Social Networking, Mobile Devices, and Gendered Play

There has been some fuss in the media lately about gendered marketing of toys to kids. Many (myself included) feel that it’s limiting, cynical, and tacky to insist, for example, that girls play with frilly pink toys. Reflecting on these debates, however, I thought of a trend which perhaps signals a shift in the way the gender is imputed to children in their play. This shift has to do with small-scale videogames (the kind you play on your mobile device) and social networking web applications. 

The first thing I started thinking about is that these virtual applications function in a similar way as many others toys. Much of play for children involves creating some sort of persona, or representing one’s self externally. Boys and girls play with dolls and figurines, in board games they move a game piece that represents themselves, when playing dress-up they become another character. These aspects of performance and external representation are actually similar to what occurs on a social networking website, where you create and moderate a virtual version of yourself. You control how the pictures, posts, and utterances of this online avatar. Popular video games for mobile devices involve a much more primitive kind of external representation usually, where a player controls cute or cartoonish figure(s) and tests their motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and reaction time.

What’s interesting about both social networking and mobile device gaming is that they have little of the reductive, unimaginative, gendered components of most child-targeted products. In terms of gender fluidity, they grant users a high degree of freedom. While boys and girls may use Facebook or Twitter differently, the interfaces themselves do not offer up gender expectations or conventions (Facebook does require you to gender identify in order to create a profile, but little beyond that). You can change your name to be whatever you want, and you can say or post whatever you want. Furthermore, everyone has the same neutral interface (though Twitter users can change their theme). So while you are allowed to imagine yourself as gendered, the application does not ask you to do so, and in fact, it is quite possible not to. The most popular mobile games (Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja) are also markedly non-gendered, apparently unconcerned with players having a gendered stake in the activity; you are not playing a male or female character, and you the player, need not even think about whether you feel more male or more female. You are simply playing.

Why is it that these “toys” are non-gendered? I think it would be slightly dreamy to posit that it’s because the tech industry is deeply committed to fighting sexist oppression. Rather, like most mass-market products, the un-gendering of these applications has to do with market share. The iPhone/iPod touch and Facebook are both products with which people of all ages are invited to use. Because they are tech-y they are associated with youngsters, but in fact, Facebook use by age is distributed fairly evenly between the three demographic pockets of 13-17, 18-25, and 26-34 (with 20.6%, 25.8% and 26.1%, respectively).

Facebook and Twitter, but also popular mobile videogames (Angry Birds, or Bejeweled, or Tiny Tower, or Tiny Wings) are designed to appeal to adults as well as kids. And most self-respecting adults, I suspect, feel infantilized by excessively gendered play. A grown woman may get a pink case for her iPad, but might find it slightly boring to play a game that consists only of shopping for pink things. With conventional console gaming, there is still a sense that the games are largely for boys (i.e. game play consists of orchestrating varying scales of violent combat). But while you will occasionally see someone playing a shooting game on their phone in public, you are more likely to see someone playing one of these non-gendered games, and they might be old or young.

Another reason that social networking and handheld games may be moving away from gender is that they allow you new ways to measure yourself against yourself and others. Playing with a Barbie Doll or a Batman action figure is one way of having an aspirational metric; ‘I aim to be like this character,’ or ‘I measure myself in relation to this persona.’ But virtual games and applications offer you an array of much more concrete metrics: you can measure how you game against yourself and your friends, and you can count your followers, the number of posts you have, etc. It is unclear to me if this more rigorous measurement is good, per se, but it’s at least more open-ended for young people than games that force them into gender categories. It might be better to have anxiety about your Twitter followers than to have anxiety about whether you’re as skinny as Barbie. And more importantly, maybe using Twitter doesn’t give you anxiety at all. 


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