Over the course of the last six months I find myself repeatedly drawn back to an odd batch of games – cartoon celebrity or child surgery games you'll find on free sites aimed at girls. I think it was the pregnancy disaster games which first properly caught my attention.
In Pregnant Anna Emergency you'll find Anna from Frozen sporting a huge baby bump and lying in bed after what looks like an accident at a wood chipping facility. Wooden spikes jut out of her skin, her nose is bleeding and her face is bruised. Your first instruction?
"Wipe the blood,puss using tissue"
Blood,puss isn't some gross spinoff to Bagpuss, by the way, it's just a misspelled request to clear up the pus which Anna is oozing. I'd stared at it blankly for a little while because it made no sense regardless. Pus is the result of infection and time passing. In an emergency an infection is surely what you're trying to prevent.
I dab at Anna's nose and eyes and arm to deal with her strangely anachronistic issues. The tissue cures everything and staunches bloodflow. Wired should write a feature on these tissues. They're probably the best technological advance in recent years.
It is now time for the stethoscope. I check Anna's chest and then switch to her bump to get a foetal heartbeat. I assume everything is fine because the game doesn't tell me otherwise.
As an aside, there are a lot of reskins in this genre. They take a character, give them a pregnancy bump and the same bunch of injuries and then make you perform the same actions to treat them. An unexpected moment of joy in this repetition came when a non-pregnant Cinderella had apparently been in an accident and needed her heartbeat checked. That particular game made me check the heartbeat in Cinderella's chest and then the heartbeat in her stomach. Either the game was a reskin of a pregnancy emergency and nobody had bothered to check it properly OR Cinderella is a Timelord and only she and her doctor (and now me) know this.
Back to Anna, though. Now she requires eyedrops. Why? No EYEdea. Probably because it seems vaguely medical without heading into gore and viscera.
But then we get to the wooden nails. There's never any explanation of how a pregnant Disney princess would end up quite so punctured, she just is and you must use some green medical pliers to yank them out. It's not an easy job either – there's a real sense of the nails being jammed in and needing a great deal of tugging to pull them out. Bare arms, legs and bump are all afflicted.
It's nothing that cream and plasters can't fix, apparently, although some element of my care appears to have produced a bunch of blood blisters. You drain them by injecting them with a syringe full of, I dunno, Blood-Begone?
Bruises next! We can deal with them by applying an ice pack to her thorax. Then it's time for an X-ray. The X-ray doesn't pass through the child, only Anna, so I guess she is having a lead baby and maybe the pustules were somehow symptoms of lead poisoning or something. Anna has fractures in four places, all of which are cured by the swift application of crepe bandages.
We are now finished. Anna is grateful and I prescribe aloud that she doesn't go near any more wood chippers. The Mafa site then promptly recommends that I play Pregnant Elsa Emergency. Apparently the wood chipper has claimed another victim.
From here I started to branch out. There are birth and caesarean games and I really wanted to know how graphic they would go given the sites seem pitched squarely at tweens and younger kids. They prove to be an odd mixture.
Elsa Emergency Birth has you applying stethoscopes, ultrasounds and fluids to a placid Elsa who appears no more likely to have a contraction than she is to be an officially licensed entity from Frozen. Elsa then has a nap and a baby emerges from a floral pattern on her stomach. The baby has no umbilical cord and thus no tummy button. It does, however, have a flower in place of genitals and – aww – it has its mother's eye makeup, how cute. I do hope my own children inherit my eyeliner gene. I cover its floral bits in a nappy and swaddle it as best I can. The game ends with the baby inside what looks like an envelope being cuddled by its mother.
It's not really anything I recognise as childbirth but there are some curiously detailed touches – swabbing the skin before an injection, then needing to clean the blood after you take out the needle. I think this is more about creating busywork that feels vaguely medically relevant and it only crops up occasionally but the messiness and inconvenience of real bodies is not something I often see in games so these moments do stick out.
It's the same with some of the games dealing with spot removal – the end result and the efficacy of the treatments is a total fairytale but they do also capture something of the lengths beauty product firms and traditional concepts of beauty encourage you to go to. It's showing you the bit before the ball where the princess might be frantically plucking stray hairs, applying a boatload of astringent to a pimple and generally trying to get rid of all that aforementioned real body inconvenience.
I don't think that's the intention. These games go out of their way to avoid difficult, messy or real elements. Babies have flowers instead of genitalia and caesareans involve them magically appearing rather than being born. Broken bones are healed in seconds and tissues stop your eyes weeping pus. The makeover never fails, roles are never questioned, pain is almost entirely absent and the women are always styled as cute and compliant. You might, as I did, get some glimmers of unruly bodies but there's no desire to explore that, merely tame it. It reminds me of how adverts for sanitary products work - blue liquids and euphemisms are fine, Elsa Has Really Fucking Terrible Period Pain And Would Like To Curl Up And Die In Peace Thanks is not.
Another section of this kind of gaming is devoted to baby versions of these characters which have come a cropper. There's Baby Elsa Ambulance where baby Elsa (there is so much Frozen stuff out there, seriously) with a bleeding slash to her chest and a black eye crying in the back of an ambulance. The adults don't fare much better. A fully grown Elsa presents you with a foot sprouting all manner of angry-looking growths, splinters and cuts. Her trip to the throat doctor is similarly alarming.
Barbie Breast Feeding had you drag and drop the baby from the cot to Barbie's chest where it drinks enough milk that it promptly develops a stomach ache and then requires a leg massage and a nappy change. I assume that might be closer to reality, except instead of wiping a flower which exists in place of your child's genitals you're actually dealing with human poop and children can get that EVERYWHERE.
Adult responses I've seen to these – particularly when one made it into the mobile download charts – treat them as unsettling. They're weird and aberrant - a sort of gaming freak show, but people are clearly playing them. Out of curiosity I emailed SuperDataResearch to see if they had any information as to who these gamers might be. According to CEO Joost van Dreunen:
"Sites like Mafa.com appeal largely to girls, accounting for 92% of traffic. About four out of five of these women are teen and tween girls, which explains the predominance of popular Disney characters like Elsa. Interestingly, however, about 21% of these women are adults aged 18-34. In terms of business model, this type of web-based game portal draws the lion share of revenues from ads and cross-promotion, and relies for only 2-5% of annual revenue on direct purchases."
As someone who falls into that 21% I'd say my reasons for playing are to work out why everyone else is playing. It's like a scab I can't stop fiddling with (although Elsa Scab Picker has not yet come up on the recommendations list yet). They feel more like tutorials for games than actual games – all the actions are heavily signposted, they tend to follow a strict progression and there's no chance of failure. There's also no chance to excel. You prod and poke and rub the areas specified by the game until you trigger the next action. There's no grading, no nuance.
That's not necessarily a bad thing – I wrote earlier this week about my love of hidden object adventure games (it's a supporter post so you might need to wait for it to move into general view). There is a certain satisfaction in ticking items off a list BUT I think perhaps a stronger attraction here is the transgressive appeal of branded characters indulging in activities outside what's been approved by the license holder. I mean, that's a huge part of fanfic culture - something I loved in my teens.
They also offer this early teen wish-fulfilment where applying the right products in the right order *will* solve your acne or finish your chores or let you kiss someone you're crushing on. And those pregnancy games? They're sanitised to heck and they present the women in ways I find deeply troubling. But part of me gets it. Childbirth can be this overwhelming idea to get to grips with. Pushing a WHAT out of my WHAT? These games give you easy mode. They funnel you through a process and don't throw up scary complications. There's no excrement, no pushing out an afterbirth and definitely no need to learn the word "episiotomy". Quite frankly I can see the appeal of that at any age.