Revenge of the Feminerd: What PC Games Teach Girls

Jarrah E Hodge
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The Evil Older Woman in Pet Show Craze


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?


The Supermodel in Pet Show Craze, shown talking to a boy character and collecting hearts above her head on the screen


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?

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14 Comments Have Been Posted

Do you know of any "boys’"

<i>Do you know of any "boys’" games that encourage the player to spend time collecting hearts to make people like him?</i>

Actually, yes. But the ones I've seen have been in those mindless anime style "date" games where the whole purpose is to get varying women to find your come-ons appealing so you can win the game by sleeping with her.

Not to mention a lot of

Not to mention a lot of console games where characters must gain "karma" or "fame" points with various populations, thereby increasing their popularity in the game's world. I think the issue isn't the fact that getting people to like you or think well of you is present, but how it's handled in the game. If you get people to like you by saving them from an invading horde of zombies or diffusing a civil war, that's one thing. Seating men next to a supermodel to get the men to like you is quite another.

Good point

Good points, Owl & mero - the way boys' games deal with those types of achievements is fundamentally different than games targeted to girls. It might not be better - both reinforce gender roles.

Fable comes to mind here.

<em>Fable</em> comes to mind here. There is so much content behind getting people to like you/dislike you. Even in the third iteration, you have to make so many people "love" you in order to level up certain weapons (there is even one weapon you have to use to kill a certain number of your spouses).

Then again, there are so many things wrong with the Fable series morality system... *facepalms* I could go on at length... (Oh, I have already!)

I like your series, Jarrah!

Be that as it may, I'd be

Be that as it may, I'd be hard pressed to believe that a young kid (male or female) would really take that well to games that don't showcase stereotypical behaviors of their gender. I'm not saying it's a good thing to try to reinforce these things, but I don't think that there are as many girls who would play boys games as there are girls that play these types of girl games.

I disagree. I think girls

I disagree. I think girls might gravitate towards "girl" games because they feature girls as characters, not because the characters are acting stereotypically "female." Many (though not all) girls like and relate female characters, and it's unfortunate that they often have to settle for extremely limited ones. If a game showed girls fighting zombies (I like to use zombies as examples, apparently) or flying spaceships, I think girls would be attracted to them because of the characters rather than the settings or actions. Anyway, gender and stereotypical gender behavior is taught, not instinctual. The idea that boys "don't" bake cakes and girls "don't" shoot laser guns is usually based on what the child learns from their environment, rather that something innate. The problem of segregating play into "boys" and "girls" categories is a problem in itself, and supports the idea that boys/men and girls/women don't have anything in common. I find it especially problematic when dealing with children, as it sets them up for a lifetime of retrogressive gender ideas. Can we just have "kids" games, please?

Stereotypes

I agree with Owl. Lots of girls love Dora the Explorer even though her activities aren't stereotypically girly. When I was little my favourite early computer games were Oregon Trail, Jeopardy, Kings Quest II, Operation Neptune (submarine exploration interspersed with math problems) and Caesar II (about building cities in ancient Rome). Of course kids are raised differently and some girls will want the more stereotypically girly games, but there's no excuse to have very little else available.

Disagree....

I completely disagree. While I didn't play games as a child, I read a lot. My favorite books were not books about girls behaving in stereotypically girly ways; they were about girls (and boys) fighting and going on adventures. I adored Dealing with Dragons, which features a princess fighting knights and running away to avoid getting married. I loved the Golden Compass. I liked the Tripod trilogy. LOTR and the Chronicles of Narnia were favorites as well. Harry Potter was awesome too. None of those stories feature (stereotypically) 'girly' girls doing (stereotypically) 'girly' things. I liked it if female characters were active, smart and made a difference. If they could kick @$$, so much the better. I liked books about boys who did those things too, but I really wanted and adored books about girls doing them. And the books featuring girls were harder to find, so I treasured them more. If I'd been a gamer, I would have played shoot-em-ups, not pet shop whatever. I don't think I'm atypical except for the fact that my parents were pretty cool about the whole not-wanting-to-be-stereotypically-girly thing and encouraged me to read whatever I wanted.

I, too, agree with Owl - it

I, too, agree with Owl - it seems that maybe the reason girls might be thought of as "more likely" to gravitate towards games featuring female characters enacting gender roles is because our society effectively trains girls to believe that this is what they *should* gravitate towards. It's sort of like a "chicken and egg" thing, except the social compulsion toward traditional gender conformity is both chicken AND egg.

Playfirst games

I played a lot of those time management things in college thanks to a gift of Diner Dash from a friend. I am curious about your characterizing these as teen games though. It's not that I don't think these games are played by teenage girls but I always felt they were marketed towards adult women. The large amount of independent professional women starting/improving service industry businesses and maybe finding love? That seems more like the Lifetime crowd.
At least that is the vibe I always picked up. Do you have any actual demographics or do you just get a different feel? If it's the latter can I ask why?

Great question

That's an awesome question, scrumby. I was mostly going on a different feel, given the games' accessibility to a younger audience in terms of gameplay and theme, and anecdotal evidence of having my friend's little sister and her friends be super into the various Cake Manias and Sally's Salon/Studio (they're all about 14-15). I started playing Diner Dash when I was 17 but this was really the advent of these type of games and I know they would've appealed to me at a younger age.

Anyway, here's what I found when I did some more research:

-According to Diner Dash franchising promotional material - DD is played by 80% women and 40% are between the ages of 25-34. 22% are between 19-24. There was no data available for younger groups, but it's obviously a smaller amount.
-People who play these games are often referred to as "casual gamers" - Wikipedia estimates 74% of all casual gamers are women, although the group of games they include is much wider than the time management games you and I played.
-The blog Game On says both "soccer moms" and girls play these games, but for different reasons. They propose that older women play these games because they have disposable income and short amounts of free time, whereas girls play because they like soft theme MMOs, high levels of personalization, and investment in the character's identity. They didn't have any numbers on this but indicated they felt the number of older women started higher but was dropping off in comparison to girls.
- Most of the social games are rated as being appropriate for very young ages, so no content particularly defines them as "adult" except the characters are young adults acting out careers. The age rating for Cake Mania is 6+, Sally's Salon is 4+, and Pet Show Craze is 3+. There are some more complicated games like the JoJo's Fashion Show series that would be a lot more difficult for kids to play.

So you raise a really good point and while it's difficult to get exact numbers, it's clear a lot of women play these games, maybe even more than girls. What's hard to figure out is who these games were targeted to in the first place. The sense I had was that it was tween girls, especially because these games seem pretty equivalent to me to the console games discussed by Tracey Johns in the Wired article.

Regardless of who the target audience is, though, the messages remain the same. Older women might be less suceptible to them, but they're still probably not good for anyone.

Thanks again for pointing this out and I'd definitely be interested to hear if you thought the games were less problematic or if there were particular ones you thought were better than others. I definitely thought Fix-it-Up: Kate's Adventure was a huge step up from Carrie the Caregiver but didn't come across many I'd say were really positive.

If you're interested in more on this, here's another good <a href="http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/casual-games-embrace-girl... article from the Globe and Mail</a> from 2008, where they interview some of the games' developers.

head, meet desk.

I think for an article trying to be as short and precise as the wired.com one was, it showed a very specific subsection of videogame 'culture' for girls. I wasn't at all surprised to see these games still around, and the first thing I thought of was when i got my first gameboy (late 80s? Early 90s? it was forever ago) and one of the cartridges was 'Barbie's Mall Shopping' or 'Barbie's shopping something-something.' I also remember being visibly upset because I wasn't terribly interested in knowing how to shop -- I was hoping for donkey kong or tetris at the time.

Anyhow, I was hoping to get down to the comments and see some real discussions working up at the article link but it looks like the fist 10~15 or however comments are either spam-bots or people acting like "haha, the girls are angry! Girls and their silly hormones and desires to be seen as human!" Then, there is the 'Tudirad' poster who basically hijacks the point of the post and says "the real problem with the girl gaming market is coming up with a reliable cross section for age based niches in which to <i>continue to develop these titles.</i>" Um, <i>no.</i> Do not pass go. The point is not that "this whole genre is so hard to develop because we know so little about what them' pesky women-folk want!" Women aren't some 'lower', subsection of gamers that desire sparkles and unicorn cupcakes to stay logged into a game for longer than 15 minutes at a time. Many female gamers are looking to be included into the boys club of <I>games that already exist</i>, not being thrown a glitter covered carrot that steers us off into the direction of 'everyone's favorite little housewife/model/make-up artist.'

I still live in hope that a lot of the inherent sexism in gaming will either slowly die away or move on to some dank, dark corner of the nerd kingdom. But looking at the reactions on the original post -- not even the post itself, which I found very interesting -- makes me want to chuck all of my systems out of my porch.

Glitter covered carrot

I love your line about women gamers not looking for a "glitter covered carrot" and actually wanting to be let into the boy's club of games, or alternately change gaming culture to just make it more gender-neutral or less crazy stereotypical.

I didn't look at a lot of the comments on Johns' article but it does sound a little depressing.

I was wondering if anyone has

I was wondering if anyone has heard of Silicon Sisters Interactive and their first game School 26 (http://www.school26.ca/). Silicon Sisters was founded with the goal of developing games that appeal to girls. Well, I find myself questioning things like this, i.e. making games "for girls" or something like gendered human computing interaction. I guess it's because games designed "for girls" won't appeal to all girls.

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