Games vs. Toys, or the Value of the Hello Kitty Aesthetic

By E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman

I picked up Hello Kitty Cutie World a couple of months ago at Staples. It was on the $10 sale rack but actually rang up at $5, and as you can see, used prices on Amazon seem to start around $6 with shipping; this is the advantage of games that are five years old and aimed at girls under 6, I suppose. As someone who happily discarded her toaster prior to her latest cross-country move with the prospect of replacing it with the Hello Kitty version, and whose last bathroom had Hello Kitty wall borders, you can imagine how quickly I jumped on it, even believing the $10 sticker. I didn't buy it because I thought it was going to be a good game, or pack of games; I was just inexorably attracted by the Hello Kitty name, which one assumes the producers count upon, although they probably didn't have 25-year-old pink-haired graduate students specifically in mind for their market share. In fact, however, the CD is decent, and at the current price level, I'd say it's a very good deal; I ended up picking up another copy for a friend's 4-year-old daughter, although unfortunately I haven't heard back yet on her reaction to it.

The CD includes eight games—or perhaps more properly, seven games and a toy. It's the latter that I find most interesting, but the games, though simple and mostly generic, are worth some discussion as well. Although their programming is mostly unremarkable, except for a few adjustments for the younger users targeted by the CD, they raise the question of by what standard we determine such games are "good." Several Amazon reviewers complain that such generic games are "rip offs" because they do not introduce new, substantive gameplay, but I think we may be too quick to discount the appeal and value of "skins" on such generic games. There are other standards by which to judge a game's worth than unique gameplay, and they may be of more importance to some users, 4-year-old girls among them.

The seven games include memory card-matching, Mahjongg, "Cutie Pie Sweet Tooth," in which the player must create ice cream sundaes the components of which match a model, and four different arcade-style games, two of them simple reflex-testing "catch the item" games, and two in which you must catch items while also avoiding something else (bats and bees, respectively). All the arcade-style games feature Hello Kitty as the player protagonist; there is no protagonist visible in Memory, Mahjongg, or the sundae-making game, but the first two use pictures of her and "cute objects" in the traditional Hello Kitty style, while the latter features friends of Kitty as sundae-buying customers. Some reviews on Amazon complain that these games are "nothing new"; they are just Hello Kitty-themed "rip-offs." It is certainly true that I have played many versions of Memory and Mahjongg, and as a 25-year-old graduate student I do wish that Hello Kitty mahjongg lasted more than three beginner-grade levels. But that's just it—I wish that Hello Kitty mahjongg had more and more difficult levels, because I want to play Hello Kitty mahjongg. I like the Hello Kitty tiles. They make me smile; I appreciate them and they add to my overall enjoyment of the game.

The general idea of skinning generic games is nothing new. I remember as a child taking my time selecting just the right design for the backs of my cards in the Solitaire game that was packaged with Windows—and I remember my then 40+ year-old mother laughing and exclaiming with delight when she realized that the tiny bats on the Haunted Castle-esque card backs actually flapped their tiny wings. It is certainly true that software companies hope to make a lot of money by skinning games with popular properties, but that doesn't necessarily make those games "rip-offs." It really depends on the quality of the game and the added pleasure that users actually derive from the skin. Hello Kitty Cutie World may be mainly generic games dressed up with cute trimmings, but the dressing up is done with skill. One of the CD's best features is its use of simple but happy, bouncy music, which complements the cute, bubbly artistic style of Hello Kitty. The games are basically generic casual games, but the experience of playing them really is a Hello Kitty experience.

One might argue that Barbie fashion design games are "better," if one feels that originality/difference of play is the deciding factor, but I would guess that for many parents (at least, parents whose ideas about gender norms, body image, and child rearing mirror my own), Hello Kitty is a more appealing immersion experience for their daughters. I say "daughters" because, obviously, these are games that are marketed to and purchased mainly for girls. While computers are becoming more ubiquitous, computer games do remain a masculine province, a divide that only increases with age. For parents who are concerned about attracting young girls to the computer and enticing them to spend time with it, one would assume that an attractive immersion experience is more important than original gameplay. In fact, some who otherwise wouldn't are willing to put up with Barbie if it will get their daughters to think of the computer as something fun—and we should also remember that for a 4-year-old, mahjongg is probably a fairly unfamiliar game anyway. Arcade-style games may start to all blend together when you've played enough of them, but small children have had less time to get bored by them. It's an open question, of course (at least from a consumer perspective), how far a game should go to be appealing; Cutie World seems to include algorithms that make every game of mahjongg solvable, and the second turn of every memory game seems to turn up a card that matches one from the first. For a game aimed at children under 6, this is perhaps understandable, although it would be nice to have the option to re-enable "Life isn't fair" for older, more skilled children.

The original Barbie fashion designer games, however—though I admit I have only read about them; I have not actually played them—seem to have more in common with the final Hello Kitty game, "Creative Kitty," than with typical casual games, regardless of skins. "Creative Kitty" is essentially a very simple drag-and-drop graphics program. It has a large library of Hello Kitty clip art and a selection of backgrounds on which to place them. My two major complaints are that there aren't many backgrounds from which to choose (only about half a dozen), and you can't use the same piece of clip art in a single picture more than once; you drag it onto the background and it's gone from the library. Amazon reviewers don't mention either of these issues, but they do again complain about the lack of difficulty and originality:

"Most things are just rip-offs of other games with a Hello Kitty THEME. There is one game that is SOOO easy with kitty and friends 'stickers' that you place onto scenes. You have the option of printing it out, but you can't do much more than that with that one." (J. Scharp, 21 September 2004).

This reviewer makes a good point about the difficulty level of the reflex-testing arcade games being too high for a three-year-old (they are, at times, too hard for me—a 25-year-old graduate student, if you've been keeping track) but she misses the point when she labels Creative Kitty "easy." As games are traditionally understood, it simply isn't one—it isn't really easy or hard in the sense that one wins or loses or is scored in any way. The interface of dragging and dropping the clip art is quite easy, but that should be considered a positive for a program that is not so much a game as a toy (thanks to a recent conversation partner for the distinction of terms).

The purpose of Creative Kitty is not to score points or win, but to create. Obviously, it is not as free a creative space as a blank sheet of paper and a box of crayons, but it's no worse than a coloring book and in some ways richer. It offers props for the imagination similar to action figures or stuffed animals, and it has the added benefit of encouraging basic computer literacy in the process. Like a paper-doll fashion design program, a jungle gym, or a doll, it offers users a resource for play. (In fact, Creative Kitty reminds me strongly of the re-stickable plastic "color forms" of my own childhood, with which I spent many happy hours.) For this purpose, the Hello Kitty theme may be especially appealing; the important thing is that the clip art available to the user be something that she finds attractive and fun, and thus wants to spend time playing with.

With the Creative Kitty program, then, the quality of the aesthetic experience is highlighted, since it's basically the core of the application. Similarly, the mother of the 4-year-old from whom I await a review of Cutie World reports that her daughter loves taking and manipulating pictures with her special "kiddie digital camera"—few subjects are as interesting to children as actual photos that they took themselves, but one can imagine that a program that allowed them to combine elements of properties like Hello Kitty with photos (think of the ubiquitous sticker picture machines in Japan, many of them with licensed character frames available) would be even better. Some basic Paint-like features, such as the ability to add lines and shapes in different colors, would also add depth to the application. Programs like that, which would provide an aesthetic/imaginative experience that children could manipulate in broader or narrower ways, seem like an ideal way to enhance computer literacy and an orientation towards the computer as something fun at an early age. Hello Kitty Cutie World, with its brightly colored, cute graphics and bubbly music, may be simplistic, but it's a good start.


E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman photo

E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.