The monologue given by the presenter of the 2019 Writers Guild Award for Video Game Writing was so incredibly cringeworthy, it stayed in my skull for life and I wasn’t even there. Buried in a monologue about gamers not having sex (Dr. NerdLove would like a word), the presenter described what came to mind when he thought of gamers: “Grown men … in their underwear in their basement.”
He was partly right: the average age of a gamer is 35, and according to a survey released in 2020, 15% of gamers are over 55. Video game development in the US started in earnest 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, “grown up,” sure. The rest of what the announcer had to say bore little resemblance to reality.
It would be easy to call jokes (using the term loosely) as his obsolete, but it would be hard to find a date when they were accurate. How do I know? Because Barbie stylist worn out Destiny. Some of you are rushing to warn this claim, but in its first couple months on shelves, Barbie stylist sold more than 500,000 copies, a runaway success in 1996. Neither Destinyneither Earthquake, considered titans of video games, have sold as many copies in the same amount of time, so according to this crucial post-launch metric, Barbie keeps going. What this tells us is that Barbie stylist it appealed to someone, to many. It was a game that was marketed for girls in 1996 and was so successful that it launched a flurry of games designed with girls in mind.
Before I continue, I want to make one thing clear: Gender binaries tell us very little about real people, including gamers. The girls played Destiny; kids were playing Barbie stylist. Non-binary players fall into neither category, but have probably played one or both. What I’m talking about here is the target audience. Who did the developers and marketers have in mind when creating a game? Who did they expect to play it? Did their ads show little boys or girls playing with them? Who did they invite to the play space? Pop culture, even now (looking at you, Stranger things), tells us over and over again that video games are the realm of boys, and only a few girls – those who are different, “not like other girls” – play games. But the evidence tells us another story.
Barbie stylist it had a simple premise that was easy for novice players to learn. You dressed a 2D Barbie in skirts, tops, pants, whatever suits your fancy, by clicking and dragging outfits onto her. Some of the designs were prefabricated; others were blank slates, skirts or tops that the player could fill in with their own colors and doodles using the game’s markers. But the game has added a multimedia component: after you design Barbie’s clothes, you can print them on the fabric-backed paper that comes with the game. These printed designs could then be used to dress a real-life Barbie doll. That premise worked: Barbie stylist earned more than $14 million in sales by the end of 1996.
Mattel and Barbie weren’t the first to consider creating software that appealed to girls. The first games made by women didn’t target one gender or another, they simply focused on children. One of the first video games ever created was written by a woman, Mabel Addis Mergardt, between 1963 and ’67, 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 ’77. Game designers like Brenda Laurel, Sheri Graner Ray, and Megan Gaiser asked the question loudly and often in the 80s and 90s: Where were games for girls designed and marketed? They encountered everything from shrugs and teasing to the Games for Girls movement.
The movement began as an informal, an initiative 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 both developers and scholars. The goal was twofold: to sell to an untapped audience and to encourage young girls to become interested in STEM fields.
For some companies, like Mattel, that meant applying what was already popular in their toys to video games. Barbie stylist took the sparkly pink boxes and dress-up play of Barbie dolls and made it digital. For other game designers, like Laurel, marketing games to girls meant figuring out what they liked. After two years of research and interviews with more than a thousand children, Laurel determined that, in general, girls like games that feature complex social interactions, relatable characters, and gameplay that asks them what they are thinking and feeling.
The Games for Girls movement quickly but informally split into two: pink games and purple games. The Barbie titles fell into the first category; games made by Laurel’s studio, Purple Moon, and the Nancy Drew the series created by HeR Interactive fell into the latter. The division was about more than box colors or game types; it was philosophical. Lauro said Barbie stylist “she perpetuated a version of womanhood that was fundamentally weak.” Gaiser, former CEO of HeR Interactive, described his 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 launched and the movement itself are mixed. On the one hand, you have articles like Patricia Hernandez’s essay for Kotaku, “she She Tried to Make Good Video Games for Girls, Whatever That Meant”, and books like Beyond Barbie & Mortal Kombat: New perspectives on genre and game. They argue that both the genre and the expression of “game” are much more complicated than “games for girls” than “games for boys”. What children are allowed or encouraged to do, what they model from other children in their homes and lives, and their tastes can vary widely. Gender isn’t just pink or blue, and neither are the games that kids of all genders play.
On the other hand, you have sales numbers and nostalgia. Barbie stylist it was the first “game for girls” which was also a best seller. GameSpot’s Joyce Slaton said, “Mattel’s successful innovation [was] placement Barbie stylist in the toy aisles rather than the boy-dominated software section in toy stores. When I posted to tweets Of Barbie stylist, I was inundated with responses, many of them fond memories of adults who had played the game as children. They remembered spending hours in front of the computer, printing out their designs and carefully budgeting that the all-too-precious fabric-backed paper was worth it. For some, it was the first time they had spent long periods in front of a computer. Playing with Barbie, they have become comfortable with 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 technology professor Carly Kocurek said in an article about her research into the Games for Girls movement. “We’re starting to see that many of the people who were designers and influencers during the Games for Girls movement have become leaders. Now we have a radically different landscape for games, so ‘games for girls’ sounds almost old-fashioned, because obviously people make games for a lot of different audiences, but that wasn’t always the case.”
However, there is another philosophical caveat that gamers and game developers sometimes throw in stats like these, namely: Barbie stylistand similar games are not “real” games. Barbie stylist, walking simulators (a genre where you walk through a designed space, often interacting with objects and listening to monologues), and mobile games all tend to be lumped into this critique. These games, especially mobile games, have a larger and more diverse player base than PC or console games. The argument over what constitutes a real video game, at its core, amounts to little more than gatekeeping. Barbie stylist it’s as much a video game as it is Destiny; they simply have different playstyles and player goals. Both are digital, control images on a screen and create rewards. One is not morally or mechanically superior to the other, and the fact that both are successful tells us a lot about the players. Which is to say, that hackers making jokes about men in their underwear don’t know what they’re talking about: gamers are so much more than that.
You may also like