Then again, girls' refusal to "play nice" has an equally long history. Victorian girls used the trays from their tea parties to toboggan down stairways; they tortured their dolls and held elaborate mock-funerals for them. Some of the most widely cited examples of subversive girls' play feature Barbie herself, who over the years has been subjected to endless acts of violence, creative body modification and transgressive roleplay. Within gaming culture, there are innumerable examples of girls' rebelliousness, from all-girl Quake clans to the 20 percent of middle school girls who play Grand Theft Auto "a lot." The fact of the matter is: Girls don't always play by the rules.
SparkleSwan98: "Are you a guy?"
Me: "No, are you?"
Cutiepatootee: "Are you a guy?"
Me: "No. Why is everyone asking that?"
Cutiepatootee: "Guys dress all in black."
In BarbieGirls, players employ creative workarounds to bypass the game's various restrictions. They use intentional misspellings and put consecutive words in separate message bubbles to get around the chat filters. They also develop secret codes that use existing elements to communicate something else entirely. For instance, as there is no option to play as a male avatar, it was somehow decided that if an avatar was dressed all in black it meant that its player was really a guy. A lot of the fun in BarbieGirls comes from discovering workarounds and creating shared codes - from subverting the system from within.
Of course, breaking the rules isn't always wholesome and innocent. Once it was established that there were guys around, it didn't take long for players to start going on "dates." And these practices aren't always safe or in the players' best interests, which supports the need for ongoing and diligent attention to children's online interactions - on behalf of their parents, primarily, but also the designers and moderation team - rather than partial design-based solutions that block first and ask questions later.
It's important to remember, however, that the workarounds and codes also represent a secret, and very meaningful, parallel universe that the players themselves have created out of a world that was not meeting their needs. And this is something that Mattel and other creators of children's virtual worlds really ought to take note of. It's inevitable that girls will say and do things in their play and online that many adults won't agree with. It won't all be "super nice," and it won't always correspond with a particular brand identity. That's just the way play is.
If the rules are too restrictive, some girls will try to find ways to rebel and to make it their own. But wouldn't all girls' interests be better met if they didn't always have to fight so hard for play opportunities? Or if conceptions of girls' play were flexible enough to allow for different kinds of play (subversive, rebellious, creative quiet, etc.) while also providing parameters specifically aimed at reducing risk? This might be too much to ask of Barbie - after all, she has never been much for breaking down gender barriers. But then again, if Mattel truly intends to make BarbieGirls an "unparalleled online play experience" for girls, it just might be the best place to start. Either way, I think it's about time we begin demanding a little more from the BarbieGirls of the gaming world.
Sara M. Grimes is a doctoral student in communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. She is also the author of Gamine Expedition, a blog about children's culture and technology.