Games of a Fairer Sex

They prefer pink to camo. They prefer ponies to guns. The videogame community does its best to ignore them, but still, they continue to thrive. No, they’re not girl gamers. They’re girl games. You know the type, all princesses and sparkles. These are the titles that encourage us: Why go out and save the day, when you could just go out to the mall and save?

As much was we might like to believe otherwise, girl games are here to stay. They’ve become a staple of the games business, though you’ll rarely hear about them on mainstream gaming sites. Walk into any videogame retailer, and you’re bound to run across them – sometimes interspersed with other titles, sometimes dominating entire shelving units on their own. In the handheld and PC gaming worlds especially, their numbers are significant. Mattel’s Barbie franchise alone has come out with at least 27 related titles, from Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus to Barbie Secret Agent to Barbie Super Model. And Barbie is hardly lonely; she has dozens of other licensed titles to keep her company, like Cinderella, Mary Kate and Ashley, and That’s So Raven.

Of course, girl games stir up all the obvious contentions. As many critics have noted, they often reinforce gender stereotypes and present restrictive views of gender differences. Beyond that, though, girl games have something of a reputation for questionable craftsmanship. Perhaps we confuse “bad” for “simple,” but some of these games just can’t measure up. The majority of girl games are based on licensed creative property, and rarely seem to contain thoughtful or original content. Technological innovation is seen as less important in girl games – a fact that further alienates them from the hardcore gaming community. And though they cost the same as mainstream titles, girl games tend to offer relatively brief gameplay experiences, leaving some customers wondering whether 30 dollars is worth a game you can complete in little over an hour.

Developer Heather Kelley, once the Director of Online Development for Girl Games, Inc. and now a developer at Ubisoft, says the “shoddy” girl game reputation is well-deserved. “Games for girls could be so much better than our short-sighted business climate allows them to be. Nine times out of ten, a game that is labeled ‘for girls’ gets a minuscule budget, infinitesimal schedule, dumbed-down technology, and a host of extreme gender stereotypes to deal with.” Girl games face other problems, as well. Says Kelley, “It’s also harder hiring an emotionally-invested team, because, lets [sic] be honest here, most adult men want to make games for themselves, not for their nieces or daughters, and the games industry is 90% male.” And, at the same time, licensing “definitely does limit what game designers can do in terms of content.”

Many publishers consider developing games specifically for girls a high investment risk. So, if this many girl games are making it onto the shelves, there must be an equivalent consumer base of people who are buying them. But who are they? The easy answer is young girls looking for a fun time – more specifically, their parents. Yet, as a gaming community and a society, we have to ask ourselves: Do young girls pick these games because this is what they want – shallow plots, repetitive gameplay – or because it’s the only option we’ve left open for them?

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After making sure I’d left my gaming merchandise at home, I set out for a little undercover work at the local mall. At Target – where girl games, glowing and cheerful next to the brooding colors of titles like Quake and Doom, take up half of the entire PC gaming section – I was the cousin of a 13-year-old girl who needed a holiday present. What could the sales associate recommend? He led me over to the oasis of pink and pointed out a Bratz game, ages six-plus. Bratz, with those giant eyes drowning in mascara, with noses the size of chocolate chips. I asked about the other computer games, careful not to say anything too technical and blow my cover. “No, those are mostly for boys. In fact,” he admitted with a self-conscious laugh, “you’d be surprised. We actually get full-grown men in here buying these things.”

At FYE, I was the aunt of an eight-year-old girl. She had a Gameboy, but I didn’t know what she liked. Again, I was directed toward the kids’ games. Hello Kitty: Bubblegum Girlfriends, a very well-meaning salesperson assured me, would be best. When pushed, he did say a Donkey Kong or Mario Brothers title might be alright, if my niece was something of a tomboy. By the time I reached Electronics Boutique, I was wondering what would happen if I was shopping for an eight-year-old boy. Would I still get escorted to the children’s section? No, instead I was told about the latest big hits, like From Russia with Love. This time I tried pushing for something more girly. What about that pink game over there? What was wrong with that one? Eventually, the sales associate and I settled on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But there was a moment when he thought I was actually going to buy my nephew Lizzie McGuire III: Homecoming Havoc. He was horrified.

None of which is to say that the pressure to play girl games comes exclusively from retailers. It’s not a sell-more-games conspiracy, it’s an attempt to give girls something they’ll like; something that will be “fun.” And if the idea of what’s fun for girls is sexist, that’s an issue of our culture at large, not just the video game community. Girls are taught to like girly things. Parents are taught to buy girly products for their daughters. The legacy continues.

“For me,” says Kelley, “that’s why games that play to really exaggerated gender stereotypes are especially dangerous. They have a superficial attraction, but they are teaching girls how to be female. They’re normative.”

Of course, plenty of girls really seem to enjoy these games, even some ones you wouldn’t expect. In high school, I knew a girl who ran home after school to prep Barbie for her PC modeling debut. She and her sister, only a few years younger, would fight over the computer, over who got to decide which purse best matched Barbie’s strapless dress. Granted, her friends found her pastime a little weird, but I can’t believe she was alone. Another friend, now in her early twenties, recently purchased a My Little Pony game. She loves it. She sits at her computer and giggles.

It’s hard to imagine someone like that being welcome in the world of “serious” gamers. We disapprove of their choices of games, so we shut them out.

But maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe they really are different.

After all, why should we step in and label these girls as gamers when they don’t even think of themselves that way? Every girl I know who loves girl games hates mainstream titles. My aforementioned twenty-something friend won’t even pick up the controller for party games, though she has a gamer boyfriend and a number of gamer friends. What she loves, honestly, are the ponies – in whatever form they decide to present themselves.

Perhaps that’s why most girl games are merely regurgitated licenses, because that’s what young girls are looking for; not an arresting gameplay experience. These girls don’t “mature” into liking quality games; they just stop playing. They grow up and grow out of whatever media franchise attracted them to games in the first place. It’s a pessimistic thought, but one that seems more and more like a reality in the face of contemporary games for girls.

If there is hope for successful girl games – for creating quality products and gaining the respect of the mainstream industry – it comes in defying expectations. Innovation, usually passed over in the creation of girl games, is “absolutely necessary,” says Kelley, “even more so than with stereotypical ‘boys games,’ because the innovation needs to go way beyond graphics. Girls sure don’t need a more realistic alien invasion shooter (though arguably, neither do boys). Creating games that could be more interesting to girls will take some challenging and fascinating technology leaps that will make games more interesting for all kinds of people.”

Here and there, developers are indeed successfully testing the boundaries of girl games. Her Interactive, for example, which has designed girl-oriented software since 1995, and has worked with Simon & Schuster since 1997 on the award-winning Nancy Drew series, is pushing to neutralize stereotypical gender representation. Sheri Hargus, Chief Technology Officer at Her Interactive, explains a mission parallel to that of a mainstream designer: “Girls like cool new features as much as boys… We are always looking for ways to innovate within the context of enhancing the gameplay experience.” The hard work seems to have paid off; says Hargus, “We receive enormous amounts of fan mail about the games.” And fans aren’t the only ones who recognize the importance of Her Interactive’s mission. When asked about the response they’ve gotten from the rest of the video game community, Hargus says, “We are now seen as a major player in understanding how to make intelligent games that appeal to females.” Even the Nancy Drew box art stands out in the crowd. It promises a genuine mystery, no pink necessary.

Her Interactive provides just one example of how game for girls can be both enjoyable and constructive. Will more girl games be successful in the future? As Kelley points out, success can be measured in a number of ways, but “for everyone, it’s knowing that people are out there enjoying what you made, and having it touch their lives.”

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 The A.V. Club, Gamasutra, and Slashdot Games.

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