Puppies Aren’t for Sissies

Everyone loves Nintendogs. You know it; I know it. Sales figures don’t lie. The videogame world has gone crazy for puppies. We’ve come to take that for granted. But before we get caught up in our dog-owner pride, let’s turn back the theoretical clock a few months and think the likelihood of this one through.

Say you never played Nintendogs. Heck, you’ve never even seen it. You’ve been hearing the rumors though, and they go like this: A new, somewhat quirky title about raising puppies has come out in Japan. There’s no real game involved, but you’ll need to care for your dogs on a regular basis, cleaning them, feeding them, and giving them love. And don’t think that these guys might grow up to be hardcore hounds. No, they’re just puppies – amazingly adorable puppies – and they’ll stay that way forever. So why stick around if there’s no way to win? Because it’s fun! Plus, you can stock up on fuzzy, real-life merchandise. Needless to say, this simple, accessible “game” and its offshoots could be appreciated by a wide range of consumers, even ones who don’t usually run with the “serious gamer” crowd.

What’s that, you say? Cuddly animals? No clear objective? And not a single weapon in sight! Does this sound like a typical American bestseller to you? Of course not, it sounds like one more cutesy Japanese sim, ignored by the big boys of the industry, enjoyed by a few less-judgmental gamers, and then promptly forgotten in the wake of more dramatic titles, only to turn up a few years down the line in the bargain bin at your local gaming retailer.

Except it’s not. It’s Nintendogs. It sold a quarter of a million copies in the United States in the first week after its release – and that’s not even taking into consideration the huge number of fans who imported the Japanese version months earlier. Its success in Europe, not to mention Japan, has been, on a relative scale, just as stupendous. The world’s mass puppy love has inspired numerous packaging deals, official events and even unique social phenomena. In short, Nintendogs has defied all the expectations such titles normally face in the videogame industry and its communities: expectations of finance, of culture, of consumer age, of hardcore vs. casual ideologies, and of gender.

A quick review of the average “serious” American gamer – both what he’s like and how he wants to be perceived – reveals the innate improbability of Nintendogs‘ U.S. success. What does such a gamer appreciate? First off, technological innovation: in a technical sense, precision, in an aesthetic sense, realism. He likes racers and action adventure titles, but prefers, above all, first-person shooters. He enjoys a certain amount of competitive, in-game violence. He’s drawn to the accouterments of manliness, such as images of attractive women. What he dislikes: surrounding himself with cuteness. Doing so might make him seem weak.

Of course, in some sense, this supposedly average player doesn’t exist. That’s to say, no one is so uncomplicated as to unwaveringly meet these stereotypes. Nor is this description meant to imply that “serious” gamers can’t be completely the opposite. Everyone is different. This is merely, and literally, an averaging of current cultural prescriptions, which for better or for worse come together as an incredibly strong force in the consumer market. Sentiments like the ones outlined above make, break and shape games because they determine sales.

Yet, the unacceptable is happening – en masse. Gamers across the country are playing Nintendogs and loving it despite, or perhaps even because of, its adorable content. It’s almost as if an unspoken rule has been lifted. Suddenly it’s OK to turn to your fellow gamer, male or female, and pour out story after story about your puppy’s good graces. You can like what’s cute without the risk of being uncool.

True, some people are still stuck on the old stereotypes: Puppies are for girls; puppies are for sissies; puppies are for non-gamers – the kind of forum trash talk we’ve all waded through. And there was certainly plenty of reluctance to support the title before it (and its rave reviews) came out in this country. But for the most part, Nintendogs has made converts of straight-faced gamers. They continue to be hardcore, but now, at least, they can smile.

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At the same time Nintendogs is defying hardcore expectations, Nintendogs its defying expectations of gender, as well. In one sense, it’s bringing into question the idea of gendered game subject matter. If anything could be considered traditionally female content, taking care of adorable puppies is it; yet the title’s vast male following has obviously uprooted that assumption. The game is also defying expectations for types of gameplay. Generally, men are believed to be attracted to linear, goal-oriented play, whereas women are normally the ones more interested in fostering gradual progress and growth – the idea at the root of puppy care. Not to mention that Nintendogs is a “non-game,” and would usually be pushed to the fringes of the gaming landscape, where girl games also reside. Despite the odds though, Nintendogs has been totally mainstream-ized.

Why has Nintendogs been able to survive – to flourish – in this way when so many of its sim predecessors have gone the way of obscurity? In part, it’s because of its status as a non-game, one allowed to sidestep some of the heat of stringent analysis, both technical and cultural, to which other titles are subject. Perhaps it’s also because the game strives for certain elements of realism, a common criterion for greatness in the view of the American gamer.

More important, though, is the overall quality of the game. No matter the social factors, fandom of such epic proportions would never have sprung up for a shoddy title. And this title is good – very good.

But the number one, most crucial factor in the game’s success is undoubtedly PR. Nintendogs has had all the right publicity. It was made by Nintendo, acclaimed by reviewers at top publications, and hyped all across the country. One thing led to another. Word spreads quickly in this town.

And once the thumbs-up was given, all bets were off. The social restrictions previously surrounding this game were revoked by a mandate from above to start liking, of all the things, simulated puppies.

How could Nintendogs help but become a hit? Such an occurrence is the opposite of peer pressure; it’s peer release. It’s peer acceptance. It’s like knocking down a dam, and then letting everyone have a grand old time playing in the watery aftermath. Liberated by the examples provided by trend-setters and marketers, gamers were free to adore their puppies, even to feel proud of them and of themselves. Blocked from the constant interrogation beam of expectations, they were able to have a blast discovering that a cute non-game could be acceptable, too. One by one, these gamers have made a new standard, one in which a guilty pleasure is not an unacceptable blunder, but a ticket into a gaming community collectively discovering new sides of itself, feeling its way through the puppy-dotted dark.

Because, really, this isn’t a matter of changing the world; it’s a matter of changing the gaming community. Ask a non-gaming, American adult, and he’s still likely to laugh at the image of a grown man playing with virtual puppies, even if you try to explain that, by videogame standards, those are some very high quality puppies. Ask a gamer, on the other hand, and whether or not he’s a Nintendogs fan, he’ll be able to tell you about the game, about its popularity, about the praise it has received throughout the industry.

As in society at large, cultural expectations in the videogame world are a complicated thing, and they won’t be exploded by any one game, however adorable. But expectations can, and should, be challenged. Nintendogs has planted a seed in our community for rethinking expectations, as well as rethinking ourselves.

Bonnie Ruberg is a video game journalist specializing in gender and sexuality in games and gaming communities. She also runs a blog, Heroine Sheik, dedicated to such issues. Most recently, her work has appeared at Wired.com, The A. V. Club, and Gamasutra.

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