Biology and Gaming: Why Women Don't Play Games
The Biological Roots of Gaming
Unfortunately in todayís political climate, no one can write about the differences between men and women without being pigeonholed into a category of the political correctness "friend or foe" list. I very much wish to avoid having this article banished into either one of these extremes, and in order to do so you have to bear with this rather lengthy explanation on the roots of gaming and why humans play games (or, I suppose you can quit here and never know my thesis!). In essence I am going to try to explain the reason behind men and womenís gaming choices. In order to do this I have to first explain what I think are the biological roots of gaming, and why humans play games. Once I convince you that nature invented gaming, maybe you will be convinced by my explanation for the difference between male and female gaming.
Before I became a producer in computer game company, I was a freelance game designer for a consulting firm that specialized in simulation training. They would use various types of simulation games for management training. For example, one of my contracts involved creating an airline game for Boeing, in order to teach airline executives about new airline management concepts. Designing training simulations for corporate clients forced me to come up with a "pitch" as to why simulation training was better than conventional classroom training, and over the course of the years I looked into the matter and noticed to my surprise that gaming is not just a human activity.
I noticed that animals play games too. If you have ever owned a dog or a cat, you know what I mean. Animals seem to enjoy playing as much as we do, and they have signals to indicate when they are in a playing mood and ways of "asking" to play with you. When a dog drops his favorite toy on your lap thatís an invitation. Cats start rolling on their back and put their front paws in the air to indicate the same. If you have ever watched a nature show you must have noticed that wild animals play too, not just domesticated pets. When you look even deeper into the matter, you notice one distinction thought: Only mammals seem to play. Lizards and birds donít seem to frolic and chase each other. For these species everything always seems to be strictly business. So if mammals (and marsupials, like kangaroos) are the only type of animal that "play" like we do, then what is the reason? Nature never does anything for no reason, so there must be an advantage to play behavior, otherwise it would have never developed.
If we look at the type of games that different species play, we find some interesting answers. Dog games include "chase me/chase you", "tug of war", and "wrestling". I chose titles for these because it makes it easier to make my next point: Each one of these dog games includes a type of activity that adult dogs engage in when in the wild. Wolves chase down pray, pull large carcasses away from competition and they jockey for position in "pecking order" fights. In other words, the games dogs play are closely related to their daily survival behavior in the wild. If we look at cat games, we see a similar pattern. The most popular cat game is "Ball of Yarn". This game involves chasing anything small that moves quickly when batted around. This game is basically a simulation of hunting. Watch a cat toss around a toy, and chase it down. The cat is basically substituting the toy for its normal prey. Cats donít play tug of war because their normal prey is small. What I am propose is that these animals games are actually for the purpose of honing physical skills that will help the animal survive. This is only possible in mammals because only mammals have a brain of sufficient complexity to be able to "imagine" prey, or substitute prey for either an inanimate object or another friendly animal. Furthermore, the mammal brain must be able to learn from such games, and the secret seems to be REM sleep. REM sleep is the period during sleep where we dream. It is characterized by rapid eye movement and intense dreaming, often involving involuntary physical movement. One study published in Scientific American found that the brain wave activity in animals during REM sleep was exactly the same as the brain activity recorded while the animal was engaged in its primary survival behavior. For example, in rats, it was when foraging for food. In rabbits, it was while watching out for predators, and in cats it was while hunting for prey. This link between each speciesí primary survival behavior and its REM sleep brain pattern seems to suggest that REM sleep is a learning mechanism, a sort of "play back the tape of the game" like football coaches do.
What does this have to do with games? Well, if REM sleep is the review process, play behavior is the practice mechanism. This is how mammals train their muscles for the real thing, this how they test their performance against each other, how they practice situations they may encounter. And its also fun! Animals feel pleasure when they play, as much as we do.
Humans have playing instincts just like our pets. We mostly play games when we are kids, but our love of games never dies. Human games include "hide and go seek", "house", "youíre it", "Simon says". You can find these games in any human culture around the world. When we look at our games closer, we see the same kind of "training simulation" going on. I remember the first time I played house. I was about five years old, and some of the girls took me aside at recess and asked me to play house. I had no idea what the rules were, but I knew the game, almost instinctively. The girls had no problem explaining what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to be the "daddy", and they handed me a doll. Then they proceeded to play, which mostly consisted of me doing various tasks handed to me by one of the girls. The thing is, I knew what I was supposed to do, and played along. "Pretend" play is one of the mechanisms that human children are equipped with to prepare them for adulthood. Hide and go seek has more sinister undertones. Itís a hunting game, where children take turns being hunter and hunted. Both skills must have been very useful for pre-historic humans. Our games may be more complex, but the purpose is the same. If we accept the fact that playing is a type of animal behavior that evolved to help us survive, and that itís a primarily instinctive behavior, as opposed to learned, then we can move on to the more specific topic of male and female play, which I dare suggest, is also largely based on instinct. Girls and Boys seem to play different games in childhood: Girls play "House", boys play "Hide and Seek". This is a stereotype, I realize, but I donít think anyone could argue that it isnít generally true.