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Girly Games, Games for Girls, and Girls Who Game: A Conversation With FEMICOM’s Rachel Weil

Interview

When I stumbled across a site called FEMICOM — “the feminine computer museum” — I knew I’d found something unique. At first glance, all I saw was a collection of twentieth century “games for girls,” an area that is virtually never talked about. It is also, admittedly, a subset of gaming that has always driven me right up the wall. Fashion and cooking games festooned in pink have never been part of my repertoire, and my cursory opinion of them was one of persistent stereotypes and lackluster design. But instead of passing the site by, my eyes lingered over that tagline: The feminine computer museum. “All right, FEMICOM,” I thought, clicking through the links. “Just how are you defining ‘feminine’? Feminine according to who?”

As it turns out, this is exactly the question that FEMICOM wants you to be asking. Failing to explore this site would have been a big mistake on my part. Not only did it lead to one of the most thought-provoking conversations I’ve had about gender roles in games, but it made me put my own gaming preferences under the microscope. I’ve been chewing on the question of why I like the things I like for days now.

FEMICOM is the brainchild of Rachel Weil, a visual artist and programmer with an affinity for what she calls “traditionally feminine design elements” in games. Her goal is to preserve these oft-forgotten games in an easily accessible manner, alongside relevant resources. The site was only launched in April, so the content is still a bit light, but I was struck by her hands-off, objective approach to an area that she is obviously passionate about. The games included in the FEMICOM collection are simple reference entries — who the game’s developer was, when the game was released, what genre it belongs to, and so forth. The aim of this endeavor is two-fold: to preserve games that are largely ignored, and to encourage discussions about gender in games. In her welcome post, Rachel had the following to say about the intent of FEMICOM:

By bringing these electronic artifacts together in a central archive, I hope to encourage comparisons among them and to ask and answer questions about stereotypical gender roles and how they have come to shape modern games and computing experiences.

Gender stereotypes don’t capture the amazing variety of people on this planet, thankfully. But I would also propose that thoughtfully analyzing, cataloging, and even celebrating feminine design elements or play mechanisms does not necessarily hinder gender progressiveness. I hope people of all backgrounds will enjoy visiting FEMICOM and begin conversations with friends about what they see here.

By this point, I knew I needed to talk to her. She was kind enough to oblige.

Becky Chambers: It sounds [from the welcome post] like we both started gaming in the early ’90s. School computer labs full of clunky Macs and afternoons playing Sonic were a part of my childhood, too. However, you’ve got a frame of reference that I don’t. “Girly-girl” games, as you described them, were not my cup of tea, but I definitely registered the lack of a female presence in the games I was playing. I’m curious to know how the games of our childhoods looked from your perspective, as you were playing both “girl games” and “boy games.” Did you prefer one to the other? Did games for girls feel more welcoming? Or was it all just gaming to you?

Rachel Weil: My early childhood wasn’t really filled with girly video games at all; I simply didn’t encounter them until my teens when I became interested in emulation and obscure Japanese games. When I was younger, my dad took me to the arcade quite a bit. I also had a few inexpensive LCD handheld games. Most of my exposure to console gaming back then was watching friends or cousins play. By the time I reached eight or nine years of age, it was clear to me that video games were really just for boys. While I never lost interest in video games, I gained this implicit understanding that none of the boys were going to hand the controller to me during a shared round of Mortal Kombat or Super Mario World. Fortunately, I was able to undo that kind of thinking by the time I was into my teens. I started buying up cheap Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis games at garage sales because no one wanted that old stuff any more. I got to relive that era of gaming and play through what I’d missed the first time around. It was great, actually.

BC: What can you tell me about your inspiration to create FEMICOM? In your opinion, why is it important to preserve this specific niche of gaming culture?

RW: I trace my interest in feminine video games back about ten years ago when I really fell in love with Japanese Super Famicom games, especially Sailor Moon titles like Another Story and other cute games based on shoujo anime series. As I got more interested in collecting old video games, I realized that among games released in the US, very few featured feminine design elements. The more I researched twentieth century console games intended for girls, the more I realized how little information was available about these titles. What’s more, what information I did find was almost always dismissive or negative. I found collectors and journalists describing really unusual and interesting girly games and consoles as “garbage,” “a waste,” “insulting,” and so on. I had a realization that this entire swath of video game history might eventually disappear from record, and it might disappear without a thoughtful analysis of whether these games were truly garbage on account of their pinkness or use of hearts or fashion-based gameplay. I didn’t want to see these old girly games tossed aside and never cataloged because they were thought to be socially regressive or anti-intellectual in some way.

With FEMICOM, I want to provide a historical snapshot, a catalog, that says, “Here lies the evidence of several decades of video game and software and web media that attempted to inspire and delight.” If we’re confronted with a pile of harmful stereotypes, let’s talk about that. If we’ve been wrong to criticize a game for not being more like Halo, let’s talk about that, too.

BC: You make an intriguing point in regards to judging games by their actual content, rather than making knee-jerk reactions about appearances. In my own experience, I have often found myself in the awkward position of enjoying a game solely for the gameplay, in spite of the fact that I dislike or even feel uncomfortable about the way it chose to portray female characters. You’re absolutely right that I don’t lend that same benefit of the doubt to games dressed up in pink and ribbons. While there are games that I have avoided entirely because of unjustifiably sexualized box art or character skins, I’m far more likely to roll my eyes, grit my teeth and keep playing through a game that doesn’t portray women fairly than I am to give a girly game a fair shot. It’s an interesting double standard, and I’d hazard a guess that it’s one that a lot of gamers — perhaps women gamers in particular — subscribe to. I imagine that it’s a backlash to the idea that girls aren’t supposed to play the same things that boys play, that we have to play something made especially for us.

RW: Yes, we do typically have this gut reaction that games dressed up in bows won’t be any good at all. But why? When you look at Nintendo DS games at a game retailer, for example, you’ll actually see a huge array of girly games. But very few of these extend to the teenage years or beyond, and fewer appear to have the depth or challenge that would excite a seasoned gamer. Those that do get lost in the pink noise. Girly video games are rarely advertised, rarely reviewed, rarely written up, and rarely demoed in store. There is no buzz around the latest makeup sim. But clearly there must be some market for these games, given their share of the shelf space. Perhaps the purchases are being made by parents looking for a pleasant gift for their young daughter, and perhaps the pink packaging is a cue for them rather than for us.

From my own experience, I’ve certainly had moments where I felt pressured to prove myself as a “real” gamer or to acknowledge that I may not be taken seriously on account of my gender. I think many of the older girls who persevere with gaming survive by eschewing the feminine and becoming one of the guys, so to speak. It is admittedly difficult to break into a crowd of gamer guys and chime in with, “Hey, have you all played the Barbie game that just came out?” But, of course, this is the sort of thing I do all the time when I’m around other gamers. I like to get people talking about what it means to be a “real” or “hardcore” gamer. It’s a good icebreaker, if nothing else.

BC: On the subject of gameplay quality, my own limited knowledge of girly games suggests the bulk of them were made by male developers on a small budget. What are your impressions of the context in which these games were created?

RW: That’s my impression, too, though I admittedly don’t know many specifics. I imagine that Style Savvy for Nintendo DS had a higher budget than most of the other fashion titles out there because Nintendo published and co-produced the game. Satoru Iwata was the executive producer on that game. And Beyonce starred in the television ads! Style Savvy is a game that really fascinates me from an academic standpoint. It sold extremely well, and these big names were involved, yet the game received almost no critical review in the US. A sequel for 3DS is slated for release in Japan, and I’m hopeful that a US release will follow. It’s nice to see Nintendo investing in a game like Style Savvy.

BC: The idea of “games for girls” is a very present one in current industry discussions about how to cater more towards women gamers. There tend to be two camps: one arguing in favor of making more games specifically for girls and women, and one that believes that the primary focus should be on making games more gender neutral (or at least more inclusive of women). Now, the female market is hardly a hive mind, and I think there’s room on the playground for everybody, but I admit that my focus is centered pretty firmly on gender inclusion, rather than splitting things up. Given your desire to preserve their predecessors, I’m curious about your thoughts on the current (or even future) development of girly games.

RW: I’d like to note that I view my interest in the preservation of feminine game design as an endeavor separate from engaging female gamers. As you’ve hinted, I think, the solution to the gender imbalance in gaming isn’t to make Modern Warfare: Girlz and call it a day. Gameplay mechanisms and the engagement of a female audience are challenging topics that I’m honestly not qualified to speak to. There are a number of incredibly bright people in academia and industry looking at this issue, but I don’t rank among them.

The games that I collect for FEMICOM are mostly independent of the player. They’re about those stereotypically feminine motifs: hearts, pink bows, polka dots, shopping, fashion, and so on. So while a game like Tetris might be wildly popular among girls, it is not included in the FEMICOM collection because it lacks that aesthetic. Contrarily, Kirby’s Adventure for the NES was rather popular among boys, yet I would argue that it employs many feminine design features such as cheery, pastel environments and a cute, fluffy, pink hero.

While I do aspire to keep FEMICOM’s collection objective, I also hope that FEMICOM spurs on conversations like this one and that people start thinking about what makes a game “for girls” or “for boys.” Personally, I’d love to see feminine games that are more challenging and complex, that reach mainstream gamers of all ages and genders. (A My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic JRPG, anyone?) I’d also love to see a shift in the way players, journalists, archivists, and developers think and talk about feminine design elements. I think what we say about feminine games reveals something about how we value femininity in general.

BC: It’s funny that you mention wanting these games to reach all genders, because that’s exactly what I’ve been pondering throughout this conversation. Labeling a game as for girls effectively designates all other games as not for girls. I see three problems with that — one for girls who prefer battle axes and rocket launchers, one for boys who want to play somewhere other than a warzone, and one for girls who feel like they can’t call themselves “real” gamers because they prefer games in pink.

I think an easy fix would be to get rid of the for girls tag altogether — not the design elements, but just the label. Make games with whatever colors, artwork and gameplay styles you want, but let the player decide who they’re for. If you’ve got two puzzle platformers — say, one in pastels, one in gritty metallics — they should be on the same shelf. They’re both the same genre; everything after the fact is just aesthetics. This, of course, is tied to the much larger problem of gender stratification in consumer culture at large, but I’m now rather enamored with the idea of walking into a game store and seeing the pink games evenly distributed among all the other games, rather than segregated to one sad corner.

RW: Wouldn’t that be nice?

BC: One last question: FEMICOM is obviously a work in progress, and you mention on the website that you’re open to contributions and ideas. What kind of support do you need for this project, and how can those who are interested help out?

RW: Yes, running FEMICOM is just a hobby at the moment, so time and money are the biggest constraints in terms of offering more content. However, I’m certainly eager to hear from anyone who would like to share his or her insight on the development of feminine video games and software, especially from 2000 or earlier. Like you, I’m curious about the development process and investment that went into these games. I’d also like to include some surveys on the site to make it easier for visitors to share their memories and provide their own insight for making FEMICOM even bigger and better. As opportunities for community involvement are available, I’ll include them on FEMICOM’s Contribute page.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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