As video games have risen dramatically in popularity over the past few decades, so has criticism of the messages they're sending kids. But for the most part, that concern has been directed at the violence in games marketed to boys. Today, though, half of girls ages 8 to 12 play games online, according to a recent study — which means it's about time time we start looking at the games for girls and the lessons they teach. And they're not good: The most popular games among those tween girls surveyed centered on themes like cooking, shopping, makeup, and boys — and portray a world of limited, dead-end choices.
To see what these games are really like, I spent a few days playing some on my iPhone and on the computer. Clearly, I'm not the target demographic for these games — I'm more than 10 years older than the intended audience and I'm not a big-time gamer. But what I found was even worse than I expected: not only are the games pretty poorly designed and uncreative in their storylines, they also teach misguided values. Many of the games taught that romantic partners should be rich and buy you things; that shopping for pricey clothes is the way to get ahead; and that stereotypically female jobs and activities, like working at a fashion magazine or baking, are the only options for girls. This isn't the way to go about raising the next generation of strong, empowered women.
For years parents and the media have made noise about violent games targeted at boys in the same age group, but far fewer adults seem to know — or care — about the games that young girls play now.
I started out with GirlsGoGames's most popular shopping game, Shopaholic — which the company says has been played 163 million times on a variety of platforms, including the iPhone. (GirlsGoGames is one of the biggest producers of free online games for girls; it's owned by Spil Games, which also creates games for families and teens, and which commissioned the study about girls and gaming.) The premise of the game is to walk around "Paris," "New York," and "Hawaii," and buy items that the game specifies. For example, when a pink sparkly top pops up on the screen, the game prompts you to buy it and take a "photo" of you character wearing it, for which you'll be rewarded $15. As another means of acquiring money, you can also get a "job" — like working at an ice cream shop for two hours — but the labor requires nothing more than waiting two hours for your "shift" to end. It is hard though, to be motivated to "work," since your virtual "credit card" is automatically replenished with $500 each day, simply for existing. Can we get this feature added to the real world?
While I completed my ice cream shop labor, there was time to switch over to another game — Beauty Resort, also made by Spil Games. In Beauty Resort — surprise — you own a beauty salon. This salon inexplicably happens to be on Easter Island, but there is little time to consider why you are opening a salon on a remote Polynesian island, as you must quickly begin washing people's feet and moving them into a hot tub over and over again, and then remembering to press the cleaning button to clean the chairs. Maybe if you wash enough feet you get to move to other obscure islands?
While Spil's iPhone games are popular, a lot of their business takes place on GirlsGoGames.com, where I navigated next. The number one game under the "Popular" tab was Prom Preparation Makeover, in which players give a friend who is a "diamond in the rough" (meaning she has bad skin and messy hair) a makeover for prom. After applying different creams and scrubs to her face, she miraculously looks like a perfect doll. It takes about four minutes. It's also worth noting that the unsightly character is your "friend," and not "you."
There are less strereotypically "girly" games on GirlsGoGames.com, like one called Papa's Taco Mia, where you get to own a taco shop. Tasks involve cooking meat and putting the ingredients — cheese, onions, etc. — customers want into a taco. By and large, it is pretty much the same thing as the prom makeover game, except with ground beef instead of exfoliating scrub. In theory, owning a taco shop might teach some semblance of entrepreneurship, but in order to do that, players would need to make some decisions, which aren't a part of the game.
Spil is aware of the limits of their offerings, but at the same time, they've seen the success of these stereotypical games. "The girls gaming market is still so new and there is much to still discover and learn when it comes to designing games for them. We know that cooking, dress up, tests & quizzes, caring for animals games are very popular with this audience," writes Scott Johnston, Spil's Head Of Global PR in email. "But, going forward we want to build on these solid foundations and make game experiences richer and more aspirational. For sure, the future will still feature the games they’ve loved playing up to this point, but we want to explore new themes and features, and game mechanisms."
The companies that produce the other games I played — Gameloft and Crowdstar — didn't respond to requests for comment.
Back on the iPhone, topping the charts in the "role playing" section of the iTunes store's game offerings was "Modern Girl" and "Fashion Icon." The graphics in these games were actually pretty okay, and the storylines plausible and somewhat glamorous. But their underlying messages were a big problem.
In Modern Girl, your character has just arrived in Manhattan — the fake neighborhood of "Tribeca Heights," to be exact. The goals are to dress cool, get a hot boyfriend, and to work your way up the ranks of a magazine.
At the magazine, you complete tasks such as "Review" or "Index" by repeatedly pressing a button. Not even any run-around-town-with-a-million-bags kind of errands like you'd see in The Devil Wears Prada, just button-pressing. (I'd like to believe that's some sort of meta-commentary about entry-level jobs, but I think that'd be giving this game too much credit.) At the nightclub, you peruse potential boyfriends. The options are a club promoter and a DJ. The gifts each man could offer (like earrings or a purse) are displayed before you start flirting, so you can properly evaluate him.
There you go, young girls: come to New York and press buttons at a magazine for questionable pay, and find a club promoter boyfriend.
Easy as button-pressing and boyfriend-choosing sound, these things take "energy" — and the energy levels allotted to me by the game ran out after the completion of one task. In Modern Girl, as well as in all the other games I played, energy to complete tasks and money to buy things are allotted by the game, but they often run out so quickly that it leaves the player frustrated and hopeless. This problem is solved by using real money (through iTunes) to purchase fake money, with which you can buy fake energy. I didn't spend any real money buying fake money, but lots of kids do: there have been numerous reports of kids racking up hundreds or even thousands of dollars of in-app purchase charges and their angry parents being forced to settle the bill.
Parents may also be less than pleased by some of the notifications the games send out, which felt more like sexts than they did messages from a game meant for third graders. After I shut down the game, Modern Girl pinged me numerous times with messages from my "boyfriend" Joshua. He wanted me to know that "girls don't get any hotter" and that my lips looked like they were "missing a kiss."
Fashion Icon is a variation on this theme — you're an American fashion blogger in Paris. Once in a while, you get to choose one of three stock blog posts to post to your site — the game doesn't ask you to write anything yourself. But most of the time you just roam the streets of various Parisian neighborhoods, go to parties, and try to get boyfriends, who have jobs like "clay sculptor" and "fashion designer," and, when clicked, display a numeric level of "manliness." I met some 8's, and even an 11 at a party. At parties, the main goal aside from flirting with manly men is to have face-offs with other women, by striking poses. The game somehow arbitrarily decides whose poses were hotter, and the winner is rewarded with points to advance in the game. You're rewarded for figuring out how to fight with other girls over guys.
I fell asleep playing Fashion Icon — my eyes eventually shut, with the lights still on, just shy of midnight. I woke up some hours later, to my phone buzzing incessantly with more notifications. Romain had sent me a gift. Was he the plastic surgeon? Or the swimsuit model? I couldn't remember anymore.
On one hand, we probably shouldn't expect much more than this when the media diet of so many young girls includes the Kardashians and Housewives and the Bratz movie and other reality TV shows that really do preach the importance of rich boyfriends who buy you stuff. But at the same time, there are shows and books and media out there — The Wizards of Waverly Place, iCarly, Harry Potter — that teach more positive messages. There is hope.
I thought back to computer games I played around that age — from say, third through sixth grade — and I do recall the appeal of dressing up characters. On occasion, I'd play my brother's Tony Hawk skateboarding game on Nintendo 64, because you could dress up the girl skateboarders. The outfits were cool — there were colorful pants, printed hoodies, and so on — all of them customizable. Later on, I discovered some other online games that allowed you to give makeovers and dress people up and maybe there might have even been one where you went to New York and had some kind of job. You didn't have to pay real money for extra outfits (but at the same time, those games cost money to buy — and these were free. And you certainly didn't get constant reminders and notifications in the middle of the night about Romain, who might not buy you a nice gift if you aren't doting enough.