Friday, November 23, 2007

The Coolest Girl In School, or Bully w/ a Pink Bow

Another great article from YPulse this week, this time around a new Australian mobile game that's being promoted as "GTA for Girls". Here's an excerpt from anastasia's post:
Do girls need their own GTA? A female Australian mobile game developer thinks they do, which is why she created "The Coolest Girl In School." The game is provoking parental outcry Down Under. [...] [It also] Sounds like the game is full of mixed messages -- being a "mean girl" wins the game, i. e. "lie, bitch and flirt your way to the top of the high school ladder," but according to the article about the game in The Daily Telegraph, risky behaviors, i.e. drinking, drugs, etc. do have consequences. So if the argument is that Grand Theft Auto allows boys to live out their fantasies of mass murder and beating up prostitutes, than the Coolest Girl in School lets "good girls" live out their fantasies of being "bad" and popular?

For more coverage, check out Tweenage Wasteland and this article in The Ottawa Citizen by Misty Harris.

Reading the game's description and taking a step back from the controversy a little, it seems to me that we've seen all of this before...last year, in fact, when Rockstar's identically-themed Bully was released and everyone was up in arms about how it promoted bullying by "rewarding" bullying behaviours. In Bully, the player advances by spreading rumours, rebelling against teachers, pitting cliques against each other, trying to impress the cool kids, fending off constant attacks from larger bullies, dressing to impress the cool kids, going on dates with and/or merely smooching with the right people (girl or boy). If you got caught, you would get punished. Actions had repercussions -- every move you made to fit in with one group put you at odds with the others. Etc. Etc. Now, replace some of the more overt forms of physical violence with emotional or psychological violence, and what you've got sounds a heck of a lot like The Coolest Girl in School.

I played a big chunk of Bully last year for my thesis, along with another controversial game called Rule of Rose. Like Bully, Rule of Rose dealt with bullying, although the fact that it was girls doing and receiving it seemed to be enough to send that game out of the realm of public debate and into the realm of censorship. The game was banned in Europe, and had late releases in the US and Australia because of the controversy around it. Meanwhile, although Bully had originally attracted more public attention, it ultimately sort of came and went without a hitch (well, a Jack Thompson court case, but that was par for the course last year). My own opinion about both games is that not only are they not nearly as violent as most, but that they address violence in a way that could actually be much more meaningful and value-laden for young people (not children, but teens and young adults) than, say, some gangland fantasy or alien killing spree. Both games are attempts -- albeit flawed -- to delve into an enormously significant and serious issue...far from merely "promoting" bullying, they each explore bullying in complex ways that have not been discussed in the ensuing debates, which instead seem to limit themselves to whether or not the games should exist. Which brings me back to The Coolest Girl in School, which finds itself as the newest focus of this same essentializing discourse about whether games are "good" or "bad", and questions of how we can make these bad games disappear.

I'm not saying that The Coolest Girl in School will contain the same depth and intelligence as Rule of Rose, or that it will bring the player through the many layers of moral ambiguity that underlie high-school social hierarchies the way Bully did. All I'm saying is that we can't write a game off outright just because it deals with "unpleasant" issues, or addresses them in an exaggerated or unconventional way. That sort of reactionary attitude is what leads to censorship, and places dangerous pressure on the industry to limit itself to "family friendly" fare, even when designing games for adults or older kids and teens. Let's play the game first, and then have an informed discussion about it afterward.

Update: I just heard about another new game that fits this genre, called Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. Check out Leigh Alexander's review on Playthisthing.com.

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