This week’s guest column is by feminist pop culture critic Andrea Rubenstein, founder and regular contributor to Shrub.com and co-founder of feminist gaming site The Iris Network and its magazine, Cerise.
Hey GRC readers! Karen was nice enough to ask me over to contribute to the Special Crossover Issue: Comics in Gaming by doing a guest blog for her. I tried to gather up sufficient rage to do the subtitle of this blog proud (I do read comics! I am pissed!) but right now my life’s too busy to hold onto the kind of rage that makes a good post. So, instead I’m going to gush about a genre of game that I absolutely love: Japanese Girl Games.
Girl Games? Like, ponies and rainbows and stuff?
Now, when Westerners think of “girl games” the image that probably pops into their mind are Barbie, My Little Pony, and all those awful licensed games made by people who think if they paint a pile of poo pink that girls won’t know that it stinks. The Japanese Girl Games are different; the term refers to a subset of text/graphical adventure games that are aimed at women. Girl Games have a close association with erotic games, most notably the “boy’s love” (BL) genre, but (according to the Japanese Wikipedia, anyway) they’re distinct genres.
Girl Games have a close relationship with the shojo manga market. Perhaps even more so than in the US, popular series are almost always expanded beyond their original format. It’s so frequent for popular games to be made into manga and/or anime and vise versa that if I particularly enjoy a game I’ll google it to see if there’s a manga I can pick up. In fact, I recently picked up Angel’s Feather, a BL game that I got turned onto because of the OVA.
While the style of gameplay varies from game to game, one of the unifying features of Girl Games are that they almost always feature a female protagonist. The style that gets imported the most are the dating simulation ones, but there are also ones that play more like an interactive graphic novel. Dating plots are frequent, even when the style of gameplay isn’t itself a dating simulation. The games are also aimed at women of all different ages, not just young girls, although the ones made for consoles (or are ported to them) aren’t allowed to have sexual content.
What women want
The thing I like best about the Girl Game genre is that, while there are obvious trends meant to appeal to women, the makers of the games clearly recognize that women have varied tastes and can’t be shoved into some neat little pink box.
One of my favorite series, Mizu no Senritsu caught my interest because it was a dark urban fantasy adventure game with horror elements. I also own one called Love Drops (yes, I bought it primarily because the name was hilarious) that is a more lighthearted urban fantasy where you release a group of hot supernatural men (their group includes a vampire who doesn’t drink blood and a dog boy) who immediately start hitting on you.
In the straight up dating sim genre, there’s the well-known Tokimeki Memorial: Girl’s Side. I even found a game where your prospective boyfriends are hosts! Unfortunately, as interesting as the concept for that one is, the gameplay is rather lacking. No matter how many times my friends and I played through it, we never seemed to be able to “win”. Although I suppose there’s some sort of argument in there that it’s true to real life; it’s not exactly realistic to expect a host to become a real boyfriend.
Another thing it’s worth pointing out is that games marketed towards women aren’t confined to the Girl Game genre. There are a whole host of other genres that have large female followings, and companies more than happy to milk that market for all it’s worth (see the Nintendo DS).
This is good, but you can do better
I have, of course, only touched upon the positive aspects of the Girl Games genre and not really talked about the negative. Long-time readers have probably already picked up on the two most obvious problems: the practically mandatory insertion of romance into the plot and the rampant heteronormativity.
Heterosexual romance-oriented games aren’t bad in and of themselves. But it is definitely playing into one of the typical “pink” stereotypes; that adding romance to something is a recipe for attracting women. The concept isn’t exactly wrong, per say, but if you look at the popularity of dating games aimed at guys you’ll see that the “add a dash of romance for success!” way of thinking certainly isn’t limited to one gender.
One of the arguments I can see people making against the heteronormativity complaint would be to point out BL games. BL, whether it be games or shonen ai/yaoi comics, is a “by women for women” genre. So, yes, on the one hand it’s great that BL games acknowledge the existence of male homosexuality, but I would argue that it’s no less heteronormative to market homosexuality for a heterosexual audience (guess which gender female/female romance is marketed to… if you said the male one, you win!). I’m not sure if there are any queer adventure games out there marketed for a queer audience, but I’m pretty sure that we’re still a long way from that kind of game being mainstream. But, who knows, maybe I’ll get to make a game that has a pansexual protagonist and a cast of cis, trans, and genderqueer people of all types and it’ll be a runaway hit. Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?
Ultimately, though, I would argue that despite the shortcomings of the genre, a company – whether it be in the video game industry or the comic one — looking to attract more of a female audience could do worse than to do some market research into Japanese Girl Games.
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