Monday 6 January 2014

Games for Girls?

Who is sitting in their bath in a cocktail dress?! Please!

I'm a tutor working for a big company providing after-school booster sessions. In many respects, our sessions are completely gender neutral. Our role is to encourage all children, regardless of gender, to do their best and pursue their goals. At the end of their sessions, kids are allowed some downtime to play games or browse the internet. By far the most popular activity, despite my infinite but seemingly isolated enthusiasm for Pictionary, is the online entertainment platform, Friv.

Now, Friv is an apparently innocuous and slightly naff collection of games like Supercow (collect super milk and superfluous coins!). Yet one day, as I was sitting with a girl, she opened up a "girls'" game.

To be fair, Friv doesn't gender segregate its games, at least on its homepage, which is a start. But the unmistakable shades of pink and lavender and the ubiquitous presence of doe-eyed kittens left the kids in no doubt as to which games they were supposed to be playing. They ranged from the relatively harmless interior decorating and the frankly bizarre "kitten-in-a-hot-air-balloon-delivering-groceries" vibe, to the predictably irritating "feed-the-baby-and-cook-the-dinner" variety.

Unsurprisingly the choice of makeover games was alarmingly vast; "Bratz makeover" - makeover abnormally large-headed women to resemble Lindsey Lohan circa 2001; "Scary Lily makeover" - you're presented with a bald woman in pants and have to dress her in Mean Girls-style halloween costumes to music from the Crystal Maze; "Rapunzel Makeover" - Help! Rapunzel is hideously ugly! Help slay her whiteheads!; "Pinup facial beauty" - as creepy as it sounds given it's aimed at kids: a sexy woman in a little pink frilly number stands seductively while you ply her face with every product in the known universe. And you really feel they're scraping the barrel by the time it comes to "TV Anchor Makeover".

Screengrab from "Pinup Facial Beauty"

So far so blah. However, there were a few games that really got my hackles up.

Take, for instance, "Back to School Makeover". Now, as an educational establishment, we tend to stress full stops and capital letters over eyeshadow and hoop earrings as tools for back-to-school preparation. But not in our downtime area.

In the land of Friv, the crucial back-to-school steps are illustrated by showing how utterly horrifying and gruesome it is to have acne, and how easy it is to get rid of it if only you support the multi-billion pound beauty product industry. Interestingly, bacne is not addressed. 

Now, as a long term sufferer of acne I wanted to warn the kids playing that this was a wholly ignorant portrayal of the process of de-spotting oneself. First off, in the land of Friv, you have to use something that resembles a cross between a magic wand and an instrument of torture to remove the girl's icky puss-filled whiteheads. Then, after applying a scrub - with a brush?! - her spots have miraculously disappeared. (Who uses a brush to apply facial scrub, am I missing something? Maybe this is why I had acne...). I don't tell the kids playing the game that this is a load of old bull, however, as I'm too busy self-consciously patting my face and worrying about how I haven't plucked my eyebrows since before Christmas. If that's what these games do to a relatively confident adult, it can't be doing much for the self-esteem of the teenagers milling around the room. 

Anyway, once you've wasted what seems to be several hours of this cartoon-girl's life slapping chemicals on her face the game ZOOMs in, in order to convey the full horror of unkempt facial hair which you must pluck in order to make her socially acceptable enough for the classroom. 

Next up comes the "Freshner". For several horrifying moments I thought we were about to enter the territory of 'vaginal freshening' products but thankfully no, this was just another chemical to pile onto the poor girl's face, albeit this time with a disembodied hand... 

Still, at least this cartoon-teen got to use semi-recognisable products. Poor spotty Rapunzel's white heads get removed with what seems to be a syringe and a ribbon...


Meanwhile, it's time to makeover your impossibly doe-eyed cream-slathered beauty in time for double maths. Apparently it's now necessary to change her eye and hair colour and give her a silly Shakespearian hat, all in the name of academic preparation.

And voila! At this rate, you'll only have to get up at 4am to make all the necessary preparations for school!

OK, I admit it, when I was a kid I'd probably have gone in for the makeover stuff too. Although admittedly for me it involved crimping my friends' hair and customising my B*Witched inspired dungarees. Plus, it was usually in the spirit of fun, as embellishments, rather than attempts to remove imperfections. And frankly, having suffered with stubborn acne for years, I find the implication that I should have just washed my face and poked myself with a metal stick a bit insulting. Maybe you think I'm taking this too seriously, they are just games after all.

It's true, some of the games aimed at girls are just completely bizarre. "Cupid Forever" manages to blend Heston Blumenthal-style cooking with babies, romance, and fatal injury. Concoct a potion from perfume, cake, chilli, and burgers, and a flying woman will shoot a man in a park with an arrow, only for him either a) to turn into a baby and get carried away by a passing old woman, b) fart the woman next to him into oblivion, or c) get shat on by a pigeon. Not joking.

Perhaps it is all fun and games after all. But here's the thing - makeover games are clearly not just there for fun. There are obvious instructional and shaming overtones to these games which in my opinion make them quite insidious, and reflect some of the horrible expectations our society has of its young women.

But, if you need further convincing of the impossible standards these games are setting, here's a couple of screengrabs from some other makeover games:

Skinny enough for you? Incidentally, that last picture comes from a game called "Silky Smooth Legs" which is basically a step-by-step guide on how to shave your horrible shameful hairy legs whilst in the bath. Curiously, girls are never warned of the thrush risk involved with using multiple scented products near the vaginal canal. Odd, that.

But we're not done yet. The award for WORST GAME TO GIVE A YOUNG GIRL EVER goes to "Dream Date Dress-up"!

It goes like this: 

A girl, let's call her Chloe, is clearly infatuated with some Bieber-haired twit. Ergo, she has to impress on their date. 

Does Chloe instantly rush to the newsround website in order to brush up on current affairs and dazzle Bieber-tron with her wit? Does she have a frank and honest discussion with her parents about safe sex? Of course not, silly! Obviously she enters Bieber-tron's wank bank with her Kodak pervert lens and snaps a photo of his ideal woman in a swimming costume! Like, duh. 

Armed with this knowledge, the player then has to 'win' the game by totally altering Chloe's appearance in order to live up to Bieber-tron's sleazy little fantasy. Because it's totally healthy to teach girls that in order to make the guys they fancy like them back, they just have to cut and dye their hair and don an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini, in order to make themselves into someone else's fantasy. Not unhealthy in the least. 

I had to play this godawful game for screengrabs with which to feed your dismay. I decided to dress Chloe in an Abba-chic-meets-Peggy-Patch look. Bieber-tron was not impressed, despite the fact that he'd not even bothered to put a shirt on. Bit rich. Poor Chloe was in tears because she hadn't reached the "target accuracy to go on the next date." I assume her misery was only increased by the fact that the makers of "Dream Date Makeover" had incorporated a print-out function, thus immortalising her shame forever. 

Joking aside, what do we expect when we sanction games that promote impossible standards of beauty and coach girls to improve their looks, especially in an environment where we're supposed to be nurturing girls' brains rather than their bodies? The kids I work with are aged four to fourteen, and are a particularly high risk category for eating disorders and body dysmorphia. Yet we're implicitly telling them that maintaining an impossibly thin and unblemished figure is a fun, cool, and above all legitimate way to be spending their time.

I work with young girls, and the ways in which they pick up the negative messages we send them about their future place in the world are highly upsetting. To quote one ten year old, a woman's role in a relationship is to be "three things: hot, hot, and hot." She's by no means the exception, there was noisy agreement from the majority of the class, male and female alike. 

To be fair, there are some almost positive portrayals of women on Friv, but you have to look quite hard. Despite the fact that Baby Clinic is aimed at girls because, you know, their role in life is to care for infants, at least there's a woman doctor and they're doing something other than plucking eyebrows. In fact, they're making spooky-looking babies cry by administering polio vaccines. Then there's Epic Battle Fantasy. Praise the Lord! A game with a female action hero that battles mythical creatures (albeit whilst sporting knockers of gigantic proportion). But all in all, the choice for girls is pretty depressing. And what's more depressing, is the fact that this gaming site is sanctioned by countless education centres across the UK. 

Still, the following conversation brightened my mood a little. As I watched one particularly brilliant little five-year-old popping Rapunzel's zits, I asked whether she thought it was important to get rid of spots like that. Her reply: "Yes. Because I had chicken pox once and it really wasn't nice and I hope she'll feel better." I live in hope that this girl will be a doctor. Maybe some things don't rub off as much as we think. Maybe there are some girls protected by their own naïveté. But with a recent survey by Girlguiding collecting some shocking statistics about girls' attitudes towards their appearance, perhaps we should think twice about condoning games which perpetuate these damaging thought patterns.  



  1. The more I think over this post the worse I feel! I remember when I first sprouted soft, fair hairs on my legs and thought nothing of it for months. Then some lass in year 6 decided that they offended her and made a big deal out of it. I then couldn't wait to get my mitts on a razor.
    If I'd had seen one of these games before that time, I'd have been screaming for a Venus the moment the first whisps poked out around my ankles.
    And those stats at the end of the post are just sad. So much damage is caused by games like this (and all the other messages coming from all directions of the media). Hey, Friv, leave those kids alone, yeah?

  2. I've been worried about this site for a while actually. My niece is eight and absolutely loves these games. I'm not sure where she found out about them, but she is particularly excited about the fact that they're made for girls. She's quite a tom-boy in other aspects of her life but perhaps because of this she's eager to wear pink and play with girly toys.

    She's particularly into the wedding-themed games where you can choose your outfit and another where you make a cake. I think the cooking ones, although not exactly gender neutral, are much healthier than the dressing up ones. There's one game where you are encouraged to pick up money you find on the ground in order to buy more clothes! I especially fascinated by her choices in these games and I've found that she does vary her choices of hair/outfit/make-up/skin colour a lot - I kind of expected her to stick to the white, long, blond-haired playboy stereotype, but she likes informal, dungaree-type hipster-style clothes with a pixie cut as much as the strapless ball gowns with flowing locks. I don't know what we can take from this but it cheered me up somehow!

    Although I do my best to make comments about the artificial nature of the games, there is no way I'm going to put her off these types of games, so I just hope that the real influences in her life such as her strong and perpetually make-up-free mum and other capable women make more of an impression than the odd bit of fluff like Friv. Fingers crossed!

  3. I'd be interested to know how the development of these games was funded. With any public institution facing constant funding challenges, they tend to welcome private investment/sponsorship with open arms whenever possible.

    Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the cosmetics industry behind some of this stuff. Get them shaving their legs by the age of 10, and they'll be buying your razors for the rest of their lives! Convince them that their appearance is unacceptable should they *gasp* have a few zits, and they'll be buying your zit cream for at least a decade. Get primary school-aged girls into the make-up habit as early as possible, and peer pressure will ensure no parent gets any rest from their 8 year old daughter until they've kitted her out with foundation, blusher, eye liner, lipstick etc. Get them into the makeover habit nice and early, and watch young girls buy high heels and inappropriate clothing well before adulthood.

    Girls need to ride bikes in the woods, build camps, get muddy, get wet and above all, enjoy being children. The pressures and expectations of adulthood come all too soon. Don't take their innocence away so early. Truly scary.

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  7. My son intro'd his younger sister to Friv, and no matter how I try to encourage her to choose educational games or ANYTHING ELSE REALLY...even the stupid baking games...she constantly chooses these shit games. I actually sat there and played the stupid dating game with her....and was disgusted. Had a little talk to both of the kids about how uncool it would be in real life if a boy didn't like you at all just because you coloured your hair wrong etc (I too did the rebel ugly girl as a litmus test cos' I didn't want to judge prematurely...sadly disappointed obviously)...and after that we played with it for a while trying to make her look as obscure as possible and roundly ridiculing such a silly game...which hopefully was a small contribution to mitigating this shit on behalf of BOTH of my kids...but so many people still don't understand how insidious the gender conditioning is...I posted an article about gender based marketing on Facebook leading up to Christmas, and followed a couple about it too...and the majority of commentors were either completely apathetic, unaware or spouting crap like 'ah, but we all know boys like this and girls like that'...unbelievable. I'm sure I'm considered obscenely and irrationally feminist by most of my it's a bad thing :(