When I was in college, I became addicted to a browser-based word game featuring cute animals. I couldn’t resist it. I didn’t fail any courses, but compulsive play took precedence over studying. At the time I was living with several male roommates, and one of them, a seasoned gamer, scoffed when he saw me playing with the pink elephant in pirate garb on the screen. “Can I find you something to play that’s, like … a real game?”
In most conversations you have with gamers, “real” is synonymous with “hardcore.” These games have big development budgets and require hours of player dedication to complete; they generally refer to first- and third-person shooters, RPGs, and MMOs. You’re a soldier in WWI, or you’re a soldier in WWII, or you’re a soldier in WWIII, and there are aliens. These games don’t have cute animals. Often, they don’t even have too many colors: in a hardcore game like the blockbuster first-person shooter Call of Duty, the color palette is so dominated by greys and browns that the brightest color you’ll see is the red of your enemy’s blood after you shoot him.
Ready Player Two, the new book by media critic Shira Chess, is not interested in that kind of game. Instead, the book investigates how the game industry perceives and markets femininity, with particular attention to what she calls casual games—ones that are “cheap, easy to learn, and can be played for variable amounts of time”—like Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, Candy Crush Saga, or Diner Dash. From the outset, Chess is clear that while women do play hardcore games, they are “considered outliers, marginalized, pushing their way into a space not originally intended for them,” And those women who play hardcore games aren’t really Chess’ concern. Rather, Ready Player Two looks at games that are designed for women— and because video games are a male-dominated industry, games created for women are often designed by men. Games’ gender binary, Chess argues, is itself a product of design, “often at odds with actual players.”
Chess makes this dissonance the topic of Ready Player Two, interrogating the very concept of what she calls “Player Two,” the industry’s feminine ideal. Player Two is the hypothetical female consumer, imagined by men, whose tastes drive games’ design and marketing to women. She is a white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class woman who yearns for domesticity and beautification, and whose leisure time exists in five-minute increments. The Player Two figure, Chess finds, makes a lot of assumptions about women’s lives and leisure: that women don’t have much time for games, for instance, and that the time we do have is spent on activities that mirror the emotional labor and domestic duties we’re presumed to perform in daily life.