Girls. That mysterious species. Do they play video games? What kind of video games do girls play? How can we get girls to buy our video games?
These seem like simple questions, but in an industry dominated by men, appealing to fifty percent of the population sometimes becomes a tricky proposition. It’s been proven statistically that girls (and women) are playing games. But what kind of games are they playing? This time, on Tap Vs. Tap: Games for Girls.
AJ: The last time we discussed the topic of women in games, I took a small detour to bring up the topic of “pink games,” then admitted that was probably going a little off-course for that particular debate. So. Time to talk about Pink Games.
Here, I’m talking about games specifically designed for little girls. Games that are, for example, branded with Barbie and Bratz. Games like the “Imagine” series that position a girl as a baker, fashion designer or babysitter. Games that are often simplistic, mundane simulations and dress-up dolls, to varying degrees of polish, rather than what some would consider a traditional videogame.
Are they harmful? Helpful? Should the games industry stop “pink-branding”?
Dix: I have very little experience with Pink Games, either as a player or a pseudo-academic, but they tend to make me roll my eyes a little. Though I’ll admit, it’s probably in the same way that a lot of overly simple games that target younger kids do: it’s my design instincts kicking in and thinking, “Gee, this is the best they could do?”
In some ways, I think that, to a point, Pink Games are just one side of the “games for an audience too young to be discerning” coin, especially when it comes to branded stuff. Many – I’d even say most – titles based on a toy line or a cartoon or a kids’ movie are pretty flimsy, repetitive experiences, based on some activity in which the main characters partake. It would be…probably a bit incongruous if a Bratz game weren’t about fashion and social cliques.
But! There is definitely a different sector of Pink Games that seem very concerned with what the player’s planning on doing with her life, or at least convinced that probably they’ve only got girls’ attention when they’re fairly young. A lot of games for boys (or games that are more ungendered) feel like poor imitations of “normal” video games, but not these other ones.
I don’t remember a lot of girls contemporary with me ever really caring about these kinds of games, though they also weren’t quite so common when I was growing up. If anything, it seems like they’re a barrier to girls becoming game consumers at all, at least for my generation.
AJ: I’ve actually played a few “pink games” myself, both as an adult consumer (just to check them out) and when I was actually a little girl (since they’ve been around that long). I’d actually say that how simplistic, and frankly boring, games like Barbie were to me only cemented that I was going to be a hard core gamer. However, there are a few I kind of liked in their own way. For example, I was really charmed a few years ago by Princess Debut, a simple girl-oriented dance game.
It feels to me like, for games for very small children, there tend to be very few “little boy” gendered games. Games typically for the younger age bracket are either gender-neutral or pink. I have a suspicion that maybe, is a little unfair. When I was growing up, there were toys “for girls” and toys “not for girls.” Over the last few decades, that distinction has gotten more prominent now if anything (there’s even the much-maligned Lego for Girls). So it might be possible we’re scaring little girls away from the otherwise gender-neutral games by even offering the “pink” option. “This side of the store is for you,” is the message we’re sending. “The other stuff is for the boys.”
On the other hand, I’m not sure how much of what girls are drawn to is nature, and how much is nurture. If a little girl is just genuinely interested in a game about pet-sitting, just for example, then it’s great that that game exists for her to play. If that game existing means she feels she can’t play more challenging games, then that’s a problem, though.
So in one way, I think we should stop marginalizing “games for girls” as something openly mockable and ridiculous. On the other hand, I think “games for girls” can be just as challenging and even competitive as “games for boys,” but they aren’t frequently designed that way. I believe young girls are up to the same kind of challenges that young boys are, obviously.
Before I go into talking about girl-focused games I really enjoy (that are a bit outside of this category), I’d like to ask you: What kinds of games were you drawn to when you were younger? Do you think that shapes what you play today?
Dix: Oh, definitely. Or, at least, they have definite things in common. My earliest video game experiences were with the Super Nintendo (I was a bit of a latecomer as my contemporaries usually go), and since I didn’t have the kind of money to buy my own games, I for a long time got to play what my parents got me for birthdays or Christmas – usually things my mom had heard good buzz about, which meant that I played a lot of Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
Insofar as I played these games because they were what was available, I do wonder if left to my own devices I might never have bothered with platformers or epic quests. I have a feeling that some series would have attracted me to these things eventually. A lot of the games I chose to play myself (say, renting them from Blockbuster, if anybody remembers what that is) were ones somehow related to other things I liked: almost anything science fiction-y or robot-oriented was fair game, as well as, of course, anything branded with a TV show I liked. I developed a long-standing love affair with Mega Man, and played the heck out of the Mega Man X games, and I seem to recall that being because I liked the character’s design, at least at first.
But I also played lots of more puzzle-ish games, once my family got a workable computer (a Power Macintosh), like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? or Eagle Eye Mysteries in London, and Interplay’s Star Trek 25th Anniversary was one of the most formative games of my life, of all things. I was always an intellectual kid and liked games that were more than twitch.
AJ: We had the Atari, and the Commodore 64, but of course one of my earliest games was Super Mario Brothers. I was just enchanted with Super Mario Brothers, a game that was taught to me at the time by my aunt. The nice thing about having a woman in my family show me the game, of course, is, I never got the impression that Mario was somehow for boys. Mario was just for everyone!
When Mario 2 came around, and the Princess was a playable character, then, she was the only character I ever played. This wasn’t just because she was a really useful character (though she was). It was also because I really wanted to play as a girly character.
The stereotype is that girls would rather play as a girl, and I’m guilty as charged there. There’s a stereotype that girls don’t like competition, and I’m not sure that’s true at all. And there’s another stereotype that girls (and teenage girls, even women) like the intellectual non-twitch better than the action-oriented games, but I think what you’re saying is, that can be a gender-neutral thing. Not everyone has to like action and violence all the time, and sometimes men can like puzzle-solving better too.
I remember clearly in the late 90’s, there was a lot of buzz around Purple Moon. This was a female-focused company that was finally going to crack the “games for girls problem.” I was a teen at the time, and I found that whole thing a little insulting. I was a little too old to be in the target audience there, but I had already had played lots of games in my life that I enjoyed very much, and there was no reason why those games shouldn’t be considered “for girls.” I was deeply into the Final Fantasy series for example. Those games had everything that a teenage girl might want out of a game in terms of story and drama and conflict and romance. And adventure games were a huge draw to me, King’s Quest in particular. In 1988, The Perils of Rosella was almost the perfect “game for girls.” It’s not insulting to a young girl’s intellect, but she can still be a princess and tame a unicorn!
So I think girly-stuff is more than fine. I think it’s awesome. But I’ve always been interested in games with some kind of depth, be it action or adventure, or some kind of story. So what worries me about some categories of “pink games” isn’t so much the pinky-girly part. It’s more that it also seems like these games are simplistic and super-easy when they don’t have to be. It’s easy to go from the meme “girls don’t want competition” and change it into “girls don’t want challenge.” I think this has the effect of marginalizing “girliness.”
Dix: It’s true that quality makes all the difference. I don’t have an inside line on any “games for girls” design so I don’t know how many such games intentionally avoid challenge versus how many just aren’t very good at creating it. I have a feeling that a lot of girl games, branded ones especially, are designed on a tight budget and without much regard for the difficulty of making good games for any audience. They usually smack of cash-ins to me.
But one does wonder if girly games would be a positive thing if they were just good on occasion. We see other examples of really, really well done “girly stuff” elsewhere that manages to be stereotypically girly without, arguably, undermining or talking down to its audience.
On the other hand, is it reductive to think about “girl games” as a separate genre at all? I’ve known many girl gamers who really enjoy the offerings in a series like Final Fantasy – generally things that are a bit more narrative-oriented, as we’ve discussed. In high school, when I was mostly playing JRPGs, I felt like I had a bit more in common, taste-wise, with those girls in my class who played video games than I did the guys, who were mostly into shooters.
AJ: Branded games for little kids in general often feel like cash-ins, but I think that developers have a particular challenge in creating branded “girl” games, because, as we’ve discussed before, the game industry is mostly men. They can certainly focus-test with little girls and see what they are enjoying. But often, it’s just a matter of someone in marketing deciding what they would think little girls would like to play, and not being willing to think outside the known box of girl stereotypes.
I think younger girls (provided they’re at the reading level) would love a Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, King’s Quest, etc, style game. But here’s the other question: what may, very well, be the biggest question of all. Does Mom understand to buy that? Are we doing a good enough job educating parents?
Because I feel like right now, while all parents as a group aren’t clueless about games, it’s much easier for Mom or Dad to walk into a store and just buy some game based on a brand or topic they’re relatively sure is something their daughter would like, rather than taking a risk on something new that their daughter might love. In a way, it’s the same problem of discovery of new IPs that the game industry already has. Mario is a known quantity, because he’s a safe bet for kids of all ages. Beyond that… well, I have a girl, here is Barbie, done!
Dix: I think in general parents are poorly educated on games. It seems like it’s often too much to ask for them to understand even the ESRB system and what it means, much less anything less quantifiable like storytelling. Americans, in particular, are exceptionally resistant to having to think or research a little, even when tools like Google make it very simple to do so. I was fortunate in that my mom was always the sort that would browse Nintendo Power for leads on what was good, but it seems like that was a rare trait then and still is now, even though it’s easier than ever to do so.
It’s just way simpler to take the advertising at face value, and I have no real idea as to how to change that or what would make parents think twice when they otherwise wouldn’t.
AJ: So, here, the problem of, not enough women in the industry, has sort of lead to the problem of not good enough games for little girls, and now has tied in to the problem of not enough parents in general educated about games. I think that’s a great way to tie in the question: how do we get adult women interested in playing games? That’s another big topic I’d love to tackle at some point.
But first, I want to put in a little bit about my favorite girly game ever, and that’ll probably be it for me.
The game is called Panel De Pon. You may have played it, sort of. The game was released in the USA under the name Tetris Attack. But what is most interesting about Tetris Attack to me is that it started out feminine, but when it was localized, it was also totally rebranded to be gender neutral.
I found out about this game from this page: The Mushroom Kingdom Panel De Pon comparison. Before reading this, I had no idea that Tetris Attack – which is a fun game, but is not Tetris – actually had a totally different story in Japan. It was once about a war between the fairies. Just looking at that art style, it’s as feminine as it gets. Overseas, the game was totally reskinned with Yoshi, and other Mario characters. The only thing that remains in today’s games of the original version is the fairy’s wand, which you may recognize as an item in Smash Brothers called “Lip’s Stick.”
When I first saw this, I wondered why such a major change was made to the game’s design. It may just be that, culturally, the Japanese are more likely overall to pick up a game with incredibly cute stylings than Americans are. Still, there’s nothing less-cute about the Mario characters that branded the American version. They’re just… less girly, and I feel as if, because of this, we just didn’t get one of the best “pink games” I’ve ever seen.
Dix: Wow, I do remember Tetris Attack, and didn’t realize it was ever anything but a Mario tie-in. But then, it also wouldn’t be the first game to be Mario-branded stateside when the original had nothing at all to do with everyone’s favorite portly plumber. But it does satisfy me to know, finally, where Lip’s Stick came from. That’s one of the only classic Smash Bros. items I didn’t know the origin for.
So I guess what we’ve learned here today is that game developers need to consider more closely what they are releasing for the “pink” audience, and maybe parents also should do more than just grab the latest Barbie junk. In the meantime, go buy your young girls a Final Fantasy game.