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Who is undervaluing social play?

By on December 12, 2014
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New data released by Everyplay suggests that the most lucrative users in mobile gaming are generally male over female, and 35–44 year olds over other age groups. You also see higher spending among players of competitive games over other genres (see more at gi.biz). This is nothing particularly new, and similar data has come out of most user spending surveys of the past few years.

When you look at how labour is valued, you see similar trends: men are paid more than women; 30–49 year-olds are the least likely to be unemployed; and emotional labour such as being personable and caring for others is paid less than cognitive labour such as analysis. In society as a whole, emotional labour is coded feminine, and the kind of labour that’s coded masculine is often paid more.

One simple point that I want to make here is that perhaps people who generally get paid more are generally more likely to spend more. The spending gap between men and women and between different age groups might just be a reflection of their different spending power. But there’s another question that’s floating in my head though, and I want to share it with you. I wonder if that difference in spending between competitive games and, say, social games, reflects something broader about how society values some skills over others.

I see a lot of Facebook comment threads about the wage gap between men and women in which people use the stereotype of the ‘English literature major’ to justify the market’s undervaluing of some people’s work. It’s clear that people intuitively believe that a) women are more likely to specialise in disciplines that pay less and b) the disciplines that pay less do so because that work is less valuable, and the people in those trades should have simply made better choices. I don’t agree with that view at all, though I think it’s very prevalent. The alternative – arguing that all labour deserves to be paid a living wage – is a stance that is not often defended in practice, with unpaid internships and unpaid domestic work remaining the norm. Some kinds of work are valued less economically. And those are the kinds of work that society has historically expected women to do.

Could the same thing be happening with play styles?

It’s common to put the difference in spending between competitive and casual gameplay styles down to a difference between the players themselves: core gamers are more “invested” in the hobby and therefore spend more. This is, I think, part of what motivates so many developers to work on “mid-core” games: the perception that you get the spending power of core gamers combined with the social labour of casual players (this comes out in an interview I did a while back). I think there’s another piece of this that’s not being addressed. I don’t think that the largely female “casual gamers” who spend hours and hours playing Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood every week for months are not as heavily invested, and that game demonstrates that given the right combination of factors, a social game can be highly lucrative, making $51 million in revenue in 4 months.

I wonder if the broader difference in spending might be attributed to the way that the culture around a game values different kinds of labour; social play doesn’t often generate as much revenue because social skills are not valued. Play and work may be different, but they exist in the same culture and are two different ways of using the same skills. It seems reasonable to think that the way we value different kinds of work would affect the amount we’re willing to pay for different kinds of play. That’s why the celebrity factor in Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood might be so crucial: celebrity is highly valued in society as a whole.

It’s overwhelmingly common for people looking at the relative commercial success of different games to put the whole phenomenon down to demographics: it’s been a cornerstone of marketing and PR for most of its history. But if what’s really going on is that different *activities* are valued differently in society as a whole, then that means demographics are not destiny. Spending is not simply determined by who is playing, but whether they are doing things that reflect the things that they’re taught to attach economic value to. That’s a slightly different game design problem.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at Pocketgamer.biz and The Borderhouse.