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How one girl targeted video gaming's 'pink premium'

Maddie Messer, a 12-year-old fan of 'Temple Run 2', objected to game companies giving players a male character for free but charging extra for female ones. 

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    Players of the the mobile game 'Temple Run 2,' play a male character – Guy Dangerous – by default. Playing a female character requires an upgrade.
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Download the popular running game 'Temple Run 2' to your phone, and you can play the male character, Guy Dangerous, for free. But if you want to play as a woman, you'll either need to collect at least 5,000 virtual coins or shell out $0.99 in real money for Guy's female counterpart, Scarlett Fox.

Temple Run, however, isn't the only game like this to offer male characters for free while charging extra for female ones. As an op-ed in Saturday's Washington Post notes, out of the top 50 “endless running games” listed in the iTunes Store whose main characters gender is apparent, 98 percent offer boy characters, and only 46 percent offer girl characters.

What's more, out of the 50 apps, 37 offered free boy characters and just five offered free girl characters. 

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The op-ed was penned by Maddie Messer, who is 12 years old. She writes:

These biases affect young girls like me. The lack of girl characters implies that girls are not equal to boys and they don’t deserve characters that look like them. I am a girl; I prefer being a girl in these games. I do not want to pay to be a girl. 

The pink premium –that is, the tendency for products targeted at women to cost more than those geared toward men – is by no means limited to video games. In 2010, a Consumer Reports study found that personal care products targeting women, from razor blades to painkillers, "might cost up to 50 percent more than similar products for men.”

A Yale study the following year uncovered similar findings. Services such as haircuts, deodorant, and dry-cleaning were consistently more expensive for women. This led researchers to conclude that there exists a "cost of doing femininity" that not only places an unfair economic burden on women, but also reinforces a notion that "men and women are so biologically different that we need completely different products, as though we are a different species," study coauthor Megan Duesterhaus told Marie Claire magazine.

Even though, in many cases, the female-targeted good or service is essentially the same as its male equivalent, marketers seek to justify the higher prices by making them appear to be of higher quality.

 Most female-targeted products are positioned as “luxury” items via promotion and marketing messages, explains Grant Simmons, a marketing expert and vice president of search marketing at Homes.com, in an interview. This, in turn, creates a perception of value based on price.

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"That’s how it's positioned in marketing 'you deserve the best,' even though it’s only the perception of price that makes it better," he says. “This is the influence of marketing at play, not a reflection of naiveté nor gullibility. Female-focused products are just marketed differently, effectively and primarily position ‘the best’ as the only choice. And no one expects to pay less for a better product, would we?”

Such gendered marketing is beginning to face a backlash as it becomes easier and easier for consumers to provide feedback to companies. One example is Sophia Trow,  an English eight-year-old who told off Clark Shoes in a letter that detailed their lack of dinosaurs and STEM themes in the company's line of girls' footwear. Other marketing ventures are taking advantage of the turn away from gendered marketing: The crowd-funded Lammily doll was hailed as a "realistic Barbie" for it's distinctive lack of stereotypical feminine traits, meeting its fundraising goal within a day of launching its campaign on Tilt.com.

In the Yale study, Yale Law School researcher Ian Ayres  calls the pink premium  “the most gaping hole in our civil rights law concerns retail gender discrimination." He writes, "no federal law prohibits gender discrimination in the sale of goods or services. A seller could flatly refuse to deal with a potential buyer of a car or a paperclip because of her gender.”

 “Civil rights laws prohibit discrimination in certain non-retail markets such as employment and housing, but do not cover discrimination in the vast majority of retail markets,” he continued. 

In February 1996, California pioneered such retail discrimination protections by passing a law prohibiting gender bias in sales. At that time, on average, women spent an extra $1,351 per year in extra costs and fees on comparable products.

As for Temple Run, the game's creators seem to have taken Maddie's words to heart.

 "For all of our good intentions, and for all of my good intentions, it's true that you start out with this male character," Natalia Luckyanova, one of the game's creators, told NPR. "The white male is always the default, and anything else, it's like, you have to work for it."

NPR reports that the same day Maddie's op-ed  was published, Natalia and her husband, who also helped create the game, wrote to Maddie, telling her that Temple Run soon will offer a free female character.

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