When I was ten years old, a company called Purple Moon (in keeping with the rule that any company with a female target audience needs to work in a reference to the moon at some point) had just developed a series of computer games for preteen girls. They were simple story games set in middle schools and summer camps, where self-discovery and the perils of attempting to be popular were major plot points. When I saw their ads in Nickelodeon Magazine, despite my devotion to King's Quest and Oregon Trail, I knew I wanted to play.
Theirs sounded different than the girl-oriented games I had played before: my cousin's Barbie Makeover game was made for girls, sure, but putting eyeshadow on a Barbie model was about exciting as paint-by-number. Besides, at my age, the only thing I could do with that game was make the Barbie Model look as hideous as possible, then take a screenshot of her and caption it with the name of some mean girl I hated. Purple Moon, though, had promise: their games had all the thrills promised of middle school and none of the drawbacks (e.g., increased homework load, body odor.) When they got more press and a profile article in the newspaper, I was excited. My older brother, however, was incensed.
"This is bullshit!" He announced, throwing the paper down and going over to start up our family computer. "Mara, get over here. I'm going to teach you how to play Quake." I wasn't sure what he objected to: the idea that girls didn't like the games out on the market and needed separate games, or the inherent girliness of the Purple Moon games. Either way, it was clear that I would never get to play one. Dutifully, I took my seat and learned the best ways to kill monsters and collect runes.
A few weeks ago, I discovered a game that made me long for the days of Purple Moon. After inquiring why two seven-year-old girls were discussing clubbing and pick-up lines, I was told, by the more precocious of the two, "It's a game for iPhones called Top Girl!" I briefly imagined a game based on Caryl Churchill's seminal feminist play about conflicts unsolved within the second wave, wondered at the irony of describing something as both "seminal" and "feminist," wondered further at a seven-year-old being allowed to play with an iPhone, then returned to the real world and asked the girls to tell me about the game.
"Well. You dress up and model, and then you go to the club and flirt to get a boyfriend and he'll give you presents and then you buy clothes and stuff…" I could feel my blood pressure rise. "So what's the point of the game?" I asked. They looked at me with a mixture of pity and incredulity. "To be the Top Girl! To be the hottest!"
Gritting my teeth, I asked if their parents knew about the game. They did not. I suggested the girls tell them about it, figuring their reaction would not be much different than mine. And I was disgusted: young girls already get the idea that looks and possessions matter more than personal achievements and healthy relationships from movies, TV, popular music, tabloids online and off, teen magazines, and every sort of advertising. Do they need games to reinforce that, too?
In the passing weeks, though, I wondered if I had been a hypocrite. After all, when I was seven, I watched my teenage brothers playing Drug Wars and even offered advice from time to time: "Cocaine is cheap! Buy some cocaine!" At eleven I was a Grand Theft Auto champion and only my motion sickness prevented me from being an excellent Team Fortress sniper. At thirteen my Sims "played in bed" all the time. My favorite childhood games involved worse than flirting and dress-up, who was I to condemn? Besides, I had been–and am still–trying to be less judgmental. (My sister is my inspiration: she is the kind of person who, when cut off in traffic, will say "Maybe that woman is in labor and they're driving to the hospital." She once told me that despite her distaste for Katy Perry's music, she cannot dislike her as because she doesn't "know her personally.") I doubted that Top Girl had much of value to teach girls, but maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought. I wouldn't know until I tried it myself.
After looking up Top Girl‘s website, I posted it on my Facebook profile. Should I play this, I asked? For Science? For Feminism? For (What I Don't Like To Call But Actually Is) My Blog? Nobody said no. And thus began my Top Girl Adventure, recapped here in present tense for your enjoyment (at left).
At the app store, Top Girl‘s rating is four stars out of five. For comparison's sake I go to Amazon and look up a Chuck Palahniuk book I thought was terrible: it has four and a half stars out of five. The game starts with a looped club beat blaring. That will undoubtedly get annoying quickly. I have to design my character: I can choose any skin color, but the features will remain the same: small nose, full lips, wide eyes, long legs, microscopic waist. She will be a half conventionally attractive white lady and half anime caricature no matter what. I decide that my character will be tan because I want her to have all the opportunities I never had. For hair, I choose "Blue Black" because it's an interesting name for a hair color, and an "Emo Girl Poof" hairstyle because my heart breaks for the hundreds of preteen boys in England who are called that on a regular basis.
I turn off the sound off, because it DID get annoying, and move on to dressing my character: I choose white pants because I have never worn white pants in my life (I read a lot of Embarrassing Moments columns in teen magazines when I was ten and vowed "that will never be me") and as I've established, I want to live vicariously through my character. Shirt options are limited, so I choose a green ruffled shirt without much thought. Top Girl‘s pop-up messaging system informs me "YOU LOOK GREAT!" and then immediately tells me to go shopping to buy a cuter work outfit. Come on, Top Girl. Say it to my face.
I go to a store called "Kinetic Shock" (pretty sure You Fail Physics Forever, Crowdstar Games) and look at the selection. Some are labeled as "club" and some are "work chic." I have a large number of coins and a smaller amount of cash. I purchase a green corset top, which is somehow "work chic." I am not sure what I do for a job.
Oh, now it makes sense! I have clicked "Career" (should I really say I clicked? It's a touch app) and it's taken me to a modeling agency. This is fitting, as my character seems to strike poses almost compulsively. Modeling is a good outlet. I press "Do Job" a few times and somehow I get more coinage. I hear a camera noise, so I guess pictures were taken of me, though the game does not allow me to ask what they are for or where they are going. I am a bit concerned about that. And also a bit disappointed. I did some photo shoots as a child and never thought modeling was particularly strenuous, but I figured Top Girl would have glammed it up. Where are the make-up artists and photographers and the gossipy interns? Actually, that's not glamorous at all.
Anti-climatic or not, posing has taken a lot out of my character, and my "energy points" have now decreased. I can't "work" for a few more minutes. I click on the "Coffee" button to see if that will give me more energy and am taken to the coffee shop. For an energy refill, I can buy espresso, an energy drink, and oddly enough, hairspray. What kind of magical hairspray is this? Has it been personally blessed by John Waters? Unfortunately, I don't have enough cash to buy any of these and am directed the ATM. A pop up asks me "Do you want to buy $16 in cash for $1.99?" Ahh, so Top Girl is one of THOSE games. Not just turn-based, but pay-based, as well. Why anybody would pay real money for virtual money is a question the Freakonomics writers should tackle. Is this the only way to get cash? No, the messaging system says that they will give me cash if I find myself a boyfriend. So coins are easily earned, but cash requires time and effort? But they're used for the same things! Why is there a difference? What's the logic behind that? Perhaps Top Girl‘s world is logical in its own illogic, like Dadaism. I take a break from the game to put a quarter in the "You're Being Pretentious" Jar, then try to find myself a boyfriend.
There's a cute guy standing outside my apartment building, but according to game rules, the only place I can find a boyfriend is in the club. I click on "club" and try to enter the "80s Room." "NOT HOT ENOUGH!" Top Girl informs me. I need to go back to Kinetic Shock and pick out some supposed clubbing clothes.
In my non-Top Girl life, I know little about fashion (a close friend who works in the fashion industry picks out my outfits whenever I have an occasion that requires anything other than a sweater and jeans) but I know that a black and gold top, zebra-striped heels, and a brown skirt do not look good together. Top Girl begs to differ: there have been numbers attached to each item of clothing, and they have been separated into "Club Wear" and "Work Chic." I can only enter the club if I wear an outfit that adds up to more than twenty in "Club Hotness" points. This outfit is ugly, but it's "Hot."
I'd like to see my character have fun and dance at the club, but in Top Girl world, all one does at a club is hit on men. Three men line up: I click on a man and his name and occupation show up (my favorite is "Pesticide Exterminator" – one who exterminates pesticides? An environmentalist?) along with whatever he will offer you. As we know, there is nothing one should know about dating someone besides what they do all day and what they'll give you.
My chosen man is Marcus, a "Roulette Expert." I'm not sure how I feel about that, because I want someone accomplished; Marcus seems to get by on luck. But dating him will "increase my energy," and that is a good thing. Besides, the other two work in banking and I'm just not sure I can trust bankers these days.
I buy Marcus a glass of wine because I'm classy, and because this time around, it's free. He accepts, and a pop-up announces that he is now my boyfriend. Being a single girl in New York City in my non-Top Girl life, I should say something along the lines of "Would it were that easy!" However, I am pretty sure that anyone who wants a relationship with me after I give him a free glass of wine is not entirely stable.
Interestingly, while all of the Top Girl characters look like Barbies, none of the men look like Ken dolls. They all sport skinny jeans and have sinewy arms and many have Justin Bieber shags. Marcus is said to have a "Manliness" rating of 24. What is the rubric here? Is that twenty-four out of twenty-five or twenty-four out of one hundred? He will help me earn energy points at a faster rate. A boyfriend, in the Top Girl world, is an accessory or a tool much like a purse or a Starbucks card.
If you return to the main screen, your boyfriend hovers behind you like a puppy and gives you compliments. Some are generic ("that hairstyle looks great"), some equate love with material items ("it would be my greatest pleasure to give you the finest gifts"), some are nebbishy ("I'm awkward on dates"), some border on meta-humor ("I love these one-sided conversations we have"), and some are worrisome ("Don't abandon me, please!" "We are exclusive, which means no other guys, not even in REAL LIFE!" "Better not go outside, I hear there's a serial killer on the loose!") Some are in quotes and some are not. Many are phrased oddly, and I wonder if this game was developed in an English-speaking country.
At this point I have explored most of the game world. I'm instructed to expand my closet with some mindless purchases, which I do, and then I visit the salon for the first time.
Makeovers for everyone! No, really, MAKEOVERS FOR EVERYONE. They're MANDATORY.
There you can change your physical appearance, as well as your boyfriend's. For a high price, you can even change your skin color. Top Girl has seen the future, and it is eugenics.
Marcus's clinginess is getting to me, so I break up with him. I immediately regret it: without his constant barrage of generic compliments, I am now feeling down about myself. Running low on energy and modeling for little pay in the same clothes I wore five minutes ago, I ponder my life without him. What did he give me? Energy? What I need is a boyfriend who can give me some coinage. I go to the club in search of a new beau but I do not have enough coinage to purchase a drink for him, the one that will provide me with more coins! What a catch-22! (That "thump" you heard is Joseph Heller rolling in his grave.) Oh well, it's fine; I didn't believe Lamar the Beat Poet was THAT manly or wealthy, anyway.
This is where I decide to take a break from playing. I go to the gym, and not because this game has made me feel inferior about my own body (though it's trying its damnedest) but because I need to work out some of my frustration with it. When I return, I have enough energy to land a new man, Lorenzo the Trailer Park Manager. He will give me more coinage when I model. I wonder how that works. Maybe the pictures are for a promotional calendar for his trailer park?
I let Lorenzo say some creepy things to me, model a bit more, and then go on a date with him, because it's the one thing I haven't done in this game. I pay for it and our picture's taken and it's anti-climactic in every other way. I guess this is what Prom is like? Actually, I did go to Prom, but Prom at an arts boarding school is not the typical Americana experience. We had two Prom Kings. They were a couple.
Anyway, I don't play for a few days because I'm busy with my non-profit job. When I do check in on Top Girl again, the first thing I see is a pop-up screaming "LORENZO IS FEELING NEGLECTED!" He has given me an ultimatum: he will only stay with me if I buy him a gift, and not just any gift, but one that costs $22 in Top Girl cash. I don't have that kind of cash, so he's gone. At least Top Girl is equal-opportunity: men are gold-diggers, too!
And that's when it hits me, the one brilliant thing about this game: there is something in it for everyone. Everyone who plays it would find something in it that they hate.
Feminists would hate it. "Men's Rights Activists" would hate it. Parents already hate it. Left-wingers would hate the consumerism and the objectification of women; right-wingers would hate the sexualization of young girls. Economists, as I've said above, would be baffled. Grammar enthusiasts would be appalled at its many punctuation and spelling errors. Models would hate that it makes modeling look easier and less cutthroat than it is. Fashion designers and artists would hate it for all the mismatched, misguided styling choices. My father would hate this game and Caryl Churchill would hate this game. Israelis and Palestinians would hate this game. We would all be united by our hatred of this, the most useless, uninteresting, universally offensive game known to humanity.
I uninstall the app because there's basically nothing left to do in the game. I was offered more Top Girl cash if I channel my inner Janice Dickinson and judge a runway show, but to do that I have to connect to the Game Center, and this game is not worth that minor effort. I now have access to a clothing store that offers clothes with higher "Hotness" numbers, but that just means I can work more. I can get into higher levels at the club, but all there is to do at those clubs is cruise for guys. In the Top Girl world, one does nothing besides work and romance, both of which are done without much effort or interest, and that's all there is, Peggy Lee. There's no challenge in this game. You don't get to choose how to pose or what to pose for, you're constantly trading up for a "manlier" boyfriend or more money. You're only playing so you can advance the game and play more, not because it's fun. I'm reminded of this PSA, and a quote I read in a Wired article about Zynga: "When you're playing Counter-Strike or even just throwing a Frisbee, the thing you're doing is fun in itself. In Zynga games, you're just trying to get more stuff. You're caught up in this junkie behavior, and you have to keep upping the dose. That has me terrified." The person who said this? Chris Hecker, a game designer.
And that is perhaps the most important reason why, if I had children, I would want them to stay far, far away from this game. Purple Moon games had a clear beginning and end. The Barbie Makeover games at least let you choose what color eyeshadow and hair color you wanted, not force you to choose what some app designer arbitrarily decided was "hotter." Even the sketchiest online dating and romance sims of the early 2000s had goals, however dubious. (Side note: I once played the abysmal "Get Tiffany" as a teenager solely to see the reaction the other online players would have when I revealed I was a girl. Ain't I a stinker?) But the little girls I met would gladly continue to keep playing this prettily-wrapped empty box of a game. The gratification that comes from leveling up and being told they're hot is too much for them: your brain tells you that you've accomplished something even when you haven't. Games like this are superstimuli, the neurobiological equivalent of eating a candy bar and getting a sugar rush. (Some say that candy bars themselves are a kind of superstimulus.) And it's hard to quit. In college, I was taught to think in terms of "form" and "content." I suppose I have to say that while I object to the content of this game (BOYFRIENDS! STUFF! MORE MORE MORE!), I object even more to the form.
This game is not as bad as I thought. It's worse.
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