Failures in Edutainment: the mid-’90s “girl game” fad

Paprika the Fortune Teller from 'Chop Suey'

Brandon Boyer, via Twitter, inadvertently (advertently? well, whatever) directed me toward this post at Jezebel about girl games.

Its writer, Anna Breslaw, opens her piece with a quick hat-tip to a 1995 computer game called Chop Suey, which I’ve mentioned on Infinite Lives thrice before and am about to mention again. That’s because it is a great game that isn’t mentioned often enough. I’m trying to change the world, here, people.

But yes, our coincident timing is totally awkward, ha ha. Earlier in the week I’d snuck a bunch of Chop Suey playthrough videos onto YouTube, hoping to jog memories. (For a long time the only footage of the game available online was Bruno’s.)

But also, I was already laboring over this Chop Suey retrospective. Please do read it! It is a tragedy Chop Suey isn’t better remembered: it was celebrated in its day, and with reason. But most people did not use the Internet in 1995, which is to say, Chop Suey and all its accolades have not been very well preserved. (Duncan’s extraordinarily bizarre death doesn’t help anything; it’s almost impossible to discuss Chop Suey without mentioning that part, too, and the game is thusly difficult to google.)

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were such a great time for edutainment, and while the medium isn’t entirely dead (your child’s school computer lab may yet have Storybook Weaver!), I do think the middle-’90s’ “girl game” craze went a long way in murdering it. Worse, the “girl game” genre probably scared a generation of woulda-been PC gamers away.

Most girls did not actually play girl games in the ‘90s, of course, because most “girl games” were stupid. Girls are not idiots. Girls are not boy-crazy strumpets. Girls are 8. Girls are 9. Girls play Oregon Trail and You Don’t Know Jack. Can people not picture 9-year olds?

This is what girls really want: girls want horse training simulations; they like fortune-telling; girls read spy stories and tales of adventure and daring; girls enjoy the Super Nintendo version of Mario Kart and computer games about being in outer space. Girls would like chemistry lab sets for Christmas, or planetariums and cheap telescopes, or periscopes and walkie-talkies. Girls like crafts. Girls like Minecraft! Girls like dolls, toy theaters, replicas, scale miniatures, and “character editors.” Girls like She-Ra. Girls like Labyrinth. Girls like sci-fi, unless it’s just a bunch of dweeby dudes standing around talking into their own lapels. Girls like pirates and especially stowaways, and especially stowaways who look like boys but are secretly girls. Girls like scrappy heroines—resourceful, freckle-nosed troublemakers—heroines with scraped knees and scuffed shoes. Girls are impatient to learn something new, and if you don’t give them brain-food they eventually wander off. There! There is your blueprint for a “girl game.”

So, yes, Breslaw’s and my Chop Suey -themed posts both went up on May 12, both incorporating that same playthrough footage. Oops! How embarrassing. It’s a little like arriving at a dance in matching dresses.

Fortunately, the dresses aren’t identical! (Ha, ha, ha!) Breslaw’s piece isn’t about Chop Suey at all, thank goodness. It’s actually about a new project called FEMICOM, an online museum that aspires to catalogue and archive every manner of game-for-girls. This is noble work—it’s why I’ve made Chop Suey evangelism one of my pet hobbies, actually—exactly because the project illustrates the enormity of the gulf between “this game or toy is edifying” and “why would you ever give your child that.”

The nicest thing about seeing this article about “girl games” on Jezebel, though? It’s elicited all these comments, where the readers themselves are essentially sorting the lady-treasures from the lady-tripe. One reader mentions Heavenly Sword for PS3. Oh, boy, do girls love that game. (Because we love third-person beat-em-ups starring She-Ra! It’s pretty much the only game you should give an adult woman. There, I said it.)

Other notable “girl-friendly” game mentions: Sim City. The Sims. Little Big Planet. Metroid. Zelda. Carmen Sandiego. Ecco. Pokemon. No One Lives Forever. Nancy Drew games. Street Fighter, Soul Calibur. Doom, Marathon, BioShock. Killer7 (most girls do really well with first-person rail-shooters; this has something to do with spatial attention). Final Fantasy. Fallout. Diablo. Starcraft. Mass Effect. Star Wars KOTOR. Guild Wars. Skyrim. Braid. Age of Empires. Civilization. Portal and its sequel. (“I loved that about Portal…really the only way you knew the character was female was from the brief glimpses you got of yourself if you lined Portals up right. Her female-ness wasn’t a factor one way or the other in the game.” Thank you, Susan Fry! I agree.)

And a thread, four comments long, about Woodruff and the Schnibble.

And also from the Jez comments,

See, this is why I get so frustrated with the whole conversation about games for girls. If you’d tried to design an ideal non-people based game for little girl me, it would have featured dinosaurs fighting each other, not dolphins swimming around being pretty.

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How to design a game that effects social change

Over at Opposable Thumbs, David Chartier writes,

Nonprofit organization Games for Change (G4C) is continuing its march to save the world through gaming. Aided by some vicarious funding from the AMD Foundation, G4C today launched a new toolkit designed as a crash course to help non-profit organizations learn how to create “social issue digital games.”

The Games for Change Toolkit is primarily a Flash-based presentation containing video, reference material, and links to demonstration games that cover various aspects of game design, from the initial concept to production and distribution. While an actual SDK may not be involved, the toolkit introduces nonprofit organizations to both the broad potential and finer details of bringing an issue-conscious game into reality.

According to Chartier, the design primer’s video resources are culled from footage from the 2008 symposium “Let the Games Begin: A 101 Workshop on Making Social Issue Games,” here reorganized into a logical hierarchy for the G4C site.

toolkit

I guess I thought the G4C Toolkit would be kind of a bore*, but I ended up hunting around the flash site for a long time: this kind of game design philosophy absolutely overlaps with the broader genre of edutainment. One of the best moments, I think, is during Karen Sideman’s presentation, when—paraphrasing James Paul Gee—she asserts that games don’t necessarily ‘make’ learning fun. In fact, it’s just the opposite: games are fun because we are learning.

*More social issues games ought to be as addictive as PETA’s Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals.

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Casual edutainment from the Nobel Foundation

As of Monday, October 13, the 2008 Nobel prizewinners have all been named! I was surprised and delighted when, tonight, as I skimmed the Nobel Foundation’s official website, I spied an entire category dedicated to flash games. Totaling 16 in all, each game has been designed to both edutain and infotate (Sorry, Ray).

The subjects of chemistry, physics, medicine, literature, and peace offer three games each. There is also one game currently listed under “economics,” intended to teach the fundamentals of national and international trade. In playing the Lord of the Flies game, I realized that—despite its being my favorite allegory when I was 14—I was only able to match the character Piggy to his eyeglasses. Sigh.

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My Favorite Edutainment Titles That Promote Literacy

Yesterday, GamePolitics pointed to an interesting blog-rant titled “Department of Bad Ideas: Teaching reading through video games,” written by one Miss Self-Important. (That’s her nom de blogge, by the way—no one is being snarky here.)

What follows is just one brick in the wall MSI posted yesterday:

So this brings us to video games as a means of encouraging reading. There is no logical connection between these two activities—in my experience, the only activity that video game playing encourages is more video game playing. This is not inherently evil (just mostly), but neither is it going to achieve the stated end. But! also! “some educational experts suggest that video games still stimulate reading in blogs and strategy guides for players.” And nothings instills lifelong literary habits like video game strategy guides. ... Again, I have to wonder—how excited should we about every line of text a child reads? Is it an achievement that a child can establish basic communication with his peers, which is essentially what a message board allows, and which is completely different from understanding literature? Are food labels the next big literary thing?

So I read this, and instinctively, I think this woman is kidding. After all, she wears glasses. Also, she identifies as a Chicagoan who now lives in a new city. Her punctuation is so Lewis Carroll. She is obviously very likable. She also belies, in her blogroll sidebar, an interest in casual gaming—how can I not assume that we are cut from the same cloth?

Moreover, she notes elsewhere that, just this September, she was reading Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History. Why, this summer, I was reading a different history of children’s literature, Minders of Make-Believe (thanks, Seth)! So while I would ordinarily pay this blog entry no further thought, I am, instead, helplessly furious.

I underscore MSI’s interest in children’s lit because, in her rant, she hints at having a broader suspicion of edutainment on the whole: she isn’t just skeptical of software targeted at youth, but also at mainstream children’s books and, I can only assume, various other media. And this is so frustrating, because we share a real interest—how best to cultivate children’s literacy and enthusiasm for learning—but, clearly, we approach this from completely opposing vantages.

Rather than deconstructing this blogger’s argument (which I assume she wrote for her own writerly satisfaction, and not to engage the entire GamePolitics readership), I will simply confront it with:

My Favorite Software and Edutainment Titles That Promote Literacy

Storybook Weaver (MECC, 1992)

It’s a computer game in which you seldom read, only write.

Maybe this is a strange place to begin a list about literacy, but alas, Storybook Weaver is the first game I played on our very first family computer. To be fair, this ‘game’ was nothing more than blank pages to type into, along with an enormous catalogue of clip art. But the clip art was populated with archetypes from folk- and fairy- tales, ready to be graphically remixed, mashed up, and ultimately, written about. Storybook Weaver was like magnetic poetry for elementary school kids. This was perhaps, in my quest to write the Great American Novel, my most prodigious era.

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