Game|Life's talented Tracey John recently took a look at the life lessons to be learned from "tween" girl games, and though her article was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, many used it as a springboard to hurl invective at the idea of games directed at a female audience. Forums lit up with declarations that "I'm a girl and I play [fill in name of bloody/violent/testosterone-filled game here]!!" and there was much wailing and crying about shoehorning girls into stereotypes.
Seriously, people, calm the hell down.
For starters, what's the real danger, here? Are we really saying that playing Chinatown Wars won't inspire a girl to pursue a career in drug trafficking but somehow playing Top Model will forever doom her to a life of low self-esteem and bulimia? Sorry, folks, but you don't get to have it both ways; either videogames directly influence your behavior and choices, or they don't. Unless you want to start saying that yeah, maybe playing first person shooters really does help turn kids into killers, you don't get to voice concern about the negative impact that Princess in Love might have on your niece.
Ah, what's that I hear? That these games "perpetuate negative stereotypes"? Which stereotypes would these be, exactly? The ones that young girls like cute boys, looking at clothes, and gossiping about each other? Granted, it's been a few years since I was the target demographic for these games, but when I was a wee lass, I engaged in all of those activities so much that I practically had Master's Degrees in them. I somewhat doubt all that much has changed.
The simple truth is that young girls like stupid things. They like shopping and makeup and boys and ponies and glitter and The Jonas Brothers and a whole legion of other things that will make you feel like your brain is dissolving if you think about them for too long. And please, this is not your cue to protest about how you were never like that, you liked bugs and science and all the things that small girls typically don't because you're not about to be forced into some label, dammit! Get over it. If you grew up preferring dirtbikes to Barbies, that's grand, but if you didn't - if you fretted over the best color nail polish and prowled the local clothing stores like a lion on the savannah - well, that's ok, too.
There seems to be some kind of prevailing idea that being a silly little girl is somehow intrinsically wrong and that games that treat females as such are committing some kind of social evil. This is, simply put, bullshit. Though we may prefer for our young ladies to be serious-minded intellectuals or at the very least scorching nerds, not all of them are. As ridiculous as we may find them, these games accurately represent the interests of a segment of the population. The problem isn't that we're telling girls they can go shopping, find boyfriends, or design jewelry - the problem is we're not telling them much of anything else.
It would be wonderful to see Science Mama alongside Cooking Mama in the store, but we apparently have to leave that sort of thing to Papa. Great message being sent there, gang. Boys get to be wizards, detectives, and heroes. Girls get to be princesses.
I'm not going to be so daring as to ask for more female protagonists, more Samuses and Laras and Jades. I mean, there's no reason why Gordon Freeman had to be a guy, after all, he could've just as easily been Brenda Freeman, but that's a debate for a different day. And honestly, that would just trade the current inadequate system for a new and differently inadequate one. An overabundance of games with female leads is no better than our current situation, in which everyone saving the world has a five o'clock shadow. Well, the humans, anyway. For now, I'd settle for more games in which the main character's gender is left up to the player's personal preference. What could be more fair? Why does Sora have to be a boy? Why can't the Elite Beat Agents be girls? I don't want to hear about how that mucks around with the storyline, either, because Mass Effect and Fable 2 both pulled it off just fine.
Let's stop blaming so-called "girl" games for what isn't their fault - the fact that videogames continue to fail at painting a variety of pictures when it comes to female characters. Girls can be many things - warriors, mothers, soldiers, scientists, and yes, fashion designers - but you'd never know that by looking at the videogame landscape. Let's deal with that before focusing too much of our attention on the possible long term-effects of playing Style Savvy.
Susan Arendt grew up playing with Barbies and paper dolls, but grew up to be a perfectly happy nerd, anyway. She does, admittedly, still watch way too much Project Runway.