From (and Beyond) Barbie to Mortal Kombat [Book Review!]
It’s both exciting and scary to try to look at video games in a more serious and academic way. Since the field is right on the cusp of becoming a real thing, it’s invigorating to be a part of it all, but it is also hard to find good examples of what work is out there already. In my feeble attempt to prepare for my second run of applying to Phd programs to study video games, I’ve spent the past year reading as many game related books as I could, some are more academic than others, but I feel I learned something valuable from all of them so I thought I’d share a little bit about them here in case anyone is interested in checking out some great game writing you can hold in your hand.
"From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games"
Edited by Justine Cassel and Henry Jenkins
Published in 1998, the first installment in the From Barbie to Mortal Kombat book duo is a fascinating account of the “girls game movement” that arose after a Barbie video game became a big seller. This book was fascinating to me as someone interested in studying gender and gaming today, and the most fascinating thing to me is that in the past 14 years of “progress,” people still have no idea what a game for girls should be. Most of the material in the book focuses on younger girls and using video games as a means of furthering their interest in technology, which is a noble sentiment. Using different research methods from comparing male and female play styles within one type of game, to allowing kids to design their own ideal games, the essayists in this book put forth a wealth of information, but the majority of it did not only fail to help progress the design of games for girls, but actually reinforced stereotypes to drive a larger wedge in between boys and girls games. It’s easy to guess what happened to the “girl’s game movement” after a few years. Although the Barbie-esque games still exist today, as far as big budget investments go in the game world no one is willing to roll the dice to make a game aimed specifically at girls. Even after years of trying to figure out the magic formula for girl’s games, not much headway has been made.
There are some gems which brought some new ideas to light for me, such as Henry Jenkin’s article on gendered play spaces. His account of his son using video games as a substitute for roughhousing and outdoor play, sheds some light on why video games are such a strong outlet for boys, which in my opinion, might begin to explain where come of the animosity towards female gamers stems from, but that’s a topic for another day.
One of the most enlightening essays for me was an interview with Lee McEnany Caraher, a big-wig at Sega in the 90s. Although it’s clear she is passing the buck a little by more or less dismissing that there is a lack of material for girls to connect with, she makes an interesting point in saying that Sega’s games are a lot more gender neutral than most. From the lovable Sonic, to the enigmatic Ecco the Dolphin, I remember seeing these games in the toy store as a little girl and being easily drawn to them. I got to thinking about classic game characters such as Sonic, Kirby, Pacman, or the Mario gang and how out of all the characters that have existed throughout gaming history, that these little guys were (and still are) universally adored. When I talk to other females my age about video games, they speak fondly of playing these games, but most don’t play any games now (with the exception of a rousing re-living of their Mario Kart days when the opportunity arises.) So what happened? Maybe we all just grew up. The boys graduated to Halo and the girl’s lost interest in games because there was nothing for them to grow into. Without games to keep girls into gaming throughout their lives, it becomes more difficult to get a controller back into their hands as they grow up. While cell phones and other app devices has given an infusion of gaming back into many females’ lives, the odds of getting those same women to go out and spend money on a console aren’t getting any better, but I digress…
From Barbie to Mortal Kombat is an interesting scope to look at the problem of gender in games. Overall, it brings some interesting points to light and offers a variety of different points of view, from game designers, to researchers, to business executives. All and all, by looking back, it’s plain to see we haven’t come all that far in the past 14 years, but by understanding what hasn’t worked in the past, puts things into perspective about what we can do in the future.
"Beyond From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming”
In honor of the 10 year anniversary of From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, a conference was held on gender and gaming that sparked this second installment of the series. Once again, bringing together an array of different perspectives, this book puts forth a wide array of ideas about gender and gaming. Although some progress has been made, many of the same goals and the problems exist. Using games as a means of education and inciting girls in technological fields is still a large part of the focus. Similar research means of letting girls design their ideal games are used to try to decipher the illusive money making formula for girls’ games.
We do get a chance to hear about some of the new outlets for female gamers that became popular in the subsequent years such as, The Sims and World of Warcraft, which are shown in a mostly positive light by the essayists. Some of the pieces offer some interesting ideas and insight, like that of long time game designer, Sheri Graner Ray and her ambitious and promising ideas for games. Unfortunately, when I went to check on the progress of some of the more promising projects, I was sad to discover that most had long since fizzled out due to lack of funding or lack of interest.
Others pieces serve as strange fluff disguised as progress, such as an interview with one of Ubisoft’s Frag Dolls. Although I think the intentions of the women who originally took part in this project were on the right track, there was no way a corporate sponsored booth babe-esque group could have become a positive beacon for female gamers.
Although a worthy successor to it’s counterpart, Beyond From Barbie to Mortal Kombat is a true sequel, in that it tells the same story in only a slightly different context. Solving the problems of gender in gaming is a slow moving train, but it is encouraging to know that there are people out there from many different walks of life who are working to break down barriers brick by brick. These books give us a tangible account of the work that’s been done over the past 20 years.