This episode we speak with Dr. Stephanie Harkin, discussing the concept of “techno-femininity” from her award winning PhD Thesis (2022) Girlhood Games: Gender, Identity, and Coming of Age in Videogames. You can read her PhD here: https://researchbank.swinburne.edu.au/file/86788440-fcec-420a-8df1-b7c35f976066/1/stephanie_harkin_thesis.pdf, follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sa_harkin, and read more of her work on Academia.edu: https://swin.academia.edu/SHarkin. It is part 4 of a special 6-episode Season of Keywords in Play, exploring intersections and exchanges between Chinese and Australian game studies scholarship. This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
Stephanie Harkin is an early career researcher interested in girls’ gaming cultures and representations of girlhood. She completed her PhD at Swinburne University of Technology where her thesis explored girlhood and the coming-of-age genre in videogames. She has previously published on gender and games in the journals Game Studies, Games and Culture, and Girlhood Studies.
The podcast series is part of Engaging Influencers initiative. This initiative is curated by the Australia Council for the Arts and funded by the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations
As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.
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Interviewer: Hugh Davies
Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Emilie Reed, Zoyander Street
Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart
Double Bass: Aaron Stewart
Special Thanks: Mahli-Ann Butt, Chloe Yan Li
Transcription: Safya Devautour
Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.
As a joint venture, Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Mahli-Ann: Welcome to Keywords in Play, I’m Mahli-Ann Butt and it is my absolute pleasure to welcome Dr. Stephanie Harkin who will be discussing her award-winning PhD thesis with us today. I am an absolute fan of this thesis, and I can’t recommend it enough to everyone I meet. Welcome!
Stephanie: Thank you for that very lovely introduction! Happy to be here, happy to talk about it!
Mahli-Ann: Well, it’s so great to have you and we will be discussing a particular chapter from your PhD thesis, is that right?
Stephanie: Yes! I am happy to give kind of a brief overview to contextualise it but yes, for the sake of time, I think it’s best we just focus on one chapter. So, I’ve picked the one that talks about techno-femininity and hyper-femininity which I think is very contextually kind of relevant, everybody is talking about the Barbie movie at the moment and celebrating this and the feminine aesthetic I am seeing everywhere online. This part of the thesis kind of looks into a history of that, to better contextualise what we are seeing now.
Mahli-Ann: There have also been articles out on the Barbie game, but I think a lot of the themes and the concept of techno-femininity is so useful and so interesting. To the extent, I just came from DiGRA, the big DiGRA, and there so many people who were “Oh, you should read Dr. Harkin’s award-winning PhD thesis”.
Stephanie: Oh, that’s so nice. I know, I wish I talked about Barbie more in it, make it even more buzzy, but I definitely want to in future research. Dive into those more invisible Barbie games because there are so many of them. There’s a dedicated Wikipedia page for every single Barbie video game ever made and Barbie Fashion Designer is just the one everybody talks about, it being kind of the first one that made lots of money but there’s a lot of very interesting ones out there.
Mahli-Ann: Yeah, absolutely, and I think what I love about what you explore here and as well as with the term techno-femininity is that, you know, obviously we’ve had the critiques of the pink and purple games, right? Where, pink and purple games such as, I guess, the Barbie games… What are some other examples, just, so we are all on the same page?
Stephanie: The Purple Moon games are probably another, another sort of famous game that is talked about in a lot of conversations of gendered girls games movement in the nighties. They were games developed by Branda Laurel, Rockett’s New School and The Secret Paths series. And the purple game term, for those listening who may not be aware, it’s kind of like related, related but kind of dissimilar to the pink games which were heavily gendered with the stereotypes. The purple games were sort of going that little bit further to explore girlhood in a bit more of a nuanced and thoughtful way. Exploring sort of girls’ inner interior lives and challenges, by going further than most kinds of marketed stereotypes I suppose which The Secrets Paths and the Rockett’s series were seen to do.
Mahli-Ann: We have this resurgence of the no-shaming like pink and purple colours and actually embracing pink, and actually seeing an appreciation of value for femininity.
Stephanie: Yeah, totally, and the term techno-femininity, in particular, looks at those intersections of those aesthetics sort of previously gendered activities, things like dressing up dolls – it’s not just the colour pink. But the way that that intersects with technology, with computers, with hardware, software, which has so long been attributed as this masculine domain, this sort of – you know, cold and hard, associated with the military and the science histories which career paths seen in STEM now, career paths that women tend not to be associated with.
Mahli-Ann: Yeah, and as we know traditionally, not the case.
Stephanie: Yes! Absolutely.
Mahli-Ann: So, tell us a bit more about what brought you to look at this. And I believe you’ve coined it?
Stephanie: Yeah, it’s… I mean there are similar words for that out there, cyber-feminism, techno-feminism, but those terms are more looking at political resistance sort of around the 1990s riot grrrl movements, looking at online web spaces that were very overly feminist spaces. But techno-femininity it’s a bit more of a broader umbrella term to look at such of both the Barbie Fashion Designer, the marketing or the pinking of hardware and game consoles, but also looking at it as gendered activities that can be resistant too. So it’s a term that is a bit more broad in its scope, in that sense. I use “techno” rather than “cyber” because it’s not just internet, there are interesting things to look at with hardware as well, and another thing we see a lot of today, TikTok features videos of these crazy PC set-ups, skins for controllers, headphones that are very feminine and pink and floral, all with that beautiful aesthetic imagery. So, techno-femininity, the history of how that came to be and how that’s being harnessed, this kind of hyperinflation of these western gendered stereotypes but something that not just girls, I think it’s important to sort of preface that this femininity not be detached to womanhood and girlhood, I think it’s very much taken on by queer cultures as well. But in a way they, all of these people, including girls, know that it has this critical history but it’s something that they can also engage with and draw pleasure from, as well.
Mahli-Ann: Yeah, totally, so well put. Techno-femininity isn’t necessarily political. It can be and can be seen in forms of resistances but not necessarily so. And I think that’s still useful and something maybe that we often overlook in and of itself.
Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. I have this beautiful quote from Anita Harris in the chapter, who is a girlhood scholar, and who writes “Even whimsical and personal uses of the internet can be meaningful” and I really love that because it’s… even just embracing these hyperfeminine aesthetics in activity like writing in a journal, dressing up dolls, that can be political whether it’s done in a knowing intentional way anyway because it is engaging with technology in a different way, it’s challenging that stereotype.
Mahli-Ann: Yes, for sure. What inspired you to look at this?
Stephanie: Hmm, oh gosh. Well, my whole thesis, I supposed, looks at girlhood games which actually came from a summer of just reading a lot of young adult novels and wanting to look at coming-of-age themes in games, which I thought there was definitely more scholarship to be added to that, particularly looking at girlhood, not just coming of age. And so I, you know, I am doing research and writing a lot of textual analysis on games, in terms of the coming of age narrative arch but towards the end of the thesis, in my research process, I wanted to look at how girls represent themselves through games, and I came across these two games, kind of similar in themes. One is Nina Freeman’s “lost-memories.net” and the other is Hummingwarp Interactive’s “Secret Little Haven”, and both of them entirely set on a desktop computer and both of them super hyper-feminine, pink, sparkly graphics and they’re calling… they were made sort of in the late 2010s, but they’re both set – one is set in 1998 or 1999, and the other is set in 2004. So they’re recalling this early period of the internet and they’re both about these two teenage girls who are engaging with these online webpages, think GeoCities, LiveJournal, Angelfire, even MySpace to an extent, if a little bit younger, when people were making their own webpages. And this was a massively popular area for teenage girls, they were writing these blogs, they weren’t social media profiles like there are now, these people weren’t writing for their peers in school or, they didn’t have their family, nobody they knew were reading this – not necessarily anyway. They were these sort of cosy, private, public realms of self-expression. And so, I’m looking at these games and as the player you can contribute to them as well, so it’s kind of a way that the player can also use games as a form of self-expression. Then thematically these protagonists, these teenage girls in each game, are also presented as cultural producers as well, and it recalls this history that I wanted to tell of – hey game culture we look at it, hacking and modding which, these very boyhood activities, they were definitely girls that were doing it, but they were marginal. Instead of focusing on sort of, the few anecdotes that I could find of those marginal participants, why don’t we look at this whole new space altogether, let’s look at fanlistings, let’s look at webpages dedicated to Club Penguin and Final Fantasy, lots of fanfictions out there that were games adjacent as well. Dressing up dolls, Stardoll, all of that with this sort of invisible, untapped area for game culture, these game-adjacent activities, mostly rooted in fandom, that hadn’t really been spoken about in an era where girls were otherwise presumed to not be active in game culture. So, no, they were doing some really great creative stuff, just elsewhere.
Mahli-Ann: One of my interviewees once said “Oh wait a minute, does Neopets count?”, right? And I had that moment reading this as well, of like, oh yeah I mean I was on Neopets, I had a MySpace and that’s where I learned how to code in HTML, right? I had GeoCities websites, and these were all very fandom-based and fandom-driven. I also like this concept of the dollmaking and the avatars as well, right? Like, avatars as a term is something that is quite researched in game studies, but never quite in these kinds of avatars, the dolls.
Stephanie: Yeah, totally. And for what you said before, one of the reasons I love talking about this, whenever I’ve spoken about it in conferences I always have people come up to me, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t… haven’t thought about it that way” and this sort of sense of validation I think really draws to, I guess, some of the shortcomings in games studies, in general, that have really let these fascinating spaces like Neopets fly under the radar and they’d say, myself included “Oh, I didn’t play games until I had a Playstation 2”. No, of course, if you were playing Club Penguins or Neopets, which a lot of us were, then that’s definitely still a game, a gaming culture.
Mahli-Ann: So, Girl Geek Academy is a Melbourne-based social enterprise dedicated to achieving gender equity in the technology industry, and one of the things they do for the game jams is having… They have this cool little Venn Diagram on their website, outlining three different roles which they’ve called “hackers”, “hustlers” and “hipsters”, where hackers build, build code, build robots, or build things, with 3D printers even, hipsters make everything pixel perfect through their love of design, and hustlers turn our dreams into reality by making sure the job gets done, including marketing of the product as well. And what I really love about this is the first time, I think, that I’ve seen a game jam model think beyond just the product, but actually the roles in creating games as like a larger culture, with various practices and activities.
Stephanie: Yeah, I love that, yeah, and I think that’s important. When thinking about dollmaking as a game-adjacent activity, you know, I really wanted to chat about dollmaking but was trying to articulate why it’s relevant to games, and dressing up dolls is play and always has been. But there is this, you know, in the development process, there is an overvaluation of the programming and coding side of things rather than the art side of things, which designing dolls is a little bit of both, it was graphic design but there was also some coding involved. But they had this sort of flash design contests, which were kind of like a game jam, they had a trading card game that was attached to them. It was inspired by games like Magic The Gathering and the Yu-Gi-Oh! Card game. So, it’s very much adjacent to play, not just because it recalls Magic The Gathering, I think we should really embrace the dressing-up dolls as play. I mean we do it in all of the games now, every first-person shooter, Apex Legends is a fashion game, they just call it gear and skins.
Mahli-Ann: I love this! Right? Because it’s like my favourite part of a lot of games I play. It will be games like Red Dead Redemption 2 but my favourite part is just like, I guess, the homemaking stuff. Or like Fall Out 4 and I spend a lot of time farming.
Mahli-Ann: It’s like the dollhouse play of those games!
Stephanie: I mean, look at The Sims but… I mean that is kind of considered like a girls game, but it was hugely successful. Before that was released, it was originally called Dollhouse!
Mahli-Ann: This part of history that I guess is glossed over sometimes.
Mahli-Ann: Yeah, and we haven’t specifically addressed this yet, but I do want to also discuss this being part of DIY practices and a lineage of that. You briefly mentioned the zine-making practices as well, with the Riot Grrrl movement and then also, I guess, drawing on Angela McRobbie which we all should do more, and I guess like bedroom cultures too. Actually, I think I just highlighted in your conclusion, I love… I think I highlighted it and then went “This is awesome”. I did that a lot so let me find… Here we are: “constructing a history that relocates coding culture from boys’ basements to girls’ bedrooms”.
Stephanie: Well, that’s not… I mean, for those unfamiliar, McRobbie and Garber they wrote this influential essay in the seventies I believe, looking at these post-war British youth subcultures and they found that most of the studies at the time were only kind of privileging public spaces which then led people to conclude that a lot of these subcultural spaces like punk were kind of overrepresented by men and boys and the girls were marginal. And McRobbie and Garber said, you know that’s not necessarily the case which is putting too much emphasis on public space. So they relocated those subculture studies to the bedroom, the privacy of the bedroom. Not to say that girls weren’t present in those public subcultures but they were most of the time marginal in those studies, but they saw this untapped potential by looking at the bedrooms and that’s precisely what I do in this chapter. If we only look at these hegemonic DIY gaming spaces which, you know we’re looking at this era that the games were set, which is the era that I am focused on, it’s mostly hacking and modding culture, this is before we had things like Unity or Unreal, the game design tools were much more limited. But these were mostly boyhood realms, of course there were girls like in public spaces but there were online spaces instead; your LiveJournal, GeoCities, Angelfire. That’s where these spaces were massively much more popular with girls, young girls as well, teenage girls dominated these spaces. They had the coding skills, they were using them to make game-adjacent fandom spaces, like Final Fantasy fanlisting and yeah, this was also an era then where most studies looking at girls’ activities online they were aware that girls were online but they’re not really tied to game culture, a lot of them do focus on the Riot Grrrl zines which were, when the internet came, and domestic computers came and girls had computers, zines were able to be shared, distributed, created, these communities were established and it’s important to look at that but I think there is a missing link here of some of the links between that culture, which was incredibly important, but with gaming culture as well. There were games that were also shared, communities that were formed on fanlistings and on those websites. They weren’t necessarily as overly resistant as zines, but they were these alternative sites of pleasure and communities and fandom that are worth looking at more closely.
Mahli-Ann: Absolutely. And you’ve also mentioned the FEMICOM museum, which is kind of an archive if you want to speak more about that.
Stephanie: Everybody should check out the FEMICOM museum! It’s so good, it’s created by Rachel Simone Weil, you can see a lot of it online, it’s a website that archives girls games, to take them seriously, because a lot of them had sort of flown under the radar, in games history, you know, not necessarily commercially successful but in a lot of history people are still fascinated by failure, still, girls’ games get left out, or you watch YouTube videos of men unboxing girls’ games and they’re not playing them or engaging with them in a serious way, they’re just making fun of them to make them appear like they’re sort of pseudo-feminists standing up for stereotypes but they’re really just trashing those girly games and girls’ interests. So, the FEMICOM museum, it amends that, these blog posts, they’re sort of a memory repository, it lists a bunch of games that most people would have probably never heard of, it has screenshots, stories descriptions, on the homepage it has no “No “pink sucks” vibes!”. It’s also embracing that hyper-femininity in a non-judgmental way, but in a celebratory way.
Mahli-Ann: I love that!
Stephanie: It’s so good, everyone should check it out!
Mahli-Ann: I also loved coming across the Nintendo sewing machine. I think it… I love it! It’s so cool. And, you know, it has the very kind of Apple aesthetic of the early 2000s as well. If you remember when all the Macs kind of had that particular shell on it.
Stephanie: Yes, the laptop version of that, it was called the clamshell. That was derogatorily called “Barbie’s toilet seat”, at the time. It was not necessarily even intentionally gendered, but it just became this sort of butt of the joke as this girl’s computer but it’s an example I guess of techno femininity. That’s the computer that Elle Woods has in Legally Blond and they use it to show her standing out from her classmates, there is this sea of black laptops and then Elle Woods really wouldn’t blend in the middle with her clamshell.
Mahli-Ann: How good is that film, by the way? It stands up!
Stephanie: So good!
Mahli-Ann: It stands up!
Stephanie: It absolutely does, I watched it recently, it absolutely does. But yeah, the sewing machine was designed with that computer in mind and yeah, it’s such an interesting machine. There was I think a crisis, supposedly, of girls in the nighties not being as interested in sewing as they once used to be – I’m not sure how those statistics were gathered, but they teamed up with Gameboy. You could make Mario and those other Nintendo characters on the pattern and yeah, just fantastic. They had one at PAX in Melbourne…
Mahli-Ann: I saw that!
Stephanie: … in a glass case, and I was so starstruck, I was taking selfies with it. Which is very funny because I was talking about it with my students. And one of the students said that their grandmother has one and uses it to sew. The grandmother had found it at a garage sale and still uses it today. I’m like, that same machine was in a glass box in the history section of a games convention and your grandma is using it to do her sewing pattern.
Mahli-Ann: It’s amazing.
Stephanie: It’s so amazing, I love that story.
Mahli-Ann: It’s brilliant. So, I also wanted to discuss, but in your thesis, you do make a move from – I guess, girls studies to girlhood studies? And also, I guess, thinking about not necessarily calling them girl games but girlhood games, in particular. If you want to talk about that a bit more.
Stephanie: Yeah, yeah. I mean there is such sort of a rich amount of scholarship on girls’ games, and I think we still got a lot more to say about that. But, “girlhood games” is something that is a bit more thematic and not necessarily tied to marketing strategies. A lot of… You know, when I was reading all my YA – my young adult fiction, and wanting to find where that is taking place in games, a lot of it I noticed where in contemporary kind of blockbusters, the AAA games. You know, some key examples being Horizon Zero Dawn, The Last of Us, even Life is Strange – not as AAA but it’s published by Square Enix and I think that’s a pretty big deal. So, I was noticing a lot more of these not being segmented in this separate gendered category but were just becoming normal stories. As a part of games, we were sort of moving away from that archetypal hero journey, like what we see in the Legend of Zelda, for example. But this move towards more the Bildungsroman/coming-of-age theme, which I think Life Is Strange is kind of a key example of that. It explores… It puts much more emphasis on those social obstacles, identity exploration, rather than epic quests and, you know, the return to home, like the Odysseus narrative is kind of used as the archetype of heroes’ narrative. But I was noticing, yeah, this shift toward the coming-of-age structure and a lot of those were from girls’ perspectives. And I think that kind of intersects with your own research on the Post-Gamer Turn. I think a lot of these changes, in these larger key studios and key publishers, have kind of been a response to critics of video game themes being too hegemonic and rigid. So, that is one of the results. But, of course, we found a lot of the game developers tools, like Unity, Unreal, we seeing a lot more perspectives as well. So, there are a lot of very neat girlhood games in the indie sector as well, but I think it’s worth asking why we’re seeing this in blockbuster games too, I think that’s a really important move.
Mahli-Ann: And, while we focus on one chapter, did you want to expand a bit around how this chapter fits into your overall thesis, and maybe some of the key takeaways from the PhD?
Stephanie: Yeah, yeah, absolutely! This is the very last chapter of my thesis, it kind of points to what I plan on doing next, what I’ve been working on since submitting. But the thesis sort of weaves between different examples, different kinds of games, different development contexts as well. I talked about sort of semi-small games, like Oxenfree, and I moved to the Life is Strange and then The Last of Us. I’ve got a chapter at the beginning that talks about girls’ games, to sort of contextualise that difference from girls’ games to girlhood games. I write a little bit more about Purple Moon, that we spoke about briefly before. But this last chapter fits in by, sort of taking that shift from representation of girls by studios that did a lot of the time, I found, were kind of more dominated by male creators. But, the two games that I talked about in this last chapter were both made by women reflecting on, sort of semi-autobiographical, but mostly fictional, thinking about their own girlhood. They’re personal, they’re a little bit more intimate in that sense. One of them is free as well, so these aren’t commercial games necessarily. But it’s shifting between representation to self-representation, from both the developers’ perspectives, thematically the two girls in this final chapter are cultural producers expressing themselves through their desktop and their online websites. And then the player too can also contribute and part of the actual gameplay is creating those websites or writing fanfictions or dressing up dolls. So, the creators – sorry the players, can also play around with these forms of self-expression and creativity and cultural production. In a bit more of a limited way but it kind of points to a broader history where players were doing that already, in that era. So, this chapter kind of stands out from the rest because it shifts more to the players and creators, but it does kind of continue along this whole narrative of what does girlhood looks like in games. How can a coming-of-age tale manifest in a playable system, as opposed to literature or film?
Mahli-Ann: So, what’s next Dr. Harkin?
Stephanie: Next, I would love to continue this history. I mean, I was very limited in space and time, which is probably relatable to anybody working on a PhD thesis. So, I would love to dive in a lot more deeper into this history. I’d love to produce an oral history, talk to people – I didn’t get the chance sadly in this thesis to interview anybody, but I would love to hear from the people who were part of this, these Neopets web rings, these Club Penguins blogs, and put together a much, an even richer, oral history of these games cultures. And that, as you asked before, are the main takeaways, from this chapter in particular, but girls were always there. Just because they are a lot more visible now when we look at things like streaming and representation. This thesis does look at history quite a bit and girls have always been playing, whether studios realised it or gaming culture journalism pointed it out. They were always there.
Mahli-Ann: Amen to that! Well, thank you so much for coming and speaking with us today on this special episode.
Stephanie: It’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me!
Mahli-Ann: Thank you, Stephanie, Dr. Harkin. So, where can people read your work? We’ve got your PhD thesis “Girlhood Games: Gender, Identity, and Coming of Age in Videogames.” Can they read that thesis?
Stephanie: Yes, they absolutely can. It’s available on the research repository for Swinburne University of Technology. I have a link on my Twitter, which is @sa_harkin, if Twitter is still around by this time this is posted, it’s a bit of a turbulent space right now, isn’t it? I have an academia page as well, where I’ve got links to publications as well as to the thesis.
Stephanie: Academia may be the easiest way.
Mahli-Ann: Awesome! I’m sure we will be able to add these links into some details thing.
Mahli-Ann: Thank you so much, and thanks for listening to Keywords in Play!
Darshana: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play. For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org.