Barbie® to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games
From Barbie® to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games addresses the connections between gender and computer game playing. It serves to elucidate and define a somewhat recently untouched area of research, also setting out to “explore how assumptions about gender, games, and technology shape the design, development, and marketing of games as industry seeks to build the girl market.” Many of the contributors are female game-players and have been most of their lives; they are placed alongside media and technology scholars, teachers, psychologists, and game developers. Together the editors have provided a good mix, which enables the reader a fully rounded overview of the issues involved in the computer market and game-playing scene. The main focus of the collection is to analyse the new “girls’ games” movement which emerged in part due to the relationship between feminists—who want to change the gendering of digital technology—and industry leaders—who want to make games for girls [p. 4]. Up until now the most common conception of the game console player is the young teenage boy: this book corrects that by looking at the girls who prefer to lock themselves away and play all day in their digital domain. The book arose as a project from a one-day symposium on gender and computer games held at MIT.
The book is divided into three sections. One: “The Girls’ Game Movement." Two: “Interviews.” Three: “Rethinking the Girls’ Games Movement.” Sections One and Three both feature four chapters and the section of interviews contains six transcripts of interviews with girl gamers, designers, and industry executives from companies such as Sega, Mattel, and Purple Moon. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins’s “Chess for Girls? Feminism and Computer Games” introduces the reader to the basic issues involved with the gendering of gaming and how girls have been marginalised in a market particularly geared for boys and their toys. The introduction outlines some of the factors which motivate the critical analysis of today’s video games and the design of new ones. It also explores some of the political problems and contradictions that are involved when the industry decides to create games just for girls. This chapter focuses on the representation of women in computer games—female characters and the options given to female players—and the representation of women in real life—as part of the industry such as company executives, designers, owners [p. 4-5]. As concluded by Cassell and Jenkins, one of the major problems associated with debates over girls playing boys’ games or creating their own games is that both sides start with the assumption that computer games are inherently a boy’s thing. To this day, no-one has found a solution to this problem, but with more girls playing so-called boys' games and creating their own games, which may "include" boy gamers, the space for a broader range of less stereotyped, de-gendered games will open up [p. 36]. Interaction will be able to take place on multiple levels with multiple identities.
Other chapters include “Computer Games for Girls: What Makes Them Play?” which looks at the mass appeal of Barbie game software. The CD-ROM success of a Barbie fashion designer “game” is examined in relation to the development of game features found to be popular with girls and current video game and television preferences. “Girl Games and Technological Desire” looks at the changing relationship between girls and technology; specifically the ways children and adults construct meanings in relation to different technological environments [p. 72]. The chapter “Video Game Designs by Girls and Boys: Variability and Consistency of Gender Differences” is an example of practical research where the author set out to analyse children’s reactions to being able to design their own computer programs. This is quite a “hands-on” piece that records the laboratory experiments of one particular researcher and her project to identify the differences between girls’ and boys’ design ability. In some senses one might have thought it out of place in a collection that examines cultural elements of gender and gaming but the essay perhaps serves to illustrate the significant contribution such a scientific approach can make to the overall argument. The last chapter “Voices from the Combat Zone: Game Grrlz Talk Back” is a compilation of excerpts from girl-gamers’ game reviews edited by Henry Jenkins.
Of course, being a book about computer games and gender there was not much room for scope beyond electronic media. The old fashioned toys are only briefly touched upon as the springboard for discussions on how gender divisions are carried on through to the console. However, one of the most interesting pieces on gender and playing is to be found in one of the interviews with an industry leader, Nancie S. Martin of Mattel. She very interestingly discusses the interaction between girls and their Barbie dolls. The way girls play and have played with Barbie dolls can be linked with the way they play computer games, reproducing “static forms of gender identities” [p. 28]. Martin suggests that the way girls play with Barbie dolls has not really changed a great deal since the dolls first came out. Loyalty is a major factor, as mothers tend to pass on Barbie dolls to their daughters, ensuring a tradition of gender role-playing. Cassell and Jenkins believe this to be quite significant; stating that Barbie play is an important part of the construction of girlhood. Therefore, such an identity does not necessarily come from the doll itself, as it were, but rather from the surrounding social norms linked to "proper" doll-playing.
From Barbie® to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games is a valuable resource for scholar, enthusiast, and student alike. Its approach—critical analysis combined with interviews and game reviews—allows someone with little prior knowledge of the subject to engage with the text and relate to some of the arguments put forward by the authors. The majority of the contributors introduce their essays with personal anecdotes or striking cultural images; this helps the reader form an idea of "the place where the author is writing from." Many academics frown upon this Cultural Studies method of introducing analysis but I believe it to be helpful rather than a hindrance. Much of what there is to be told and looked at in this book is of a personal nature, as female gamers relate how they feel when they play commonly referenced boys’ games and are therefore stereotyped as a result. With such subject material the personal anecdote method is important to the overall reception of the book and as such convinces the reader—this reader, at any rate—that computer gaming and female participation in computer gaming is a crucial part of popular culture in today’s global society.