If you read my journal or follow me on twitter, you will know how interested I am in finding different ways that people can interact with games, and understanding the games that I think already do what I am trying to understand. These are my current thoughts on Fight or Flight, and Tend and Befriend, two models of how men and women generally respond to stress.
This topic is very complex and nuanced, and I’m not claiming to be an expert. So if I make any dumb comments or assumptions, please talk to me. My goal is to learn, not to teach.
Fight or Flight
Recently, I have been reading a lot about how our current game paradigm is based around Fight or Flight. This is pretty obviously true if you look at most games. Of course there are exceptions, puzzle games and word games spring to mind as obvious examples, but generally, we put the player into a stressful situation and get them to fight their way out of it. This, according to what some people who research this topic understand (and I agree), is because games are made by mainly straight men, so we end up with a lot of games that appeal to the fight or flight mentality (not to mention a bunch of other questionable things), as this is a typical male response to stress. In turn this lack of diversity limits what gets made, who games appeal to, and who the audience is, and games continue to be seen as mostly a waste of time, violent and not contributing to either the individual or society. Worst of all, a whole lot of people (including many straight white men like myself), find this pretty dull a lot of the time.
To be completely honest, for the longest time I didn’t even question this, and although I can feel the rumblings of people doing so now, it is still generally accepted that this is how games work. It is just part of their DNA. Even our gaming masterpieces that we might struggle to understand how anyone could dislike generally conform to this model (like Journey) and will put many people off in just the same way as a violent video game might. It might be an amazing piece of art, but built around getting a specific reaction from a specific audience.
This isn’t to say that I don’t love a good violent game, fight or flight works for me, sometimes. If the research is correct it is pretty much built into me for that to be the case, at least to some extent, and I definitely find some stress relief playing games where I can fight things, and the adrenaline rush of solving the situations games put you in is satisfying. But I can’t help but feel like games can do more, and I’m less and less interested in games that just repeat this model. I’ve seen it before, and see fewer games that I’m excited to play.
Tend and Befriend
In 2000, Dr. Shelley E. Taylor and her research team at the University of California developed a theoretical model called Tend and Befriend. Tend and Befriend is a behaviour exhibited by people as a response to threat where they will try to protect their offspring (tend) and seek out a social group for mutual defense (befriend). This is theorized as having evolved as the typical female response to stress, as opposed to Fight or Flight, which is a typical male response.
It is undeniably more difficult to name games that are built on this model, and one that might be the key to convincing people who just don’t connect with games in maybe the same way as I do that they are worth their time.
There is an argument here that as these people will be mainly women, and women are a huge demographic for gaming already, that there isn’t an issue here. But my belief is that when you look at the types of games that are more popular with women, they are generally puzzle games, mobile games like Candy Crush or whatever that to me just don’t have the depth or respect for the player that core games have. There might be games for the audience that are put off by the fight or flight games, but are there games that show the full potential of the medium? Or are the games still seen as time wasters, or distractions, very throwaway things? I’m not sure, but I feel like it is the latter.
So, we have two different ways of creating games for the two different reactions to stress. There is clearly a vast gap in the market for someone to create games that allow players to solve its games conflict through tending and befriending, and I would love to see what sort of mechanics come out of that. I believe that with more diverse developers, and more people actively questioning and pushing at these boundaries games will do amazing things, and become more and more ubiquitous.
But what about my games?
The whole point in writing about this is for me to explore how games are, and could be made, what they can do and how I can clarify and quantify the super vague vision I have in my head of what I want to make, and what direction I can try to move the games we make and play in (minuscule as that influence is). To me, there is no doubt that there is an undeserved audience here, not just women (I’m apprehensive of saying these types of games are for men, these are for women) but people who want a new way to play games that don’t rely on the fight or flight model, but who also do want to see the kind of depth and innovation we get in AAA games. Writing this audience off because of what is currently popular, and assuming that is enough is dangerous and kind of a dumb thing to do.
However, I don’t think this is what I have been looking for, even though it will definitely inform my design practice from now on. The issue that I have is that both models rely on first stressing the player out, which isn’t where I want to be. I’ve written before about toys vs games, and how it seems like games that don’t have a strong win / lose state aren’t seen as games. Stressing people out, then giving them the tools to try and fix that problem is the same model shown in both fight or flight and tend and befriend. An example that sticks in my mind is The Sims. Its fan base is more female than male, but I don’t think it conforms to tend and befriend, as you aren’t putting the players under the stress they should respond to. You are instead giving them a space to explore and create, and tell stories. Although this in turn might lead to more tend and befriend outcomes later based upon the challenges that you set yourself? The same can be said for Animal Crossing and Minecraft, depending on how you play.
When I look back at The Botanist, I don’t see a solution here to the problems that I had. I worried that the game didn’t put enough stress on the player, and started introducing challenges to the game to make sure that it was a game, but I didn’t worry that the way in which people resolved those issues alienated anyone (I’m probably wrong on this though). I also don’t feel like it really fits into either of the two models, but is maybe more of an open ended puzzle game. I feel like I was close to something with that game, but I still have this gap figuring out what it is. It feels like creativity and space for self expression is closer to what I want to make, and I can use these stress responses to try and give a good balance to all players who want this kind of experience too. After all, we all know how infuriating puzzle games can be, I get very stressed by them sometimes, so I think there are many more models yet to be explored.
So what do we do? We keep looking, keep learning, and try to figure out what it is that I’m supposed to be making. I can sort of see it, but I don’t have the words to explain what it is, or why it needs to exist. I do need to think about this topic more, as I don’t understand all of the implications of it yet. I can see why abstract games like simpler puzzle games that are able to side step both of these (you are not placed into a stressful situation, and your response to the stress of not solving a puzzle is entirely outside of the game) are popular with women who don’t like the fight or flight games, but I feel like I’m still missing a piece of the puzzle.
Though I don’t know the game well, this might go some way to explaining why Undertale is so popular. It still contains traditional rpg game elements, and skill based elements, but key decisions are based around empathy, which ties into tend and befriend over fight or flight, or maybe gives us a nice balance of both? The same can be said for Stardew Valley
I found out a lot of the info here through Brie Code, so I recommend visiting her website, and want to thank her for bringing this to my attention. https://www.briecode.com/