Unsurprisingly, the priorities of these different groups do not always coincide. Children's desire to communicate online can often conflict with parents' safety concerns. Mattel's goal of using the virtual world to promote the Barbie brand is sometimes threatened by the more subversive aspects of children's play. Decisions are ultimately based on some sort of compromise, but in many cases they reveal a surprisingly narrow and always corporate-friendly vision of girlhood.
A key example can be found in the evolution of BarbieGirls' in-game chat system. As with any virtual world, interacting with other players is a big part of BarbieGirls. Players gather together at the "B Café" to roleplay and discuss various topics of interest. They host parties, compare outfits and share home decorating tips. They send each other messages and gifts via the in-game texting system. Each of these activities necessarily involves chat. In BarbieGirls, where most of the mini-games and activities are single-player only, interaction is mostly relegated to open text-based conversations.
Anytime you have a group of children and younger teens communicating in an online venue, there are unfortunately both serious risks and extra legal considerations. For nearly a year, Mattel tried out different strategies aimed at managing these risks, while addressing parents' concerns about child safety and privacy ... while also responding to the players' desire to express themselves. These ranged from removing the chat function altogether, to limiting chat to pre-approved words (also called "dictionary chat"), to introducing tiered chat systems. Many failed to completely prevent players from revealing personal information. Others were overly restrictive, making it difficult to communicate at all.
In its current form, BarbieGirls contains a two-tiered chat system: "B Chat", which is limited to pre-approved sentences, and "Super B Chat," a form of dictionary chat. Mattel promotes the system as a safety feature; parents are able to choose which option their child will have access to. But terms such as "safety" are notoriously vague and problematic. In this case, what's missing is any nuanced discussion of how the pre-approved words and sentences become approved in the first place: How are they selected, who selects them, and on what basis? Perhaps most importantly, what's being excluded in the process?
The only clues that BarbieGirls gives players about what they can and cannot say appear in the game's rules. These include the warning that "anything naughty or unkind will be blocked" and that players must always be "super nice." Apparently, this means not expressing anything negative, as the system excludes terms like "don't," "dislike" and "do not like." While some pre-emptive censorship is likely aimed at reducing cyberbullying (no "stupid" or "ugly") and age-inappropriate topics (i.e. sex, drugs and violence), other bans are completely arbitrary (no animal names or use of the word "pants"). They are also conveniently corporate friendly: Brand names and media characters are generally excluded, unless, of course, the brand happens to belong to Mattel.
The Revolution Will Be Dressed in Black
Girls have traditionally had much less freedom in their play than boys - their play spaces are generally more restricted, their activities more heavily regulated and their behaviors more closely monitored. So far, this has been a somewhat unexplored dimension of the "girls' games" phenomenon. We know that they depict a pretty stereotypical vision of girlhood - with their all-pink palettes, themes of nurturing and emphasis on domesticity - but we haven't stopped to ask how this traditional approach to girls' play might actually translate into design choices that drastically limit their experiences.