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.