Parents and educators have been talking for years about the importance of exposing tween and teenage girls to strong female role models in books and movies — characters who are more than love interests or sidekicks waiting around for a male hero to save them.
But what about video games? Nearly every electronic device is also a gaming platform, and virtually all girls play; a 2008 study from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project reported that 94 percent of girls ages 12 to 17 play video games. And that was before Angry Birds.
"What I found was even worse than I expected," reports Hillary Reinsberg, associate editor of the online news organization BuzzFeed Shift, in a recent withering review of online games geared toward girls headlined, "Tween Girl Video Games: Let's Go Shopping and Find Rich Boyfriends."
Reinsberg spent a few days playing some of the most popular online games targeted at 8- to 12-year-old girls, such as Shopaholic, Beauty Resort and Fashion Icon. "Not only are the games pretty poorly designed and uncreative in their storylines," she writes, "they also teach misguided values. Many of the games taught that romantic partners should be rich and buy you things; that shopping for pricey clothes is the way to get ahead; and that stereotypically female jobs and activities, like working at a fashion magazine or baking, are the only options for girls."
Not surprising, perhaps, since the video-game industry remains dominated by male programmers and designers who haven't quite figured out how to create and market games for girls.
To find some popular games that don't reinforce negative female stereotypes, we turned to Champlain College, home to a growing undergraduate video-game program.
Women are definitely underrepresented there, too — they account for just 31 of the 346 students in the game-design, game programming, and game art and animation majors. But program director Amanda Crispel says those numbers are growing. In October, she's headed to an all-girls science-and math-focused event in New York to recruit more students.
Several of Champlain's female gaming undergrads offer a few of their favorite games — the ones appropriate for tween and teen girls, anyway. The students also suggest that parents research the games their kids are playing. The Entertainment Software Rating Board has rated most console and mobile games. Those ratings can be found at esrb.org or downloaded on your Windows Phone, Android or iPhone.
This single-player puzzler stars Chell, a girl trapped in a scientific testing facility. A computerized life form presents her with a series of challenges, which requires her to use her portal gun to move from room to room. The player opens holes in the walls through which Chell, and various objects, can teleport. Samantha Tow, a senior in the game art and animation program, is a fan. She points out that the only time Chell's face appears is in a mirror at the beginning of the game. For the rest of the game, the player looks out over the front of the gun. "The point of the game isn't the girl herself; it's the puzzles," she says. "If no one pays attention to the mirror, you wouldn't even know if it's a girl or a boy. It's just you."
Available for: Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
In this single-player, action-adventure game, a young woman named Faith Connors must save her sister, Kate, who has been framed for murder. Using parkour running, climbing and leaping techniques, Faith navigates the streets and rooftops of their dystopian metropolis, evading enemies. "Faith is not an overly sexualized character that is just there as eye candy," says Lena Wagner, a sophomore game art and animation major. "She's a very real, strong woman and is one of the greatest heroines in games out there."
Available for: PlayStation 3, Windows PC, Xbox 360
Legend of Zelda
This fantasy game series debuted in 1986, back when phones were attached to walls. The premise is simple: Link, the hero, must save Princess Zelda. But Zelda is not just a pretty face; in some titles she can fight, too. In The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, for example, Link and Zelda go into battle together. Wagner praises the series for its "beautiful stories" and "wonderful characters." "The original game is still thought of as one of the greatest games of all time," she says, "and quite a few women play a key role in the story."
Rating: Some games E, E10+ and T
Available for: Nintendo platforms
Kingdom Hearts is “the first game I really fell in love with,” says Erin Trzcinski, a game-programming senior from Rutland. Playing the game, from Disney Interactive Studios and Square Enix, feels a bit like being inside a Disney movie. Sora, the hero, must fight an enemy known as the Heartless while looking for his friends, Riku and Kairi. Also on the quest are Donald Duck and Goofy, as well as characters from the popular Final Fantasy series. Madeleine Bialkin, a junior who’s minoring in game design, loves it, too. “It’s the reason that I am a video-game developer,” she says. “It’s a game about the love of two characters and the balance of light and dark in your heart ... The women are somewhat scantily clad, but I highly recommend it.”
Rating: Some games E, some E10+
Available for: Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS and 3DS, mobile phones, PlayStation 2, 3 and Portable
Though protagonists Mario and Luigi are male, the many Mario games — Super Mario Bros., Super Paper Mario, etc. — get high marks from most of the Champlain gamers. "Any Mario game is fun to play and is completely family-friendly," says Wagner. "Some games are great to play with friends, like the Mario Party series and the New Super Mario Bros. Wii, while others are great single-player games like the Super Mario Galaxy series." Wagner notes that Super Princess Peach, an older game for the Nintendo DS, gives the traditional Mario formula a twist: "Mario and Luigi are kidnapped instead, and Princess Peach must go out to save them."
Available for: Nintendo platforms
This single- and two-player game introduces a female character to Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog series: Blaze the Cat, so named because of her power to control fire. The evil Dr. Eggman has stolen Blaze’s seven emeralds, and she has to fight various baddies to get them back. Sonic is trying to get his emeralds back, too. Players can choose to embody either Sonic or Blaze. Says Wagner, “Blaze has her own story in the games, and I honestly prefer to play her over Sonic, the main character of the series.”
Available for: Nintendo DS
Teens can buy their own home and furnish it however they please in this series of real-life simulation games, which includes titles such as The Sims: Superstar and The Sims: Livin' Large. Players give their characters jobs, schedule meal times and manage their household finances — not terribly exciting for grown-ups, but good training for kids antsy to be out on their own. If players don't take care of their Sims, they die. "Games in this franchise are easy to learn and very engaging," says senior game art major Margaret van Dyke, "and you can make characters be male or female and wear whatever you want."
Available for: GameCube, Mac OS, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 2, Xbox