More dangerous than "Grand Theft Auto"

Are video games marketed to girls more potentially harmful than the spectacles of violence aimed at boys?

Published July 14, 2009 9:15PM (EDT)

I confess: As a child, I loved girlie toys. The centerpiece of my bedroom, packed as it was with Barbie dolls and stuffed animals, was a tot-sized plastic kitchenette. And I remember making frequent use of a fashion-design art kit while a chemistry set languished in the closet. Perhaps worst of all, I owned an elaborate board game called "Mall Madness."

Why am I so bothered, then, by the raft of forthcoming video games geared toward girls? All designed for the Nintendo DS, a portable system that has become popular with the female demographic (and can be purchased in an attractive baby pink casing), the games appeal to the saddest stereotypes about girls. "The Clique: Diss and Make Up" invites players to claw their way through the middle-school social structure and gain membership to the coveted Pretty Committee, while "My Boyfriend" entangles tweens in "the love story of your dreams," complete with an exercise regimen designed to land that man... er, boy. Amid a number of fashion-oriented games, the self-explanatory "Imagine: Babyz Fashion" stands out as particularly cringe-worthy.

Wired writer Tracey John makes a smart point about the girls' titles:

The weird thing is that you can view these "wholesome" games as being just as bad for girls as Grand Theft Auto’s random bloodshed and rampant criminality is for young, impressionable boys. And while GTA’s influence on boys has been dissected to death, what about the Nintendo DS’ upcoming avalanche of games for tween girls? What kinds of values do preteens learn from these titles? Valuable life lessons, or bad habits?

It's true: While the graphic sex and violence in "Grand Theft Auto" riles up parents, educators and politicians, few outside of feminist circles are going to raise a fuss about "Charm Girls Club: My Perfect Prom." And why should they? Instead of promoting antisocial behavior like the first-person shooters marketed to boys, girls' games actually reinforce the cultural prejudice that women love nothing more than shopping, dating and gossip.

With that in mind, I would go further than John: I think these games can be even more harmful than "Grand Theft Auto," because they have more potential to influence their players' lives. Your average "GTA" player is highly unlikely to, for example, climb to the top of his city's highest building and start shooting cops on the street below with a machine gun. But it doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that a game called "Dreamer Series: Top Model" could take its toll on an awkward 12-year-old's self esteem, or that the multitude of dating games could subtly perpetuate the idea that a girl's life is incomplete without a boyfriend. If boys' games are as escapist and cathartic as a good action movie, then girls' games are aspirational and prescriptive, like Seventeen magazine in interactive, digital form.

And maybe that is why these video games bug me more than the dolls, kitchen sets and fashion kits I cherished as a little girl. Sure, Barbie's popularity implies that the perfect woman has boobs so big and a waist so narrow as to be structurally unsound. But at least she encourages girls to be creative, inventing original characters and story lines. Art and make-believe give girls the tools to create their own ideal worlds. These video games, by contrast, define perfection and fulfillment on their terms -- and the only way girls can succeed at them is by conforming.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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