In undertaking this study, our purpose was to address several questions in regards to our understanding of players’ engagement with digital games. First, as with other media channels, we sought to understand what compels people to engage with digital games; what are the underlying elements that influence starting, continuing, or stopping this engagement? Two decades of research has been conducted on this topic, with two mostly separate emphases: one from U&G research focusing on gratifications sought and/or obtained; the second from the communication technology fields focusing on game features, as anchored in technology and content. In this study, instead of conflating these elements, we wanted to see how these conceptualizations would differ depending on two additional elements: gender and situation. In terms of gender differences, there has likewise been a long emphasis in digital games studies focused on understanding the often observed gender discrepancy in amount and type of games played. Gender differences have focused on both preferences for gratifications and game features in the hope that understanding each gender’s preferences could explain this gender gap.
While the present study replicated the emphasis in past work on examining how men and women players differ in their evaluations of gratifications and game features, we added an additional element to the equation by considering the role of situation. The idea of viewing situation as itself a variable when considering media use has only recently begun being discussed (Denham, 2004; Dervin & Song, 2005). Its application here is one such step in interrogating how a player’s engagement with a medium may be different across a number of situations that vary based on some characteristic. In this study, we held this variability to an admittedly simple level by having players evaluate their game playing gratifications and game feature preferences for a game they liked to play, a game they disliked playing, and a game they wished was created for them to play.
The results of this foray into understanding the situationality of players’ engaging with digital games indicated that this introduction did indeed interrupt much repeated results on how the genders differ in their evaluations of digital games. This result adds to our understanding of why men and women differ in not only the hows but the whys of their engagement with digital games and the observed gender gap in reported playing of digital games.
In general, as confirmed by the fact that 100% of the gender comparisons on all the gratifications and game features were significant across the three game playing situations, men were once again shown as being more engaged with digital games. Men consistently evaluated all the preferences as being better provided for by games than women did. Even when comparing within each of the three specified game playing situations, this pattern largely held. This was especially true when players were rating a game they liked playing. However, in the other two situations, the gap did narrow in such a way that there was no significant difference found between them for four game playing gratifications and three game feature preferences.
In considering how the players’ evaluations compared across the game playing situations, regardless of the player’s gender, we find that all differences were significant. For thirteen of these fourteen preferences, the pattern was exactly the same. Evaluations in relation to desired games were the highest, followed by the evaluations for liked games, with evaluations for disliked games being the lowest. Only the game playing gratification Diversion had a slight deviation from this pattern, in that the players’ liked game was not significantly different from their desired game, while both remained higher than the disliked game. Overall, then, we see a tendency for players to prefer imaginary games gratifications and game features that are indeed better than those offered even by the games they said they liked playing. Common sense alone suggests this is reasonable; while we may like what we have, we always want something more, something better.
This picture became very interesting when we investigated the interactions between the player’s gender and the three game playing situations. In total, 9 of 14 (64.3%) gratifications and game features had significant interactions with one additional game feature showing a near significant tendency. This large number of interactions shows a definite pattern for both gratifications and game features. Men were evaluating their game playing situations in such a way that both their liked and desired games were typically higher than how they evaluated their disliked games. The pattern mimicked the overall pattern found for situation differences. Women, on the other hand, did not rate their liked games so highly. In fact, the interactions showed that they were more likely to evaluate the gratifications and game features lower for both their liked and disliked games when compared to the men, with the games they desired to play being higher than either.
The results as found in this study point to at least two major implications. First, while overall the gender differences found were as commonly reported in previous literature, the fact that we saw a break from the overall pattern when examining gender differences on a situational-level indicates that prior research that has defined digital game playing as aggregate behavior does not provide a full picture. When men and women have been asked to consider the entirety of their experiences playing digital games without differentiating for specific engagements, they seem to have been reporting the expected, stereotypical responses that highlight how men are more favorable towards digital games overall. However, when male and female players’ preferences for their games were considered on a level that asked them to address specific games of their own choosing, we see a more truthful accounting of how they see their engagements with these games. Such a finding would be expected, given research on situationality in the field of library information sciences. Allowing the player to describe their media use in terms of their recalled life allows them to articulate thoughts that, not based on generalizations or hypotheticals, are closer to their lives as experienced (Dervin & Foreman-Werner, 2003).
The second major implication we see in these results comes from the interactions between players’ gender and game playing situations. For men, these results suggest that their preferences for how the digital games should be designed and the gratifications they have sought from these games are being largely provided for. Men indicated that if they were to design a game they really wanted to play, then this desired game would be similar to the games they already like playing. Women, on the other hand, do not appear to be so well provided for. Their evaluations of games they said they actually liked playing were closer to how they saw games they did not like playing and not as close to games they would design to play — and this pattern became clearer when comparing it to the men’s pattern. Their evaluations for desired games indicates that there is still a dearth between what games are being offer to them and what they want out of their games.
Of course, this last implication brings back the fundamental question of this gender gap. Is it that women evaluate their games differently, such that they want different gratifications or game features than men? Not necessarily. As the within situation gender differences indicated, there were certain times when men and women were evaluating games the same way for a specific gratification or game feature. If it is not an issue with the player, then is it an issue with the game’s design? Are there simply not enough games out there marketed towards women, or are women not familiar with the array of possible games to play? Unfortunately, answering these questions is beyond the scope of this study. It is hoped that the results obtained, with the application of situationality to gender differences, may inspire others to take up the call for a new way to investigate the question of why players engage with this new media.
Indeed, this was only an initial step in a new way of understanding this engagement. As it is only the beginning, future studies may want to address the questions raised by this study, and to expand upon the conceptualizations discussed in this study. There are a number of possible avenues for further pursuit indicated by the admitted limitations of the study, but we would like to highlight two here.
First, the measurements of the game playing gratifications and the game feature preferences relied only on the conceptualization of these categories. The items intended to measure each category was averaged with its brethren, with no attempt to conduct a statistical factor analysis to verify that these scale items were indeed measuring the categories as we defined them. Our reasoning for not conducting such a test was to remain as close as possible to what we saw as being the extant categories as described in previous literature. Conducting a factor analysis to validate these items may have ended up creating another layer of categorizations that would only complicate what had been found in the literature to date. As we were already imposing categories across the various previous findings, we did not want to start this initial interrogation of situationality by possibly further distancing ourselves from the literature as it stood. Further studies should attempt to prove the validity of the scale used to measure the gratifications and game features, even to the point of seeing how these two separate conceptual sets overlap in how they are preferred by players.
However, before such a factor analysis is conducted, it may be judicious to conduct a qualitative study of these conceptual sets along the same lines as this study; that is, to ask men and women to discuss their engagement with different types of games in different situations in their own words. It is possible that by allowing players to use their own words to express their interpretations of their engagements, the results seen for gender differences within situations may further disappear. The case may be that women would evaluate as highly the same preferences that men did if they could use their own words and not terminology imposed upon them by scale items; or it may be the reverse, that men would evaluate the same as women. Funk (2001) indicated a potential occurrence of this when boys and girls both described liking the same content of games, only boys called it “violence” while girls called it “action, adventure”. The researcher surmised that this was because it was more socially acceptable for girls to describe such content this way. Perhaps women would describe competition differently than “bragging rights,” or men might describe the importance of their characters in terms other than the character’s appearance or the idea of socializing in terms that do not emphasize sharing. Until a more phenomenological and situationally based investigation of how men and women are actually interpreting their game playing engagements is conducted, these possibilities remain tantalizing.