27 5 / 2011
The hot pink box that started it all. A white, blonde, coy-looking 80s teen girl is the largest image on the box, but is offset by the three “hunks” in aqua blue hearts that occupy the center. The more I look at the girl’s expression the weirder it seems, but I know that when I was a kid in the 80s I would have thought she was so pretty and cool, my childhood vision of what it meant to be a cool teenager. Very Saved By The Bell. The labels attached to the guys on the box are “Captain of the Football Team” “Nicknamed ‘Lips’” and “Teenage Millionaire”, which to me are reading as “Status” “Sex” and “Money”. The guys are all white with fluffy, preppy-looking hair and two out of three have upturned collars. They also look like they are in their 20s, unlike the pictured girl who genuinely looks about 16. While I would love to know what age range this game is meant to appeal to, but under “Ages” the box simply states “For all girls who like boys”.
The box says, “Choose your boyfriend from 60 gorgeous guys!” and that is certainly something you do, but the real object of the game is to correctly guess which guy your fellow players will choose. The game starts with three randomly selected guy cards (so I suppose you’re really choosing your boyfriend from three, not 60) and has three rounds of play. In round one, you are to imagine all three hunks have asked you to dance. All players choose whose offer they will accept and guess their friends choices, writing them all on the the provided notepads. Everyone then compares notes and a point is earned for each correct guess.
In the second and third rounds it gets more interesting. Now the guys are asking the players on a date, but before you decide who you’ll go out with, each guy has two personality cards laid in front of his picture. Personality cards are like the labels on the box, but in addition to things like “Teenage Millionaire,” they can say “Always Whining About Something” or “Eats Like a Pig”. With this new information, players reselect the boy of their choice, compare notes, and score. Round three brings two more personality cards for each guy and an invitation to go steady. Reselection, guessing, scoring, and a final tally of the points reveals the winner. So while yes, choosing your desired mate from a gaggle of 80s dreamboats is a facet of the game, the real goal is to choose your friends’ boyfriends. Who you choose is almost irrelevant; the player who wins at Heartthrob is the player who knows the others best.
OK, let’s be real. This is what it’s all about. I’m pretty sure the only reason I bought this game was to flip through the 60 black & white photo cards of hilarious 80s guys. It’s always funny to see what people thought looked good in the 80s—the hair alone is worth the $5 I paid for the game. But that aside, the use of wardrobe and props to convey certain characteristics is interesting. Sonny wears a tank top and is lifting weights, while Greg wears a tux and looks ready for prom. The role these pictures are meant to play in the game is unclear. It’s pretty safe to assume the creators of Heartthrob intended the cards to pit the guys’ looks against their (later revealed) personalities, but do these props and costumes constitute yet another facet of their personalities, or are they just an attempt to make the cards less boring? In my experiences playing the game, things as subtle as facial expressions on the models could have an impact on a player’s choice. And everyone seemed to agree that Max & his dog Rex were a safe bet, because if things didn’t work out with Max, you could always just hang out with Rex.
As I’ve previously mentioned, the goal here is to know your fellow players well enough to guess who they’d like to date. The skills used to play this game—and play it well—are fascinatingly complex for something that seems so frivolous on the surface. For your own choices, you have to make judgments on characters based on limited information and match that up to your own ideas about relationship dynamics and your personal preferences and desires. Then you have to consider all these same factors from the perspectives of other players. A good Heartthrob player will be extremely perceptive and will know just what makes their fellow players tick. It seems a strange skill set for a board game, but much less so for a girl game. Typically, girls are encouraged to participate in social play (such as caring for and acting out social relationships with dolls) rather than the active play (sports) that boys are pushed toward. In that light, it is not very surprising that a girl game like Heartthrob would focus more on sharing and understanding between players rather than accomplishments and competition.
Truthfully, playing Heartthrob is more interesting than fun. Playing as an adult, the game can open up a lot of great discussions about why players have made the choices they did. I played this game with a group of super-nice ladies at PAX East 2011, and it seemed to function well as a fun icebreaker, but I worry that these same conversations among young girls—likely less confident in their choices and identities than grown women—could be an occasion for peer conditioning. Picture one girl revealing her choice to her friends, only to be met with “Gross, you chose him? What’s wrong with you?” or “You should have chosen that one, everyone else did.” By sharing our inner workings as part of the game, we also leave them open to criticism and reproach. While some girls may have a lot of fun with this game, giving them the opportunity to talk about some of their developing ideas about relationships, for others it could be just torture. I suppose it all depends on who you play with.
Heartthrob is such a girl game through and through it may have been developed by a gang of evil sociologists hell bent on reinforcing rigid gender roles and gender specific behaviors. First there’s the heteronormativity, although they do specify on the box that the game is for “all girls who like boys”, rather than just saying “all girls” and assuming the part about liking boys. Was that deliberate? Regardless, as a dating game, it affirms the idea that one of the most important choices a girl can make is who she’ll go out with. Most significantly, playing the game strongly encourages the type of personal sharing and close relationships consider typical in girls and women, and that’s where it gets tricky. Is this quality of the game a positive or negative one? Certainly the gender segregation is not desirable; there are many girl games with personal sharing as a core facet of gameplay, but few (if any) male-targeted or ungendered games are played this way. So should we have more of these games or less? Despite the vulnerability factor, the essential focus on sharing and understanding the viewpoints of others is something I personally think more games (and people) could benefit from.
16 3 / 2011
In The Pink Box is a review site for games specifically marketed towards girls and women. The inspiration for this site came from 2 primary sources:
-Heartthrob. Amongst a pile of old board games at a local Savers, I recently unearthed Heartthrob, a girl game of the dream date variety from 1988. While I never owned Heartthrob in my own childhood, I remember the many games like it: Girl Talk, Dream Phone, Mall Madness. Drenched in hot pink and chock full of cliches and stereotypes, these games are a part of so many girls’ childhood experiences. Sometimes they were lame or boring despite their brightly colored packaging, but other times they were seriously FUN. So who was being fooled: me for thinking these silly things were actually good, or people so put off by anything so brazenly “girly” that that they were convinced it COULDN’T be good?
-The Border House blog. Last weekend I attended PAX East 2011, and while I could say a lot of things about that, both positive and negative, one of the better experiences I had was a panel I attended called One Of Us, regarding diversity and issues of inclusiveness in gaming. There’s a nice writeup of the panel at Gamasutra, though Border House warns against reading the comments (I have heeded their warning, so I can’t give more detail). Alex Raymond and Regina Buenaobra of Border House were panelists, and through their insights (as well as those of the other awesome panel guests) and subsequent reading through Border House’s open-minded and inclusive approach to game blogging, I started thinking more critically about my own gaming experiences and what it means to be a girl gamer.
To explore these ideas, I decided to get right to the root of things: girl games. Not just the games that targeted me as a child, but games that target ladies of all ages then and now. This isn’t about what we play. Anyone with any sense knows that girls play all kinds of games, no matter who they’re marketed towards. This is about the game industry and what they think we want, who they think we are. Maybe if we can break this down—find out who’s doing it right, who’s doing it wrong, how and why—we can begin to have a dialogue about who we REALLY are and where to go from here.