Thursday, March 25, 2010

Video Games for Girls! (But Only Sexy Girls)

During my New York week, my friends took me to Barcade in Williamsburg. It’s basically a drinking environment tailor-made for me, even if the available video games skewed a little bit towards the era immediately before the one I love most. Think of early- to mid-80s titles like Pac-Man, Punch-Out!!, Joust, Donkey Kong, Ghosts ’n’ Goblins, and Crystal Castles. (Sidenote, thanks to Wikipedia: The band Crystal Castles gets its name not from the video game but from She-Ra, as in “Crystal Castles, the source of all power.”) I played most of the games there, including some I hadn’t touched in years and others I’d never actually had the opportunity to enjoy in their original arcade forms.

While there, my friends Kristen and Hillary stumbled upon the Universal Games title Ladybug, a Pac-Man clone that seems like an early effort at making a game that would appeal specifically to women. The major difference between Ladybug and its inspiration would be that moving about the screen opens and closes “gates” throughout a given maze, alternately creating dead-ends and opening up new pathways, but all-in-all it’s very Pac-Man-like but with an even more feminine take than Mrs. Pac-Man. An 80s-era cartoon analogy: Most of the titles at Barcade would fall into the Transformers or G.I. Joe category of “games for boys” or the Muppet Babies category of “games for everyone,” but Ladybug was the only title I saw there that seemed to fall into the My Little Pony category of “games for girls.” Why do I say this? For starters, you control a ladybug, an insect whose name renders it feminine regardless of a specific bug’s biological gender. The game’s controllable ladybug zooms around a Pac-Man-style garden maze and fleeing enemy bugs, with between-level interstitials being conspicuously floral in theme. Whereas Pac-Man eats fruits and keys for bonus points, the ladybug chases down hearts — and, later, vegetables. (Horseradishes give yield the most points, notes Wikipedia.) And if you play the game well enough, you get treated to a little marriage scene — between a human bride and groom, not insectoid ones. Because that’s what every girl wants, right?

ladybug_screens
images courtesy of classic gaming

So it’s not like the game has you collecting cosmetic articles to dress up Princess Ephemerelle for prom, but it nonetheless seems pretty clear that the game’s makers had in mind more people who would read Nancy Drew rather than people who read the Hardy Boys.

The strange this about the game — aside from horseradish being prized, of course — is that while the original Japanese creators had girls in mind, those charged with introducing the game for American audiences seemed to choose a different tactic. The cabinet art — looking very 80s and very American — reinterpreted the on-screen bugs as sexy women dressed in bug costumes.

Observe:

ladybug_arcade_cabinet
image courtesy of killer list of video games

ladybug_flyer

ladybug_flyer2

ladybug_flyer3
images courtesy of arcadeflyers.com

Weird, right? They’re not even Betty Boop-style cartoon women. They look like female superheroes — leggy, curvy and wearing tight but revealing outfits that wouldn’t seem to lend themselves to doing much besides posing and boning — when it wouldn’t have been more appropriate to show cute, googly-eyed ladybugs, perhaps shopping or having tea parties or receiving their home economics degrees.

So what happened?

I can think of two possibilities. The first is incredibly unlikely but fun to consider: Given the game’s inherent girliness, it could be that those packaging it for the U.S. release decided to sex it up a bit an effort to appeal to that small but dedicated base of lesbian gamers. Like I said, probably not the case, but oh! if it had been. What actually probably happened is that the translators presumed that games for girls wouldn’t bring in the quarters in the U.S. like they might have in Japan and did what they could to make the game more appealing to the typical arcade inhabitant: dudes. And being unable or unwilling to tinker with the game itself, they simply redressed the cabinet.

Whether this effort was successful, I can’t say, but I can say that I’d never heard of Ladybug until I saw it at Barcade. And I can guess that girls who might have played video games at the time wouldn’t have been any more attracted to Ladybug as a result of the sexy insects (insexts?) displayed on the cabinet. Except, of course, for those quarter-popping, joystick-waggling 80s lesbian gamers.

As interested as I am in how video games address gender, I’m infinitely more interested in how efforts to do so get screwed up along the way.

One last thing: In researching Ladybug, I came across an FAQ that listed the various collectible vegetables and associated points. I’m reproducing the list here because I have a weird affinity for information posted in list form and because some of you may have been wondering whether a video game has ever featured parsley, Chinese cabbage or sweet potatoes. Rest easy.
 _______________ ______
| Vegetables |Points|
|_______________|______|
|Cucumber | 1000 |
|_______________|______|
|Eggplant | 1500 |
|_______________|______|
|Carrot | 2000 |
|_______________|______|
|Radish | 2500 |
|_______________|______|
|Parsley | 3000 |
|_______________|______|
|Tomato | 3500 |
|_______________|______|
|Pumpkin | 4000 |
|_______________|______|
|Bamboo Shoot | 4500 |
|_______________|______|
|Japanese Radish| 5000 |
|_______________|______|
|Mushroom | 5500 |
|_______________|______|
|Potato | 6000 |
|_______________|______|
|Onion | 6500 |
|_______________|______|
|Chinese Cabbage| 7000 |
|_______________|______|
|Turnip | 7500 |
|_______________|______|
|Red Pepper | 8000 |
|_______________|______|
|Cherry | 8500 |
|_______________|______|
|Sweet Potato | 9000 |
|_______________|______|
|Horseradish | 9500 |
|_______________|______|

But how, exactly, does one differentiate between the blocky, on-screen representation of the horseradish and the Japanese radish? Now wonder about that.

Gender issues in video games, previously:
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