I am helping a very pregnant Cleopatra give birth. It’s an exhausting and complicated process. First, she needs to be fanned. Then, I’m required to rub an ointment on her bulging belly (clockwise, counterclockwise, and, finally, up and down). After leading her to a palace bathhouse where I light candles, play music, put aromatic herbs in the water, and rub her belly some more, I catch her newborn infant. The child is clean and Cleopatra is blissfully free of pain. There are no viscera. There is no feces. Cleo begins nursing immediately as I watch, proud of my work as a doula, but also confused. The birth is nothing like the ones I witnessed when my kids were born. It’s sanitized for an audience of little girls — an audience that is popularizing a bizarre genre of “pregnancy games” online.
“Cleopatra Gives Birth Into Water” is one of literally hundreds of pregnancy games that run the gamut from “Pregnant Ice Queen Bath Care” to “Pregnant Draculaura Emergency.” Taken as a whole, they offer mediocre gameplay and a very weird message about human procreation. Taken as a whole, they mean something. What do they mean? Well, that’s where it gets complicated.
I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled upon my first pregnancy game. But I do remember that it involved dressing a pregnant Elsa from Frozen in a variety of outfits that accentuated her late-term midriff. Why did I do this? I don’t know. I liked it when my wife was pregnant. I was bored. I have a subconscious desire to support the animated Norwegian monarchy. These things are all probably true, but truer still is this: I have a tendency to fall down internet rabbit holes. And the pregnancy game rabbit hole is deep.
I discovered the game was part of a vast ecosystem of flash-based games found on gendered and vaguely porn-y sounding websites with names like GirlsPlay.com and GirlGames.com. All the games involved a popular female character — Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, the Miraculous Ladybug — carrying and giving birth to a happy, healthy baby. The games were sweet. Creepy and sweet.
Let’s be clear: These games were built so that seedy, backwater websites on the edges of the internet can sell ads or user engagement of some stripe at a high volume. Almost none can be played with an active ad-blocker. But that still doesn’t explain why the genre seems to appeal so strongly to its target audience of young girls or what those young girls think they’re learning from all the massaging and soothing.
Nobody wants to see Ariel from the Little Mermaid screaming in agony before pushing a viscera-covered baby fish monster out of the gonads near her anal fin.
The exact steps are subject to change, but the games all take the same basic shape, requiring players to provide some form of medical assistance to a cartoon mom going through labor. Players might provide her with pills or oxygen, take a sonogram, or give her an injection. Players might also massage the mom, apply lotion to her belly, or take her blood pressure. Whatever the process, the outcome is the same: the birth of a baby whose genitals are tastefully obscured. You know, like real life.
But obviously, while they’re simulations in spirit, none of the pregnancy games are supposed to offer little girls real-life insight. They are saccharine and sanitized. They suggest that after the love story, the inevitable outcome is pregnancy. It just happens. How? Ask your fleshy parents.
There are exceptions, obviously. A game called “Princess Cesarean Pregnancy,” for instance, is startlingly explicit in its depiction of a cesarean surgery. After injecting an anesthetic into the spine of princess “Elisa,” players have to cut and spread several layers of illustrated skin, fat, and organs before pulling the baby free. They then have to sew everything back up before being told they have saved the princess and her baby. There is a brief moment of blood on the first incision, and to be fair, there are some kids who would likely enjoy understanding the cesarean process, such as it is. At least “Princess Cesarean Pregnancy” is honest in its depiction. In the vast majority of games, the baby just appears from nowhere, in the princess’s lap.
Obviously, the lack of realism is probably for the better. Nobody wants to see Ariel from the Little Mermaid screaming in agony before pushing a viscera-covered baby fish monster out of the gonads near her anal fin. And, if they do, there are surely other websites to cater to those needs — none of them kid-friendly. But while pregnancy games aren’t particularly graphic, that doesn’t mean they’re not disturbing. The small parts are innocuous. The whole isn’t.
In many of these games, the characters who are pregnant are Disney princesses, or at the very least Disney princess rip-offs. Is that really so distasteful? It’s really a matter of perspective. As an adult, pregnancy rarely occurs outside the context of sex. A pregnant princess causes an adult mind to conclude that Belle and the Beast got it on. And there is certainly a market for those kinds of thoughts. The internet is full of sites that depict the graphic copulation of Disney characters and their menagerie of not-quite-human sidekicks. And it’s fair to say the pregnancy games share the slapdash, bootleg quality of cartoon porn sites.
But little girls don’t see pregnancy in the same context as adults. They only understand it on a sexless continuum of theoretical procreation. These pregnancy games, for them, are the equivalent to playing house. There’s nothing really shocking about it. Women become mommies because they have babies. It’s that simple.
Except that it’s really not that simple, as any parent who struggled to answer the “where do babies come from” question can attest. The problem, aside from the sexualization of the beloved childhood characters, is these games are clearly not made by people who care whether or not a kid might be traumatized by opening Elsa’s abdomen to pull a baby free. Like the money-grabbing YouTube channels that offer endless disturbing iterations of nursery rhymes, the pregnancy game makers see kids as a commodity and have zero vested interest in not showing children weird stuff.
Pregnancy games exploit a little girl’s curiosity about babies to make having them an aspirational goal.
Sure, kids being treated like a commodity isn’t anything new. Branded games are all over the internet, and kids love playing them. But what sets a pregnancy game apart from some mini-game downloaded in McDonald’s McPlay app is that it feels very clear that there is no regulation in how the games are made or what their value to kids might be. Also, there is no avenue for grievances. There is a sense that the makers know the games are awful but are also quite aware there are no repercussions for what they are doing. Good luck trying to track them down. The genre consists of internet pirates trying to explain birth to 8-year-old Frozen fans. And doing a really bad job.
And what’s more disturbing is that in their carelessness they have inadvertently created a dangerous message for girls. One in which birth and motherhood are portrayed as spotlessly pleasant. These games make it seems like everything related to love is pleasant. They ignore that life is mostly rough edges and that none of it is easy. Love isn’t easy. Pregnancy isn’t easy. Birth is a gore-fest. Of course, kids don’t need this shoved in their face, but they shouldn’t expect things to go smoothly. They’ll only be disappointed.
Consider how different these games are to the message of Barbie. Sure the doll is impossibly built, but at least Barbie excels in the workplace. She has Ken, yes, but their relationship isn’t about having a family, it’s about supporting Barbie’s variety of successful careers from science to professional sports. On the other hand, pregnancy games exploit a little girl’s curiosity about babies to make having them an aspirational goal.
And all of this is likely happening under the radar of mothers and fathers. Many parents won’t even know their children are playing these games. And that’s a shame. Because there are important conversations about pregnancy and birth to be had between parent and child.
For many girls, that conversation is being fulfilled by a cartoon Cleopatra and her dark-skinned servant girls. And the lesson being learned is frightening. The fact is that parents better have the conversation with their kids about procreation or a criminal in Taiwan likely will.