Playing Birth

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into a Buzzfeed article (groan) about an odd game called “Anna Giving Birth”.  In this unlicensed app, the player assists Anna, the naïve younger sister from Disney’s Frozen, as she gives birth (duh) to Kristoff‘s child — don’t worry!  It’s okay, because they’ve known each other for more than a day now and they’re married now and he’s probably a knight or duke or something (though there’s no proof that they invited the “love experts” to the wedding *sad trombone*).

This game is not a stand-alone product.  The app stores are flush with games with titles like “Mother give a birth [sic],” “Little Newborn Baby Birth,” “My Aunt Gives Birth,” and “Pregnant Princess Mama Gives Birth Baby Girl Baby Boy So Kawaii Lots of Love…”  Okay, I made the last one up…

birth-game-apps

My issue is not with the existence of such games.

When I was in elementary school, I — like many kids — wanted to play out the magical concept of birth.  So my friend and I used a large kick ball, some baby dolls and a ton of imagination to act out birth.  The “mom” would climb up on the bed and cover her ball-tummy with a blanket and the “birth assistant” would coach her to push and suddenly the ball-tummy would disappear and then we would cuddle Felicia, my Cabbage Patch Doll.

Together we constructed an idea of what birth looked like.  There was “pain” and pushing and babies.  Sure, it was mostly informed by my grandparents’ Readers’ Digest Family Medical Dictionary and episodes of sitcoms like Friends and Full House, but it was also informed by the pregnancies of our parents, the births of our siblings. We had it pretty well figured out for young girls.

On the other hand, these birth simulation games bother me.  These are not great examples of children play-acting a scenario and learning about facets of adulthood.  These apps mostly have a particular linear narrative — and a dangerous one at that.

Some of the apps do depict positive behaviors for pregnancy and labor.

Some pregnant Mother-Characters are depicted with friends, family members or parenting partners (though mostly in prenatal or postpartum portions of the game)…

With baby's dad

Some are shown exercising…

Pregnant character exercising.

Making healthy food choices…

birth-game-intervention-healthychoice

Educating themselves about pregnancy and parenting…

Character reading a pregnancy book

Drinking water during labor…

Character drinking water during labor.

And in some games, you’re even giving mom a foot massage…

Giving a foot massage to a pregnant character in a game.

Unfortunately, most games of this style follow a specific, short and interventionist narrative.

The Mother-Character is “in labor” and immediately goes to the hospital.Mom checking into hospital in game

She is shown alone, restricted to a hospital bed.

A character laboring alone in a game.

Her vitals are checked.  The Player is provided with a stethoscope and a blood pressure cuff.birth-game-vitals

The baby’s heart tones are checked and a final ultrasound is performed.

Baby is checked via ultrasound and heartrate measured.

Finally it is time to manage the Mother-Character’s pain; the Player is directed to give her a shot of some kind.

birth-game-intervention-injection

Mother is given an “oxygen” mask.

Laboring pregnant character with oxygen mask.

Baby is born.birth-game-baby-born

Sometimes it is implied that baby is born via cesarean.birth-game-operation-theater

But even if baby is not born surgically, vaginas are not really part of birth here…Lotus flower blossom baby

Though symbolism is prevalent.Symbolism is huge in birth games - baby born in scallop shell

Finally the Mother-Character gets to hold Baby only after the Player has performed several interventions on baby (such as cord clamping and injecting vaccinations), weighed and measured baby, and swaddled him or her in a blanket.Baby must be checked before given to mom

What’s the issue here?  Isn’t this how birth in hospitals often goes?

This is not uncommon (though sometimes misrepresented) chain of events for a hospital birth here.  But birth does not have to be this way.

Social scientists have been telling us for years that children internalize what they see – play is how children construct their understanding of social mores and try on different roles for adulthood. The damage goes beyond depicting a “glamorized” version of pregnant women, birth and newborn care.  These apps depict birth in a way that is highly medical-ized, where moms are robbed of choice and serious interventions are trivialized. (And by the way, not a single Mother-Character is shown giving informed consent.)

I understand that for a children’s game in the in these online app stores, a game developer isn’t going to show a baby crowning or encourage little kids to assess a baby’s latch.  My concern is that this generation of children — the one to which my daughter will grow up with — will internalize that this is how birth should be – alone, in a hospital bed, being given every intervention because it is “how things are done”, with nameless health care providers calling the shots.  I saw it on TV and movies, but this is how my child’s generation will PLAY with ideas of birth.  I cannot in good conscience allow any child of mine play a game that encourages taking away the agency of mothers.

Could This Genre Be Fixed?

Could we make games that would not push this terrible model of pregnancy and birth to children?  Sure, we could.

If I were an app developer, the “Salty Mama Birth Magical Princess Mommy Kawaii” game would let children try on a couple of options – like pregnancy paper dolls.  Players would get to choose how their avatar/Mother-Character looks and give her a name.  The Player will decide whether this Mother-Character is attended by a doctor or midwife – that character would stand by mom throughout the labor portion of the game.  And while options to check vitals and offer pain medication would still be present, other options for supporting the laboring Mother-Character would include “give water,” “change positions,” “use rebozo,” “play music,” and “get massage.”  After she is “fully dilated”, the Mother would get the chance to push in couple of positions, Baby would be born and Players could cut the umbilical cord and “let Mother feed Baby” by placing Baby on her chest.  An effort would be made to make the game accurate and educational.   Maybe the game would include a “cesarean delivery” option if we could make it sensitive to the experience.  Postpartum activities would allow the Player to swaddle Baby, feed Mother, hydrate Mother, and Bottle-feed or Breastfeed Baby.  I would let my daughter play an open-ended game with options like that.

But, in the end, the real question is: do we need to make these games? Or do we not trust our children to use their imagination?


Photos via Google Play app store January 2015.

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2 thoughts on “Playing Birth

  1. I honestly think that a lot of these games aren’t necessarily geared to kids as they are to adults. Adults with pregnancy fetishes probably get the most use out of these types of games. From what I can tell, a lot of the people online asking for links to flash games that involves pregnancy all appear to be adults. A few of them requesting games that actually involve impregnating a woman, with imagery of sperm and so on. Given the cheapness of the game itself, using popular, almost virginal, characters, and then “degrading” them by depicting them in pain, sweating, pregnant, overworked and so on seems to be the work of a more fetish community than one for making games for girls.
    Perhaps disguising the game with Disney characters and “girl” colors prevents the game from being flagged as pornographic or fetishist. In the same realm as these games are ones that involve cleansing deep wounds, popping zits, lancing boils and other subject matter that can be deemed under the realm of fetishism.
    I think this area of churning out flash games a dime a dozen is one that parents just have to be really aware of when they are downloading apps for children. I say stick to licensed games and legitimate avenues of game production. While an honest depiction of pregnancy would be great, I don’t think you’re going to find anything accurate or properly interactive through apps like this. Perhaps it’s something that a group with a positive view of pregnancy (and women in general) could consider producing?

  2. A couple of people have brought up the “who are these games for” question. It’s such a weird niche.

    I would argue that while some fetishists are probably driving the market, I would think that you would see more of these Mother Characters in labor pain – “wincing” did not seem common to me. I would think that you’d see a more varied narrative if anyone was marketing these to any particular demographic. They’re just churning out copies of what everyone else is doing. Most of the developers who made games that I pulled from here many other games that are more likely for general audience and kids – like the dress up and make up games.

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