By Lisa Verberne
I am only being slightly dramatic when I say that I dread the day my fifteen-year-old Nintendo DS breaks because I know a part of me will die with it. Originally a pristine white, now its colour can only generously be described as grey. Its microphone has been broken for years, there are permanent scratches on the screen and the hinges holding up the upper screen have given up ages ago, but somehow, miraculously, it still works. I got it when I was around seven years old, and it was my very first console. The NDS, together with the Nintendo Wii that my sister and I got for Christmas a few years later, played a formative role in my childhood. My dad decked out both consoles with hundreds of pirated games, so I spent hours caring for my virtual dogs in Nintendogs, followed Mario in his various platformer and 3D adventures and crashed a little-known game called Anno: Create a New World because I had racked up too much money in my treasury by taxing my wealthy citizens (the Dutch government should take notes!). I also regularly played restaurant simulators and dress-up games on cheap-looking websites that hosted free Flash games. Most of my friends, too, owned an NDS or a Wii and played games online. I fondly remember throwing birthday parties where all my friends brought their NDS consoles so that we could all compete in Mario Kart.
My point is, from the moment I got my NDS, video games have played a big role in my life. Although I played plenty of ‘boy’ games, most of my experiences with gaming involved ‘pink games’ (Cunningham 2018, 21): brightly coloured games from the late 90s and early 2000s about cutesy characters, fashion and friendship. However, these fond memories are not represented in the mainstream, masculine gaming culture which – although obsessed with retro games and aesthetics – seemingly has forgotten the games I grew up with. While Legend of Zelda and the endless Mario games are fondly remembered and archived, franchises ‘for girls’ like the Sue or Animal Crossing games are rarely if ever, discussed. Gaming culture, dominated mostly by men, has largely dismissed the importance of pink games and written them off as low quality and shallow, not played by ‘real’ gamers. Male gamers have created an implicitly gendered divide between ‘real’ games and ‘casual’ games, where pink games are, without exception, devalued as ‘merely’ casual games and boys’ games are ‘real’ (Cunningham 2018, 23; Keogh 2015). Using the media, genres and aesthetics that dominated boys’ games as the standard, girls’ games, by definition, fail to meet the standards of ‘real’ games in gaming culture. This devaluation of girls’ culture as pure trash, childish or easy cash-grabs while masculine media is seen as innovative, ‘real’ and culturally important is nothing new (Johnson 2011, 1081), but this division might be at its most extreme in the case of video games.
A photo of me and five friends, around 8 years old. Four of us are sitting in a circle on the floor, each staring intensely at our Nintendo DS consoles. In the background, another friend sits on the couch next to a pile of stuffed animals and blankets. The picture has been edited with a pink, hazy filter.
While a nostalgia-driven culture inspires many preservation efforts in the form of databases, meticulously edited wikis and emulators (software that allows the user to play old games on modern computers and consoles), these efforts are incredibly biased towards ‘real’ (read: ‘boys’) games. Most game collections are run by men who focus on archiving the games from their own childhoods. This became evident to me a few years ago when I visited a museum in Zwolle dedicated to video games and computers. Although there were endless rows of shelving units displaying consoles and games, the games I grew up with were largely absent from its collection. Adding to this problem is the fact that pink games were often not released on big consoles while most preservation technologies have only been developed for these mainstream consoles. So, while it is relatively easy to emulate games for the NES (a popular console marketed towards boys), games developed for the Casio Loopy (a little-known console ‘for girls’) are more difficult to digitise.
We are running out of time to preserve the legacy of these pink games: physical video game copies will get lost or thrown away and old technologies and consoles will eventually stop working. Now that Adobe has discontinued its support for Flash, a large swath of girls’ games on online websites has already been rendered unplayable. Still, as I discussed, most people involved in archiving games are not interested in preserving games for girls. It is time to re-evaluate their importance. One way to do this as feminists is by changing the way we discuss pink games: in this article, I argue that the feminist discussion surrounding these games has been overly critical and destructive. In its place, I propose a more nuanced and restorative attitude towards pink games that is also appreciative of their specific features and the meaning they have for their players. I will then briefly consider a few innovative features of pink games, as well as argue that they challenge the male gaze present in many boys’ games at the time. In this way, I hope that I can inspire people to reconsider the value of girls’ games.
A photo of two stuffed animals, a monkey and a wolf, among pillows and blankets. The monkey has a pink NDS on its lap as if it is playing on it. The picture has been edited with a pink, hazy filter.
a history of video games and gender
Video games were originally marketed as technology for families. In 1983, the video game market crashed, and game companies started to market their games as toys rather than as technology (Keogh 2015). Since the toy market was heavily segregated by gender, game developers made the rather arbitrary decision to focus solely on young boys as their target demographic. For a decade, video games were almost exclusively developed for and marketed towards boys. This changed in 1996, when Barbie Fashion Designer, a CD-ROM game ‘for girls’, was one the highest selling games in the US (Jenkins and Cassel 2008, 6–7). Following its unexpected success, game companies started focusing on girls as a potential audience. During this ‘Girls’ Game Movement’ (Ochsner 2015, 25), pink games were released on CD-ROMs (a relatively cheap material), on their own mini consoles (like the Tamagotchi games) or as part of analogue board games (like That’s So Raven Girl Talk, which came with an electronic talking crystal ball). Of course, girls have always played (and created) games – whether they were the intended audience or not – but it was only in the late 1990s that game developers started seeing girls as gamers. However, financially these games did not deliver like Barbie’s Fashion Designer did: a lack of retail support and marketing (pink games were never released as mainline titles) meant that these games were usually unable to turn a good profit. In the early 2000s, girls’ games were still a marginalised sector of the gaming market. Pink games were mostly made for the NDS, Wii and gaming websites (Cunningham 2018, 23), but they never received the same treatment by game developers as boy’s games did. Despite this important history of pink games and despite the recent gender shifts in player demographics – women now make up a considerable part or even majority of gamers in the US (Clement 2017) and UK (Stuart 2014) – the gendered image of gaming has not changed since the 1980s: it is still seen as a hobby for young, middle-class, white boys by game developers (Keogh 2015; Jenkins and Cassel 2008, 13).
A photo of me, around 9 years old, sitting behind a computer. I am wearing pink Winx Club pyjamas. The picture has been edited with a pink, hazy filter.
feminist discussions of video games
Although a lack of appreciation for girls’ games might be expected from hardcore male gamers, feminist scholars and game developers also have a habit of dismissing these games. In feminist scholarship on video games, most texts try to explain the lack of girls playing video games by focusing on the representation of gender in boys’ games (for example, see: Horrell and Schott 2000; Kafai 1998). Although this is an important subject as many mainstream games are incredibly sexist in their depictions of men and women, these scholars have largely neglected games that were specifically made for girls (Cunningham 2018, 26). Feminists who did discuss girls’ games mostly critiqued the way game developers stereotyped their female audience by limiting the content of girls’ games to fashion, make-up and romance (Jenkins and Cassel 2008, 17; Dickey 2006, 788–89). On the one hand, I agree with many of these criticisms. I remember the mean-spirited games where I had to make over an ‘ugly’ girl so that she could impress a boy or the countless shopping games where your only goal was to pick out new outfits. I can certainly acknowledge that these types of games perpetuated very shallow and normative ideas of gender and sexuality. On the other hand, I think it is too easy to disregard this collection of games altogether.
In her essay Against Interpretation (2018) philosopher and writer Susan Sontag argues that most critical theorists, including feminists, read media objects in ways that are destructive. Rather than valuing the way these objects offer sensory or affective experiences, cultural analysts try to interpret the hidden meaning of the text, digging behind the text to uncover what it ‘actually says’ (1724). I would argue that girls’ games have become the victim of precisely this suspicious mode of reading: in their complete focus on the harmful representations and messages behind the surface of the text, feminist scholars have been completely oblivious to the value they have for their players.
Associate professor of entertainment and media studies Shira Chess (2012) and professor of cultural industries Helen W. Kennedy (2002) both add to this criticism of a politics of representation by arguing that feminist analyses of video games should also be attentive to the specific interactive nature and functionalities of video games as a medium. Kennedy argues that feminist scholarship on games is insufficient if it only considers the visual, representational aspects of games and ignores questions of control and interactivity (11). Chess (2012) expands on these questions and explains that video games differ from more ‘static’ media like television and film because they give players a lot of agency in creating a specific experience (87). As such, games can be interpreted in vastly different ways and offer multiple possibilities for meaning-making. Consequently, a game has multiple, ambivalent relations to themes such as gender and power (96). A feminist analysis of a game should therefore acknowledge this plurality and focus on the different experiences players can have to play it. I wholeheartedly agree with her approach. Rather than completely dismissing pink games (and the value they have for the people who played them) based on the way they represent girlhood, I think it is time that we re-evaluate these games in a more nuanced way.
One way of reconsidering girls’ games is by appreciating the innovative and specific features of girls’ games, which often differed a lot from mainstream games. Rather than dismissing these games based on the standards set by games marketed to boys (as male gamers tend to do) or on narrow criticisms of their problematic representation, I want to investigate what makes girls’ games unique and different. In the next section, I briefly consider a few of these interesting game mechanics and features (although my list is far from exhaustive). After that, I will argue that pink games also contested the male gaze that dominated boys’ games from the same period. Hopefully, these discussions will inspire a new appreciation for the girls’ games that are currently at risk of being forgotten.
consoles, collaboration and creativity: innovations in girls’ games
Developers of girls’ games, maybe due to them not being part of mainstream gaming culture, were highly innovative and were at the forefront of new genres, aesthetics and technologies (Jenkins and Cassel 2008, 8). For example, because pink games were rarely picked up for big, pre-existing consoles, they often came with their own hardware. These mini consoles allowed for new and interesting features. I remember envying my neighbour who had a small furnished Polly Pocket dollhouse. An LCD screen projected a digital girl onto the house who interacted with the plastic chairs and beds. In this way, the dollhouses blended digital technologies and physical toys. The creators of girls’ games also created new genres that would later inspire mainstream games: dress-up games can be seen as a precursor for the current focus on avatar customisation in mainstream games and online games like Neopets and Movie Star Planet already implemented social features that are now part of nearly every AAA game. Moreover, pink games’ focus on realistic and people-based storylines (rather than high fantasy and science-fiction) was unique in the gaming market. Franchises like Imagine or The Sims let me play out relatable narratives based on interpersonal drama and real-world problems, a feature missing in most mainstream games where storylines often had life-or-death stakes.
Girls’ games also fostered different modes of playing than games marketed towards boys. Where boys’ games often asked players to compete, pink games promoted social behaviour and collaboration. If I connected my NDS with my sisters’ we could exchange stickers that we would use in our virtual diary in My Secret World by Imagine and the online Top Model game allowed me to share my outfits with other players. Rather than competing, we could help each other out and inspire each other. That is not to say that competition is necessarily a bad mode of play or that competition was entirely absent in girls’ games, but the playing styles they afforded tended to lean towards social skills and teamwork. Other series, like The Sims or Animal Crossing, also gave their players a creative outlet by allowing them to create their own storylines. These ‘sandbox’ games gave their players a lot of freedom and nurtured creativity and imagination.
the male gaze and pink games
Besides being incredibly creative and innovative, pink games also offered a refuge from the hypersexualised and passive female characters that dominated mainstream gaming (and visual) culture. Most video games in the 1990s and early 2000s did not differ from the classic cinema that feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey (1999, ) described in the 1970s: both mediums employ a ‘male gaze’ that fosters identification with male characters while objectifying its female characters (Mulvey 1999, 835; Dickey 2006, 787). Mulvey demonstrates that Hollywood films often had male leads who were active and drove the plot forward while female characters were made passive. Consequently, the spectator only identifies with the male characters. Boys’ games function according to a similar logic in their choice of playable characters: female characters are rarely playable, existing only to help and satisfy the playable (male) lead character and, by extension, the presumed male player. Pink games, on the other hand, offered many (playable and non-playable) female characters with active roles (Chess 2012, 92–93). The interactive nature of games automatically makes the main playable character an active agent driving the plot: a pink game simply cannot be played without making its female lead character active. Playing as the female main character, then, makes her active and consequently, fosters identification with her (Kennedy 2002, 7–8). Rather than only watching princess Peach be rescued again and again in the mainline Mario games, pink games allowed me to also play as princess Peach in Super Princess Peach.
Additionally, Mulvey (1999) argues that the rendering inactive of female characters in Hollywood films also makes it possible to objectify them (838). This is mostly done by the camera which mirrors the male lead’s gaze and transforms the female character into a series of tantalising body parts and images (837-838). Boys’ games often include similar voyeuristic cut scenes indulging in images of scarcely dressed, attractive women. These scenes invite the (male) player to identify with the male character’s gaze and take part in his objectification of the female character. In fact, games allow the player full control over the camera, making them free to look at the female characters from whichever angle they please. Contrary to classic cinema and boys’ games, pink games foreclose the objectification of the female characters by making them active agents in the game. This agency and the identification it creates makes it impossible to objectify female characters in pink games. Compared to boys’ games, then, girls’ games contested the dichotomy of acting men and appearing women (Berger et al. 1972, 47) by offering active, playable and non-sexualised female characters.
As feminists, it is important to remember and re-evaluate pink games. Although far from perfect, girl’s games had an immense impact on the gaming industry and constituted an important part of the 1990s and 2000s culture. By innovating new modes of play, developing new aesthetics and by representing active female characters that were not just sexual set dressing, girls’ games offered interesting, unique and, most importantly, fun experiences for young girls in a medium that was (and still is) largely hostile to their presence. Therefore, I think it is important that discuss this genre of games in a nuanced way that is not solely based on suspicious politics of representation. One person leading the way in this re-evaluation of girls’ culture is Rachel Weil, who creates art based on the aesthetics of girls’ games and runs the Femicom museum, an online museum dedicated to preserving girls’ toys and technologies. I think we can all learn from her work in appreciating and archiving cultural objects associated with girls and femininity.
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