This issue of gender in games has become contentious over the last couple of years. When companies like Target and Hasbro said in 2015 they’re working to eliminate boys and girls’ toys separation, it created a big reaction. Franklin Graham (son of well-known evangelist Billy Graham) authored a viral Facebook post, denouncing Target –
“I have news for them and for everyone else—God created two different genders.”
Psychotherapist Tom Kersting even warned that kids might
“Question what their gender is.”
The only problem with these assertions, is that while genders may have differed since the beginning of time, toys were not.
As Elizabeth Sweet from the University of California, who studied the issue of gender in the toy industry explains, as late as the 1970s, it was difficult to notice any gender difference in toys or even in the way those were advertised –
“very few toys were explicitly marketed according to gender, and nearly 70 percent showed no markings of gender whatsoever.”
What changed? Sweet says that as the marketing became more scientific, manufacturers noticed that it was easier to sell more products to well defined target groups. On the demand side, consumers seemed pleased with the division that made it easier to follow the social norms. For example, by not letting boys buy a pink piece, we prevent ourselves from dealing with a possible sexual anomaly.
As it turns out, children were the most receptive audience to these creeping new norms. In stores, they consistently pick the “right” gender-specific toy. And in an experiment, where the gender line was deliberately blurred, kids kept making decisions based on gender, even though gender was not a part of the original design.
It is easy to dismiss this as something that affects only women and only for a short period of time. We could say that games and toys are just about fun, and what’s important is what these girls will do later in their life.
But, as recent studies confirm, the choices we make in our childhood have a profound impact on our academic and professional choices as adults. In other words, the games our children play today are shaping how their mind will work and the challenges they will seek in the future.
Luckily, there’s a growing demand from parents, scholars and educators to stop this unnecessary division, like the Let Toys Be Toys initiative in the UK.
It’s good to know that voices calling for change are not coming only from women and/or scholars – the blog Man Vs. Pink is one dad’s journey to have fun with his daughter while overcoming gender stereotypes. Paul Hanson is a proud father who shared his son’s picture wearing a Frozen costume (and got a huge social response.)
You would think that as women are now an important part of the workforce, and as men like Simon and Paul take a more proactive role in childcare, we should see some changes in the toy industry. A doll of a female astronaut or an action-figure with a baby carrier should pop somewhere in the (former) blue and pink isles. Some notice that this is in fact happening.
When we registered our games label OneByTwo into Amazon, we couldn’t complete our registration until we targeted this for “boys,” “girls” and “unisex.” This was a strange process, as our kits had a genderless design to begin with, but it does show that a progress is being made.
But as noted by several scholars, the games and the toy industry reaction has experienced a hidden regression – instead of introducing more real-life role models, the industry is actually drifting further and further into a fantasyland of princesses and superheroes.
In other words, not only does the gender delineation doesn’t disappear, it is going into further extremes - Girls must be princess-like, boys must become masculine superheroes.
It doesn’t stop there. Since the successful introduction of LEGO friends (The all-girl LEGO line) in 2012, all major toy companies have made similar choices. Fisher-Price took the gender-neutral Lil' Movers School Bus and created a pink version of it. DC comics introduced the girl-power Wonder Woman, but didn’t forget to equip her in an evening gown.
It seems that for every removal of a “for boys” / “for girls” label, there are dozens of hidden marketing messages, expressed in colors, fonts, graphics and cultural references. It seems like four decades of targeted marketing have left parents and children totally confused. Not about their sexuality, but on how to make their choices without it.
All of us – consumers, educators and game designers – should work to eliminate this unnecessary segregation.
Kids should feel comfortable playing whatever they feel like playing. Not only is this now a basic human right, it is the most important lesson they can get in life. So when they grow up, they know that there are no limits to what they can do.
When our kids grow up, they need know that there are no limits to what they can do. Games should be leading this approach, not lagging behind.