Friday, November 17, 2006

Super Princess Peach

Gonzalo Frasca has written up an interesting analysis of Super Princess Peach for Nintendo DS, entitled "Playing with Fire: Trouble in Super Macho World". It's a great, though brief, examination of the gender stereotypes that continue to pervade the Mushroom Kingdom. He highlights some of the most obvious, such as the blond, pink-dressed Princess Peach's limited arsenal of "emotional" powers in lieu of more traditional fighting or magical powers, but also more subtle aspects, such as how this compares to Mario's new "gigantic" ability in New Super Mario Bros. As Frasca writes,
I never thought about this until I wrote this article but Nintendo's choice of female and male superpowers for both games in nothing short of hilarious. One game defines women as emotionally unstable while the other one presents boys as being obsessed with their size.

Contrary to one of Frasca's arguments, however, Super Princess Peach actually does not mark the first time the Princess has been featured in a protagonist role. She was also a playable character in Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario RPG and Super Smash Bros. Melee. She has also enjoyed a fair amount of popularity among girl gamers, as evidenced in Sharon R. Sherman's 1997 article "Perils of the Princess", wherein she found that every girl she asked preferred to play as the Princess in Super Mario Bros. 2. I distinctly remember this being the case in my own family, where both me and my sister definitely preferred playing as the Princess, and would fight over who got to "be" her. This obsession with "getting to be" THE Princess (and there was often only one) easily transferred over from other realms of our play, where role-play games often included Princess Lea or Princess Adora/She-Ra, and toy boxes were populated by dolls wearing "princess dresses," princess costumes (fairy-princess, princess ballerina), and other princess-themed toys and media. In many ways, Super Princess Peach may very well represent a legitimate attempt to cater to existing female fans of the Super Mario franchise - by finally featuring girls' favourite character in her own adventure - as well as draw in new girl gamers through a tried-and-true motif within "pink culture."

In this respect, the Super Princess Peach website is obviously designed with girls in mind, with printable Princess Peach-themed mad libs, a DIY Super Princess Peach "magazine," a T-shirt maker and an introductory "how to" guide to playing platform games. The site also features an online "mood ring" (reflecting the moods or "vibes" from which Princess Peach draws her powers) and links/ads to other games that girls might (and do!) like, such as Animal Kingdom, Kirby, Yoshi and Nintendogs. The site is simple, and I'm not sure that it's actually attracting many hits, but it's part of a larger advertising campaign that obviously has girls in mind...a refreshing change from the norm.

I find myself conflicted about this game and its position within the "pink games" debate. The incessant perpetuation of gender stereotypes in mass culture and particularly kids' culture is troubling to say the least. And yet, despite my feminist sensibilities, I thoroughly enjoyed playing Super Princess Peach earlier this semester. I thought it was kind of cool that Princess Peach draws power from "emotions," which are so often seen as negative and used to denote weakness and inappropriateness. I found many redeeming qualities to the game, not the least of which were the quality of the game design and ease of the gameplay (it was my first time playing a Nintendo DS, and I found it a great baby-step into the design/mechanics of the system) - two things that are sorely lacking from other "girl-oriented" video games, which usually consist of a popular girl-branded character solving mundane puzzles amid buggy game mechanics and sub-par graphics and sound design. Girls' games, or "pink games," are rarely played by girls, it would seem, though a few hours spent trying to get through one clearly reveals the systematic deficiencies that continue to plague the genre.

How can we promote more and better games that girls will actually enjoy playing? How do we end the perpetuation of harmful male and female gender stereotypes (including the pervasive hyper-sexualization of female characters) within video games and other media? Focus within game studies seems to be shifting back to these issues once again, with a new book coming out soon that revisits the discussions of From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, along with upcoming articles in Feminist Media Studies Journal (including my own co-authored "discussion" of gender and games with Mia Consalvo and Helen Kennedy). I look forward to seeing how the debate has matured since its first incarnation in the mid-1990s, and hope that it will result in a revival of interest in gender issues in gaming. My big question after reading Frasca's article: are girls playing it?

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