[Already controversial cellphone game Coolest Girl In School takes a refreshingly direct look at girls' experience of high school - and in this article reprinted from sister weblog GameSetWatch, Drew Taylor chats to creative director Holly Owen about the game's genesis and aims.]
The email from Holly Owen — Creative Director of cross-platform entertainment company Champagne for the Ladies — pops up on my computer screen, quite unexpectedly.
It's only been a few seconds since I sent her a message proposing a deadline for her interview answers, and up until this point there's generally been a day or two between replies. As a result, I'm a single click away from logging out of my webmail client and switching off the computer.
Instead, I open up her email, where I'm greeted by her shortest message to me yet. It contains just four words.
'Easy peasy pimply squeezy.'
A giant grin leaps onto my face, and in an instant I know that interviewing Holly about Coolest Girl in School—the Australian-made mobile phone game that's been controversially labeled 'GTA for girls'—is not just going to be an insightful exploration of developing a game for young women, but filled from start to finish with such quintessential phrases as, 'knickers in a knot' and 'truth dare double dare kiss'.
This is Holly's world I've entered into. A world where female gamers are referenced without the slightest hint of condescension, or the need to push the 'anything boys can do' tough-girl rhetoric; a world where terms such as 'pwnage' and 'teabag' simply don't exist.
It's a world of high school, period pain, experimentation, fashionistas, average sex and perfect hair. And it all begins with an SMS...
Released in Australia in late 2007 (with a US, Canada and UK release expected early this year), Coolest Girl in School has more in common with trashy magazine quizzes, online social networks and personal diary entries than it does with the usual mobile phone game fare. Crazy, magazine cut-out visuals, overlaid on lined notebook paper, lead the player into a non-linear series of confronting and hilarious multiple-choice scenarios, while hand-drawn icons and over-the-top narrative give constant feedback on how cool (or not) the player is.
The gameplay itself focuses on ten days of high school, just prior to the school prom. The prom queen, however, has been found dead (her only remains being a pile of ash, a tiara and a bra) and the player now has the opportunity to lie, bitch, gossip, suck up and flirt their way to making as many friends as possible so that they can be nominated for the prom queen title.
The sheer fact that the story sounds like a B-grade high school Hollywood film is evidence that Holly knows her audience, but it's even more apparent in the team she assembled to bring the game to completion. These include co-producer Karyn Lanthios from Kukan Studio ('an amazing mobile game producer and a big gamer'), abstract artist Jo Kerlogue, QA Manager Emma Bonnici, and three male coders.
Of these, Holly approached Jo first, to help her create the right visual style.
'I'm not a fan of photo-realistic 3D animation or cutesy-looing crap,' admits Holly. 'I wanted the visuals to play with 2D and 3D and collage, and have a DIY zine style that plays on imperfection. High school is all about awkward growth spurts, first periods, acne and festering hormones, clashing with a quest for physical perfection and ultimate coolness.
'Lots of Australian gaming “nyerd” boys have commented online about how crap they think the graphics are,' adds Holly, '...which (understandably) we are so relieved about.'
Having the story and art under control, Holly and Jo then teamed up with Karyn's Kukan Studio to work on the technical aspects. As part of the process, three male coders were assigned to the game.
'The funny thing about the guys that worked on Coolest Girl in School,' says Holly, 'is that initially some of the scenarios freaked them out a bit (perhaps it was too much insight into the minds and bodily functions of teen girls). But pretty quickly the guys were totally down with our ideas and offered great ways to distill the chaos and uncertainty of a teen girl's mind into (shudder) formulas and a scoring system'.
While the coders introduced certain game mechanics, arguably, one of the most interesting additions in functionality was the incorporation of a rapidly growing form of female media: online social networks. In a style resembling that of an Alternate Reality Game, Coolest Girl in School utilizes MySpace pages as a means of increasing the gameplay experience.
'As far as we know,' says Holly, 'we are the first mobile game to involve a social network. Players can communicate with game characters [via the characters' MySpace pages], get 'codes' for contraband and clues about how to suitably suck up to the right peeps. The game can be played with or without the social network, but just like school, it's all about who you know.'
Perhaps, when it comes to game development, Holly should add, 'or who knows you.'
Recognizing the game's use of Australian vernacular, new media and unique gameplay, last year Coolest Girl in School was nominated by the Game Developers Association of Australia (GDAA) for Best Mobile Phone Game of 2007.
Across all of the award categories, it was the only game on the list created predominantly by women specifically for a female audience.
It's a situation that both culturally and commercially begs the multi-million dollar question: how does female-skewed game design differ to what else is available, and what exactly is it that women want from a game?
'I'd go so far as to say it's the squillion million katrillion truth dare double dare kiss command torture full stop no returns amen question,' quips Holly, 'but I'm prone to exaggeration!
'In all seriousness, though, what women want varies from woman to woman; it's prone to constant change as identity and desire are—in my opinion—quite fluid. I think women want variety and Coolest Girl in School goes some way to meeting that desire.
'It's important to note that Coolest Girl in School was not a response to the general question of what do women want,' says Holly, explaining the game's creation process, 'but rather a response to the question, “What do I, Holly Owen, an out-and-proud non-gamer want in a game that I am not getting anywhere else?” The initial concept, then, was a response to things I didn't like about games and things I did like about popular culture as a whole.
'I wanted to create a game where almost all the non-player characters are female, and where the player can only take on the character of a young woman,' says Holly. 'Like the Hollywood women's films and melodramas of the 1940's, I wanted to put women at the center of my gaming universe and I wanted them to have an extensive wardrobe, bitchy peers, a sound knowledge of popular culture and independent music, bad period pain and the ability to poke fun and play with one of the most seminal institutions any person will have the (mis)pleasure of passing through: high school.'
As a writer, Holly believes high school is the ultimate source of drama and comedy. And so, before she began working on the narrative for the game, she wrote to everyone she knew and asked them to share their most embarrassing high school moments.
'We spent a really long time delving into our own experiences and exaggerating them for comedic effect,' says Holly. 'We also indulged in all our favorite high school films and television series. I am a fan of the more ludicrous scenarios and I also love that the presence of your parents in the game ensures the constant threat of social death. No matter how much you may get along with your parents, during high school anyone over 22 who's not a rock star should really be made to keep at least two kilometers away from you at all times.'
'I went to about five different schools, but only one high school,' says Holly. 'I was really into everything and I actually liked my teachers and got along with all my peers, which I guess makes me a freak of nature. I found that by being “good” it was much easier to get away with things. Karyn says that she fit into the “good naughty” category, too. It's not hard to work out how to get what you want.'
While that may have been true with Holly for most things, it didn't preclude her from painful experiences.
'At age 13-and-a-half,' confides Holly, 'a “friend” of mine told a much older, cooler boy (read: had all the best bands written on his school bag, didn't have to wear a school uniform, had traveled to Nepal, had a room separate to his house and spoke with a slight English accent) that I liked him. He replied that I would be bad for his “reputation”. That was a total “What's the color of red, Holly?” moment. (Luckily for me about a year-and-a-half later the tables turned. I punished him on a daily basis for his mean comment.) The whole experience was so painful that it completely turned me off “slight English accents”.'
Were Holly playing out her pay-back scenario in Coolest Girl in School, her actions may have just increased her score and gained friends with the cool clique. That is, if she hadn't already died of embarrassment (literally) from the boy's comment, or hooked up with the Emo crowd and carved a dirge about the incident into her thigh with a razor blade.
Sound controversial? Then how about spraining your wrist from masturbating, smoking pot behind the shelter shed, finding out your mother has had a sex-change, walking out of a change room with your tampon string hanging out, asking a friend to shoplift, tampering with exam papers, or gossiping about the misfortune of another girl?
It's scenarios such as these—not to mention the tag lines 'GTA for girls' and 'Lie, bitch, and flirt your way to the top of the high school ladder'—that has seen Coolest Girl in School raise the ire of a number of family groups, both locally and internationally.
When the Australian Family Association found out about Coolest Girl in School, they condemned it for being 'toxic' and 'grossly irresponsible', arguing that 'the activities in the game have been shown through vast amounts of research to cause significant, long-term problems for young people'.
Canadian gaming expert Christine Daviault, from Montreal's Concordia University, said that she '[doesn't] think most people will see it as tongue-in-cheek,' adding that players of the game are 'at a crossroads in the formation of their personalities and [that Coolest Girl in School] basically fosters a warped idea of what constitutes success and how to get it.'
It's one of the great ironies that the game has received such criticism, particularly given the overwhelming volume of male-skewed games that manage to avoid condemnation, despite indulging (often quite graphically) in themes of aggression, misogyny, destruction and power.
'Hypocrisy never ceases to bore me,' replies Holly, pointedly. 'But there are a few key issues here.
'There are the stupid people who cannot differentiate between gaming and reality and will continue to be pains in the neck and try to censor everything despite the fact there is no research that shows a correspondence between actual violence and violence in gaming. For some reason these people forget that violence and anti-social behavior predates gaming.
'Then there are the people who see a boy's relationship with aggression and violence as somehow innate and therefore acceptable. These people tend to get their knickers in a knot when girls want to explore sex and drugs and defiance through entertainment because they must have read the “sugar and spice and all things nice” poem one too many times throughout their lives.
'It's important to point out that Coolest Girl in School is not violent. There may be one teeny-tiny bitch fight squeezed in somewhere for accuracy, but essentially morally outraged media illiterate parents are wanting to burn us at the stake because teenage girls scare the hell out of their parents because they can get pregnant and teenage boys can't.
The intelligence of young women is constantly patronized by narrow minded fear mongers,' adds Holly, 'and it's heart-breaking.'
Regrettably, Holly's comment leaves her wide open for further criticism. Detractors will quickly point to the game's seemingly vacuous goal and use of trashy magazine quizzes, and ask how either can build a case for the portrayal of women as intelligent.
On the surface they'd appear to be right. But probe deeper—see past the cut-out characters, lined notepad interface and menu-driven multiple choice questions—and it's evident that a lot of thought has gone into the game design. At one level, a player can simply click through the game, have fun, and pass away half-an-hour or so on a train or bus. But, should the player choose to invest in the ultimate goal, then there's an opportunity for them to try and increase their standing by thinking about who needs what and why, utilizing the online social networks and being strategic with their answers and actions.
At either level, however, the player is constantly being put into a position where there isn't necessarily a 'right' or 'wrong' answer. Each choice produces consequences. And this, for Holly, is an important aspect of the game design.
'I'm not sure whether there are more gray areas and contradictions for girls [than there are for boys],' she says with regards to the choices both have to make in life, 'but [for girls] there certainly are a lot.
'It was really important for me, then, not to impose any overarching moral code or deliver any final moral blow. The situational morality occurs because each non-player character has their own ideas regarding morality and they are the ones judging the player at any given point.'
It's a fascinating distinction, given the number of male-skewed action games that have a 'kill all your foes' single-minded heroism attached to them and obvious 'win' scenarios.
'Just as there are no real winners and losers after the trial of high school,' continues Holly, 'in Coolest Girl in School the ending is deliberately ambiguous. [That said,] the idea is to position yourself favorably for the next game. Well deserving players get props and the ability to start the next game in front with a handbag full of goodies.
'We have plans,' reveals Holly, 'which include a Coolest Girl in School 2: The Prom, Coolest Girl in School 3: Gap Year, Coolest Girl in University/TAFE/Centrelink (unemployment) Queue, Coolest Girl at the Office Christmas Party, and more.
'Preferably all would then be adapted for “on ice” spectaculars,' continues Holly, tongue-in-cheek, 'presented by Mario Maiola accompanied by Sonic Youth playing “Kool Thing” repeatedly.'
Ice spectaculars? Games about proms and trashy office Christmas parties?
Sounds like I'd better start my estrogen shots now.