Friday, July 17, 2009

Ridiculous Life Lessons for Silly Girls

I'm happy to see that along with the recent influx of a new (though arguably somewhat recycled) batch of "girl games" (a.k.a. pink games), the debates about girl games, girls and games and the space for girls within gaming culture are all being actively reinvigorated in a great collection of reviews, articles, discussion pieces and forums. Some of my faves so far are The Brainy Gamer's review of Majesco's Drama Queens (Nintendo DS), L.B. Jeffries' summary of the unfolding "girl games" discussion over at PopMatters, Tracey John's tongue-in-cheek Wired review of various "girl games" and the "ridiculous life lessons" that they contain (hence the first part of the title for this post), and now a great response to John's article featured in The Escapist written by Susan Arendt (called "Silly Girls" and the inspiration for the second part of my title for this post). I ended up writing quite a long response to Arendt's article in the Comments section of her article, which I figured could also serve double-duty as a blog post and give me a chance to get my two-cents in. But first, a quick recap of John and Arendt's articles to set up the context.

Tracey John's article reviews a representative selection of the huge number of "girl games" recently introduced (or soon to be) onto the market, pointing out that while parents fixate on violence in videogames as a cause for concern, there's a lot of other things to get worked up about, including gender stereotypes and the limited selection of games that make it to the "pink aisle" at the videogame store (yep, there's one there too!). As John describes, these games contain all of the same hyper-feminized and highly traditional themes and gender scripts found throughout girls' commercial culture:
A wave of new games for tween girls... [are] serving up innocuous gameplay designed to let players become perfect little princesses. Aimed at that lucrative, Hannah Montana-fueled intersection of childhood and adolescence, these games might give 8- to 12-year-olds their first experiences with fashion, make-up, popularity … even boys.

The weird thing is that you can view these "wholesome” games as being just as bad for girls as Grand Theft Auto’s random bloodshed and rampant criminality is for young, impressionable boys. And while GTA’s influence on boys has been dissected to death, what about the Nintendo DS’ upcoming avalanche of games for tween girls? What kinds of values do preteens learn from these titles? Valuable life lessons, or bad habits?

She goes on to describe the themes and "life lessons" included in EA's new Charm Girls Club, The WB's The Clique: Diss and Make Up, Majesco's The Daring Game for Girls (which gets the only truly positive review of the bunch), a new edition to Dreamcatcher Interactive's Dreamer Series: Top Model, two more Ubisoft entries Imagine: Babyz Fashion (can't wait to play at getting yelled at by the babyz' stage parents this time around) and Imagine: Detective, two new girl games by THQ - Princess in Love and My Boyfriend (which sound like basically the exact same game), two more from Ubisoft in their Style Lab series - Makeover and Jewelry Design and Nintendo's Style Savvy. Lots of make-up and fashion and social relationships, reminding me very much of the "girl games" movement of the mid-1990s, which saw similar titles emerging from both large conglomerates (like Mattel) and from a number of the independent, feminist developers attempting to establish a more clearly delineated, more popular, girls' games market by focusing storylines and themes on stuff that actual girls were understood to enjoy. Of course, this raises all the usual problems raised by essentialism...when applied to girls or gender or any group, there's always an enormous risk of stereotyping, of over-emphasizing certain elements and particular types while excluding others all together.

And this is where Susan Arendt's article comes in. Arendt basically responds to John's article by defending girls' right to play silly games with traditional themes if that's what they want, and by pointing out that as a culture we're much too quick to dismiss anything "girlie" as necessarily bad or lesser. As Arendt writes:
Ah, what's that I hear? That these games "perpetuate negative stereotypes"? Which stereotypes would these be, exactly? The ones that young girls like cute boys, looking at clothes, and gossiping about each other? Granted, it's been a few years since I was the target demographic for these games, but when I was a wee lass, I engaged in all of those activities so much that I practically had Master's Degrees in them. I somewhat doubt all that much has changed.

The simple truth is that young girls like stupid things. They like shopping and makeup and boys and ponies and glitter and The Jonas Brothers and a whole legion of other things that will make you feel like your brain is dissolving if you think about them for too long. And please, this is not your cue to protest about how you were never like that, you liked bugs and science and all the things that small girls typically don't because you're not about to be forced into some label, dammit! Get over it. If you grew up preferring dirtbikes to Barbies, that's grand, but if you didn't - if you fretted over the best color nail polish and prowled the local clothing stores like a lion on the savannah - well, that's ok, too.

[And here's my response, reproduced from The Escapist comments forum:]

I love the debate and issues that both these articles engage with. Girl games suffer from the same ostracization as most other forms of "girl culture" - whether it's princess parties and My Little Pony, or the daring girls who have the nerve to join the dirt biking team, there's always someone around just waiting to point out how "wrong" it is. Though in defense of Tracey John's article, that shouldn't mean that we can't hold them to the same standards as any other game... in terms of subjecting them to critique, analysis and discussion, as well as demanding the same levels of variety, innovation, immersion, good storylines, characters, etc. etc. as any other genre. John points out a pretty important aspect of this "new wave" of girl games - they mostly all revolve around the same three or four themes, contributing to the ongoing (though admittedly quite *sparkly*) cluttering of a market that seems to be growing despite these games rather than because of them.

My beef with this new spurt of girl games isn't that they exist - I agree with Susan that they should if there's a demand for them, but that they're taking shelf space (and development efforts) away from other genres that might do a bit better at filling the substantial gap that still exists within the girls' games market. Girls play online games WAY more than console games (90%+ vs. 28%), and I'm pretty sure that Stardoll, BarbieGirls and The Sims aren't the only titles capturing their attention (Runescape, Club Penguin, and Free Realms are all extremely popular among girl gamers as well). When it comes to console games, Guitar Hero and Wii Sports (and even Grand Theft Auto) rank way up there on girls' lists of their favourite games. I wish the industry would start looking toward girls' actual gaming habits rather than simply reproducing the same old themes that already dominate both the girls' toy aisle (a suffering market as girls now abandon their toys and dolls at younger and younger ages) AND the girls' games shelf.

If the industry is ever going to build more significant and sustainable inroads into the ever-elusive "girls market" they're going to have to add a few more tricks to their dog and pony show (hmm...dogs and ponies sounds like the premise for a new Ubisoft Imagine title). Maybe start by taking all those games that girl gamers already like and then actively market them to other, non-gamer girls? Even if it means that maybe some boys somewhere might see the game being advertised to girls? Even at the risk of associating that game with, *gasp*, girl culture? Would that really be so detrimental to sales figures? Would boys really abandon Guitar Hero just because they saw an ad during Spongebob that featured some girl players and a female voice-over?

Or maybe by finally taking a chance on "Science Mama", realizing that expanding into new markets is never risk-free, and that yet another "Princess Secret Crush" game is just as likely to tank as it is to sell? I mean, how many of these girl games have totally and utterly failed? And how many awesome and innovative girls games have been buried and left for dead by a market that emphasizes same-ness above (and to the detriment of) all else? Thomas mentions this in her blurb on The Daring Game for Girls: "Like the book, the game offers handy tips and facts as well as non-stereotypically female activities, encouraging girls to seek adventure - not boyfriends or cute clothes, for once. So, of course, no one will actually play it." Tell that to Her Interactive, makers of the extremely popular Nancy Drew games. There's so much untapped and unchanneled potential out there, yet all the industry's powerhouses (EA, Ubisoft, etc.) seem to be able to come up with is more of the same. And when a "different" game does somehow manage to get through, they fail to promote it, thereby letting the "market" "prove" there's no room for innovation.

Or maybe by realizing that girls aren't going to be drawn into gaming as a lifelong passion by themes and characters alone (although they are important). Design is so key to attracting new players...intuitive controls, rich environments and, of course, accessibility. The really sad thing about many of the girl games currently on the market - [and I know I'm going to get some negative responses from this, but here goes] - is how poorly they're designed. Clunky, buggy, overly-restrictive, with limited customizability and very low re-playability. Too much endless grinding at repetitive, mostly mindless (and buggy!) mini-games that have little or no relationship with the larger game. And this has been a shockingly pervasive feature of girl games ever since the first wave happened in the mid-1990s. There are of course a number of well designed, innovative titles as well (e.g. Super Princess Peach!!!), but these are way too few and far between. I anticipate that most of the titles in this newest batch will reproduce the norm, not the exception.

All of which really makes me wonder...who and what is this niche really for anyway?


Anonymous said...

Have you tried 'Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!' ?

It's not all pink and ponies out there. (but you just said that :-)

Sara M. Grimes said...

I've played either the free download or first version, can't remember which. It was awesome :)

Whiner said...

Have you tried 'Science Girls'? :)

Sara M. Grimes said...

I haven't, but just checked it out on Casual Gameplay...I'll give it a go, thanks for the recommendation.

Also - here are the links to the two games mentioned:

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble:

Science Girls: