Now that Bratz, the Pussycat Dolls and a handful of Mouseketeers Gone Wild have taken over girls’ culture, old concerns about Barbie, her unrealistic figure and materialistic lifestyle seem a bit quaint. For the past few years, Mattel has even been pushing Barbie’s relatively innocent and (dare I say?) wholesome image next to her racier rivals. Barbie now fills a niche within girls’ culture, providing a safe, friendly, non-violent and above all predictable alternative to the newer, more overtly sexualized girls’ brands. This sits well with many parents – even though Barbie’s semiotics might not.

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Despite the fact that sales of Barbie dolls have steadily declined for nearly a decade (with some analysts estimating a 27 percent drop between 2001 and 2004 alone), Barbie recently ranked first on the NPD Group’s list of top-selling toy licenses. The doll’s reincarnation as a media brand is a big driving force behind her continued longevity. In addition to a highly profitable series of direct-to-DVD animated movies, top-ranking websites and a stable of videogames, Barbie is now at the center of one of the most successful children’s virtual worlds to date.

Since its launch in April 2007, BarbieGirls.com has attracted over 14 million members and proclaimed itself the “fastest growing virtual world in history.” According to Mattel’s press releases, the site attracts 45,000 new members every day, 85 percent of which are 8- to 15-year-old girls. After a yearlong open beta trial, BarbieGirls recently became one of the first toy-based virtual worlds to adopt a subscription-based revenue model (“BarbieGirls V.I.P.,” available at a cost of $5.99 per month as of June, 2008). A much more limited free-to-play version remains available, but the majority of the game’s features and activities are now limited to V.I.P. subscribers.

With BarbieGirls, Mattel hopes to cash in on something that the game community has known for some time: Little girls love online games. The world of BarbieGirls itself is a cross between The Sims and virtual paper doll site Stardoll, two properties that have been enormously successful at attracting female players. Combining fantasy play with virtual consumerism, both Stardoll and The Sims place a lot of emphasis on acquiring, creating and displaying virtual items. Similarly, BarbieGirls gameplay revolves around shopping, fashion and home décor. Just like the doll …only digital.

Welcome to the Virtual Dollhouse
I started playing BarbieGirls about two months after launch. Admittedly, my initial reaction was less than positive. I was disappointed that a game so heavily focused on style would have such a limited range of avatar customization options. Most avatars end up looking eerily alike – thin, youthful females (there is no such thing as a BarbieBoy) with large heads and delicate facial features. The virtual space was much smaller than I was used to, and I felt encumbered by my avatar’s limited range of motion. The mini-games were basic, frustrating and repetitive. The environment was filled with promotions for Barbie products and provided few opportunities for interaction. The “first-ever virtual world designed exclusively for girls,” as the press materials described, appeared to be little more than a souped-up advergame.

Over time, however, I began to notice some deeper elements at work. Like many MMOGs, the BarbieGirls site’s tightly structured design and technical limitations place significant restrictions on what players can do and say. In many cases, these restrictions reflect an underlying interest in keeping BarbieGirls a safe and welcoming space for girls of all ages. But additional interests beyond those of the players themselves also come into play – including those of parents, regulators, public opinion and the Mattel corporation itself.

Unsurprisingly, the priorities of these different groups do not always coincide. Children’s desire to communicate online can often conflict with parents’ safety concerns. Mattel’s goal of using the virtual world to promote the Barbie brand is sometimes threatened by the more subversive aspects of children’s play. Decisions are ultimately based on some sort of compromise, but in many cases they reveal a surprisingly narrow and always corporate-friendly vision of girlhood.

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A key example can be found in the evolution of BarbieGirls‘ in-game chat system. As with any virtual world, interacting with other players is a big part of BarbieGirls. Players gather together at the “B Café” to roleplay and discuss various topics of interest. They host parties, compare outfits and share home decorating tips. They send each other messages and gifts via the in-game texting system. Each of these activities necessarily involves chat. In BarbieGirls, where most of the mini-games and activities are single-player only, interaction is mostly relegated to open text-based conversations.

Anytime you have a group of children and younger teens communicating in an online venue, there are unfortunately both serious risks and extra legal considerations. For nearly a year, Mattel tried out different strategies aimed at managing these risks, while addressing parents’ concerns about child safety and privacy … while also responding to the players’ desire to express themselves. These ranged from removing the chat function altogether, to limiting chat to pre-approved words (also called “dictionary chat”), to introducing tiered chat systems. Many failed to completely prevent players from revealing personal information. Others were overly restrictive, making it difficult to communicate at all.

In its current form, BarbieGirls contains a two-tiered chat system: “B Chat”, which is limited to pre-approved sentences, and “Super B Chat,” a form of dictionary chat. Mattel promotes the system as a safety feature; parents are able to choose which option their child will have access to. But terms such as “safety” are notoriously vague and problematic. In this case, what’s missing is any nuanced discussion of how the pre-approved words and sentences become approved in the first place: How are they selected, who selects them, and on what basis? Perhaps most importantly, what’s being excluded in the process?

The only clues that BarbieGirls gives players about what they can and cannot say appear in the game’s rules. These include the warning that “anything naughty or unkind will be blocked” and that players must always be “super nice.” Apparently, this means not expressing anything negative, as the system excludes terms like “don’t,” “dislike” and “do not like.” While some pre-emptive censorship is likely aimed at reducing cyberbullying (no “stupid” or “ugly”) and age-inappropriate topics (i.e. sex, drugs and violence), other bans are completely arbitrary (no animal names or use of the word “pants”). They are also conveniently corporate friendly: Brand names and media characters are generally excluded, unless, of course, the brand happens to belong to Mattel.

The Revolution Will Be Dressed in Black
Girls have traditionally had much less freedom in their play than boys – their play spaces are generally more restricted, their activities more heavily regulated and their behaviors more closely monitored. So far, this has been a somewhat unexplored dimension of the “girls’ games” phenomenon. We know that they depict a pretty stereotypical vision of girlhood – with their all-pink palettes, themes of nurturing and emphasis on domesticity – but we haven’t stopped to ask how this traditional approach to girls’ play might actually translate into design choices that drastically limit their experiences.

Then again, girls’ refusal to “play nice” has an equally long history. Victorian girls used the trays from their tea parties to toboggan down stairways; they tortured their dolls and held elaborate mock-funerals for them. Some of the most widely cited examples of subversive girls’ play feature Barbie herself, who over the years has been subjected to endless acts of violence, creative body modification and transgressive roleplay. Within gaming culture, there are innumerable examples of girls’ rebelliousness, from all-girl Quake clans to the 20 percent of middle school girls who play Grand Theft Auto “a lot.” The fact of the matter is: Girls don’t always play by the rules.

SparkleSwan98: “Are you a guy?”
Me: “No, are you?”
SparkleWan98: “No.”
Cutiepatootee: “Are you a guy?”
Me: “No. Why is everyone asking that?”
Cutiepatootee: “Guys dress all in black.”

In BarbieGirls, players employ creative workarounds to bypass the game’s various restrictions. They use intentional misspellings and put consecutive words in separate message bubbles to get around the chat filters. They also develop secret codes that use existing elements to communicate something else entirely. For instance, as there is no option to play as a male avatar, it was somehow decided that if an avatar was dressed all in black it meant that its player was really a guy. A lot of the fun in BarbieGirls comes from discovering workarounds and creating shared codes – from subverting the system from within.

Of course, breaking the rules isn’t always wholesome and innocent. Once it was established that there were guys around, it didn’t take long for players to start going on “dates.” And these practices aren’t always safe or in the players’ best interests, which supports the need for ongoing and diligent attention to children’s online interactions – on behalf of their parents, primarily, but also the designers and moderation team – rather than partial design-based solutions that block first and ask questions later.

It’s important to remember, however, that the workarounds and codes also represent a secret, and very meaningful, parallel universe that the players themselves have created out of a world that was not meeting their needs. And this is something that Mattel and other creators of children’s virtual worlds really ought to take note of. It’s inevitable that girls will say and do things in their play and online that many adults won’t agree with. It won’t all be “super nice,” and it won’t always correspond with a particular brand identity. That’s just the way play is.

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If the rules are too restrictive, some girls will try to find ways to rebel and to make it their own. But wouldn’t all girls’ interests be better met if they didn’t always have to fight so hard for play opportunities? Or if conceptions of girls’ play were flexible enough to allow for different kinds of play (subversive, rebellious, creative quiet, etc.) while also providing parameters specifically aimed at reducing risk? This might be too much to ask of Barbie – after all, she has never been much for breaking down gender barriers. But then again, if Mattel truly intends to make BarbieGirls an “unparalleled online play experience” for girls, it just might be the best place to start. Either way, I think it’s about time we begin demanding a little more from the BarbieGirls of the gaming world.

Sara M. Grimes is a doctoral student in communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. She is also the author of Gamine Expedition, a blog about children’s culture and technology.

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