Encounters with Dangerous High School Girls 

How an Emeryville programmer brought girl gangs into casual gaming.

Louise is the 1920s version of a teenage nihilist: vampish clothing; cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth; always trying to put one over on the system. Looks-wise she resembles the early film star Louise Brooks, although in temperament she's a lot closer to Legs Sadovsky, the anti-heroine of Joyce Carol Oates' novel Foxfire. Louise leads a gang of similarly minded friends who get by on their wits, managing to out-fib, out-taunt, and outsmart the boys in their midst, while sniffing out scandals and snitching on corrupt school officials. When her high school starts falling apart — literally — it's Louise's job to figure out who to blame for shoddy construction and poor maintenance. What's initially a school problem turns out to be much larger in scope, as Louise learns that her whole town, made of parts purchased from a single mail-order catalog, is in fact on the verge of collapse.

Such is one possible storyline of Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, a new role-playing video game by 47-year-old Emeryville programmer Keith Nemitz. Set up both as a teenage revenge script and feminist allegory, it won the Casual Games Association award for "Most Innovative" in 2007, and is currently up for a Writers Guild of America award offered each year to the best written video game. (Results are announced February 7.) That's no small feat, considering that Nemitz' company, Mousechief Co., is a one-man enterprise run from his home office, and that his four competitors for the title — LucasArts, Eidos Interactive, Bethesda Softworks, and EA Games — are all well-established industry kingpins. "That's the line I'm trying to sell now," said Nemitz who milks the David-and-Goliath angle in his press releases. Yet, what really separates Dangerous High School Girls from the pack is Nemitz' idea of integrating teen romance into casual gaming, and creating characters that would appeal to a female consumer demographic.

Nemitz had a real business incentive for basing his game on a female power fantasy. Anyon can download a casual game (i.e., a simple arcade game that appeals to a mass audience rather than hardcore gamers), but in order to play the whole thing you have to purchase it. While the gender ratio for casual game players is about 50/50 said Nemitz, women — women over 35 especially — are the principle buyers, accounting for roughly three-fourths of casual game purchases, said Casual Games Association marketing director Craig Holland.

"Both men and women enjoy games," Holland wrote. "However, core video games (non-casual) are usually designed around themes that are most appealing to men such as war (Call of Duty), sports (Madden Football), or crime/sex (Grand Theft Auto series)." In contrast, he said, women prefer games that focus on mystery, romance, adventures, money management (Monopoly), puzzles (Tetris and Bejeweled), words (Text Twist), and life skills (Life) — all of which fall in the casual game realm. Thus, Nemitz thought that a girl detective fantasy — something that gave players an opportunity to find hidden messages, flirt with boys, and solve a gradually unraveling mystery — would placate his target audience. Storylines involving teenage girls are hugely popular in Japan, said Nemitz, but largely untapped in the American casual game market. "Largely it's been a really male-oriented industry," he explained. "Casual games are the ones that really broke out and said, 'Let's do things that women are gonna find appreciable' — without insulting them, you know?" So far, the ploy has worked, though Nemitz wound up hooking a younger female demographic than he'd originally anticipated — more in the 25 to 35 range.

Dangerous High School Girls is a standard role-playing game with twenty female characters and a "choose-your-own-adventure" format. Collectively, the characters represent a range of strong female archetypes, from glamour girl to student council president to class clown. Nemitz wanted the story to have a feminist subtext without coming off as propaganda, so he set it around the time of women's suffrage. (He also wanted to set it far enough in the past to allow for satire without inviting a PC backlash). To master the language and style of that era, Nemitz began reading Sinclair Lewis stories and watching black-and-white movies from the '20s. "I just adore Mae West, Myrna Loy, and Marlene Dietrich," he said. "All of them had such ballsiness to them, and roguishness. Those are the characteristics I wanted." With that in mind, he also picked up Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees & Wannabes and Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia. "I wanted teenagers that had already passed their rite of passage," Nemitz said. "But I wanted to have a background of what these girls went through in the past to become strong women."

When the game starts you choose one girl to be the leader of your gang (I picked Louise), and have her recruit three others, plus a couple boyfriends for extra protection. Each dangerous high school girl has several quantifiable talents that help her complete a series of quests during the game. "Popularity" allows her to taunt other people and survive their retorts. "Rebellion" helps her take down authority figures and expose corruption. "Glamour" is good for fibbing. "Savvy" is good for strategizing. These traits are measured in units called "pips," which can fluctuate throughout the game, though each character has a certain ratio to start out with: Louise was strong on rebellion (4 pips), weak on popularity (1), and about average on savvy and glamour (2 apiece). Thus, she was adept at decoding secret messages, so-so at flirting with boys, and bad at defending herself when other characters picked on her. In retrospect, she probably wasn't the alpha girl of Dangerous High School Girls — she looked stoned throughout the entire game.

The whole process of writing and editing Dangerous High School Girls took about three years. Nemitz and co-writer Adrian Ambrose created one hundred characters and wrote back stories for each (twenty high school girls and eighty other townsfolk). They wrote the game as a three-act play set in small-town America (Modesto might be the proper analogue for the world Nemitz created), and structured each act as a series of quests that would ultimately lead players to uncover some larger evil. In keeping with the theme, Nemitz acquired flapper-era dress patterns and sent them to art directors Mikel Evans and David Cherry, who drew the characters. He then scoured the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg for vintage swing music that had never been copyrighted, and sampled it for the video game's score.

Why the game is up for a Writers Guild award becomes obvious the moment you start playing it. Nemitz crafted the world of Dangerous High School Girls with meticulous attention to detail and the idea that every object, from Louise's cigarette to the principal's lacquered desk, would help convey the drama of a rebel group rising up against a small-town regime. Every scenario within the game serves as a metaphor for Nemitz' larger storyline: When Louise bats her eyelashes at a boy and ultimately recruits him to beef up the gang's security force, she's reversing a standard form of objectification; a town ban on pogo sticks later in the game is a metaphor for anti-masturbation laws. Even the snarkier parts help advance a well-crafted gender critique, showing that Nemitz has a lot of sensitivity to the issues he's presenting.

"Here's a personal story that I find very insightful in my own mind," he said, describeingfamily holidays at his grandmother's house. The men would go into the living room and talk about cars or sports — i.e., stuff resembling the male power fantasies favored by hardcore gamers. The women would go in the dining room and talk about child-rearing, menstruation, and things related to female sexuality. Nemitz said he found the women's conversation infinitely more fascinating.

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