The "Miss Bimbo" story arrived like a gift to newsrooms around the world last week: the perfect illustration of the new lows to which our celebrity-obsessed culture has sunk.
What news outlet looking to fill a 24/7 news cycle could resist? "Miss Bimbo" had all the right ingredients for a splashy news story: a sensational headline (key word: "bimbo"); a sexy tech angle (online video game); young children potentially at risk (catnip for concerned parents everywhere); and a built-in base of available media commentators (whether gaming experts or women's groups or media watchdogs).
Why look a gift horse in the mouth, right? Well, it turns out few media outlets did. As news of the "Miss Bimbo" video game grew like kudzu across news websites and cable TV, so did public awareness about a relatively obscure online gaming site intended for little girls. But as the media pounced, with round-the-clock scrutiny of the values the "Miss Bimbo" game espouses, it only helped to double the number of users.
Media scrutiny or free publicity? You decide.
In case you missed it, Nicolas Jacquart, a 23-year-old developer from south England, had designed and launched an online game called "Miss Bimbo" intended for female players age 9 to 16. A rough-hewn game powered by seemingly slow servers, "Miss Bimbo" was bumbling along collecting users mostly in poor, industrial cities in Britain.
At some point in late March, members of the British press caught wind of "Miss Bimbo," and like raw meat thrown to a pack of starvelings, "Miss Bimbo" became the controversial story du jour.
The very premise of the game got people talking. In "Miss Bimbo's" hyper-pink and lacy world, players compete to become the most famous person in Bimbo City. Points are won by gamers who make their Bimbo avatars skinny, win boyfriends, dress well and accrue "Bimbo attitude" in beauty salons and clothing stores.
Needless to say, parental and media watch groups jumped at invitations from the press to question, if not openly condemn, "Miss Bimbo's" virtual value system. Cultural commentators have weighed in on the game on multiple outlets -- the likes of CNN, MSNBC and every British news outlet imaginable.
Before the media descended, 250,000 users had signed up to live and shop in Bimbo City. After last week's blitzkrieg, user traffic skyrocketed on the site and "Miss Bimbo" is now poised to break the 500,000-user mark.
Robin Goad, research director of Hitwise in Britain, a company that collects Internet usage data internationally, said British traffic to the site increased 100-fold from March 22 to March 25.
Traffic has since dipped as the press frenzy has died down. At the time of writing this story, the game was inoperable. A post on the "Miss Bimbo" homepage cites "unforeseen worldwide interest" as the reason for the site's inability to load.
Of the many charged issues that come with "Miss Bimbo" game play, it seemed that media pundits were most focused on the diet pills available for purchase to keep one's Bimbo thin (they have since been removed from the game). Breast implants to keep one's pet Bimbo well-endowed ignited further conversation. And others noted that the bare bimbo that a player starts out with is slender, long-legged and dressed in her skivvies.
Like so many "kids and video games" stories before it, the gist of the arguments against "Miss Bimbo" was that impressionable young girls might subscribe to the social mores of the game. But this time, instead of boys encouraged to use violence in real life (picked up by playing first-person shooter games), girls playing "Miss Bimbo" might internalize the game's competitive diet-pill popping and plastic surgery.
Parental groups and feminist organizations have piled on with arguments exemplified by Allene Cook, executive director of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
"Our research shows that representation of girls in media tends toward overvaluing them for their appearance and undervaluing them for their inner character," Cook told the Los Angeles Times. "Frankly, what have kids already absorbed from the media about their own worth and the worth of girls if this site is so popular?"
Another hot-button issue is the crass commercialism of a site that encourages youngsters to alter physical appearances with artificial and hyper-sexualized alternatives.
Although it is free to register for and play "Miss Bimbo," when players run out of virtual currency, they have the option to continue to compete by buying Bimbo text messages at the cost of $2.99. The cash infusion provides players more "Bimbo dollars" to buy things such as breast implants, tanning sessions and pedicures, all in order to make them more popular on the site.
A Frenchman has already sued "Miss Bimbo's" French sister site (MaBimbo.com) after his daughter ran up a text message bill of $200. (Ma Bimbo has been around since October 2006 and features a less sexualized drawing on the site's front page. It has had a steady increase of traffic since January of this year -- reaching 1.2 million players as of late March, but it too is starting to drop off.)
With his eyes set on other countries, "Bimbo" developer Jacquart has bowed only a little to media pressure to alter his site -- the homepage now includes the message: "As a result of this rather surprising media attention we have decided to remove the option of purchasing diet pills from the game. We apologise to any players whom this may inconvenience but we feel in light of this weeks proceedings it is the correct action to take."
At the same time, he has issued provocative quotes, like this widely reported statement: "The missions and goals for the bimbos are morally sound and teach children about the real world. If they eat too much chocolate in the game, it is bad for their bimbos' bodies and their happiness levels compared to if they eat fruit and vegetables, which reinforces positive healthy eating messages."
Here in the U.S., where the site is less popular and the press coverage has been less fevered, Heather Dougherty, research director of Hitwise U.S., said MissBimbo.com had still received a similar spike in traffic. The market share of visits from the U.S. increased 1,800% from the week ending March 22 to the week ending March 29.
"Their overall ranking among all websites went from 58,874 to 3,588 in one week," Dougherty said. "Any kind of news features tend to drive these big spikes in traffic."
And that's exactly what's annoying Beckie Jordan, a 23-year-old graduate student in Wales who started a Ban Miss Bimbo group on Facebook.
"To be honest, I never saw any marketing about the site until it was on the news and then all of a sudden it just blew up," Jordan said. "And because it had so much media attention it is only encouraging kids to join. It's that whole [phenomenon of] being told not to do something and going to do it anyway."
But a hot story stays hot only so long, and Jordan notes that the media frenzy is already dying down: "Last week the U.K. press blew it all out of proportion, but now it's tomorrow's chip paper, as they say."