MHM_Outdoors.jpg The “games for girls” strategy has taken flak from many critics, both male and female. Sure, we’d like to see a world where video games aren’t branded a 99%-teen-male, testosterone-soaked form of entertainment. Most of us think that men and women – or boys and girls – have an equal birthright to video games.

But the challenge of bringing more women into the fold has led to the birth of “games for girls” – and most of them are curious, even offensive misfires. Games with hot pink covers, Barbie dreamhouses, and titles like Imagine Babyz are often perceived, not as building a bridge for girls into the world of video games, but as creating a kind of dumbed-down, fun-free ghetto.

But let’s consider it a different way. We disparage games for girls because they’re so specialized. But specialized games also present an opportunity. What if we’re curious about the weird little audiences they cater to?

Yes, niche games are meant to exploit niches. But they can also open doors to people who weren’t “supposed” to play them. Video games already let us walk a mile in somebody else’s combat boots; but how about, say, their candy-colored riding chaps?

That thought crossed my mind when I got a press copy of Atari’s new My Horse and Me for, what else, the Wii. This is clearly a girl game – the preppie blonde grooming her horse on the cover seals the cliche – but it’s also sold as a serious take on show horse racing, endorsed by the Fédération Equestre Internationale.

I’ve had a low-level fascination with equestrianism since I was a kid, and lived in a small town in Massachusetts that was chock full of rich people with horses. They held polo matches at the country club, but the closest view I ever got was when they rode down our street and shat by our mailbox. I never “got” the appeal – but I was curious.

My Horse and Me gives you the full horse experience, from grooming to riding to changing the color of your horse’s mane to match your own. But the meat lies in the racing, and the first thing you notice there is that the game is very affirming.

As you learn to steer your horse around the stable at different gaits and around tight corners, the coach is nothing but upbeat: “You can do it!” The last shooter I played called me a slack-jawed pole-toucher and dared me to fail: this game wanted me to succeed.

But succeeding isn’t simple. Each level is an obstacle course of jumps and turns that have to be made quickly and correctly. You need practice – and poise. Sitting upright with the Wiimote and Nunchuck (even in a game this dainty, they have to call it the “Nunchuck”), you pull the controls like reins, tilting one back to turn, yanking the controls to brake, or whipping them forward to catch some speed. Sure, you can use the buttons to brake or speed up, but learning to get the right touch is incredibly satisfying.

MHM_Stable.jpgMy Horse and Me takes place at a stately, well-appointed country club. The menu system features scenes of tea and scones, and as a rider, you have to dress in preppy riderwear. To make the game even more realistic, every time you win a race, an invisible daddy buys you more clothes.

The crowds are polite but unyielding. Skipping an obstacle or screwing up even a single jump bars you from a medal. And at the end of the race, you may hear that you did a nice job – but that’s hollow praise if you didn’t even land a bronze.

In fact, when a game’s always telling you did a “great job,” it just puts the burden on you to judge yourself more harshly. For example, there’s a mini-game where you can put together an outfit from all those nice new clothes. The game doesn’t tell you if you if the camo pants and burgundy jacket don’t match. You just have to look at yourself and feel the shame of your mistake.

And there’s plenty of shame to be had here. Because while My Horse and Me starts as a fun romp with your horse, only winners make it to the semi-pro and pro leagues. Those country club crowds clap politely when you finish with two obstacles knocked over and a wrong turn that lost you eight seconds. But the applause doesn’t speak as loudly as the whispering: “Her father must be so … proud.”

So that’s the lie in “games for girls”: they don’t tell you it’s great to be a girl; they ask how great a girl you really are. They have goals and pressures, win-states and loser-states just like any game. The leaderboards, the gold and bronze medals, the feeling of failure and inadequacy – it’s all there, goading you on. They just apply the pressure a little differently and sometimes, more subtly.

That’s why I kept pushing myself harder and racking up the gold medals. And as soon as I cracked the professional league, I felt victory – and it was victory on my own terms, against people who thought I was nothing. And I did it for me. Not for you, daddy. For me.

[Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for Pitchforkmedia.com, and blogs at savetherobot.wordpress.com. Contact him at chris at savetherobot dot com.]