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Designer's Notebook: Games for Girls? Eeeeewwww!

February 13, 1998
 

Several years ago I had an idea for a game that I thought might be interesting to teenage girls. The objective was to get yourself elected queen of the high school prom by maximizing your popularity through social interactions with your peers. Everyone in the school would have a circle of friends, perhaps an enemy or two, and at least an opinion about a number of other people. By exploring these relationships, you could build support for yourself. The game would be a hybrid of adventure game and Maxis-like simulation.

I mentioned this to my intelligent and insightful wife, expecting her to like the idea, and was startled by her response. "Please," she said, "don't ever make that game."

As we talked it over, I began to see the flaws. One of them is the notion of an "objective." Anybody who treats being elected prom queen as an "objective" would have to be a little disturbed. Being elected chair of the student council, maybe -- the student council is, after all, intended to actually do things -- but not prom queen, which is a purely honorary title. The prom queen is supposed to be someone who intrinsically deserves it, for her charm (and looks) and warmth (and looks) and winning personality (and looks). It's not supposed to be something that you work for.

Another problem was one of defining the strategy by which you win. As the designer, I could handle this in different ways. I could build in my own notions of morality, and set it up so that you win only if you make the choices that I want you to. In most such games, the morality is saccharine and preachy -- you win if you always make the "nice" decision. Or I could make it a more complex and equivocal situation, and in that case you just have to learn through trial and error how to maximize your popularity with everyone you run into.

In other words, to win the game, you would have to be a two-faced, manipulative little bitch.

Hmmm. Not exactly what I had in mind.

People have been talking about games for girls for a long time, of course, but only in the last couple of years has anyone decided seriously to do something about it. Now there are a number of startups -- Girl Games, Her Interactive, Purple Moon -- all actively seeking to fill this famously-elusive market niche. And of course, Mattel has made a mint with their Barbie line.

As a card-carrying feminist,* I have long wanted to see us produce more games of interest to girls and women. As a professional in the industry, I want to see our markets grow, and to see the interactive entertainment medium reach its full potential. That's not going to happen as long as we keep aiming for the 15-year-old-boy audience. So in principle, I should be all for the new products coming out that are being marketed as "for girls." But I'm not. I think "games for girls" is a bad idea.

There are a variety of issues about games for girls, and it's important to keep them separate. One has to do with the question of "what girls like." Let's deal with it first.

It's no surprise to anyone that teenage girls are concerned about their skin, hair, and clothes, and establishing good social relationships. The makeup, hair-care, and fashion industries develop advertising which intensifies these fears, and then make a fortune out of them. It doesn't take a lot of research to prove that this is a market where girls spend most of their money. A game, or other software product, on these themes would probably sell well.

On the other hand, do we really want to be part of all that? Recently, Ms. Magazine (read article) blasted Purple Moon's new title, Rockett's New School, because although the company claims to be offering girls equal access to technology, the game really just reinforces the same tired old stereotypes. (Brenda Laurel, one of Purple Moon's founders, was actually quoted as saying that they could "do for girls and technology what Title IX did for girls and sports." As if! Like, I am so sure.) Having checked the game out for myself, I can't disagree with Ms.' criticisms. Rockett's chief concern seems to be making a good impression and getting in with the right crowd. She also has to overcome her discomfort around a teacher with a deformed arm (which sounds socially responsible enough) and is encouraged to snoop in other peoples' lockers (which doesn't).

[Actually, I think Rockett's New School would have been more interesting with a multi-player deathmatch mode and taunting: "I can join the 'in' crowd faster than you can!" "Yeah, well, your hair looks icky!" "I'm gonna alienate your ass!" Note to the clue-impaired: this is a joke.]

On further consideration, however, I think we're in danger of establishing a double standard here. If Id Software can turn out sex-role stereotyped games for boys, it's unfair to insist that Mattel and others not do it for girls. Games for boys can be about driving fast cars and blowing the hell out of things, but games for girls aren't allowed to be about clothes and makeup? Should games for girls be required to be pure, noble, and above crass commercialism? No way. If we have to have schlock, let's have equal-opportunity schlock.

If it's any consolation to the folks at Ms., I would guess that games about clothes and makeup are a self-limiting market. Her Interactive's first title, McKenzie and Company, included those elements, but the company has since branched out to the mystery genre with the Nancy Drew license and The Vampire Diaries. A visit to the Mattel website (http://www.mattelmedia.com) reveals that while most of the Barbie titles still concentrate on clothes, she's also starting to do things, in games like Adventures with Barbie: Ocean Discovery. And it's worth remembering that a lot of what drove Barbie's clothes mania was her various careers. Mattel couldn't sell a (pink, sadly) Barbie space suit without tacitly endorsing the notion that women could be astronauts -- in 1965! It took NASA another 18 years to actually put one into space.

There was another problem with my prom-queen game, and this is a good place to bring it up. When I thought it up, I was interested chiefly in the programming challenge. I was thinking of algorithms and data structures and user interfaces and design elements. My intelligent and insightful wife saw the larger picture, which was this: Boys get to drive Formula race cars, fly F-15's, build cities, battle dragons, conquer the galaxy, save the universe.

Girls get to... become queen of the prom? Is that really the best we can do for them?

Computer games are about fantasy, about dreaming big dreams. Even if girls' dreams aren't necessarily about battle and conquest, do we really think a girl's highest aspiration is to spend one evening wearing an aluminum crown? If we're going to make "games for girls" at all, there's certainly no reason why their horizons should be so limited. History is full of heroic women whose achievements went far beyond "making new friends!" [Actual box copy from a game for girls.] Why not track chimpanzees through the jungle with Jane Goodall, or help slaves to freedom with Harriet Tubman, or fly the world with Amelia Earhart, or even, yes, battle the Romans with Queen Boudicca? The problem with the clothes-and-makeup theme isn't just that it's stereotypical, it's that it's feeble.

But much as I dislike the notion of "games for girls" as yet another medium which encourages them to spend their time (and money) worrying about their appearance, I think there's a larger issue for us as game developers. It doesn't have to do with social responsibility or "what girls like," it has to do with moolah. Cold hard cash. Naked, throbbing self-interest.

Most companies organize themselves along functional lines. The top-level divisions in a company are usually things like marketing, sales, R & D, manufacturing, distribution, and so on. Not so with toy companies. They divide themselves, right from the start, into "boy" divisions and "girl" divisions. And I think this is a mistake we shouldn't make, for one simple, financial reason:

Putting "for boys" or "for girls" on a product instantly cuts your potential market in half!

How stupid is that? Duke Nukem may be the most outrageously macho game on the shelves, but at least they're not dumb enough to write "Software for Boys" on the box. Why piss off the women who want to buy it? If girls want to kick some alien butt in Duke's persona, who are we to tell them not to? Their money's green, and that's what matters.

(There's a website run by women who like action games: http://www.grrlgamer.com. They form Quake clans named things like the "Psychotic Men Slayers" -- note the initials -- and they like nothing better than fragging men who think women don't belong in the Quake world.)

Marketing software "for" a particular group to the exclusion of another is just wrongthink. We wouldn't put "Software for Whites" on our boxes, or "Software for Jews." Why put "Software for Girls"? Software is software; the shape of your genitals doesn't affect the way it runs, unless you're doing something God didn't intend with your CD-ROM drive.

Moreover, since the majority of software isn't marked as being "for" one sex or the other, by creating a category "for girls," you ghettoize the girls. Imagine a boy and a girl looking around a software store. All the games in the pink boxes are consigned to one area. Children are very sensitive to sex-differentiation issues, and often assume that they are mutually exclusive. Once a girl learns that some of the software is for girls, she's going to figure that the rest of it is for boys. Worse, there are undoubtedly parents out there who will believe the same thing. The boy can roam all over the store, while the girl is stuck in her tiny area.

In other words, the "for girls" label does the exact opposite of what its advocates claim.

It's not empowering, it's limiting. It reinforces the notion that femaleness is a special case, an exception to the norm. If the number of games for girls is a tiny fraction of the total, it tells the girls that they're second-class cybercitizens, who have to make do with what little they're given.

Finally, there's one more thing that could be going on here. The thought is so ugly I almost hate to bring it up.

Most computer games last 20 or 30 hours (some much more than that), and the cost of the entertainment is $1-2 an hour. But some of the games for girls that I've looked at have been very poor value for the money. I could play through an entire game in about 90 minutes flat, and any little girl could do the same. If I were a parent, I would be irritated to think that I had spent $30 or $40 on a single afternoon's fun. In addition, not much of that time was spent interacting; it was mostly watching videos and listening to dialog. One game's box proudly announces that there are over 45 plot twists. That may sound like a lot to an ignorant parent -- after all, a good detective novel probably has four or five -- but to anyone familiar with computer games, it's pathetically few. That's even smaller than Loom. If there are three possible choices at every decision point, a game tree with 45 nodes is only about four plies tall. In other words, you would only have to make four decisions to play to the end of the game. (If multiple decisions lead to the same node, this can be extended slightly.) That's not exactly a lot of interactivity. This is supposed to be teaching girls to be comfortable with technology?

Here's that ugly thought: The entire "games for girls" business could be nothing more than a marketing scam. A cynical effort to flog inferior product to naive parents in the guise of doing something good for their daughters. And that would be a shame and a disgrace to us all.

There are plenty of great gender-neutral games out there; games with themes other than shooting aliens, if that's not what your little girl is into. Games like Sim City and Civilization, games with things to build, puzzles to solve, mysteries to unravel, worlds to explore. And there's room for a lot more. There are tons of alien-shooting, dragon-thumping games, but we've only begun to scratch the surface of all the other possible genres.

Why make "games for girls"? Why not make good games for everybody?

==========

* The word "feminist" gives a lot of people problems these days. Some folks seem to think it means a radical lesbian man-hater who probably castrates infant boys in her spare time (but who also thinks, for some reason, that we should all use the same rest rooms). That's the Rush Limbaugh definition, and too many people are unaware that there's any other. I've run into a number of young women in the past few years who have told me "I'm not a feminist, but I want to have the same rights and opportunities as men." Guess what: that makes you a feminist, whether you like it or not. That's the real definition. If the shoe fits, wear it. I do, with pride.


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