Games for Girls

by Bonnie Ruberg - February 10, 2005, 3:46 pm PST

Girl games: They’re pink, they sparkle, they teach you to match outfits. Where these titles, and the girl games industry, went wrong.

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You’ve seen them in the stores. You’ve walked the aisles of your favorite gaming retailer and sighed, wondering, Why are these here? You’ve skimmed the wall of GBA boxes, searching for a new release, and noticed their brightly-colored presence among the normal, better titles. You’ve started to ignore them. You don’t even consider them real games anymore. After all, they’re just for kids. Or even worse, for girls.

Girl games. Where did they go wrong?

There’s a plethora of bad girl games floating around right now. As far as Nintendo products are concerned, most of them are for the GBA. Take, for example, the Mary-Kate and Ashley line from Acclaim. Girls Night Out seems to have worked its way into the realm of acceptable mediocrity, but Sweet 16, which received a 45% review average on IGN says Sweet 16 “arrives as a clear Mario Party clone with the Olsen twins license slapped on for good measure.” Disney’s That’s SO Raven offers only more of the same: girly (sometimes insulting) objectives, awkward controls, and shallow gameplay. Top that all off with the fact that the game itself isn’t even fun.

A few recent girl games have begun the upstream battle toward quality. A2M’s Lizzie McGuire 2: Lizzie Diaries, the sequel to a stereotypically poor original, shows serious signs of improvement, including clear graphics and actually enjoyable mini-games. Stifled by extremely short play time, and the almost total lack of replay value, Lizzie McGuire 2 still manages to have a leg up on the other titles in its genre. Kim Possible 2, another sequel from A2M, seems to even have legitimate, non-girl-game promise. IGN has named it their sleeper hit of the year. With more complicated gameplay and a strong plot, it hasn’t just moved to the top of the girl game class, it’s proved itself worthy of entering a different category all together.

Which brings up an important point about girl games: a really good girl game isn’t a girl game anymore. It’s just a game.

“Funny thing is” says IGN, “this deserving sleeper might actually find a second fanbase. You've got a platformer with polished design, tight control, plenty of replayability, and a hot gal in the lead role as the butt-kicking, high-flying, belly-shirt-sporting hero chick. Think Castlevania set in So-Cal, or Catwoman with some class. It's certainly a game that you gamer boys shouldn't be ashamed of picking up ... if you think you can keep up with her.”

But what exactly defines a girl game in the first place? Female characters? Girly missions? Slapdash designs? In my mind, a girl game is one that has been specifically created for and marketed to girls. The primary concern of those in charge of its production is not quality gaming, but picking up on sales from a profitable niche market. Not that every game publisher doesn’t have money on the mind, but in the case of girl games, that desire for profit is rarely followed up by the healthy market competition that forces production teams to put out a worthwhile product in order to stay afloat. It’s a widely accepted element of the industry: girl games suck.

Or, if it’s unfair to say they outright “suck,” it’s obvious that they receive considerably less development care than other, non-girl titles. An overwhelming number of them, instead of deriving from original concepts, are based off of movies and television shows. Girls, the industry seems to be saying, don’t need originality. They don’t need nuanced gameplay, well-rendered graphics, or interesting sound. Girls don’t want innovation; they want mini-games and flashy puzzles. Why waste time in development that will go unappreciated? Girls want what’s girly. They want what sucks.

Who, exactly, are these girls? College students? Stay-at-home moms? Grandmothers in rockers cradling their GBAs? No, in the case of girl games, when the industry says “girls”, the word is synonymous with “children” (an issue ridiculous enough to warrant an entirely different editorial). So maybe these games are justified in their over-simplicity because they are made for kids.

Maybe. But if little girls get crummy girls games, why don’t little boys get crummy boy games? Sure there are other poor, but less “girly,” TV and movie-based titles. But we don’t call these boy games. We just call them bad.

What do young girls really want? Could it be the industry actually has female kids pegged with these (usually) at best luke-warm games? If it seems that way, it’s only because girls aren’t exposed to other types of gaming. They try out the things the media tells them they’ll like. They watch other girls, ones just like themselves, enjoying these games in the ads on TV. They can’t see themselves in Halo 2 advertisements. Why would they? From all that they’ve been told, from what they’ve seen, girls don’t play those sorts of games.

What about older girls, women - should they get their own games too? How many sales is the industry missing out on by not putting out equally shoddy titles for female adults? The only reason they haven’t taken advantage of the opportunity like they have with girl games is that they think women wouldn’t buy. Even designing crummy games would be waste of money. Women don’t game. For now, and for the sake of holding back a swarm of bad “women’s games”, let’s not tell them the truth.

And how much of a difference would it make if these games were good? If girl games got just as much time and attention in development as normal games, would they be morally ok? There’s no answer to that question, because such an approach could never actually happen. Girl games are designed for "peripheral" gamers. They are, as such, peripheral games. If they were not, if they were good, as mentioned before, they would cease to be girl games. They might continue to be “girly,” but they would not be girl games.

In the end, the idea of creating gender-specific games, whether for girls or for boys, is just demeaning. By putting out these titles, game makers are implying that girls can’t, and don’t want to, handle real games. Sometimes that might seem right, but only because it’s an accepted (by both sexes) preconception, and not because it’s innately true.

Many people, game publishers and female gamers alike, stand up for girls games, claiming they serve as a necessary entry-point for many girls into the world of gaming - a gateway to more legitimate games. But do the girls who play girl games really ever move on to better, more complicated titles? Is this gateway really a gateway, or is it more like a cul-de-sac?

In my opinion, playing girl games has none of the desired effects. That is, girls who play them do not continue to game. For plenty of consumers, girl games and their primary platform (the GBA) are separate from the rest of the gaming market. As noted on Game Spot, according to a recent Club Nintendo survey, 22 percent of Japanese DS owners are female. It’s become acceptable, in fact somewhat normal, for girls to own handheld systems, but not consoles. The girls I know who are into gaming (and I mean actual, dedicated gamers) certainly did not come in through girl’s games. In fact, the majority of girls I’ve met who used to or still do play girl games foster the expected dislike for normal gaming that already-established gamers find so frustrating.

What the industry needs to do, both to help out with issues of gender-equality and to make things more money, is to change the face of general, quality, non-gender-specific gaming. If little boys can like real games, so can little girls; it’s just a question of perspective, marketing, and (please!) a little more equal representation in the games themselves. If reluctant, potential girl gamers need gateway games, then Nintendo should be pushing titles like Animal Crossing and Pikmin, quality games with some girl-attractive aspects. Don’t start newbies out by showing them what’s bad and sexist in gaming; show them the cool stuff. Then they’ll be no more need for girl games, just good ones.

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