Gaming is on the rise among girls aged 8 to 12. But the games they're playing aren't exactly sending them great messages.
As video games have risen dramatically in popularity over the past few decades, so has criticism of the messages they're sending kids. But for the most part, that concern has been directed at the violence in games marketed to boys. Today, though, half of girls ages 8 to 12 play games online, according to a recent study — which means it's about time time we start looking at the games for girls and the lessons they teach. And they're not good: The most popular games among those tween girls surveyed centered on themes like cooking, shopping, makeup, and boys — and portray a world of limited, dead-end choices.
To see what these games are really like, I spent a few days playing some on my iPhone and on the computer. Clearly, I'm not the target demographic for these games — I'm more than 10 years older than the intended audience and I'm not a big-time gamer. But what I found was even worse than I expected: not only are the games pretty poorly designed and uncreative in their storylines, they also teach misguided values. Many of the games taught that romantic partners should be rich and buy you things; that shopping for pricey clothes is the way to get ahead; and that stereotypically female jobs and activities, like working at a fashion magazine or baking, are the only options for girls. This isn't the way to go about raising the next generation of strong, empowered women.
For years parents and the media have made noise about violent games targeted at boys in the same age group, but far fewer adults seem to know — or care — about the games that young girls play now.
I started out with GirlsGoGames's most popular shopping game, Shopaholic — which the company says has been played 163 million times on a variety of platforms, including the iPhone. (GirlsGoGames is one of the biggest producers of free online games for girls; it's owned by Spil Games, which also creates games for families and teens, and which commissioned the study about girls and gaming.) The premise of the game is to walk around "Paris," "New York," and "Hawaii," and buy items that the game specifies. For example, when a pink sparkly top pops up on the screen, the game prompts you to buy it and take a "photo" of you character wearing it, for which you'll be rewarded $15. As another means of acquiring money, you can also get a "job" — like working at an ice cream shop for two hours — but the labor requires nothing more than waiting two hours for your "shift" to end. It is hard though, to be motivated to "work," since your virtual "credit card" is automatically replenished with $500 each day, simply for existing. Can we get this feature added to the real world?
While I completed my ice cream shop labor, there was time to switch over to another game — Beauty Resort, also made by Spil Games. In Beauty Resort — surprise — you own a beauty salon. This salon inexplicably happens to be on Easter Island, but there is little time to consider why you are opening a salon on a remote Polynesian island, as you must quickly begin washing people's feet and moving them into a hot tub over and over again, and then remembering to press the cleaning button to clean the chairs. Maybe if you wash enough feet you get to move to other obscure islands?
While Spil's iPhone games are popular, a lot of their business takes place on GirlsGoGames.com, where I navigated next. The number one game under the "Popular" tab was Prom Preparation Makeover, in which players give a friend who is a "diamond in the rough" (meaning she has bad skin and messy hair) a makeover for prom. After applying different creams and scrubs to her face, she miraculously looks like a perfect doll. It takes about four minutes. It's also worth noting that the unsightly character is your "friend," and not "you."
There are less strereotypically "girly" games on GirlsGoGames.com, like one called Papa's Taco Mia, where you get to own a taco shop. Tasks involve cooking meat and putting the ingredients — cheese, onions, etc. — customers want into a taco. By and large, it is pretty much the same thing as the prom makeover game, except with ground beef instead of exfoliating scrub. In theory, owning a taco shop might teach some semblance of entrepreneurship, but in order to do that, players would need to make some decisions, which aren't a part of the game.
Spil is aware of the limits of their offerings, but at the same time, they've seen the success of these stereotypical games. "The girls gaming market is still so new and there is much to still discover and learn when it comes to designing games for them. We know that cooking, dress up, tests & quizzes, caring for animals games are very popular with this audience," writes Scott Johnston, Spil's Head Of Global PR in email. "But, going forward we want to build on these solid foundations and make game experiences richer and more aspirational. For sure, the future will still feature the games they’ve loved playing up to this point, but we want to explore new themes and features, and game mechanisms."
The companies that produce the other games I played — Gameloft and Crowdstar — didn't respond to requests for comment.