GTA for girls?

// 21 November 2007

When I write about games aimed at girls/women, I very rarely suffer any wish to play them. Yet there is something weirdly intriguing about Coolest Girl in the School, dubbed ‘Grand Theft Auto for girls’, even if it does raise lots of red flags. (Not least of which is obviously ‘don’t girls play GTA?’)

As YPulse reports about the mobile phone game:

The Coolest Girl In School is DEAD!!! Now it’s your turn to take up the throne…

Experiment with fashion! Experiment with drugs! Experiment with your sexuality! Cut class! Spread rumors! But try to avoid dying of embarrassment- literally!

In Coolest Girl in School fashion and communication reign supreme.

Working out what the hell to wear and answering hilarious quizzes makes or breaks you.

Students are labeled according to the sub-culture they subscribe to, teachers exist to be manipulated and parents ensure the constant threat of social death.

Nobody said being the Coolest Girl in School would be easy…

OK, so I can see the fun potential for this one (or at least it isn’t as cloying as some of what’s on offer). Depending on how it was executed, this could play around in some intriguing ways with stereotypes about girls.

But, and it’s a big but, there are some other things going on here. As YPulse puts it, “So if the argument is that Grand Theft Auto allows boys to live out their fantasies of mass murder and beating up prostitutes, than the Coolest Girl in School lets ‘good girls’ live out their fantasies of being ‘bad’ and popular?”

It’s true that this is yet more evidence that the games industry tends to suffer a bit of a failure of imagination when it comes to girls.

But there’s more. Let’s look at the reaction from family groups, as reported in the Australian Daily Telegraph:

TEENAGE girls are being encouraged to take drugs and fall pregnant in an online life-simulator game that has outraged parents and family groups.

And then:

The Australian Family Association condemned the game as “toxic” and “grossly irresponsible”.

“The activities in the game have been shown through vast amounts of research to cause significant, long-term problems for young people,” AFA national research officer Angela Conway said.

OK, this may be true: doing drugs is not generally a very good idea. But the point that struck me is that the reaction from the AFA is even more extreme than the reaction to games like GTA: people don’t tend to think that boys playing violent games will all go out and replicate exactly what they see, they say more general things, like violent games could increase aggression.

So why, when it comes to a game that shows ‘bad’ girl behaviour, is it assumed that girls will go out and do in real life exactly what they’ve been playing out in the game? The implication seems to be that it is worse to expose girls to a bit of teenage bad-girl behaviour, than it is to expose children – although I suppose the subtext is that it is boys who play these games – to violence. I mean, the vast majority of games include behaviour that an actual person wouldn’t want to replicate (will playing Rayman cause children to start attacking bunnies?! how about protecting them from all those images of urban destruction in Katamari?)

Unfortunately, there is more to object to still:

Game developer and producer Holly Owen, the creative director of mobile entertainment company Champagne for the Ladies, said her game is no more dangerous than the gun-firing, car-stealing games marketed for boys.

Too right.

“It’s a pretty ironic game because things that might seem obviously cool like taking drugs and smoking might work against you because you have to go to rehab or have stinky breath when the captain of the football team comes to speak to you.”

And… then comes the big disappointment. If this was really ‘GTA for girls’, then bad actions would not have consequences. Does raping and murdering have consequences in GTA? No. [Edit: It’s been pointed out to me that “there are kinda consequences in GTA – the police chase and kill you and you can’t rape really – you can have sex with prostitutes, pay them, stab them to death and get the money back”.]

So why should something as relatively inconsequential as smoking have consequences in the ‘girl’ version? It seems like even this games creator has fallen into the trap of sheltering girl gamers from their bad selves.

I’m also curious to see how that would play out with other supposed ‘bad girl’ activities – I’m going to give Owen the benefit of the doubt, and assume the game isn’t going to punish players for the “experiment with your sexuality” bit. But how about the stuff about spreading rumours and behaving in a ‘bitchy’ way? It’s hard to know without giving the game a go, but it seems like the game sends out the message that it’s OK to be play at being bad – just as long as you’re not playing at being too bad.

In the end, although it might be fun to play what looks to be Cordelia, the game, this raises endless questions, the most pertinent being: does the game reinforce or break down the good girl/bad girl dichotomy?

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