It didn’t matter that the outcome was predictable, that Beth Hogan would invariably be crowned Miss America. We competed fiercely, as if we expected to win. A year earlier, when we were in fifth grade, we held séances, but now we staged beauty pageants as if our lives depended on it, as many as four or five a night.
I’m not an athlete. I’ve always disliked team sports, with their conformist, vaguely fascist associations. While as a child I longed to be a tree-climbing tomboy, I had to admit a preference for tea parties, dress-up, and long afternoons at the library.
Then one summer night, three years ago, I played my first game of bike polo. It’s an elegant game: With mallets in their right hand, players ride their bikes up and down the field trying to whack a grapefruit-size ball between two orange cones. It was instant love.
The Sims is a game that consists of little more than creating characters and pushing them through the day, making sure they eat, sleep, stay clean, make friends, advance in a career, and buy stuff. The bodily functions are tedious and the rest is everything I hate about life in a capitalist society. So how to explain why I own all seven expansion packs for the first game, as well as Sims2 and its expansion pack, University?
Each semester in my American popular culture class, my students and I spend a night playing board games. I start them off with games for small children, like memory cards or Strawberry Shortcake adventure games. They play self-consciously, giggling at the losers who can’t master a game for preschoolers, but loosen up enough to start looking beyond the activity for the deeper meanings.
The year my oldest daughter turned 4, her little sister was born, and that spring, in desperation, I let her play more or less unsupervised in the neighbors’ yard. When I came up for air from the endless diaper changes and nursing sessions, I’d catch a glimpse of her through the family-room window. Sweaty, dirty, and wild-eyed, she ran behind the neighbors’ pack of crazy, good-natured, and mostly unsupervised boys.
“When I started out, gaming was a geek thing,” says Sean (not his real name), a 38-year-old senior director of product development for a major electronic game publisher. “Now, it’s totally mainstream. It’s clear there’s money to be made.”
It’s not like there’s any nostalgia in his voice. With a six-figure salary and a generous bonus, Sean is one of those making the money. Electronic games—which encompass both computer games and console-based games—generated nearly $10 billion in revenue last year, thanks in part to top-selling titles like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Madden NFL 2005, ESPN NFL 2K5, and NBA Live 2005.
Given the fact that electronic games have their roots in geekdom, the sheer jock/thug appeal of the above-listed games is striking. You’d think that geek boys, having been a) persecuted by jocks and bullies and b) heavily involved in the production of electronic games, might take advantage of the latter to redress the former. But somewhere between Pong and Madden, those geeks began spending their days and nights creating universes in which testosterone rules, in the process reinforcing the gender roles that made their young lives hell.