“Girl Games” vs. “Games Girls Play”: Gender Essentialism and the Pinkification of Games

The perception of the realm of computer and video games is that of an overwhelmingly male community. Games are marketed to and for almost exclusively male consumers, even from from a young age, and the community has a reputation for unfriendliness and even outright hostility to women and girls who attempt to join it. To attempt to combat this gender imbalance, a movement arose within the game industry to reach out to potential female players, especially younger girls by designing and marketing titles towards them, creating, for better or for worse, the genre of the “girl game.” These games targeted towards young girls/an exclusively female audience tend to reflect traditionally “feminine” themes, feature relatively simplistic gameplay you get games, often of much lower quality than “normal” titles marketed towards boys, and typically come with an overwhelmingly pink-and-purple color schemes. While these “pinkified” games can come from a place of good intent and are not bad in and of themselves, they reflect and enforce essentialist gender roles and limit the options presented to girls and women interested in gaming.

The term “gamer” tends to conjure up the image of someone young, white, and male, frantically tapping away at a console in front of the television. However, the reach of games and game players spreads far beyond that narrow demographic. According to the Entertainment Software Association, “women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (36%) than boys age 18 or younger (17%).” Additionally, 48% of game players surveyed identified as female. 1 Why, then, is our idea of a “gamer” so male focused?

In the video above, Jameen Warrin attempts to explain the discrepancy between the actual population of people who play games and the stereotype of “gamers.” 2  The predominantly male culture and  stereotype associated with the term “gamer” requires a certain level of technicity from women to be seen as legitimate, with women often grilled on what hardware they use, how long they’ve been playing, or their reasons for playing games. The “gamer” community, especially in recent history, often isolates female players using targeted and gender-specific harassment, often of a sexual nature. This harassment takes a variety of forms and intensities, encompassing everything from the use of gendered slurs and insults towards female players during online play to doxxing (release of personal information) and threats of violence and rape towards higher-profile female game designers, journalists, and community members. The hostile environment this misogynistic harassment creates leads many female gamers to dissociate themselves from their gender (choosing gender-neutral usernames, not talking in online chat, etc., in order rendering them significantly less visible in the “gamer” community. This narrow view of “gamers” and gaming also leads to the idea that women are only “casual gamers’ whereas the “real” or “serious” gamers are men. The overwhelming invisibility of women in the stereotyped/generalized gaming community leads to companies and designers seeing women as not interested in games.

Additionally, Warrin argues that the internet and “filter bubbles” perpetuate the gap in the perception of the term “gamer” by algorithmically pushing similar people (in this case, those who fit the convention definition of ‘gamer’) together, excluding women almost by default. However, the internet and online communities are only one factor of many that marginalize women’s voices in gaming and exposure to games. According to Diane Carr:

As it currently stands the majority of computer games are produced by a primarily male industry that tends to assume a male audience. Computer games are publicised and reviewed in magazines that address a male (usually adolescent) reader, and they are often sold in retail outlets where men outnumber women on both sides of the counter. These factors in combination result in women and girls having less exposure to games, and less first hand experience of gaming. Girls and women who are unacquainted with games will have to answer researchers’ questions about their gaming preferences based on their impressions of games, rather than on actual experience. Girls and women who have not been introduced to the pleasures of gaming will not be motivated to buy or play games. This disengagement will ‘prove’ or perpetuate the notion that males are more inclined towards gaming. So fewer girls will be encouraged to take up gaming, and fewer girls than boys will grow up wanting to create or produce games – and the games industry will remain primarily male. 3

This problematic cycle of exclusion is self-perpetuating, lacks an easily visible solution, and is often misunderstood. The question that is often asked by game companies and designers is how to get women interested in games when it is perhaps better to ask how to get women entrenched into games and gaming culture.

This idea of a lack of female interest in games reveals itself in strategies used by designers and game companies to attract women and girls to games.  Predominantly male game designers often struggle to design for a female audience. According to Els Rommes:

When it comes to getting girls into games, it is quite common within game production to follow a design approach known as the ‘I methodology’ – a process in which ‘designers see themselves as typical users and use their own tastes and preferences as the basis of making design decisions’ (Gansmo, Nordli and Sorensen 2003:5). 4

Because of this tendency to design based on their own preferences and their preconception that girls are not interested in games, designers and companies often rely on stereotypes of women and femininity or on input from girls and women that do not play games. Additionally, they often operate under the assumption that girls have fundamentally different preferences than boys when it comes to the genre and themes of games that interest them. An article from Communications of the ACM (the Association for Computing Machinery, an organization for computing professionals) about engaging girls with computers through computer games, draws a strict line between boys and girls when providing suggestions for how to design games.

…girls do not play games only to win, and they are bored by repetitive games that require a player to start over again each time he or she loses or “dies.” In general, girls are more interested in creating than destroying. One study illustrated that girls preferred games that require thought and puzzle-solving skills, and they find the repetitive music and sound effects of typical male-oriented games monotonous. [2]. In addition, boys in North America were found to prefer loud games that involve quick reflexes rather than puzzle solving, and games that involve substantial amounts of fighting or killing. 5

This set of recommendations is troubling coming from an industry voice as it leaves no room for overlap in preference between girls and boys interested in computer games. relying instead on increasingly outdated ideas of gender essentialism (the theory that the preferences, talents, and abilities of  males and females are fundamentally different on a biological level). The focus on gender essentialism eliminates any room for individual preference as well the possibility of gender neutral games.  In practice, media and game consumption is not divided strictly along gender lines. As demonstrated by a British case study which observed nine girls playing computer games during their lunch period over the course of a school year, preference is not only individual, but malleable and highly dependent on exposure to different forms, genres, and themes of media.

At the start of the term, and again at the end, the girls completed questionnaires on which they were asked to list their favorite games. On the first questionnaire, the girls listed a wide variety of games and genres: fighting and racing games were nominated, games from the GRAND THEFT AUTO series were popular, as were action adventure games and THE SIMS. Other popular genres were not mentioned at all (sports management games, online FPS games, for instance). In the context of this discussion, however, what is significant is that the girls listed a total of 26 games on the later questionnaire, and this included 16 new games, 9 of which had been accessible to the girl concerned during the sessions. Individual girls listed new favorites that included named titles (MIDTOWN MADNESS 3, for instance), as well as entirely new genres (“fighting games,” for example). The initial preferences expressed on the first questionnaire presumably relate to games that the girls had previously accessed. A percentage of these alterations might be due to the girls remembering different games or being in a particular mood. Yet, these shifts also indicate that simply offering these users alternative games in a new context was sufficient to generate changes in their stated tastes. 6

The girl in this case study, many coming in with little experience with gaming/exposure to games, found and enjoyed many new games, including some traditionally “male”/”masculine games such as Tony Hawk Pro Skater and Midtown Madness 3 (a racing game). In one case, a game (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) that was originally uninteresting to/ignored by the girls became popular only after they saw a sponsor of the club playing the game, after which it piqued the interest of the club members and became extremely popular.

While case studies such as this one illustrate that highly targeted/essentialist design is not necessarily effective, the “girl games” genre  is still often the only option at all marketed towards a female demographic.These “girl games,” made by companies such as Purple Moon and Mattel (Barbie)tend to stylistically and thematically rely on stereotypes of femininity, focusing on more character-centered plots, issues of friendship and social relationships, and bright, colorful graphics. These games are often made with good intentions, with many of these companies led by female designers making games intended to act as a stepping stone into gaming and computers for girls. However, these companies are often limited by a lack of budget, either due to being an indie studio or due to the reluctance of larger companies to “waste” money on marketing to a demographic (girls) that they haven’t had success reaching in the past. In order to get these games funded, marketed, and purchased, these game creators often get caught in the same cycle of producing Anglocentric, gendered content that they were trying to contest.

For the moment, they claim that they are forced to market to a “normative” or “average” conception of femininity, while inserting alternative interests around the margins. Purple Moon’s “Rockett’s World” series reflects this impulse, casting the red-haired, thin, middle class, and white Rockett as the American every girl around whom is arrayed a broader range of gender, racial, and cultural types.7

Without sufficient financial and marketing support, it is difficult for content creators to break the mold in terms of thematic content or gameplay styles without putting themselves at a financial risk. What, then, results from the continuation of gender-focused design?

While the clip above 6 discusses Legos, a physical toy as opposed to a video/computer game, it addresses some of the issues with the gender essentialist design of products for young people.  While the divide between the LEGO City and LEGO Friends sets is not necessarily quite as extreme as Sarkeesian presents it (‘Olivia’s Invention Workshop’ is one of the new LEGO Friends sets and prominently features a female inventor, a toolbench, and a robot), the difference between the predominantly stereotypical pink-and-purple world provided for girls and the action-packed “real world” marketed to boys presents an all-too-antiquated view of what range of actions, careers, and desires are appropriate for each gender.

While problematizing the gendered nature of modern LEGOs, Sarkeesian touches on an important point about gendered media: ultimately, “pinkified” toys and games are not inherently bad. Games that embrace traditionally “feminine” themes such as socialization, creation, and caretaking are not without value and can appeal to and be enjoyed by many girls (as well as gamers of other genders). The problem with “pinkified” games is not that these games exist. What is harmful is that they are the only options actively promoted to girls, but are almost entirely confined to stereotypical, essentialist themes.

Recognizing the harm that “pinkified” games can do is only the first step. How can we design games that appeal to girls without wearing out tired gendered tropes?

While the video 8 focuses on designing for children (as opposed to girls specifically), its overall message is very much applicable from a designer’s perspective.Games targeting girls don’t need to pander to simplistic, “feminine” themes. If gamers are given multiple  options, as well as virtual space to explore and discover new things within gaming, their preferences will not only change, but expand. While there is some correlation between gender and preference to take into consideration when looking to attract female gamers, it is important for designers and companies to avoid relying on gender essentialism and tropes of femininity and masculinity when ideating, creating, and marketing games. Instead of designing for girls, design games that are accesible to children of a variety of backgrounds. For girls and women to feel welcome and comfortable in the “gaming” community,  we have to create a community where women are represented, harassment is not tolerated, and where your gender does not determine what kind of content you are presented with.

Ultimately, in gender research within the games industry, designers must be able to work towards gender equity without falling into stereotyping traps, realizing the inherent breadth and contradictions of categorization. To escape the ghettoization of “girl games”, it is important not only to avoid gender essentialism and stereotypical representations of femininity, but also to design for a multiplicity of experiences, focusing on a wider range of topics and allowing for multiple play styles in order to create content that welcomes in players regardless of gender.


Works Cited

Carr, Diane. “Games and Gender.” In Computer Games: Text, Narrative, and Play, 162-178. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.

Cassell, Justine, and Henry Jenkins. “Chess for Girls?: Feminism and Computer Games.” In From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, 1-32. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

Flanagan, Mary. “Troubling ‘Games for Girls’: Notes from the Edge of Game Design.” (paper presented at DiGRA, Vancouver, June 16-20, 2005).

Gorriz, Cecilia, and Claudia Medina. “Engaging Girls with Computers through Software Games.” Communications from the ACM, January 1, 2000, 42-49

Rommes, Els. “Gender Sensitive Design Practices.” Encyclopedia of Gender and Information Technology. 1st ed. Vol. I. London: Idea Group Reference, 2006. 675-681.

Sarkeesian, Anita. “LEGO Friends – LEGO & Gender Part 1.” YouTube video, 10:30. Posted by “feministfrequency,” January 30, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrmRxGLn0Bk.

Warrin, Jameen. “Are 50% of Gamers Women?,” PBS Game/Show. YouTube video, 11:26. Posted by “PBS Game/Show,” September 30, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILMiw9KGJd8

“Designing for Youth – Making Games for Players Under 14,” Extra Credits. YouTube video, 6:27. Posted by “Extra Credits,” March 26, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdFw8kvHAY8


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