For every mother whose daughter goes through the princess phase spurred on by movies and toys, I wish to apologize for the entertainment industry. We are changing. We must. Gender is over-designed into toys, games and play experiences—and it hurts us.
In fact, the prevalence of indicators a toy is for a boy or for a girl is shocking, as a walk through a toy store or the recent Toy Fair 2014 shows. We know the practice of gendering toys creates and maintains stereotypes. Rigid gender lines correlate to lack of female participation in STEM professions, such as computer science, the entry point for game design. And these lines set up lifelong, false notions of what opportunities are available to females in general.
In 1981, a LEGO ad famously showed a young girl, Rachel Giordano and her LEGO construction, which implied playful creating is a beautiful thing—for all. The contemporary version of this ad features an older girl, and her creation differs significantly. It suggests creative work happens in different colors and “she” is one of a kind. This girl speaks to girls because it is marketing a girls’ product. No longer can a mere girl playing speak to any potential players, male or female.
Parents may argue that girls like being addressed as a particular demographic, and social pressures force them to buy “girlie” toys. I’ve heard many swear girls are born from the womb wanting princess dresses. Yet we know this is not entirely true if we look at the history of advertising toys and see how play is represented. What may seem quite “natural” is wrapped in images on television, in games, and in ads.
Ultimately, the “pinkification” of toys is problematic. Girls’ LEGOs are pink and purple, and positioned as being about making cakes. Children learn early on through play objects there are striking differences in goals, opportunities and creative outlets between the sexes. The toy industry has done girls no favors for limiting what can be dreamed. It is no wonder the percentage of women entering highly technical fields such as computer science peaked in the 1980s and has declined ever since: Fewer than 12% of computer science graduates were women in 2011, according to The Computing Research Association. The drop in women in computer science corresponds to the change in the marketing of some important creative and constructive toys.
I often wonder if I am a game designer because I was allowed to think about play without the constraints of over-branding and over-marketing of toys by gender. Unlike kids today, I wasn't constantly reminded I was a girl when I was daydreaming or playing. Sure, I took Barbie to the proverbial beach, but I also needed a dump truck to move sand and construct the resort. Psychological research shows again and again that people from a group suffering from a stereotype will perform poorly if reminded of their disadvantaged status. So, the pervasive cultural stereotype that girls are bad at math will be activated unconsciously if gender is brought up at all. That's right: Just mentioning gender or race will critically affect performance on a test. This works both ways: Studies looking at white men playing basketball reveal white men performed less well with a black coach because they, too, are subconsciously reminded white men are stereotyped as being poor ballers.
Ultimately, stereotypes hold everyone back.
Board games, such as Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit, never seemed to be marked for anyone in particular, but an ever-increasing number of toys and computer games do get marked along gender lines. This translates into jobs and career options: In 2008, the International Digital Games Research found only 11% of digital game industry jobs were held by women.
Today, Giordano from the LEGO ad is a health practitioner in Seattle. Did LEGOs encourage her to pursue science? Research has shown a number of factors that open up science, technology, engineering and math careers for women. One is how these fields are represented; the lone scientist in real life works on a research team discovering new knowledge.
We have a long way to go to unpack the hypergendering of toys and games. With the rise of casual games and the popularity of Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga, perhaps different groups will become interested in game and toy design as a profession. Perhaps newcomers will create less stereotypical works and even use toys and games as platforms for prosocial learning.
Changing underlying “shorthands” that overly categorize kids is another piece; we must bring back girls and boys as equal in play. Otherwise, stereotypes fostered in playthings create limitations that hurt our kids, limit their dreams and affect our national future.
Mary Flanagan is a professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College, where she designs and researches digital media and games for impact at www.tiltfactor.org, and a fellow of The OpEd Project.