Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Why Don't Game Widows Play Video Games, Too?

All game widows are pressured to try video games at some point. Many gamers actually buy games for the non-gamers in their lives, in an attempt to entice them into playing. Most gamers have pure motives for wanting their game widows or widowers to play. They know their spouse, their parent, their child, is not happy during the time they play, and want to include them in the pleasure they get from their game. But some just hope that if the naggers play too, they’ll stop protesting.

So why is it game widows won’t just play video games, too?

First: they have established interests of their own. Why should they give up precious time from their own favorite activities to take up yours? It may be heresy in the ears of a gamer, but the non-gamer may just not think games are entertaining. Even if a game widower enjoys playing sports, he isn’t going to automatically appreciate sports-themed video games. He can’t get what he’s getting from live play by playing a video game. Even if he’s a couch fan, there are attractions he gets from a live game he can’t from a video game. It doesn’t matter how realistic or hi-def the video game version of their hobby is, it can’t match the real life experience for most non-gamers.

Second: Game widows have had lots of time to observe video game play, and gamer behavior isn’t attractive. Far from the advertised photos of models smiling and laughing together while holding a controller, they see a lone player with either a fixed, flat expression, or a downright frown. If they see the gamer’s face at all. More often, they’re left looking at the back of a head. A group of players don’t smile either, and rarely look at each other. Game widows hear gamers shouting angrily during the game, using language they’d never hear in that person’s normal conversation. And the unhappiness doesn’t seem to end with the game. Gamers don’t bounce up from a game with a happy, carefree grin and immediately join in with what everyone else is doing. Even if there’s no fight over ending the game, the gamer goes through a hangover period. They are distracted, tired, and irritable. None of this promotes video game play as a fun and relaxing way to spend free time. Non-gamers can’t be sold on how fun video games are when they’ve seen and experienced endless hours of what looks like stress and misery.

The third reason game widows resist playing video games is very specific to the experience of womanhood. Women have pressed for equal rights in the workplace, and equal help with the housework at home, for decades. The modest advances they’ve made have been hard won and easily lost. Women in general still do not have equal pay for equal work, or carry only half of the child-rearing and household duties. The heavier burden falls on the woman a majority of the time, in gaming and non-gaming homes. It is still the woman who makes the permanent career sacrifices to have a family, and the mother who doesn’t have the luxury of saying to herself, “If I don’t take care of the kids, someone else will step in.”

A female game widow, even if she does play video games (or wants to) has less money to spend on her own entertainment than a male, and even less time to devote to it thanks to more work hours spent to get that second-place paycheck. A game widow might be able to abandon the housework with her significant other and play video games if she doesn’t mind things piling up. After all, it’s nearly impossible to set down the controller on schedule, or keep track of time in a game. But when there are children, someone has to be mindful 24/7 to deal with needs, dangers, illnesses and the attention a child needs to survive and feel confident and loved. The female gamer with children has to power up with the expectation of losing when she drops the controller to catch barf in midair.

When a woman considers her limited personal time, she wants to do what interests her and fits her lifestyle, not what interests and fits the lifestyle of someone else. It shouldn’t be surprising women want to have control of their own lives. They want to play when they feel like playing, what they feel like playing, and stop when they feel the need to. For women desperately needing help from a life partner, being told to relax and play a video game doesn’t sound like a loving invitation. The game widow doesn’t hear “Would you like to play,” or even, “I care about how you feel.” She hears “I have no idea how much work you do, and don’t really care.” Worse, she also understands, “You can't make me help you,” and, “you can’t beat me, so join me.” When a woman gives up her personal time to please someone else, she’s being accommodating, not included.

The last reason game widows don’t join gamers playing video games: Video games are not the problem. The relationship is the problem. Non-gamers may say they hate video games, but what they really hate is the relationship problem between themselves and the gamer. A gamer may think if the non-gamer learned to love video games, the relationship conflict will be over. But no amount of gaming will solve a family problem – it just delays the inevitable resolution, good or bad. Offering a controller to someone asking you to stop playing and do something else is like offering to deal a starving person begging for food into your poker game. It's a demonstration to the non-gamer of how vast the misunderstanding is between the two of you.

Game widows want to spend time with their gamers. Non-gaming time. They want help with the household workload. Playing video games together will never fill all the quality time or emotional needs of a family member, even one who is interested in playing. Truly happy families do more together than be entertained. Instead of asking why the non-gamer doesn’t just play, maybe we should be asking why the gamer can’t relate without playing a game. Or more productively, what exactly each member of the family needs to feel included, loved and in control of his or her life. Once these basic survival needs are met, maybe we can talk about who is entertained and how.

(Wendy Kays' first book, Game Widow, publishes September 1st, 2008. Sneak preview copies are available at GameWidow.org.)

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