If you were a pre-teenage girl in the early 1990s you may have come across the game Dream Phone at a slumber party somewhere between Dirty Dancing screenings. This is a boardgame with a pink phone peripheral and a collection of profile cards featuring pictures and information about potential love interests. The objective of the game is to find out who has a crush on you by calling boys who then give you clues as to who the guy is, clues like where he hangs out or that he likes ‘stuff’, then you can eliminate potential boyfriends based on the information they give you until you have deduced “who who who has a crush on you”. It plays a little like Guess Who or a version of Clue where feelings might get hurt but nobody dies.
Why on earth would one be talking about Dream Phone? As an avid reader of all manner of trash romances, frequent weeper at Brief Encounter and gamer I am interested in how games deal with or integrate themes of love, but I’m coming up a little short on references. With a bit of a brain-wrack I remembered this, my first encounter with love in games. Curious if the game still existed a quick internet search revealed an online multiplayer adaptation and a new-fangled physical version of the game complete with mobile phone and enabled text messaging.
I have some pretty vivid memories of this game and my jerk reaction was to label it crap or disposable but that is maybe unfair, maybe not. There are two (possibly three) crucial things might prevent it from being given more serious consideration as a game that explores love, let alone as a game at all: firstly, the romantic themes have love rendered as crush and secondly, the game’s status as a “girly game” or “pink game” (third, it’s not very good?).
The problem with pink
The girly game is problematic, generally and personally. If a young lady, such as I, didn’t need the patronization of pink to get into games then it’s difficult to understand their purpose and appeal. The criticisms for such games generally being that they reduce gender to a genre, assume girls play in particular ways and contribute to the marginalisation of girls within games culture by reinforcing stereotypes and clinging to crappy clichés.
With these games being designed exclusively to entice different demographics to games there isn’t the supportive, sympathetic contingent in game criticism to give much of a hoot about them, instead these games are met with negativity or dismissed outright. This is not a productive approach, as Rachel Weil, who recently opened the FEMICOM, the feminine computer museum, reminds us. FEMICOM hosts a collection of games for girls because they are a contribution to games culture, are valuable game artefacts and so worth archiving. Describing her motivation for creating the archive the curator says: “I found collectors and journalists describing really unusual and interesting girl games and consoles as “garbage,” “a waste,” “insulting,” and so on. I had a realisation that this entire swath of video game history might eventually disappear from record.” This is an interesting statement on value and speaks to the reasons that something like Dream Phone can’t be worthwhile.
There is also something about the way that Dream Phone is feminine that particularly places it within the category of unimportance, that it is a grossly girly gendered game. Explaining. In her essay Gender, Genre and Excess Linda Williams writes about “body genres”. These are films that elicit emotional and sensory responses from a spectator, for example, tears shed at “tear-jerker”, arousal experienced from erotic films and jumps or repulsion provoked in the viewing of horror. These are the “gross” examples of melodrama, pornography and horror, gross because of their employment of excess and spectacle that excite and affect us. Williams also sees these as particularly gendered genres in that they are either attempts to affect are mostly geared at women or they represent women in spectaclised states of affect.
While Dream Phone clearly has nothing to do with two of those body genres it represents a grossness similar to that of the melodrama. Thinking about my play experience the game definitely provoked certain behaviours amongst a group of young girls, or at least facilitated exaggerations of existing group dynamics. We all giggled, there was some squealing, plenty of cooing at boys, peer mocking when the arbitrarily “wrong” imaginary boy had a crush on you (and they all seemed to be the wrong one). That this girly game elicits such responses is also significant because the act of play inspires girls to simulate trite and tired typically female, and typically young female, things. Giving girls a game that only offers them to play at liking boys is as patronising as offering them opportunities to play at domestic roles with dolls and houses and cooking. These roles are not biologically determined so the themes for play are a little limiting.
That said the game might also offer the chance for girls to explore emerging romantic feelings and I remember the game being as much fun and silly as it was nerve-wracking because it took issues and feelings I was anxious about and put them in a social situation. The game makes public something that we want to be secret – a crush. And this is the second trivializing element of Dream Phone, the one most important to the theme of this blog, and that is that the romance is framed as a crush.
It’s just a crush
I think we think of the crush as superficial. We think of it as posters of celebrities on a bedroom wall, as youthful and insubstantial, as fleeting, as the nothing before a something. This was certainly not my experience when I was younger. I recall crushes being life or death (in that respect maybe Dream Phone is a lot like Clue) and yet we diminish it as an emotional experience.
The Love Letter is a game that has dealt beautifully with youthful crushes and presented it as young love. This one screen game is set in the corridors of a high school and you control the most popular boy in school who finds a letter with a heart on it in his locker. You only have five minutes until the bell rings for class and five minutes to read it in the busy hallways, with all the students following the popular guy. So you scamper around desperately trying to hide and sneak peaks at the slowly scrolling love letter to find out who your secret admirer is before time runs out. The letter itself is super sweet and self-conscious and if you can get to the end you will find your crush, but you don’t want to get caught with it, that is the fail state. The Love Letter charmingly matches the goals, rules and actions in the game to the anxieties of having a crush.
Anyway, the crush seems like a lovely aspect of love to explore in games and through play because this the way we first play at love when we are young. The crush is the point of possibilities in love and when we play games we play with possibilities and playing through those possibilities we require states of challenge and anxiety to get our “flow”, the crush has those inherently. The crush can be pure fantasy and we play with those too. Those games that I have mentioned, all both of them, are incredibly effective at representing the crush and affective as play experiences regardless of what value we attribute them as games and the crush as romance. I think I might go have a crush now.