Girl Games

It’s time to take girl games seriously

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For generations of women, Judy Blume’s novels are a potent symbol. To the women that read her books in the ‘70s and ‘80s they were symbols of rebellion, offering knowledge that was forbidden by adults. “I knew reading it would be an act of revolt, but I wasn’t sure who I was revolting against,” said my friend Dayna Von Thaer, a young adult novelist, remembering the time that a sympathetic librarian sneaked her a copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in her early teenage years. For younger women like myself, Blume’s novels were conflated with becoming a woman after the stories had spent more than two decades defining American puberty. We were handed Deenie and Forever by those women who had read them in secret, blushing and hiding the books at the back of our shelves. Their pastel covers were conspicuously dated, and we knew they were those “period books.” Although we did not have to deal with Blume’s widespread censorship, as previous generations of readers had, we still read her in secret—we didn’t want to broadcast the life changes that had become synonymous with reading Blume, but were hungry for the information within.

Judy Blume was the first adult to talk to us frankly about the struggles of adolescence—she was an adult who hadn’t forgotten what it meant to be a teenager. Regarding the title character from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blume told Scholastic in an interview “Margaret was right from my own sixth grade experience. I wanted to tell the truth as I knew it.” Blume addressed a staggering number of themes of adolescence, ranging from male and female masturbation to teenage crises of faith, answering the questions that her readers had sent in hundreds of letters through stories that were clear and relatable.

The pop culture of girls has always been devalued or openly mocked

Yet despite the massive scope of her oeuvre, Blume is generally relegated to the canon of “girl books,” her novels disregarded in the mainstream since most of her protagonists are girls and young women. The pop culture of girls has always been devalued or openly mocked—think boy bands, teen dramas, and pink-glazed Barbie games—while the culture of boys is mainstream: would it be weird to see an article like this about Star Wars or Legos? Likewise, the male experience of adolescence is the one that children usually study. Holden Caulfield is the emblem of all adolescents, but despite the universality of her troubles Margaret Simon may only speak for girls.

Blume has been the defining voice on girlhood for the last forty-five years because she took teenage girls seriously. Blume legitimized teenagers’ problems and reassured her young female readers that they were normal. In Are You There God?, Margaret deals with her developing body, but she also struggles with her identity, her split-faith household leading her to question her religious beliefs and her sense of self. Female adolescence is about more than boys and periods, and Blume wrote true-to-life accounts to help girls and boys navigate that tumultuous period of life. Her novels are part of a canon of girlhood that is largely misunderstood by the rest of culture. But they initiated an important tradition of women using narrative to process their childhoods and adolescence by sending a whisper into the dark, simultaneously asking whether they are normal and assuring others that they are not alone.

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In 1998, game developer Theresa Duncan said, “My stated goal in life is to make the most beautiful thing a seven-year old has ever seen.” Duncan’s beloved trilogy of ‘90s CD-ROM games are a digital heir to Blume’s legacy, celebrating girlhood and letting Duncan’s own memories shine through her young protagonists. Like Blume, Duncan never panders to her audience but rather offers them an interactive reflection of themselves. Her games starred and were made for inquisitive and adventurous little girls exploring every detail of the worlds where they lived. Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero gave girls characters that looked and thought like them in the same way that Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great did. “Kids see a lot, and they’re wise and a little more complicated than most people give them credit for being,” Duncan said in a 1997 interview, echoing Blume’s respect and care for children.

The heirs to Blume’s legacy in gaming today are the women creating independent, autobiographical games with specific ties to their own girlhoods. These games are about reflecting on the joys and traumas of girlhood, or reappropriating an aesthetic associated with unimportant art to create artistic legitimacy for girlhood. “For me it’s about this call to women to say, ‘Let’s stand up for our memories, too,’” Rachel Weil said in a Skype interview. Weil is the creator of FEMICOM, an extensive project archiving so-called “girl games.” FEMICOM and many of Weil’s personal projects are grounded very firmly in bringing visibility to the “girl canon.” She creates pink and sparkly glitch and 8-bit art, and her games feature Hello Kitty. During our interview Weil recalled the gaps in the canon that created a great deal of confusion to reviewers when she released her game Electronic Sweet-N-Fun Fortune Teller, which was based heavily on the Tiger Beat quizzes that anyone who’s been a teenage girl in the last three decades knows well. Where Blume sought to legitimize the experiences of teenage girls, Weil seeks to secure girls’ media in the mainstream canon. “There are New York Times pieces about the work of Blume, those things that recapitulate and re-contextualize her work for an adult reader,” she said. “I think that’s something we sorely need for [girls’] games as well.”

Let’s stand up for our memories, too

Game designer (and former Kill Screen intern) Nina Freeman talked to me about how making games enabled her to process scenes from her adolescence. “I like to make games about things I feel unresolved about or have complicated issues with,” she said. Her games deal with her body and struggling for agency over it in various ways, a battle from their teenage years that has scarred many women. “When you grow up in a space where people and the media are telling you you should look a different way it makes you feel like you don’t have much control over yourself,” she said. “I think I felt disempowered because of that from a really young age.”

Nina’s games are a way for those who have exited girlhood to reclaim power and sort out those traumas of adolescence that were too confusing to manage in real-time. They function like a Judy Blume novel for adults still making sense of their teenage years, an answer to the question, “Am I normal?” that they are still asking years after adolescence has ended. Like Blume, Freeman was surprised that so many people had identified with her games, especially the number of strangers that had excitedly admitted to mashing their naked dolls together as children, as players do in her game How Do You Do It? “This wasn’t even my goal for these games, but they helped people feel a little more open about these kinds of things,” she said.

The experiences of girls and young women are not niche

In her novel Yes, Please, Amy Poehler writes, “If you ever want to see heaven, watch a bunch of young girls play. They are all sweat and skinned knees. Energy and open faces.” The gendered, patriarchal marketing machine churning out weirdly sexualized dolls profits by creating a false binary—if boys and girls must have dramatically different toys and clothes, then that’s twice the opportunity to sell. But girlhood is just as much about adventure as boyhood is—as a woman who spent hours upon hours of her childhood pretending she was Tom Sawyer, or gathering rocks in her backyard in her Pocahontas costume, I know. Women, and girls, deserve to be taken as seriously, and the canon of art by and for them does, too. The experiences of girls and young women are not niche. Many, many forms of media are beginning to turn to girlhood for their stories. In comics you have the much-beloved Lumberjanes, Nimona, the new Ms. Marvel and the recent series Paper Girls dedicated not only to empowering adolescent and pre-adolescent girls, but to giving a very mainstream account of girlhood read by women and men. Books like Coraline and the Fairyland series do the same.

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Play is a natural part of all childhoods, and games have a unique opportunity to give girls agency through play. Despite mainstream progress in other mediums,  most games dealing with young girls or girlhood are made by individuals or very small, independent teams—games like Slam City Oracles and Tampon Run, both made by women, in addition to the games discussed above. Society does not take women of any age seriously—this much is proven by the ongoing attempts to limit our reproductive rights and the constant devaluation of our time and skills in the form of workforce gender imbalances and wage gaps. Making girlhood mainstream and empowering the next generation of girls through their media and play is a bold and vital step towards true gender equality.

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Header image by Jane Mai