Beyond Rockett and Purple Moon: Gender, Gaming, and StereotypesS

Sociological Images just reposted a TED talk on girls and gaming by Brenda Laurel, founder of Purple Moon. And I have to admit, watching that video made me wince.

Here's the actual talk:

Click to view

Watching this video for at least the fifth time brought to mind a few things that always surface in conversations about what girls really want in a game. While it feels almost sacrilegious to criticize the work of one of the first people to re-evaluate who plays games and why, Brenda Laurel's one TED talk cannot be the be-all, end-all of discussions on girls and video games. Here are a few reasons why:

This Video Is Old As Dirt

I see this video pop up every six months or so about girls and video games, but the gaming landscape and acceptance of video games as a social activity has changed dramatically. Earlier this year, I attended Games for Change (G4C), and listened to Lucy Bradshaw, General Manager/Senior Vice President of Maxis (the company that brought you The Sims and Spore, among other things.) She mentioned the viral spread of gaming, and how it is so pervasive that 99% of boys and 95% of girls mention video games as a hobby. There are still major gender gaps in terms of the people creating and designing games. But a significant majority of both genders now see gaming as just another form of entertainment. Watching this video come up time and time again, from a long ago age in technology, makes me wonder if there's still a market for people who want to watch Steve Jobs talk about the NeXT Computer. Clearly, the market has moved on.

In addition, Brenda Laurel didn't die with her company - she contributed to the 2008 anthology Beyond Barbie & Mortal Kombat, with an updated message and some new opinions about the state of gaming and girls. So why are we perpetually stuck in the past?


Laurel Has Some Serious Contempt for Purple Moon Detractors

There is a point in the video - close to 6:58, where Laurel divides Purple Moon's critics into two camps: "certain flavors" of feminists and male gamers. She claims that neither of these groups talked to little girls to understand what they want to play - I ask again, which kinds of little girls? It appears that Laurel has a strong bias toward girls who are unfamiliar with computers, and designed a computer based game to address that. Somehow, this was extrapolated into girls playing video games in general.

In her essay in Beyond Barbie, Brenda Laurel gets a lot more explicit with who these critics were and what happened:

Our crucial first Christmas sell-in exceeded our expectations, and the ample press coverage was 95 percent positive. Nevertheless, we received a crushing review from a middle-aged guy in the New York Times who asserted that he didn't need to let little girls play with him because he knew a bad game when he saw one. His piece got reprinted without a byline in Silicon Valley's most important paper, the San Jose Mercury News, with the headline "This Rockett's a Dud." Meanwhile, we were in the crosshairs of radical feminist Rebecca Eisenberg, who wore pink chiffon with combat boots and wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. Eisenberg's strident accusations of gender crimes were eventually reprinted by Ms. magazine. Feminists were confused; is it good or bad to reflect the social realities of most girl's lives?

Although the vast majority of press was great, the negative reviews hurt because they so often came from those we thought would be our allies. (p.24)

That description of Eisenberg sounded awesome, and a little bit later, I found out that old review still lives over at Gamasutra. Titled "Girl Games: Adventures in Lip Gloss," Eisenberg examines the underlying assumptions at play in giving girls "what they want" - and how much of that can flow neatly along the lines of stereotypes:

Laurel's main finding is that girls and boys play differently. According to her interpretation of the data, girls compete horizontally and boys compete hierarchically; girls assert social influence and structure relationships while boys seek to dominate and defeat. She also says that girls gain social status by affiliating with some people and excluding others, and boys gain social status by achievement and physical domination; girls want multi-sensory immersion, discovery, and strong story lines, and boys want speed and action; girls succeed through development of friendships, and boys through elimination of competitors. While girls play "to explore and have new experiences, with degrees of success and varying outcomes," boys, Laurel's research contents, play "to win."

For these reasons, Laurel concludes, girls need "friendship adventures," boys need "action games." And, because "historically, the industry has defined games based largely on boys' interests and play behaviors," Laurel spun off Purple Moon from Interval to create a separate market niche for games designed with girls in mind. Her stated goals are nothing if not ambitious: "If Purple Moon is successful," she wrote, "we think that we can do for girls and technology what Title IX did for girls and sports...[that is] open the floodgates and transform the role of technology in girls' lives" via a line of software and merchandise under several brand names aimed at girls ages 8 through 12.

Laurel's perspective does raise the point that our violent and combative society undervalues the qualities of cooperation and relationship-building. But her games do little to teach girls about true friendships. The characters range from shallow and self-absorbed ("A face without makeup is so un-chic!" says Nicole) to cliquey and cruel ("It never hurts my status as part of the popular crowd to be seen with Chaz!" Steph brags).

Furthermore, in her quest to design games that are "intrinsically meaningful to girls" by addressing "their most important needs and interests," Laurel discounts the possibility that boys learn techniques for success in the business world—including competitiveness and drive for achievement—from "action games." Depriving girls of that training will not change the way the economy operates; in fact, it will more likely serve to perpetuate the sexist status quo.

Experts in the fields of sex equality and socialization agree. "This is just another example of the tawdry history of sex difference research that is driven by stereotypes and results in reinforcing those stereotypes," says Dr. Barrie Thorne, Professor of Sociology at U.C. Berkeley and author of the definitive text Gender Play. According to Thorne, who has 20 years of experience studying play patterns of girls and boys, "most researchers are now focusing on variation among girls, and among boys, and on areas of commonality, rather than on simplistic claims of dichotomous gender difference."

Far from unreasonable, Eisenberg's argument seems quite sensible, especially in light of Purple Moon filing for bankruptcy in 1999 and being absorbed into Mattel. There are many more factors at play than just giving girls "what they want," especially in a context where social norms and marketing influence what girls desire, and the cardinal rule of a successful video game isn't its values, but how fun it is to play.

Who Is This 8-14-Year-Old Girl?

In her TED talk and her publications, Laurel stresses that she is talking to young girls aged 8-14, and these are the voices she listened to when designing her game. However, her sample group appears to ignore the legions of young girls who were in or close to that demographic when some major shifts were happening in video games - namely the Nintendo Entertainment System. I started playing in 1989, when my father brought home a gaming console and promptly forbade me from playing it. As of 1997, when Purple Moon debuted their first two games, I was squarely in their target demographic of 8-14-year-olds, as a thirteen-year-old high school freshman. But I wouldn't have touched either of those games.

For one, I generally didn't play computer-based games outside of school - unlike a game console, which gets an update every 5 years or so, the computers my family could afford were generally only good for word processing and establishing a somewhat tenuous dial-up connection. While I had fun playing Oregon Trail and Sim City at school, it wouldn't have been possible to run those kind of games on the raggedy, third-hand home systems I had. And even if Rockett had been presented to me, I don't think I would have been interested - by then, I had moved on to Tomb Raider II, Tekken, Abe's Oddysee, and Doom, so the game play would not have been appealing.

Laurel had the right idea, renouncing traditional knowledge and seeking out her own research, but she attempts to cast a very broad net over the interests and motivations of young girls.

"Girl Games Are Kind of Sissy"

"My character is more of a tomboy, she's more into boys."
"Like if you were a girl, and you were really adventurous, and a real big tomboy, you would think that girls games are kind of sissy."

Laurel asked us to listen to the voices of girls - but what the girls are saying and the final result didn't exactly match. The selections she showed during her TED talk appeared to be very different from what girls were asking for - a game that didn't pander to gender stereotypes. However, as Laurel explains in "Notes from a Utopian Entrepreneur," many girls really enjoyed the Rockett series, and found a community within the game, even long after the company folded. These two things are not contradictory, which leads us to the final part of this analysis.

There is No One Kind of Girl Gamer

Most of the people I game with are other girls. For me, this is the way things have always been. And while my small crew isn't representative enough to discuss wider trends, one of the things I always note is how different our interests are. If you put the six of us in a room, four of us would be heavily into first person shooters like Gears of War, Left 4 Dead, and Halo. Five of us are heavily into RPGs. Two of us are into MMORPGs. All of us play Grand Theft Auto. We all also play Lego Indiana Jones. And Rock Band. There is a lot of crossover in what girls play, and what girls like. Some girls will like games like Rockett or Barbie Makeover or Miss Bimbo; others will be bored by these and want to play things like Need for Speed. And many of us play it all.

While there are discussions that need to take place about representation (in-game and in-real life), attitudes in marketing, recruitment in the sciences and social norms, conversations about girls in gaming often stall before they begin, as people with various motivations are determined to put girls into a very narrow box, with a set of interests, likes and dislikes that are supposed to define the habits of an entire gender.

The problem is, looking at things that way, people will never figure out what girl gamers like. And that's easy to understand - girl gamers are not a monolith. We have our own preferences, our own likes and dislikes, and our own ideas about what we want to play. While it can be helpful to try to isolate specific issues for exploration, even those with the best intentions can fall into the trap of trying to make one trend apply to the whole.

Girls are gamers. We have been for quite some time, and will continue to be in the future. And while there isn't one true path to the minds of girl gamers everywhere, I can definitely say the answers people seek will not be found in one TED talk.


Making Video Games for Little Girls
[Sociological Images]
Beyond Barbie & Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming
Girl Games: Adventures in Lip Gloss [Gamasutra]
Gaming as a Lifestyle Choice [Cerise]