Games for Girls: Social or Sexist?


Of all demographics, women over age 30 consistently show more interest in mobile gaming than any others. Of course, there are some companies that specifically target younger users. Crowdstar, the fourth largest social gaming company in the world, focuses on the "younger female demographic," according to its CEO Peter Relan. One of its latest games, Top Girl, ranked as the 57th most-downloaded free iTunes app in the last week of 2011, passing one million downloads in just 10 days. "Even to our surprise, it became the world's top-grossing game on the iPhone, over Zynga's poker games and existing brands like Angry Birds," Relan said.

But how are bloggers and gamers reacting to this hot new app? Not one to mince words, one reviewer said it is "the worst kind of gender-biased tripe on the world." Other players at The Border House and fbomb provide mixed reviews of It Girl (the original Facebook version of the app): "From a feminist standpoint, it’s pretty much trash," one reviewer writes. "The problem is, it’s a good social game as far as the mechanics goes."


Doused in the hottest of pink, Top Girl users first customize the skin tone and hair style of a 2D, Barbie doll-footed, Bratz-eyed, thinner version of Judy Jetson/Betty Rubble. Each user is a fashion model who works her way through five levels of career stardom, earning coins and eking out dollars that accumulate over time, with the help of a moneyed or "energetic" boyfriend. She wins him over by purchasing wine and by dressing "hotter" than his own “manliness.” The model amasses a wardrobe of clothing, including miniskirts, dresses, high heels and the occasional pants, or, even cuter, jeggings that fit into career-boosting brown leather high-heeled boots. To keep the relationship alive, the model and boyfriend share corny one-liners that the user reads via speech bubbles.

Crowdstar's Vice-President of Studios Blair Ethington said that the company's priority is to anticipate the needs of its users, whom she estimates are more than 90 percent female. Crowdstar’s Facebook users are mostly located in the United States and Eastern Europe, while geographic stats for Android and iOS users were unavailable. “We monitor our numbers on an hourly basis,” Ethington said.

She said the developers adapt the game according to who is playing, for how long, and what clothing they wear, barring any personally identifiable information. Seasonal clothing, gifts and dates are examples of immediate changes that do not need a code update, she explained. Qualitative metrics also matter. So far, user feedback has mostly been about “getting more clothes,” Ethington added.

The California-based firm employs more females than most gaming companies, according to Ethington. She praised the in-house art designers who have an eye for fashion and credited the product managers for writing for what they hope are “fun, engaging, light and humorous” boyfriend dialogues.

Critical to Top Girl’s success is Crowdstar's seeming dedication to studying its audience. Ethington described its threshold for pursuing a game as the moment when every team member is “sitting in a meeting room, pounding our firsts on the table saying, I want to play it.” She said that for the mobile app, users give “100 percent of their attention,” which means that the “sense of accomplishment has to happen in a couple of minutes of very intense play.” After play-testing the game internally, Crowdstar then releases a game in a smaller country, such as Canada, before releasing it to the United States.

"Our goal is to satisfy users," Ethington said. "It is a very targeted game, so it’s not going to satisfy everyone.”


At George Mason University’s game design program, professor Seth Hudson said he trains students in the practice of “stripping down message boards” to ingest critiques that may be disagreeable, and to be “able to give useful information that isn't just a reaction via your opinion and pointed phrasing.”  He also said his students often discuss gender stereotyping and the need to consider the impact of their art on others.

Smart game companies pay attention to community critiques and are responding when they can, said Limor Schafman, marketing consultant and organizer for Washington, D.C.'s Meetup group for serious gamers. "Serious games" are games that meet educational or socially beneficial goals.

Online gamers with social justice interests can cavort with like-minded developers at websites like Games for Change (G4C).

It's worth noting that the closest contender to Top Girl that I found in G4C’s database was Sweatshop, by Littleloud, released last July. The “dark and comedic” sweatshop game provides a bird's eye view of a clothing manufacturing factory from the perspective of a trainee manager. When progressing to bigger factories, the trainee manager reads extensive speech bubbles from an angry, sexually harassing, ageist, exploitative boss. The boss, in turn, fears the wrath of a glamorous buyer in a fancy city. Before each work session, a brown-skinned, wide-eyed child worker sneaks in to tell the user how the plant’s poor practices made his and other workers’ lives more difficult. The character dialogue is engaging, though sometimes cartoonish.

The gameplay offers the user many forced choices that include employing child workers and giving access to a toilet. The goal is to assemble shirts, hats, purses and other gear in a certain amount of time, without any workers dying. Facts about labor movement victories and ongoing issues are presented in interstitial text.

Sweatshop uses an infamous aspect of the fashion industry to raise awareness about the overall rights of workers. It also tells a story of the leadership potential of young workers. However, the sweatshop game lacks the thrills of Top Girl, like getting new pretty things and creating a dazzling spectacle (with death-free promotions) and having a carefree romantic life (in a world without obesity.)

One Saturday night in Fairfax, Va., I found myself stuck on Level 17 of a Sweatshop factory. My eyes ached from staring at an assembly line for an hour. I twitched my mouse with no signs of advancement...

People who seek a fun and socially conscious dress-up game on a touchscreen can send their proposed content and other feedback to Ethington welcomes the idea of fans sending one-liners that could be featured in Top Girl’s speech bubbles, for example.

Tell us what you would want Top Girl’s avatars to say in the comments below. Or, how would you want Crowdstar or Littleloud to improve their games?

Read critiques of Crowdstar’s It Girl:

7 links on fashion-forward, social justice game design: