March 30, 2008 4:00 PM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
By now, just about everybody's heard of Miss Bimbo, the browser-based "game for girls" that's ruffling feathers with its anti-feminist gameplay. Girls adopt a glam-o-rama avatar and, spending virtual "bimbo dollars" on chocolate, fashion and some unspecified "medicines," complete various simplistic challenges with the stated goal of becoming "the finest, coolest bimbo that ever existed."
This is, of course, the perfect recipe for auto-cringe: it embraces superficial and arguably destructive ideals, is ostensibly aimed at "'tweens" (itself a cringe-inducingly trendy marketing buzzword), and the website itself is a car accident of cartoonish pink featuring some kind of skank with bunny ears. Aberrant Gamer is arriving fashionably late to this party, actually, with too many outlets to link already providing analysis and experiences with the dreaded Miss Bimbo (just Google it). As for me, the servers were so stressed I couldn't even play to any significant extent. The universal verdict? Disgusting.
Games like Miss Bimbo (created by a man, by the way) just can't win. Women find them disgusting and offensive, and gamers worry about the bad PR. But aren't we being a bit hypocritical?
Ew, Girl Games
Numerous studies seem to show that females like casual games, and that casual portals and certain Wii games are broadening the traditionally majority-male audience. But gaming in general is still majority male, and video games, be it console or online, enjoy a far more favorable reputation among males than females. Most women who are into games -- your columnist included -- have now learned that mentioning their hobby is a great icebreaker among men at parties. Among fellow females and potential galpals, however, being a gamer is a warning sign, a red flag, an oddity to be overcome on the rocky road to female bonding. This large-scale failure of females to enjoy gaming on a level playing field with males continues to perplex both game companies and audiences, who wonder when the girls are ever going to come and play with us.
Maybe when we start welcoming them young? And yet gamers are usually perplexed and annoyed by the pink, pony-populous "games for girls" section at the store, many of us wondering if the target audience even likes being pandered to to such an extent. Take Ubisoft's Imagine series on DS. The company says titles like Imagine Fashion Designer, Imagine Animal Doctor and, of course, Imagine Babyz, are designed to enable girls to explore their favorite hobbies and interests.The audience has largely approached them with an eyeroll and a snicker. Even females generally find pink things insulting. The Imagine franchise, however, is one of Ubisoft's cash cows -- it's sold 3 million of them.
Why do games like these bother us? Is it because they specify an audience that is not us? Do we have a knee-jerk, PC-feminist response to pink things that refuses to accept that some girls like that stuff? The women of today are very interested in telling the young girls of today what they may and may not be interested in -- President, CEO, News Anchor (yes), Housewife, Supermodel, Princess (no). But really, why does every girl need to be Gloria Steinem?
This Barbie Will Self-Destruct
Teenagers and 'tweens are particularly vulnerable. When people are babies, it's almost expected to differentiate the bald, unremarkable little creatures with pink and blue blankets -- if you're the mom of a baby girl and you put her in a blue nursery, for example, you can bet nosy family members are going to be perplexed at your color scheme. And when kids are still single-digit in age, it's perfectly acceptable to throw them gender-themed birthday parties; a little girl will quite normally have a Disney Princess party, while a little boy might have Ninja Turtles party decor on his special day. No one cries gender discrimination then, but when Disney Princess Gal hits puberty just a couple years later, it's suddenly of concern or "dangerous" if she still prefers things that are pink and sweet? Doesn't she have a right to?
Being A Bimbo
The issue with Miss Bimbo, of course, is not just that it's pink and targeted at girls. It's that it seems destructive, espousing weight maintenance, consumerism and the superficial fashion-driven lifestyle. It presents your Miss Bimbo avatar with an "ideal height and weight" which part of gameplay revolves around maintaining, though Fox News.com found that later levels ask you to gain weight so that you can earn Bimbo Dollars at plus-sized modeling, and that while the game says being thin is important, keeping healthy and eating is key to the gameplay. It also features some budgetary resource management, and a marketplace where savvy girls can re-sell old accessories to new players.
It's a lifestyle game, and this lifestyle is mostly negative and rooted in female stereotypes. Had I a daughter, I certainly wouldn't want her taking her cues on how to prioritize her dreams from Miss Bimbo. But it'd also be unfair to prohibit her from playing it -- after all, this lifestyle is glamorized in an American society obsessed with the latest mad exploits of pop stars or the outrageous behavior of socialites. It may not be a value set we'd like to see today's young women emulate. But in addition to doing them an emotional disservice by quashing their curiosity about it, it's completely unrealistic to try and prevent their interest in it.
Girls want to play games where they can make women act like what they see on TV. And, news flash -- the average girl will at some point try out hilariously offensive, sexual and destructive scenes with her Barbie Dolls at some point in her youth. We all do it; sorry. I'd be willing to bet today's young Miss Bimbo players find the game just as hilarious.
Girls receive certain messages on a regular basis from society. Like it or not, today's women and girls are obsessed with their weight, the adequacy of their wardrobe and their social power, in alarming majorities. Given that, Miss Bimbo was almost doomed to emerge as a social practice game for the reality of our world. If we're repulsed by what Miss Bimbo asks girls to do, the game is nothing but the tiniest microcosm of a social epidemic that needs addressing on a much broader scale than shutting down a website could ever accomplish.
The Good Old Blame Game
It's easier to blame the game, of course -- it's challenging to find one article on Miss Bimbo that doesn't correlate it to problems with eating disorders, female self-esteem, gender equality or anything else. Finally, a point of relationship between Miss Bimbo and the everyday gamer. If you're going to be disgusted at Miss Bimbo, you should probably avert your eyes from GTA IV, too.
GTA casts you as a male gangster type, gaming his way up the ladder to wealth, power and gorgeous women by capping bitches and slapping hoes. It's all about hot cars, nice houses and warm guns, and it encourages men to eat junk food and work out to increase their strength. It's a negative male fantasy -- perhaps by many definitions an offensive one -- and it's become the whipping post for an entire legion of detractors who want to blame the game for social problems in young people.
And yet we as gamers will largely never capitulate in our defense of GTA, nor ever surrender our right to play it if we so choose. Because it's a game, a closed emotional experiment for its players. It'll always be attractive to young teens, and so we ask parents to read rating labels and prohibit their kids from playing it, or at the very least instill values adequate enough for the kid to determine that GTA doesn't warrant emulating in reality.
While Miss Bimbo, unlike GTA, is meant for kids, it's non-violent, and contains no pornography or overtly offensive language. It's distasteful and hard to agree with, but we can no more take issue with the game itself than we can blame the interesting social microcosm of Bully for -- well, bullying. Like GTA, Miss Bimbo is somewhat of a satire of these archetypes, and that can rob them of their venom. In fact, it's a safe way for girls to explore ideas about social pressures. What they do from there is a parental responsibility primarily, and an issue for our culture at large.
[Leigh Alexander is editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances and reviews often for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer