This feature is part of our special series on History and Games.
In 1996, a game was released that would change the course of gaming history. You might think this game was Super Mario 64, Diablo, Pokémon, or even Resident Evil. But the most important game of 1996 for anyone interested in women and gaming was Barbie Fashion Designer, which outsold industry titans Quake and Doom,1 and in doing so, proved to industry professionals that girls liked to play games. There were games for girls before Barbie Fashion Designer – Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins point to developer Sanctuary Woods’ 1994 release Hawaii High: the Mystery of the Tiki as being the first girls’ game in existence2 – but Barbie was the first to prove truly successful. I would like to make the specification at this point that I am only discussing games that were designed explicitly for girls, or games that were popular with a female audience. There have been “game grrlz”3 since there have been video games. Girls and women are not a monolith, and for every girl who was drawn to Secret Paths in the Forest, there was a girl drawn to Quake.
The initial girls’ games movement of the 1990s was a great time to be a girl (full disclosure: I am just about the perfect age to have enjoyed this magic moment in history). Due to the success of Barbie Fashion Designer, small independent companies like HerInteractive and Purple Moon were allowed to thrive, releasing original games designed specifically with girls in mind. Unfortunately, Barbie cast a large pink shadow; larger game publishers were only interested in cheap Barbie clones.4 As a result, the girls’ games market became saturated with terrible licensed titles, a trend that continues today. A Google search for “games for girls” turns up games about playing dress-up, putting on makeup, or the general category “beauty” – still, 20 years later, falling into the Barbie assembly line.
Purple Moon closed its doors in 1999. Although its games were well researched and playtested, they couldn’t meet the sales numbers needed to keep the company in business. Publishers feared that kind of failure and didn’t want to take risks on games for girls that didn’t fit the mold, nor did they want to spend much money on the “pink” market.5 Industry professionals were only willing to spend small amounts of money on low-budget licensed titles, which the audience didn’t like – licensed games, meaning games based on existing intellectual properties like Barbie, Disney Princesses, or films, don’t often play well. The critical failure and derision of Superman: The New Adventures for the Nintendo 64 (colloquially titled Superman 64) is a perfect example. A good licensed property is not enough to make a good game, especially when the copyright owners are making most of their money from the original content.
Sheri Graner Ray, author and former HerInteractive employee, calls the period after Purple Moon “pink poison.”6 The dearth of true original, quality content explicitly for girls caused games like Nintendogs, Neopets, Animal Crossing, and The Sims to grow popular. These titles weren’t explicitly designed “for girls,” but they fit the bill of the types of games girls preferred per Brenda Laurel’s research: games containing “materials for narrative construction,”7 with interesting characters and interesting relationships, and room to explore a world.8 Although games like these got girls playing, their popularity with girls and their difference to other titles of the time, like Pokémon or Mario games, caused them to be unpopular with boys, and heavily criticized. Boys, who generally prefer more aggressive play,9 didn’t understand the appeal of a game like Animal Crossing, in which the player makes friends with animals in their village, picks fruit, and catches insects. Animal Crossing can be played for as little as 15 minutes, since much of its play involves checking in and keeping up with the neighbors. In an era when games like Final Fantasy VII, a game that takes 40 hours or more to finish, were widely popular, a game that encourages such short stints seems ridiculous; how could anyone be properly entertained in such a short time?
The Nintendo Wii, released in 2006, became a haven for girls’ games. The Wii’s marketing and launch titles, like Wii Sports and Happy Feet, were designed with family play in mind. This brought girls back into the gaming mix, if only on this one platform. However, as is common in the history of video gaming for girls, the Wii also became a locus for poor quality licensed titles. Disney Princess, Barbie, Monster High and Nickelodeon properties (iCarly, Hannah Montana) dominate any store’s Wii section. The Wii, although adventurous for its time with its motion controls, was not accepted as a serious console due to its lack of larger mainstream titles and inability to compete with its brethren, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. In terms of graphics, the Wii boasts 480p resolution, whereas the Xbox 360 and the PS3 features 1080p resolution, and in terms of developer support the Wii gets left behind as well. Although Call of Duty: Black Ops was released for all 3 systems, it sold 1.37 million units on the Wii, compared to 12.62 million on the PlayStation 3 and 14.59 million on the Xbox 360.
2006 brought women and girls Cooking Mama, an original title for the Nintendo DS. Like Animal Crossing or Nintendogs (also for the DS), Cooking Mama was not developed specifically with girls in mind, but it was extremely popular with them. Handheld systems (video game systems like the Gameboy, DS, or PlayStation Portable) are another section of the game industry where games for girls were allowed to thrive. The Gameboy Advance features games from properties like Barbie, Disney Princess, Kim Possible, Hamtaro and the Powerpuff Girls. This trend continues with the latest Nintendo handheld, the 3DS, and with smartphone gaming. The Imagine series of games, featuring titles like Imagine: Babysitters and Imagine: Salon Stylist, are incredibly popular and are developed for systems like the DS, 3DS, and Wii – gaming’s pink hubs.
In 2009, the Facebook game Farmville was released, ushering in an era of games that could be played on Facebook or on a smartphone. The tremendous success of Farmville led to dozens of games in a similar vein – business simulation games and city simulation games, with titles like Bakery Story or Tiny Village and cute graphics. It is difficult to mention smartphone games without mentioning Candy Crush, reigning King (pun intended – Candy Crush was developed by King.com) of match-three games. Like Animal Crossing, most smartphone or Facebook games can be played in short intervals, in between other responsibilities or during some sort of downtime – a bus ride to school, for instance.
The criticism of games women enjoy by “real gamers” continues to this day – the derision thrown at Gone Home (2013) for being a “walking simulator” or the classification of Life is Strange (2015) as a “teen girl selfie simulator” are clear examples of this phenomenon. Labeling the entire genre of smartphone and Facebook games “casual” creates a condescending distinction between “proper” games and “improper” games – games that men play, and games that women and girls play. This division stretches so far as to cause women and girls, who may be incredibly proficient at Candy Crush (2012) or Kim Kardashian: Hollywood (2014), to choose not to consider themselves players of video games, since these types of mobile games are not counted. I spoke in a college class in 2014 and asked the students (mostly women) who in the room played video games. Two or three raised their hands. I responded with “Who’s played Candy Crush or something like it?” and almost every hand in the room went up. The localization of girls’ games to consoles like the App Store, DS or Wii further solidifies this barrier – “real” gamers own PlayStations or Xboxes, “casual” gamers own Wiis and DS systems.
The classification of Gone Home as a “walking simulator,” a derisive reaction to its mechanics, is inherently sexist. A year after the release of Gone Home, a playable trailer for a new Silent Hill game, titled PT was released on the PlayStation store. PT and Gone Home have similar mechanics: in each game, the player explores a house to discover clues about its inhabitants. The player can unlock new content by deciphering clues and performing actions in specific orders. There are no true puzzles in either game, so they are simpler than a game like Myst, which is of a similar playstyle and hugely popular. But PT was classified as a horror game and worthy of play, and Gone Home was classified as a pointless walking sim. This is because PT is intended to scare the player, and Gone Home deals with exploring a relationship between sisters.
When we divide the industry this way, we do women and girls no favors. If parents only buy poorly made Monster High games for their daughters, and only for a system their brothers mock, video games don’t seem fun to girls. I have long thought that the borderline unplayability of low-budget licensed games has driven girls as an audience away from games, and YouTuber TamashiiHiroka has voiced this opinion as well. We need more original content solely aimed at girls, with the same love, care, and funding as the content which is ostensibly “for everyone,” but is really “for boys.”
We must be very aware of the way we talk about modern games. The Steam reviews for Cibele, a game about a woman’s first sexual experience, received an overall “Mostly Positive” rating through the Steam service’s user-based review system. However, the game’s page itself is littered with scores of “Not Recommended,” throwing the positive rating into doubt. This is due to reviewers calling it “less of a game a more of a short story,”10 a “fine movie with terrible gameplay,”11 and “just a short “film” with brief agonizingly poorly designed gameplay segments.”12 By denigrating a game created by a woman for other women, men may succeed in preventing Cibele’s intended audience from ever experiencing it.
If young women connect with an experience like Gone Home or Cibele and are told it is a worthless experience, their emotional reaction is devalued. How can we expect women to participate in this industry if they only ever have bad experiences with its products and half of its audience? It is critical for the future of video gaming for women to participate, and that means starting with quality titles for girls and ending with games for women getting fair reviews.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, in 2015, 56% of gamers were male, and 44% were female, with the average female game player being 43 years old.13 My hope for the future of this industry is that these 43 year old women are sharing the joy of video games with their daughters, in spaces protected from unnecessary, unfair, and sexist criticism – so that we can ultimately have an industry that people of all genders can enjoy.
- Dontnod Entertainment. 2015. Life is Strange. Square Enix.
- Entertainment Software Association. “Essential facts about the computer and video game industry.”TheESA.com. 2015.
- Glu Mobile. 2014. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Glu Mobile.
- Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. “Chess for Girls? Feminism and Computer Games,” in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, 328–341. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
- Jenkins, Henry. “Voices from the Combat Zone: Game Grrlz Talk Back,” in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, 328–341. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
- King. 2012. Candy Crush Saga. King.
- Kojima Productions. 2014. P.T. Konami.
- Laurel, Brenda. “An Interview with Brenda Laurel (Purple Moon),” in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, 118–135. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
- Mattel Media. 1996. Barbie Fashion Designer. Mattel Media.
- Maxis. 2000. The Sims. Electronic Arts.
- Nintendo. 2001. Animal Crossing. Nintendo.
- Nintendo. 2005. Nintendogs. Nintendo.
- Office Create. 2006. Cooking Mama. Majesco Entertainment.
- Sanctuary Woods. 1994. Hawaii High: The Mystery of the Tiki. Sanctuary Woods.
- Sheri Graner Ray, interview, November 16, 2016.
- Square. 1997. Final Fantasy VII. Sony Computer Entertainment, Eidos Interactive.
- Star Maid Games. 2015. Cibele. Star Maid Games.
- Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia M. Greenfield, “Computer Games for Girls: What Makes Them Play?” in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, 46–67. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
- The Fullbright Company. 2013. Gone Home. The Fullbright Company.
- Titus Software. 1999. Superman: The New Adventures. Titus Software.
- Viacom/Knowledge Adventure. 1999. Neopets. Viacom/Knowledge Adventure.
- Zynga. 2009. FarmVille. Zynga.
- Cassell & Jenkins, 15 [↩]
- Cassell & Jenkins, 10 [↩]
- Jenkins, 328 [↩]
- Graner Ray, interview [↩]
- Graner Ray [↩]
- Graner Ray [↩]
- Laurel, 122 [↩]
- Laurel, 123 [↩]
- Subrahmanyam and Greenfield, 51 [↩]
- Steam user Bohimen, November 2nd, 2016 [↩]
- Steam user Daveva D. Rain, November 10th 2016 [↩]
- Steam user Madnoir, June 1st 2016 [↩]
- ESA Essential Facts 2015 [↩]