It's 2019 now. I know you know that -- it's been 2019 for at least several days or more by the time you are reading this. If you don't know that it's 2019, I hope that it is because by the time you're reading this it's actually 2020 or something equally as wild as the passing of time. In this new year, in this little bit of space where we are permitted to reinvent ourselves bit by bit, I hope you will grant me a smidge of cleaning-house sentimentality. I hope you'll let me be a bit self-indulgent in that pursuit.
When I set out to write this week's column, it was my intention to cover a small collection of games about cleaning up. It would have been a fun consideration of New Year's Resolutions, a walk down the different avenues of tidying up as explored by a handful of game designers. I will still write this piece -- don't worry. Look out for it next week. But in the meantime, I was sidetracked and enticed by a pair of websites -- gamesforgirlz.net and forhergames.com -- and their corresponding games in the "cleaning" tag. This is my New Year's dedication to that rabbit hole.
I maintain my initial purview in this deep dive -- games about cleaning. (As a side note, I hope you have Flash installed and enabled, because hoo-boy this is going to be a real exploration into the contemporary Flash games machine). This was the first game that caught my eye, and was initially hosted on gamesforgirlz.net. I think. They all start to blend together after a bit. The setup is simple: clean up the hotel reception and lobby area, and clean up one of the rooms. You have a series of tasks to do in order to accomplish this: Spray some sort of mysterious cleaning liquid on the dirt, then wipe (or sponge) it up. Hoover the dust. Put the crumpled-up bits of paper in the bin. The game offers praises like, "good" and "marvelous" when you do something right.
Perhaps you and I are not of the same generation. In writing this column, I've been thinking a lot about what was available for me to play on the internet when I was a kid; what was freely available. A lot of it looked like this, and a lot of it was presented to me in the way that the games on these sites (ad machines, really) are presented: hurried grids and text, kerning be damned. I owe a lot to those websites, and these games are so startlingly similar in their framing that they could have been those games. Except for the implication that this was uploaded 11 months ago, this game (and its clones) are timeless.
This game, Clean Up my Purse, I found to be a bit more difficult than Hotel Room Cleaning. The aim isn't quite so clear. Put the items... right side up? Grab the... tweezers? There's a timer, which is confusing, because I think it counts for all sections of the purse which you have been tasked with cleaning. The game description is disconcertingly cheery: "After attending a party, your purse might be untidy, right? So, clean the inner and outer part of your purse so that you can use it next time. Enjoy!"
When I knew that I wanted to write about cleaning games, I knew that these games would exist. These cheesy four-to-five minute games are everywhere, about almost everything under the sun. It's some kind of rule online: there will be Flash games. Even in the precarity of online games preservation, these games seem to persist. And in the current climate of game studios unionisation, I can't help but wonder: who's making these games? Who made the games I played as a kid? Some of them were passion projects, sure, but a number of them were made with funding to back them or ad revenue. When I click the "credits" button on the games that have them (this one doesn't) I'm redirected to the publisher/distributor's homepage.
In Cleaning Time! Birthday Party, you assume the role of Mia, who is prepping her house for a birthday party. You must clean her bedroom, the living room, and the kitchen. The game amps up the difficulty with each room, and you must complete each of the levels within the given time limit.
Cleaning Time! Birthday Party is one of a few iterations. For example: there's Cleaning Time! Supermarket and Cleaning Time! Dinner Party. The rules are the same in each, asking you to click on things which are out of order, and put things back in their place. All of the Games for Girls in the "cleaning" tag have the same general idea, but Birthday Party, Supermarket, and Dinner Party are true clones. Supermarket has a bit of backstory ("Lanah works part-time at the supermarket near her dorm to play her college tuition"), but otherwise, they're exactly the same. And they go on and on and on.
These games have to potential to say a lot about many different things: the state of the internet for kids, free games and advertising machines, or the history of gendered game design. I'm sure there's a lot more, but after a while, all of the games in the "cleaning" tag start to meld together in my brain like some sort of horrible algorithm monster. The parent site for the Cleaning Time! games, Y8, seems to be riding the same wave of horrible kid internet that James Birdle noticed a few years ago. There are games like "Nose Doctor" which feature blown-up noses and scalpels, or "(Twisted) Cooking Mama" which is over-the-top-violent in that edgy-preteen sort of way. I hesitate to say that these games are Ruining The Children -- these are almost the exact same games I played as a kid and I'm heartened that they carry on -- but it is weird, isn't it?