad, making it appear more serious—and more
game-like. Conversely, the softness of the feminine ad allows it to appear non-threatening
—it is the head and face, rather than the brain that is being stressed in this advertisement.
This use of coloring, light, and darkness in both ads helps to reinforce the messages each
advertisement is attempting to convey.
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 19

How the models are positioned in the advertisements also helps to reinforce their
messages. While both models are featured in profile, the woman’s head is looking
slightly downward at the DS, while the man’s head and eyes are looking up at the
technology he’s reaching for with his arm. The positioning of each model’s head evokes
Goffman’s discussion on “the ritual of subordination.” He explains, “A classic stereotype
of deference is that of lowering oneself physically in some form or other of prostration.
Correspondingly, holding the body erect and the head high is stereotypically a mark of
unashamedness, superiority, and disdain” (p. 40). While the advertisements each only
feature one person, the relative positioning of each is compelling. The man’s body
implies the “unashamedness and superiority” suggested by Goffman, while the woman’s
is lowered implying deference. The woman is cradling the Nintendo DS in her hand,
which evokes Goffman’s previous discussion of the “feminine touch. Alternately, the
placement of the man’s hand relative to the Nintendo DS emphasizes the technology
more than the human. In this version of the ad, the technology is suspended in midair,
with the man’s hand (and stylus) reaching up to it. The man does not appear to be
threatened by the mid-air technology; although by looking up at it he is shown as
dominated by the Nintendo DS. The floating Nintendo ultimately gives the masculine ad
a futuristic tone: he is looking upward at the technology of the future, and the technology
is suspended in air in an impossible way. On one hand, the man’s positioning shows him
as dominated by the DS, while the woman is the dominant figure in her advertisement.
Alternately, though, interpretations of these positions are far from straight-forward. In
effect, the man is allowed to be challenged by a superior technology, while the woman is
shown dominating it as though it were an older technology (a book). In effect, these
placements presume and attempt to forecast an audience response based on stereotyping
gender and technology.

Nintendo Wii: Gender and Family Play Time


While the Nintendo DS uses productivity and practicality to convince feminine
audiences to play more, advertising campaigns for the Nintendo Wii use a different
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 20

technique. The Nintendo Wii was released in November 2006 as a entirely new kind of
gaming system. Instead of using typical joysticks and game controllers, this system uses a
Wii remote and motion sensors so that the player’s movements are directly mimicked by
on-screen play. Thus, when playing a tennis game, the player must swing the Wii remote
like a racket, and other games have similarly intuitive controls. By changing the interface
of the typical console video game system, many felt that Nintendo was trying to appeal to
a larger, non-gamer market, including a more feminine audience (Shields, 2008).
While not all Wii campaigns are aimed at women, I will show how the ones that
are targeted at feminine audiences all use a specific theme: the use of play to bring the
family together. These advertisements suggest that playing the Wii with one’s family is
productive, fun, and will garner love from all family members. Rather than promoting
play as singular “me” time or time fillers as the advertisements for the Nintendo DS did,
these advertisements suggest family Wii-time as a means of closing generational gaps.
In many ways, this campaign resembles some of the methods that have been used
to market food to women. In Food is Love: Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern
America (2006), Katherine Parkin discusses how the advertising of food was used to infer
family values, and often to create bonds between family members. She writes:
Advertisers wanted consumers to believe that their food products
had the ability to create connections and continuity between the
perceived constancy of the past and the chaos of the present.
Moreover, they wanted women to assume responsibility for
creating traditions in their family’s history” (p. 44).

Thus, while there are several distinctions between food advertising and advertising for
the Wii gaming system, both use similar tactics to suggest that the use of the product will
create memories, love, and the togetherness of traditional family values. In effect, these
Nintendo Wii campaigns have attempted to suggest that play is love.
According to Margaret Hofer (2003), the suggestion that game play reinforces
family values began with game manufacturers in the late 1800s. She explains that a
catalogue for McLoughlin Brothers in 1895 suggests:
Games are a necessity in every family, and parents should
see to it that their children are well supplied with them.
They not only amuse, but serve to instruct and educate
them. They tend to make happy firesides, and keep children
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 21

at home instead of compelling them to seek amusement


away from the family circle. (p. 53)

Slightly updated for current times, Nintendo in their attempts to market their game
system to women, uses similar advertising tactics that suggest that the perfect family can
be created through community play. While this, unto itself, is certainly not a problem it
essentializes feminine play to productive play, and legitimizes it by suggesting that
playing with one’s family is one of the only acceptable forms of feminine play.
Several advertisements for the Wii (both those that were aimed at feminine
audiences and those that were not) used the slogan “Wii would like to play.” To begin
with, the Wii/we pun is one that is used consistently through several of the early
Nintendo Wii advertising campaigns and alludes to a “community” image promoted by
the console system. Figure 8 shows an early advertisement (which ran in Good
Housekeeping in April 2007) that similarly uses the commercial slogan. “Wii would like
to play,” does not infer the old image of the console gaming system where one or two
people sit silently in front of a television—it suggests community and ultimately many
people playing together.
The multigenerational themes that attempt to combine older family values with
younger more technology-savvy generations harkens back to what Parkin writes in Food
is Love and Hofer infers with the 19th century themes of family play. According to the
advertisement in Figure 8, the Nintendo Wii is, “[…] a way for the whole family to find
some common ground—and you know how far that can get you with your kids. Maybe
it’s time to seal up that generation gap once and for all.” Thus, the magazine advertising
for the Wii is offering their product as a way to create family community through play.
By purchasing a Nintendo Wii, the advertisement suggests, the family can reconnect
through traditional values.
In summer 2007, Wii launched the “My Wii story” advertising campaign.
Through the Nintendo web site http://www.mywiistory.com5, people were invited to
write in stories about the transformative powers of the Nintendo Wii and how it has
helped their lives and families. While both sexes wrote in to My Wii Story, the majority
of the submissions were made by women.

5
This web site is no longer active, and is currently listed as “under construction.”
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 22

Several selected stories were turned into magazine advertisements—often


appearing in women’s special interest magazines and all written by women players. In
effect, these advertisements are not necessarily promoting that women play more, but
rather, that they use play as a means of connecting their families (and connecting with
their families). Thus, while the theme of these ads is not quite the same as the “Do
something with your nothing” theme of the Nintendo DS advertisements, there is still a
decidedly productive theme embedded in them.
In large part, these advertisements use anecdotes and personal experience as tools
of persuasion. Figures 9 shows one of the My Wii Story posts that became a magazine
advertisement (and ran in Martha Stewart: Living in September 2007 and February
2008). All of the My Wii Stories in magazines start off with a testimonial quote about
what they like about the Wii gaming system. Below each of these testimonial quotes is a
woman’s signature—a personal advocacy of the product.
The advertisement in Figure 9 uses the aforementioned Play is Love theme within
the testimonial of the My Wii Story author, Nancy Ponthier. In this testimonial, Wii play
is even more directly associated with family togetherness—the main picture shows a
mother playfully hugging her son, while negotiating the Wii remote. Her headline quote
says, “It’s the first video game I’ve really enjoyed playing.” This advertisement like
other My Wii Stories draws a sharp distinction between “typical” video games and the
Nintendo Wii system. Nancy Ponthier’s testimonial continues:
I’ve never been a fan of video games. But Wii is so
interactive and gets everyone involved. We really like
playing together as a family, so we quickly moved it from
my son’s room to the living room. We even like making
Mii characters together. They’re funny and we get a kick
out of describing each other. I took a crack at making my
own Mii. Then my kids told me it wasn’t “pretty enough”
and made it better. I thought that was sweet. They were just
so happy I was interested in a video game.

In addition to the Play is Love theme that Nancy Ponthier is implying with this story the
children recreating her Mii to make it “prettier” reinforces the theme that a Nintendo Wii
will bring the family closer. In effect the causal statement, “I thought that was sweet.
They were just so happy I was interested in a video game” implies that her children might
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 23

love her slightly more for playing video games. Like the other Wii stories, this one
works to downplay some of its play aspects—describing it in ways that set it apart from
other video game systems. The headline states this upfront with, “It’s the first video game
I’ve really enjoyed playing.” By creating a sharp distinction between typical video game
play and Wii play, the advertisement allows women to see the game system differently.
Other My Wii Stories printed in magazines carry very similar themes that essentialize
feminine play and turn it into family play. Women’s play, thus, becomes translated into
facilitating family play—not necessarily playing for their own personal enjoyment, but in
order to gain the love of their families and create a common language between family
members. As previously mentioned, this is a common theme of women in leisure studies.
My final example is the advertising campaign for Wii Fit. Wii Fit, an exercise
game played using the Nintendo Wii and a unique “balance board”, came out in May
2008, and like other Nintendo Wii games has quickly begun to target more feminine
audiences, advertising in magazines such as Oprah Magazine and Good Housekeeping.
The Wii Fit magazine advertisement (Figure 10) continues the aforementioned
theme of family togetherness, using a multigenerational and multigendered approach. The
advertisement headline asks at the top of the page, “How will it move you?” Below this
question, are 20 separate bodies: the ad shows 20 different people, of different ages,
different races, and different sexes, in different positions on the Wii balance board. All of
the players are wearing a homogenizing white (though different articles of clothing), and
each shows movement: none appear to be standing still. Similar to the women’s
advertisement for Brain Age (Figure 6), the advertisement for Wii Fit never uses the
phrase “video game”: it almost entirely focuses its pitch on fitness and movement. The
text at the bottom of the advertisement explains:
Step on to the Wii Balance Board and into a new kind of play.
Use it with your Wii system to enjoy fun family activities like
Hula Hoop, ski-jumping, and heading soccer balls, just to name a
few. With over 40 different kinetic challenges, it will move you
silly. And you can set goals and track your progress as you master
the arts of yoga, aerobic activities, strength training, and balance
games. Fitness has a fun side, but if you want to play, you gotta
move.
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 24

In many ways, this advertisement uses a combination of the two aforementioned video
game pitches for women. The advertisement promotes the productivity of fitness similar
to how the Brain Age advertisement promoted mental health, and also suggests a kind of
constant movement similar to what is implied with the “Do Something With Your
Nothing” campaign. At the same time, the cross-section of ages and sexes, and the
implication of family play in the text infers that (like other Wii games) this game will
promote family togetherness—it is play meant to construct a common ground and nullify
generation gaps.
In effect, the gendered nature of the message of Wii Fit lies in its slogan headline,
“How will it move you?” While, obviously, this is referring in part to physical movement
—evidenced by the moving bodies plastered over the advertisement, there is also an
emotional movement that can be inferred here—in effect, it is asking when one’s family
spends more time playing together, how it might emotionally “move you.” Movement
thus becomes a mode of play. On one hand the player is engaged in the constant
movement of a “do something with your nothing” paradigm. But, alternately, the player
is also being wrapped into the “movement” of emotional family bonding. In playing Wii
Fit, women seem almost automatically bound to these gendered modes of play.

Conclusion
If advertising can be seen as a barometer of cultural trends, then magazine
advertising becomes a compelling and useful way to understand the gendering of video
game play. While more traditional video games are still advertised in problematic and
sexist ways to masculine audiences, in recent years a more inclusive kind of video game
advertising has begun to emerge in popular women’s magazines. To some extent, this is a
positive change—broader advertising campaigns mean larger (and more sex-inclusive)
audiences for video games. But the advertisements aimed at women often still
problematize what it means for women to “play”—many of them promote productivity or
family play more than cathartic experiences of play for the sake of play. The magazine
advertising that I reviewed showed a marginalizing attitude towards women in typical
video game advertisements, and an essentializing one in recent advertisements
specifically aimed at feminine audiences. In essence, this may be evidence to a larger
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 25

problem that exceeds to boundaries of video games—it pushes into issues of women’s
leisure and how they “play”, with or without emerging technologies.
There is no question that advertising video games to women in these magazines is
a positive move—by broadening audiences and entitling more people (both men and
women) to play, traditional boundaries are being broken. At the same time it is important
to survey how play is being marketed to women, and the implications implicit in this
marketing. While new games might open up new territories and dissolve boundaries, it
becomes important to consider new margins that might be counterpart to these kinds of
play.
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 26

Table 1: Game Informer and Play Magazine Advertising from July 2006 – June

2007 (12 Months)

Total ads Video Game Ads Video Game Ads w/ Females


GI 395 232 99
Play 274 174 74

Table 2: Content Analysis of GI and Play Advertisements with women

Distinct Ads with Females in a Major Role: 47 % of ads


Ads where women display “licensed withdrawal” 64%
Ads with women in revealing clothing 66%
Ads with one or more female smiling 28%
Ads with one or more female smaller than males 21%
Ads with one or more female below or behind males 34%
Ads where women use “feminine touch” 57%
Ads where women were looking down or to the side 66%
Ads where women shown as the player 1%

Table 3: Number of Video Game Ads in non-video game magazines from May 2006-

August 2008 (28 Months)

Magazine Total Wii ads DS ads Wii promo DS promo Other

VG ads
Esquire 0 0 0 0 0 0
Good 7 7 0 0 0 0

Housekeeping
Martha Stewart 2 2 0 0 0 0
Oprah 11 5 3 2 1 0
People 9 3 2 0 0 4
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 27

Real Simple 9 2 4 1 1 1
Redbook 3 3 0 0 0 0
Time 1 0 1 0 0 0
Wired 26 0 2 0 0 23
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 28

Figure 1: Lzuna Advertisement (Play Magazine, April 2007)


Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 29

Figure 2: PSP Advertisement (Game Informer Magazine, September 2006)


Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 30

Figure 3: Viva Piñata Advertisement (Play Magazine, December 2006)


Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 31

Figure 4: Nintendo DS Doctor Office Advertisement (Oprah Magazine, September 2006)


Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 32

Figure 5: Nintendo DS Bus Stop Advertisement (Real Simple Magazine, August 2006)
Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 33

Figure 6: Brain Age Advertisement (Real Simple Magazine, June 2006)


Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 34

Figure 7: Brain Age Advertisement (Wired Magazine, May 2006)


Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 35

Figure 8: Wii Advertisement (Good Housekeeping, April 2007)


Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 36

Figure 9: My Wii Story Advertisement (Martha Stewart Living, September 2007)


Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 37

Figure 10: Wii Fit Advertisement (Good Housekeeping, July 2008)


Shira Chess: “A 36-24-36 Cerebrum” 38

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