Thursday, 31 March 2016 00:00

My Pink Controller: Why “Pinkifying” Items Was Inclusive Then, But Does It Make Sense Now?

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Growing up in the 90s, I never felt a real connection to the gaming industry or the gaming community as a whole.

While it’s true that the feeling of isolation had more to do with my gaming preferences and personality than anything else, there was always been something lurking in the shadows, reminding me that I wasn’t necessarily welcome in this club.

In that time period, a girl who played games didn’t necessarily exist: I wasn’t supposed to be there.

I had just as much right to be included as any other gamer, of course – my initiation into video games started at age 2 on the PC with Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, and edutainment games (Mixed Up Mother Goose, yeaaaaaah boy!). I was given my dad’s old NES and played Super Mario Bros. 3 for years until my six year old self finally beat it. Over the decade, I begged my parents for the Gameboy, the Gamegear, the N64, and the PS2. For years, I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning playing various iterations of Pokemon or Final Fantasy. Visits to friends’ houses usually resulted in speed runs through our favorite games or just watching each other play an engrossing RPG. I, just like any of my male cohorts, thoroughly enjoyed video games; unlike my male cohorts, however, I was playing games that didn’t have me in mind at any step of the design and publishing process.

I don’t imagine this was on purpose, mind you – I don’t think that some evil game developers were sitting in their evil hideouts designing games that were so sexist that they were perfectly eeeeeeevil…rather, I believe that developers were doing what humans do best – thinking from their perspective, like anyone else would. Since it was (and still is) a male-dominated industry, it made sense that they would make games directed at their gender and marketed in a way that appealed to their gender. The only problem is that women do exist and we do enjoy games – some of us just as much as, if not more than, the next guy. I’m not about to quote the statistic that claims women play more video games than men because that takes into account mobile “freemium” games (which I think are a complete farce and shouldn’t be included in the video game category), but that aside, we still make up a large population within the community. Why, then, are we still considered non-existent by so many? What could video game companies do for us to help us feel included?

The answer is, as it always has been, is simple: pink.

I come from a toy marketing background, and my occupation has given me insight on how these entertainment companies work. When a toy company is making a line for boys, it’s usually dark, adrenaline-inducing, and meant to be played with in a rough fashion – think any superhero toy. When a line is being made for girls, it’s usually something pink. Anything pink. Pink doll. Pink stuffed animal. Pink accessories. Pink jumpropes, chalk, and dress ups. If it’s pink, it signifies that it is meant to be played with by a girl. Like beacon of light aimed directly at our subconscious, pink calls out to us even in our adult lives, being slapped on items such as gym bags, steering wheel covers, phone cases…if it’s pink, females are supposed to buy it. From a marketing standpoint, it’s an effective way to tell women “this item can be used by you” even if it doesn’t initially appear that way (I have a pink toolbox, for example). 

It’s this “pinkification” of items that tells us “your presence has been recognized”; without this signal, we generally don’t feel that the message is directed at us. It won’t stop us from doing what we love, of course, but it’s that lack of implicit communication that naggingly reminds us that we weren’t supposed to exist; that games were never supposed to be for our enjoyment. By making items pink, such as a pink controller, game companies have tacitly expressed their acknowledgement for my demographic. The trend is actually fairly recent – a quick look at video game consoles and accessories shows that pink items didn’t really pop up en masse until the 2000s (N64’s Watermelon console doesn’t count – that’s such an ambiguous pink!).

But why the obsession with pink? Does it have to be pink? Is pink really necessary for girl gamers to enjoy video games? Are we really so hung up over what color our controllers are?

There’s a new movement within feminism that questions the necessity, even overabundance, of pink in products; some want to do away with the pink-specific marketing entirely. While I understand and can even agree with the premise at its core – that a color should not determine one’s enjoyment or use of an item – the problem of inclusion still remains.  Pink has become an almost universal indicator that a product is aimed at women, and for a male-dominated industry producing items that are still generally geared towards men, that pink controller is sometimes the only indication we’re going to get. That pink controller has a message that is so simple, yet so powerful: you, a woman, belong here.

As I look over at my consoles, I see a definite evolution as the decades drummed on – my green N64 sits next to my silver Gamecube and black PS2, PS3 and Wii. My original Gameboy is stored away next to my yellow Gameboy Color. Next to those items are signs of progression – my pink Gameboy Advance, pink DS Lite, and pink 3DS are all kept in their pink cases. My pink PS3 controller sits atop my PS3. My pink gaming headphones and pink PC controller rest by my computer. Those signs of pink – those signs of quiet acknowledgement – are so supremely satisfying to someone who wasn’t supposed to exist in the first place. It’s those signs that I’m drawn to, and it’s those signs that I spend my money on to let game companies know that I support their implied message of recognition.

Now that I have this option available to me, buying a non-pink gaming item to me just feels so…wrong. Maybe it’s because, for the first time in my life, I finally feel recognized by something I hold so dearly to me. That silent, seemingly silly approval of my love for video games by the companies that make them can appear so contrived, but for me, it’s almost like receiving closure. I don’t have to defend my existence in this community anymore – the companies that are cherished by male and female gamers alike know I’m here. For the first time in my life, I know that my demographic is in mind when making games, and it is my hope that future games will reflect on this understanding that girls can love games too. Perhaps one day the pink indicator will be unnecessary, but for now it’s a message of unspoken inclusion – one that I look forward to with each new console and accessory.

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Heather Johnson

Heather has been playing video games ever since she can remember. Starting off as a PC gamer at age 2 with edutainment games and progressing to the NES and beyond, she has always had a love for everything gaming, PC and console. She’s carried a hand-held console in her back pocket (now purse) since the 3rd grade and is probably the only person in her mid-twenties that still enjoys street-passing. She lives in Los Angeles and currently works for Bandai in the marketing department – she doesn’t make toys, she just makes toys look good. Right now she is actively avoiding planning her upcoming wedding by playing Skyrim. Other hobbies include trying to go to the gym, watching documentaries, sleeping, and tormenting (see: showering with affection) her beloved Maine Coon, King Henry VIII. Favorite games include FFX, Katamari Damacy, Saints Row IV, Skyrim, Catherine, and Phoenix Wright. She has her phone surgically attached to her hand and is happy to help whenever possible.