What Motivates Gamers to Play?
Most of the previous research on the motivations behind video and computer gameplay has constructed three major reasons for play: achievement, socialization, and exploration or immersion within the game (Bartle, 1996). Nick Yee (2006) conducted an empirical study examining gender and gameplay motivation and found that males were more likely than females to play for achievement, the pursuit of in-game power, status, and competition, while females were more likely to play for socialization and collaboration with others. This study is complicated though by a later study he conducted collaboratively with Dimitri Willams and Scott Caplan (2008) where they found the differences between males and females for all three motivational categories were quite minimal. Taylor (2006) has also conducted extensive ethnographic research in on-line game worlds such as EverQuest and found that, contrary to stereotypical constructions of gender, her female research participants often enjoyed the power and mastery that the game world gave them. In my case studies, I also discovered that female students did not fit so neatly into the gendered categories Yee sets forth in his first study, and in some cases, the female students negotiated or resisted them in complex ways. However, in many ways the female students were often unable to completely realize their desires in play because they had often not yet learned the gaming literacies they needed.
As a female gamer, I suppose that I too have both resisted and negotiated the categories for play motivation that Yee sets forth in his first study. I started playing computer games when I was seven. My father would play while I helped him navigate his pirate ship, and we would try to puzzle out the clues in adventure games. As I grew older, I started to play adventure games like Myst on my own as well as role-playing games like EverQuest with my father. I seldom play only to socialize, although I enjoy playing with others. I dislike competing directly with other players, but I enjoy collaborating with others to conquer computer-generated game obstacles. As a player, I am probably most motivated by a mixture of achievement and immersion/exploration of a game world. The game world offers concrete, easily achievable objectives that are quite satisfying compared to the often complex and much more slowly rewarding objectives of academic life.
Playing to Socialize
Agreeing with Yee’s first study, all but one of my female participants identified socializing as a major reason that they played videogames. However, socializing while playing videogames was anything but simple for many of them, especially Mandy. Valeria Walkerdine (2006) argues that in a third-wave feminist world, females often have to negotiate multiple gender performances that often conflict. Contemporary femininity demands that successful females act in ways that are perceived as traditionally masculine, acting rational, strong, and assertive, while also simultaneously acting as the caring nurturers of more traditional femininity. Negotiating the performative demands of both of these positions socially can not only be confusing but also seem like walking a tightrope. Not performing this gender duality perfectly and taking a performative step too far in either direction can lead to perceptions of weakness and subsequent social punishment: females are either seen as too controlling and impossible to work with or as too weak and passive to hold leadership roles.
Mandy especially exemplified this social performative conundrum. She played to socialize, saying, "I mostly like being able to interact with friends on Xbox360 live while playing the games." She stood out from the other females not only because she was the only female in the study to say that socializing was the only reason she played, but also because she had to negotiate her socializing with both males and females in extremely complex ways. Unlike any of the other females in the class, Mandy was a gamer who enjoyed a wide swath of games: from the strategy game Age of Mythology to the first person-shooter Call of Duty. While most of the females grew up playing a limited set of videogames such as Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64 with their sisters or girlfriends, Mandy grew up playing a wide variety of video and computer games with her brother and other male friends. She explained that her brother still kept her up to date with the latest games, helping her access patches, mods, and downloads, all of which gave her social access to gaming literacies that the other females did not seem to have.
However, her greater degree of social access to games also seemed to come with a greater degree of social performative responsibility and savvy when interacting with both genders. Despite her years of gaming enculturation playing with boys, it was surprising that she never included achievement or competition as a motivation to play, only socializing—a stereotypically female motivation. This may possibly indicate that socially she could be one of the guys and have access to the gaming literacies that circulated within their social group but only if she played for reasons that were socially acceptable for females and did not overtly play to compete which could potentially displace the males. By refusing to openly compete, Mandy could have been disavowing a masculine libido and taking on the position of the feminine in order to secure her social place with males as Judith Butler defines. Butler (1990) terms this pursuit of male access through masculine disavowal a masquerade: “One possible interpretation is that the woman in masquerade wishes for masculinity in order to engage in public discourse . . . And precisely because that exchange would signify castration, she fears the same retribution that motivates the ‘defenses’ of the homosexual man” (p. 67). She goes on to discuss Stephen Heath’s theory which implicates the definition of femininity itself as the masquerade. “Relying on the postulated characterization of the libido as masculine, Heath concludes that femininity is the denial of the libido, the ‘dissimulation of a fundamental masculinity’” (p. 68). Garreth Schott and Kristy Horrell (2000) also discuss how in their study some males would help females, allowing them access to their gaming magazines and games, but only if it did not threaten their status as expert. If their expert status became threatened, they would try to subvert the females by tearing out pages of the gaming magazines or not allowing the females to play on the consoles (p. 48).
This ambivalence to winning seemed to be a strategy that Mandy took up to negotiate her social place within the various gendered social groups in the class as well. The class was made up of three major groups. The first group was made up of what I term “hardcore” male gamers—gamers who had played WoW extensively before taking the class. They were high level, members of a guild, and often raided, or killed monsters that were so powerful that they could only be defeated with a large group of players. The second group was what I term “casual gamers.” They may have played WoW occasionally before the class, but if they had, they had never achieved a high level. The females made up the third group. The males and the females almost never interacted unless prompted. Mandy, however, had actually entered the class because she was casual friends with one of the more hardcore gamers; however, after joining the class, he exclusively played with his roommate and other digital media studies friends who knew much more about the game than Mandy, who was new to WoW. This left Mandy alone to join the female group. With the females, Mandy probably felt that using her superior gaming knowledge to win or compete against them when they were still learning the game was out of the question. In fact, her ambivalence toward winning in order to maintain social relationships was underscored further when she said in her interview that the perfect game would be scaled so that players of different skill levels could play together as equals: “I think that when you play against other people, the game makers should be able to match your levels better to others to make a more fair game.”
While the other females in the study chose female human avatars who most looked like them and therefore did not seem to complicate or disrupt their self-identifications with femininity, Mandy chose to be represented by a male night elf avatar, which may have signified in part her “male” access to the game. However, this access seemed to come with a price, its own masculine disavowal, since Mandy spent most of the class playing her A female student spending time figuring out the game in classcharacter by herself, despite indicating that socializing was the only motivator for her play. She may have played by herself since she knew how to play the game better than her female peers but did not want them to think that she had an unfair advantage over them. Even though she played by herself though, she still helped the females in her group learn how to play their characters, offering strategies if any of them got stuck.