The monologue given by the presenter of the 2019 Writers Guild Award for Video Game Writing was so incredibly goofy that it stuck in my skull for life, and I wasn’t even there. Buried in a monologue about gamers not having sex (Dr NerdLove would love a word), the presenter described what came to mind when he thought of gamers: “Grown men…under -clothes in their basement.”
He was partly right: the average age of a gamer is 35, and according to a survey published in 2020, 15% of gamers are over 55. The development of video games in the United States really took off in the 1970s, so we have a generation of parents and grandparents who grew up with video games and passed them on to their children. So “adult”, of course. The rest of what the presenter had to say bore little resemblance to reality.
It would be easy to call jokes (using the term loosely) like his obsolete, but it would be hard to find a date when they were accurate. How can I know? Because Barbie Fashion Designer exhausted Loss. Some of you are rushing to caution against this statement, but in its first two months on the shelves, Barbie Fashion Designer sold more than 500,000 copies, a dazzling success in 1996. Neither Lossneither earthquake, considered video game titans, sold so many copies in the same amount of time, so by this crucial post-launch metric, Barbie is ahead of the curve. What this tells us is that Barbie Fashion Designer appeals to someone – a lot of someone. It was a game marketed to little girls in 1996, and it was so successful that it launched a slew of games designed for girls.
Before I continue, I want to clarify something: gender binaries tell us very little about real people, including gamers. The little girls played Loss; little boys played Barbie Fashion Designer. Non-binary gamers don’t fall into either of these categories, but have likely played one or both. What I’m talking about here are target audiences. Who were developers and marketers thinking of when they made a game? Who did they expect to play there? Did their ads show little boys or girls playing in them? Who did they invite into the play space? Pop culture, even now (looking at you, stranger things), keeps telling us that video games are the domain of boys, and that only a few girls – those who are different, “not like other girls” – play games. But the evidence tells us a different story.
Barbie Fashion Designer had a simple premise that was easy for beginner players to understand. You dressed a 2D Barbie in skirts, tops, pants, whatever suited you, by clicking and dragging outfits onto her. Some of the models were prefabricated; others were blank slates, skirts or tops that the player could fill in with their own colors and doodles using in-game markers. But the game added a multimedia element: after designing Barbie’s outfits , you could print them on fabric-backed paper that came with the game. These printed designs could then be used to dress up a real Barbie doll. This premise worked: Barbie Fashion Designer achieved over $14 million in sales by the end of 1996.
Mattel and Barbie weren’t the first to consider creating software that appealed to little girls. The first games created by women did not target one gender or another, but simply focused on children. One of the first video games ever made was written by a woman, Mabel Addis Mergardt, between 1963 and 1967, and her job was to teach children about history and simple economics. Joyce Weisbecker was an early game designer, releasing several games between 1976 and 1977. Game designers like Brenda Laurel, Sheri Graner Ray and Megan Gaiser asked the question loud and clear in the 1980s and 1990s: where were the games designed and marketed for little girls? They were greeted with everything from shrugs and mockery to the Games for Girls movement.
The movement began informally, a move by toy, game and software companies in the 1990s to launch a wave of products marketed to little girls. It was later called the Games for Girls movement by developers and scholars. The goal was twofold: to sell to an untapped audience and to encourage little girls to pursue STEM fields.
For some companies, like Mattel, that meant applying what was already popular in their toys to video games. Barbie Fashion Designer took the glittery pink boxes and Barbie doll dress-up game and made it digital. For other game designers, like Laurel, selling games to little girls meant figuring out what they liked. After two years of research and interviews with over a thousand children, Laurel determined that, in general, little girls liked games that featured complex social interactions, relatable characters, and gameplay that asked them what they were thinking and feeling.
The Games for Girls movement quickly but informally split into two: pink games and purple games. Barbie titles fell into the first category; games created by Laurel’s studio, Purple Moon, and the Nancy Drew series created by HeR Interactive fell into the latter. The separation was about more than box colors or gameplay types; it was philosophical. Laurelle said Barbie Fashion Designer “perpetuated a version of femininity that was fundamentally flawed.” Gaiser, former CEO of HeR Interactive, described her team’s reaction to the pink Mattel boxes as “Ugh, really?” This reflected a cultural argument that dominated the 1990s: what was feminist versus what was feminine.
Looking back on the Games for Girls movement nearly 30 years later, feelings about the games it started and the movement itself are mixed. On the one hand, you have articles like Patricia Hernandez’s essay for Kotaku, “She tried to make good video games for girls, whatever that meant”, and books like Beyond Barbie & Mortal Kombat: new perspectives on the genre and the game. These argue that the genre and expression of “game” is far more complicated than “girls’ games” as opposed to “boys’ games”. What children are allowed or encouraged to do, what they imitate other children in their homes and in their lives, and their own tastes can vary widely. Sex is not just pink or blue, nor are the games played by children of all genders.
On the other hand, you have sales numbers and nostalgia. Barbie Fashion Designer was the first “game for girls” which was also a bestseller. Says GameSpot’s Joyce Slaton, “Mattel’s successful innovation [was] placement Barbie Fashion Designer in toy aisles rather than the boy-dominated software section in toy stores. » When I posted a Tweeter on Barbie Fashion Designer, I was inundated with responses, many of them fond memories of adults who had played the game as little girls. They remembered spending hours in front of the computer, printing their designs, and carefully crafting a budget that was worth the all-too-precious canvas paper. For some, it was the first time they had spent long periods in front of a computer. Playing with Barbie, they learned about save files, keyboards and inkjet printers.
“People who grew up playing these games are now adults – there’s a lot of nostalgia for them,” Illinois Tech professor Carly Kocurek said in a post about her research into the Games for Girls movement. . “We’re starting to see a lot of people who were designers and influencers during the Games for Girls movement have become leaders. We now have a radically different landscape for games, so ‘Games for Girls’ feels almost antiquated, because of course , people make games for many different audiences, but that hasn’t always been the case.
However, there is another philosophical caveat that gamers and game developers sometimes throw at stats like these, and that is: Barbie Fashion Designerand games like this are not “real” games. Barbie Fashion Designer, walking simulators (a genre in which you walk around a designed space, often interact with objects, and listen to monologues), and mobile games all tend to be lumped together in this review. These games, especially mobile games, have a larger and more diverse player base than PC or console games. The argument about what constitutes a real video game, at its core, is little more than access control. Barbie Fashion Designer is as much a video game as Loss; they just have different playstyles and player goals. Both are digital, control images on a screen and incorporate rewards. One is not morally or mechanically superior to the other, and the fact that they both succeed says a lot about the players. Namely, that hacks making jokes about men in underwear don’t know what they’re talking about – gamers are so much more than that.
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