The media pays a lot of attention to violence in kids’ video games, but not so much the negative messages around gender stereotypes in games for tween girls. In an article in WIRED magazine, Tracey John argues that games that encourage girls to be pretty and liked above all else could be just as damaging as games like Grand Theft Auto.
The WIRED article mostly deals with console games, but since I had a bunch of PC game credits left from when I was really into these games as a method of procrastinating on papers at University, I figured I’d take a look at the messages there as well. I played a variety of “girls’ ” PC games and noticed similar lessons and messages. These games might end up being more accessible to girls who have Internet access at home or work but whose family doesn’t have a gaming console. Mostly I tried time-management games where the player takes on the role of a young woman running a business, including Carrie the Caregiver, Pet Show Craze, Cake Mania, Sally’s Salon, and Fix-It-Up: Kate’s Adventure. Here are the main messages that I encountered:
1. Girls are naturally suited to care-giving roles and jobs.
Probably the most cringe-worthy of this type of game is Carrie the Caregiver. The first game in the series of Carrie games sees the ever-perky Carrie working in a nursery where she exhibits an unnatural level of enthusiasm all day as she feeds, burps, and changes babies. There’s nothing wrong with looking after infants, but Carrie’s high-speed and constant giggling sets a pretty unrealistic standard. Check out the trailer for the game, embedded below:
There are games where the main character runs a business and travels for business, but they usually involve small service-industry businesses like Sally’s Salon or the bakeries in Cake Mania. And regardless of the activity, I’ve yet to find one where the character you play isn’t ridiculously indefatigable.
2. Ambitious older women are your enemies.
The back stories for the games usually include an older, angry, cold, and ambitious woman who’s trying to put you out of business. In the picture above, the ambitious older woman is trying to threaten the Pet Show Craze store owner and her grandma. (For the ambitious older woman, think Cruella DeVille or Glenn Close’s character in Damages.) Of course, grandmas are OK in these games, because their only goal is supporting their granddaughters.
Most of these games have twin goals of earning you money and boosting your reputation (usually represented by hearts), indicating the importance of being liked. If you don’t worry about what other people think of you, these games suggest, you might end up like your older woman nemesis.
Do you know of any “boys’ ” games that encourage the player to spend time collecting hearts to make people like him?
3. Your customers will reinforce race and gender stereotypes, and beauty is key.
Pet Show Craze has some of the best examples of this: each type of character owns a different type of animal. The black characters are the only ones who own monkeys, reinforcing a negative stereotype of black people as primitive. Also, all the male customers gain hearts if you seat them next to the supermodel (even the little boy - creepy!—See picture above), but most don’t get a kick out of the sporty girl—just another way to reinforce the importance of beauty ideals.
And what are the rewards for doing well in these games? Well you might get new outfits for your character and new décor for the business.
4. You’d better end up in a (heterosexual) relationship
Many tween girl games include the main character finding love. For example, the entire story of Cake Mania 3 revolves around making sure the main girl character gets back in time for her wedding. Carrie the Caregiver adopts a daughter from Africa and meets her future husband, Will.
Even the more unique Fix-It-Up: Kate’s Adventure, which features a muscular girl with dreadlocks repairing cars, revolves around a back-story in which she falls in love with a guy who helps her with her fix-it business. The amount of attention given to this story and its happy resolution implies her ending up with the guy at the end is just as important as the success of her business.
So are these games as harmless as they might initially appear? Or are they telling young girls that being beautiful and being liked are their most important goals, not just in the game, but in life?