After making sure I'd left my gaming merchandise at home, I set out for a little undercover work at the local mall. At Target - where girl games, glowing and cheerful next to the brooding colors of titles like Quake and Doom, take up half of the entire PC gaming section - I was the cousin of a 13-year-old girl who needed a holiday present. What could the sales associate recommend? He led me over to the oasis of pink and pointed out a Bratz game, ages six-plus. Bratz, with those giant eyes drowning in mascara, with noses the size of chocolate chips. I asked about the other computer games, careful not to say anything too technical and blow my cover. "No, those are mostly for boys. In fact," he admitted with a self-conscious laugh, "you'd be surprised. We actually get full-grown men in here buying these things."
At FYE, I was the aunt of an eight-year-old girl. She had a Gameboy, but I didn't know what she liked. Again, I was directed toward the kids' games. Hello Kitty: Bubblegum Girlfriends, a very well-meaning salesperson assured me, would be best. When pushed, he did say a Donkey Kong or Mario Brothers title might be alright, if my niece was something of a tomboy. By the time I reached Electronics Boutique, I was wondering what would happen if I was shopping for an eight-year-old boy. Would I still get escorted to the children's section? No, instead I was told about the latest big hits, like From Russia with Love. This time I tried pushing for something more girly. What about that pink game over there? What was wrong with that one? Eventually, the sales associate and I settled on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But there was a moment when he thought I was actually going to buy my nephew Lizzie McGuire III: Homecoming Havoc. He was horrified.
None of which is to say that the pressure to play girl games comes exclusively from retailers. It's not a sell-more-games conspiracy, it's an attempt to give girls something they'll like; something that will be "fun." And if the idea of what's fun for girls is sexist, that's an issue of our culture at large, not just the video game community. Girls are taught to like girly things. Parents are taught to buy girly products for their daughters. The legacy continues.
"For me," says Kelley, "that's why games that play to really exaggerated gender stereotypes are especially dangerous. They have a superficial attraction, but they are teaching girls how to be female. They're normative."
Of course, plenty of girls really seem to enjoy these games, even some ones you wouldn't expect. In high school, I knew a girl who ran home after school to prep Barbie for her PC modeling debut. She and her sister, only a few years younger, would fight over the computer, over who got to decide which purse best matched Barbie's strapless dress. Granted, her friends found her pastime a little weird, but I can't believe she was alone. Another friend, now in her early twenties, recently purchased a My Little Pony game. She loves it. She sits at her computer and giggles.
It's hard to imagine someone like that being welcome in the world of "serious" gamers. We disapprove of their choices of games, so we shut them out.