They prefer pink to camo. They prefer ponies to guns. The videogame community does its best to ignore them, but still, they continue to thrive. No, they're not girl gamers. They're girl games. You know the type, all princesses and sparkles. These are the titles that encourage us: Why go out and save the day, when you could just go out to the mall and save?
As much was we might like to believe otherwise, girl games are here to stay. They've become a staple of the games business, though you'll rarely hear about them on mainstream gaming sites. Walk into any videogame retailer, and you're bound to run across them - sometimes interspersed with other titles, sometimes dominating entire shelving units on their own. In the handheld and PC gaming worlds especially, their numbers are significant. Mattel's Barbie franchise alone has come out with at least 27 related titles, from Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus to Barbie Secret Agent to Barbie Super Model. And Barbie is hardly lonely; she has dozens of other licensed titles to keep her company, like Cinderella, Mary Kate and Ashley, and That's So Raven.
Of course, girl games stir up all the obvious contentions. As many critics have noted, they often reinforce gender stereotypes and present restrictive views of gender differences. Beyond that, though, girl games have something of a reputation for questionable craftsmanship. Perhaps we confuse "bad" for "simple," but some of these games just can't measure up. The majority of girl games are based on licensed creative property, and rarely seem to contain thoughtful or original content. Technological innovation is seen as less important in girl games - a fact that further alienates them from the hardcore gaming community. And though they cost the same as mainstream titles, girl games tend to offer relatively brief gameplay experiences, leaving some customers wondering whether 30 dollars is worth a game you can complete in little over an hour.
Developer Heather Kelley, once the Director of Online Development for Girl Games, Inc. and now a developer at Ubisoft, says the "shoddy" girl game reputation is well-deserved. "Games for girls could be so much better than our short-sighted business climate allows them to be. Nine times out of ten, a game that is labeled 'for girls' gets a minuscule budget, infinitesimal schedule, dumbed-down technology, and a host of extreme gender stereotypes to deal with." Girl games face other problems, as well. Says Kelley, "It's also harder hiring an emotionally-invested team, because, lets [sic] be honest here, most adult men want to make games for themselves, not for their nieces or daughters, and the games industry is 90% male." And, at the same time, licensing "definitely does limit what game designers can do in terms of content."
Many publishers consider developing games specifically for girls a high investment risk. So, if this many girl games are making it onto the shelves, there must be an equivalent consumer base of people who are buying them. But who are they? The easy answer is young girls looking for a fun time - more specifically, their parents. Yet, as a gaming community and a society, we have to ask ourselves: Do young girls pick these games because this is what they want - shallow plots, repetitive gameplay - or because it's the only option we've left open for them?