Girl Power Gone Bad: Marketing the Revolution

For a brief while I thought video games had something to do with feminism, grrl power, and bridging the wage gap between the genders. It was hard to see the feminism past Lara Croft's increasing boob size in Tomb Raider, or the flashing panties of all those animated Asian schoolgirls with short skirts and big swords. But lurking on the store shelves between the guns and the T&A, I thought, might just be women's and girls' ticket to more power in the digital world -- and so thought a lot of other women like me. About three years ago, a major revolution in gaming began -- or seemed to begin. Now, it looks more like a brilliant piece of marketing that didn't quite take.

Back in 1997, Barbie was the darling of the video game industry. Barbie Fashion Designer topped out the software sales charts that December, and the accompanying media coverage started a major buzz. Riven had been a big hit with adult women not too long before, and corporations got the idea to court the female market. Even if you hated Barbie and all she stood for, even if you thought video games were a major waste of time, the buzz was still incredibly exciting. For the first time, it seemed a portion of the high-tech industry thought it might actually be worthwhile to build products for women and girls. Women who were designing, building, and playing games began to get media attention. The press even discovered the leather-clad subculture of the girl gamers -- groups of women who banded together to play traditionally male, hard-core shooters like Quake over the Internet.


"Many women turn away from technology during adolescence. This lack of exposure means they never catch up with the skill sets of men and so fall behind in the high-tech workplace."
Girls' software companies started popping up like the current rash of dot coms. The hype became big enough that even Paul Allen got into the act. The man with Microsoft money backed a small company called Purple Moon that set out to create non-Barbie-esque games for girls based on market research. Brenda Laurel, Purple Moon's idealistic leader, made passionate speeches about giving girls what they really wanted. The industry watched closely.

It felt as though we were witnessing a fundamental shift. Women and girls were on their way to claiming equal space in the gaming arena -- and ultimately in the world of technology as well.

There was a reason why games for girls and women seemed so urgently important: People were noticing that the world was becoming subdivided into the technological haves and the have-nots. We were and are facing a new definition of class -- the Digital Divide -- and guess who's on the short end of the stick? As usual it's the poor, the minorities, and us chicks.

Girls -- through lack of interest, peer pressure, or an unwillingness to fight boys for limited screen time -- don't get as much access to computers in the classroom. The result? Many women turn away from technology during adolescence. This lack of exposure means they never catch up with the skill sets of men and so fall behind in the high-tech workplace. Men with better tech skills get the high-paying jobs, and the wage gap widens between the genders.

Interestingly enough, video games were hailed as a remedy to this digital divide. Educators, academics, and parents were desperate to find ways to engage girls with technology. Their desperation made them extremely vulnerable to marketing hype. If girls became as passionate about games as boys, the marketing logic went, then by extension girls might just become as passionate about computers. Many software industry entrepreneurs were eager to encourage and even seed this idea. The idea took. In 1998 a group of MIT researchers published From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, trying to parse this connection between the high-tech industry and gender politics. Thoughts on games, feminism, and education had become intertwined.

"Right now, technology is remaking the world in its image. Women are perceived as the other half of the technology market, the half that isn't buying yet."
But a funny (and positive) thing happened -- in the middle of all that rhetoric, games for women wouldn't sell. No one could sell the idea of a women's game to a major publishing house. No one could sell any girl games either -- unless, of course, they came in a pink box. Nobody could ever figure out what girls wanted. In fact, that was the problem -- the girl game producers were trying to generate demand where there was none.

At E3 '99, I hosted a speaking panel on the girls' software market, where execs from Mattel and other companies debated for hours. Purple Moon had conducted market research about "what girls want," but instead they found out about the status quo, or "what girls already have." So when they built the Purple Moon series, guess what it turned out to be? A replay of a popularity contest in junior high. Not that market demographics have ever produced innovation, anyhow -- they only survey what is already there.

But back to Purple Moon. The initial game play was really poor (dull as hell, it ran like a visual Choose Your Own Adventure), and the technology was flat and dull compared to "boys" games. The result was a game that was a classic example of the girl ghetto -- dumbed-down technology. Guys think it sucks, and girls often won't play it because it's been condemned by guys. (Guys won't cross over into girl toys, but girls will cross over into guy toys. Just the way it works. Childhood sexism I guess -- boys perceive "girl stuff" as being not as good as "guy stuff." But it usually doesn't work the other way round.)

Today, Purple Moon has been absorbed by Mattel and is a small outpost in the Barbie empire. Barbie is a little more PC than she once was -- she snowboards now. Girl gamers are still playing Quake, which has added some kick-ass female characters in the current version, but not much has really changed. Most games that are made exclusively for girls tend to mimic the saccharine Barbie model. They just perpetuate the same old pink stereotypes. Many mainstream games are still unapologetically sexist, as game companies court the teenage male demographic.

On the surface, that doesn't look like much to cry about. Girls and women didn't and don't buy into games -- so what? I'm glad our half of the population isn't tethered to the game box for hours on end. But I'm disappointed that feminism didn't gain more of a foothold in the game world. I'm disappointed that all the hype about getting more girls on computers just didn't come true. In retrospect, though, I'm also surprised I bought the marketing spin for as long as I did.

And I'm worried. I'm worried about the power, and the political and psychological savvy of marketing campaigns. Games are only a tiny part of the greater technological picture. Right now, technology is remaking the world in its image. Women are perceived as the other half of the technology market, the half that isn't buying yet. Entrepreneurs and marketers would like to change all that.

Marketing games to women and girls with "empowerment" rhetoric didn't work, so now they're trying to sell us something else -- the Web and everything on it. Don't get me wrong, I love the new possibilities for communication that the Web opens up. I love how it's fostered communities of women such as the gamegrrls and all the women out there putting together online zines. That, to me, is real female empowerment. Introduce a schoolgirl to that world, and you'll point her in a good direction.

But as corporations rush to find e-business opportunities online, they're using the same grrl power schtick to sell some really addle-pated goods (just take a look at Oxygen.com). And who can blame them? The grrl power pitch has certainly sold us plenty of concert tickets, baby tees, and nail polish -- why not products online? All this chattering about empowerment is designed to do one simple thing: separate women from their money. And that, dear readers, just isn't empowering at all.

Wesley hall is an idealist who spends her days bouncing socio-cultural theory off the heads of her annoyed high-tech coworkers. she likes to be distracted at work, so please email her about your schemes at whall@sirius.com.

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