You Know, For Girls

Every time I see technology being marketed “for girls” I prepare myself to cringe. (Hello, Della.) I’m doubly cautious when it’s gaming-related, like the new PSP for girls.  However, there’s been some interesting discussion on the IGDA’s Women in Games mailing list that’s made me think it’s worth working through the problems – and some unexpected opportunities – of ‘pinkification’.

The problem isn’t, of course, the color pink itself. A lot of girls like pink. In fact, I like pink! But making your device pink and saying it’s ‘for girls’ has some unfortunate coded messages. First, it implies boys are the norm for this activity, from which the ‘girly version’ deviates. Second, it implies that if this one is for girls, then all the other ones are for boys. Sure, there are lots of women who will ignore that implicit message, but that doesn’t mean the message isn’t there. Third, it gives boys a wide variety of choices and identities, while asking girls to all be one thing. (“Of course you can have a PSP, girls – as long as you’re willing to be defined first and foremost by your gender!”) Finally, the packages aimed at women are often dumbed down; just for example, notice that the pink PSP comes with a carrying case instead of a game.

The most depressing thing, of course, is that many of these messages are avoidable. They just don’t get avoided. This is for the very simple reason that both boys and girls learn, from a very young age, that boys’ things are high-status and girls’ things are low-status. Girls, therefore, can and will play with “boy toys” while boys refuse to play with anything that too many girls like*. Of course, girls may get told they shouldn’t play with ‘boy things’ – but it’s done in a way that makes the relative status of girl things and boy things, and their messages, quite clear. Creating a pink-PSP ghetto, therefore, keeps the bulk of the product line untainted by low-status femininity.

As you might imagine, this drives me batshit.

During our discussion, though, Kimberly** pointed out that her daughter actually loves pink things. Having a pink PSP might just get her daughter to look twice at it. “Hmm,” I thought to myself, “She’s right. There probably are lots of girls who want to feel like the PSP is theirs and theirs alone.” It made me think of Sara McNamee’s amazing work on how the physical resources of gaming (space, computers, consoles) are contested between the genders – and how girls generally lose out.  What if we thought of ‘pinkification’ as a strategy for making sure that girls actually get a fair shake at using their own devices? If we make technology so girly that boys won’t touch it, maybe girls will finally get to hold the controller even when boys are around.

As great as it sounds, I’ve got a conceptual problem with this approach. It implies that the only way girls can have access to gaming is if boys don’t want it anymore. Boys’ needs still come first, and girls get whatever’s left over. This is not the message I want to send! It also doesn’t take into account the rise of gaming on mobile and portable devices, which tend to belong to a single user. While I suspect families still spend less on girls than boys, I also would be willing to bet that the ways in which the technology is contested are rather different than for computers and consoles***.

But there’s also what I’ve started calling the Dot Diva Effect. A recent study (well summarized here) found that a sense of ‘ambient belonging’ changed women’s attitudes toward computer science. Perhaps that sensitivity to environment means that having a feminine-coded, pink PSP might make a difference in womens’ game-playing lives. Unfortunately, I think women are also sensitive to all the negative implications I outlined above, so I think it’s at best a wash.

In my ideal world – you know, the one where I run everything – we find ways to make girls’ devices clearly their own, without resorting to ‘pinkification’ as I outline it above. Complex, satisfying personalization for girls and boys alike would be a great start. However, companies would also have to follow through by not reproducing messages about “girl things” being either stereotypical or second-rate.

In this world there are also cupcakes for everyone.


* Statistically speaking, of course, on both sides.

** Who regularly says smart things, and who should give me a link to her site if she has one.

*** Yes, someone should do this study. No, I have a dissertation to write.

2 thoughts on “You Know, For Girls”

  1. I struggled with this a lot when faced with a seemingly innocuous task: select an appropriate gift for my 6 year old girl cousin-in-law.

    She loves the Nintendo DS, and games in general, so an age appropriate game seemed perfect.

    Superficially, she is everything you might think of in a stereotypical 6 year old girl. Pink sparkly shoes, backpack, everything. The game on her wishlist was some garbage title that made Kinect Joyride look like compelling gameplay by comparison. The other “girly” game offerings were equally bleak. It wasn’t even that I didn’t want to get something marketed towards girls: I just wasn’t willing to purchase a truly awful game. I fear she’ll “age out” of video games as her capacity for critical thought grows because all the ones she’s played are, well, terrible.

    Luckily we found a saving grace: Kirby. Most of the titles in the Kirby series are great. Kirby is a side scroller that a 6 year old can totally handle. And most importantly: Kirby is pink.

    I have no doubt that she will come to love the grumbly little pink puff, and I can rest easy knowing she has her hands on an actual game instead of Makeup Simulator 3000 (fact: it’s just as boring on the DS as it is in real life).

  2. Kirby is seriously awesome! Sadly there seems to be no Kirby game for the iPad … at least not yet ….

    I think your point about good game design is key. Playing lots of crappy games is a great way to develop the belief that games are crappy, while even a few counter-examples could stop that belief from developing. Here’s hoping you’ve given your cousin an inoculation against the many crappy pink games out there. 🙂

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