Party Like It’s 1995: The Rise and Fall of the Girl Game

“Being a woman who likes gaming must be like being a worm who likes fishing,” a dude friend of mine remarked recently. He was commenting on the constant negativity, abuse, and neglect that woman-identified gamers face daily. It’s tough out there. It’s almost enough to make me stop gaming. Ok, that’s a lie, there’s not much that would make me stop gaming. I do wish that game companies made a bit more room for me, perhaps didn’t advertise their phone games with supermodels in revealing “armor.” I wish that I wasn’t asked to prove myself as a gamer every time I picked up a controller.

Once there was a whole movement that wished those same things. The girl game movement was a briefly lived golden era of pink-wrapped PC games made for, and marketed to, young girls. “The idea behind the ‘girls’ game’ movement is the idea that girls, no less than boys, need computers at an early age is they are going to be adequately prepared to get ‘good jobs for good wages.’ Characteristically, the girls’ game movement has involved the transposition of traditional feminine play cultures into the digital realm” (Cassel, Jenkins). Game developers realized they were missing out on a share of the market, so they went pink and purple (those are the only colors girl children see, you know). Girls’ games were almost all available on CD-rom, based on the idea that girls did not own the consoles that were available in the late 90s.

It all started, sort of, with Her Interactive. HI was founded by Patricia Flanagan, Vice President of American Laser Games, Inc (ALG), in 1995. HI was originally a division of ALG, formed to address what Flanagan saw as a gap in the market. Developers seemed to be making games solely for audiences of boys. The marketing was almost definitely aimed at boys. So, Her Interactive started with a game called McKenzie & Co., an early PC simulator. The plot follows a junior high school student attempting to find a date.

Perhaps playing a whole game centered around finding a boy to date is not the best message for the girls who had been waiting for a game just for them for so long. But it’s not that cut and dry. “McKenzie” was the name of the player’s geotracker and was actually an acronym that stood for “Marvelous, Cool, Kinetic movement, Ever-lasting friendship, Non-conformist, Zany, Ingenious, and Empowered.” Players do more than just convince boys to date them (and it is, unsurprisingly, just boys that you can take to prom). They MUST attend school, they can also hang out in their rooms, read magazines, travel around the town. It was a digital world, just for heterosexual girls. It was a small revolution.

And Her Interactive did well. So well that they eventually bought and consumed their parent company, American Laser Games. After McKenzie & Co.’s success they found their true niche, Nancy Drew games. Since 1999 they have released one or two Nancy Drew titles per year, and they’re still going strong. This year you can play Sea of Darkness on PC or Mac, as well as #28 Nancy Drew: Ghost of Thornton Hall on your smartphone.

Around this same time Girltech was coming to life. This developer was founded by Janese Swanson in 1995, who also helped develop the first Carmen Sandiego game. Girltech was focused on making technology more interesting to girls, which included talking picture frames and keepsafe boxes with remote-controlled locks. Swanson reportedly wouldn’t “prettify” the technology with plastic bows and pastel shades because girls were interested in it without that. Not quite a videogame, but pretty cool nonetheless. She sold the company to Radica Games for $6 million. Radica was later taken over by Mattel, who now owns Swanson’s technology, and has made it very pink.

It was around this time that Mattel saw the reception of these smaller game developers and decided to bake a PC pie of their own. They had released Barbie (1991) on the NES (later Barbie: Game Girl on the Game Boy, clever), Barbie: Super Model (1992) and Barbie Vacation Adventure (1994) on the Super Nintendo and received little return. Now they wanted to enter the PC girl world, so Barbie Fashion Designer was born in 1996 and it was a huge success. Companies and theorists researched why (maybe the answer was simple: Barbie sells), and attempted to emulate that in other girls’ game companies.

Mattel has had a successful run of Barbie games over the years, but the height of excitement for the pixelated beauty queen really occurred in the late ’90s and early ’00s. The Barbie Detective series of games was not just games for boys wrapped in a pink bow, it was a real experience just for girl gamers. And some of those games were hard. Now there are a lot of simple, and superficial, Barbie flash games available.

In 1997 Time Magazine called the girls’ game movement a drive for a “rom of their own.” That’s a major publication taking note of young girls in the game industry, young girls as gamers, and taking it somewhat seriously. Or, at the least, seeing the importance of making games accessible to girls. There was, and perhaps still is to an extent, a belief that letting children play video games would make them better at technology. PC games may eventually lead to engineer careers, software development, at the very least being computer savvy enough to get a job in the changing economy. So, if that was the belief, it was paramount that girls be involved. All jobs would eventually be computer jobs, and how else would girls learn those skills? In my elementary school, “computer class” was playing educational games.

Purple Moon is the name most women who were girl gamers in the ’90s know. Founded by Brenda Laurel and others in 1997, this developer was supported by Interval Research. According to Kotaku, “Purple Moon amounted to six years and $40 million dollars spent on research where thousands of kids were interviewed, and eight games were produced.” (Though I have counted ten games, not eight.) Actual research! About what young women wanted! However, there are some video game historians/theorists who have suggested that this was flawed. It was obvious that what developers thought girls should want were games that weren’t violent, were colorful, and focused on relationships and puzzle-solving. So, that’s what these girls told the researchers, what the investigators wanted to hear, rather than what the girls necessarily wanted to play.

It’s hard to know what the truth of that situation is, but the games did not sell as well as the developer and researchers hoped. Purple Moon made the Rockett and Secret Paths game series. These were like early visual novels and heavily focused on decision-making. After all of their research and careful game creating, they were attacked by critics for gender-stereotyping, claiming that girls wouldn’t like mainstream games and claiming they needed their own games. They closed their doors in 1999, also taken over by Mattel.

So why did the girls game movement fail? A few theories here. Even while a few games were fairly successful, developers saw nowhere near the numbers they were seeing for “boys’ games.” Perhaps this is because girls didn’t really want a bunch of bright pink games focused on fashion, dating boys, or making friends. Maybe they really did want the same games boys wanted but no one would buy them for them to play. Or marketers were only marketing “boys’ games” to boys.

Maybe they did want the girls’ games, but their parents didn’t see the point in them playing video games. After all, math and science (categories in which computers fit) are for boy children, reading and art for girl children. Perhaps girls did want to be gamers, and they wanted to play these puzzle and choice oriented games, but we’re taught that games, in order to be worth it, must be fast-paced and violent. Ultra feminine games must suck, because femininity sucks in the patriarchy.

Maybe it’s Mattel’s fault. Maybe they were too greedy, bought up too many developers, and then suffocated their art.

Or maybe they didn’t fail. Sure, a lot of these companies closed, but some were bought out. Some, like Her Interactive and Mattel, continue to make “girls’ games” to this day. The movement itself is gone, and was relatively short-lived. However, during its span it did teach the industry that girls, though maybe not all of them, are playing games. Games like Cooking Mama and Nintendogs were heavily marketed to young girls. Other, more traditionally violent/masculine games, like the Fable series, began to offer more women as protagonists. Visual novels are having a golden moment, with phone games like Episode and Dear Diary. Maybe “girls’ games” was just another genre, like action or fighting or puzzle, and not the ultimate answer to getting girls into tech fields.


Resources Used

Girl Culture: An Encyclopediaby Claudia Mitchell, Jacqueline Reid-Walsh

Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market by Sheri Graner Ray

Inventor Fills Girls’ Desire For Their Own Gadgets, by Michelle Slatalla

Media/cultural Studies: Critical Approachesby Rhonda Hammer, Douglas Kellner

Gender Considerations and Influence in the Digital Media and Gaming Industry edited by Julie Prescott,

Social Exclusion, Power, and Video Game Play: New Research in Digital Media by David G. Embrick, J. Talmadge Wright, András Lukács

From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games by Justine Cassell, Henry Jenkins


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Al Rosenberg is the Games Section Editor for Women Write About Comics, a Shimer College proselytizer, and general Obsession Collector. Currently she's acquiring tattoos in Chicago in-between zine-making, Hebrew lessons and Adventure Time marathons.

Al has written 7 articles for us.

41 Comments

  1. The first, and only, explicitly “girl game” I had when I was young would have been the NES version of [i]The Little Mermaid[/i]. It’s still considered an excellent game, and was and still is a good challenge. Also, a good violation of the “licensed games suck” theory.

    My parents, of course, hated that I purchased it for myself (they thought I was a boy then), but didn’t object to my sister playing it.

  2. One of the reasons the Borderlands series is so awesome is, yes, it’s pink and purple (in the most recent shooter the high value currency/items were a pretty teal), has badass ladies (and shitloads of queers) and it’s got genuine gameplay strategy, unlike most other shooters. But damn, that pink and purple is just so soothing when you’re trying to snipe a helicopter.

  3. Oh, dang, yeah! I was neither a Barbie girl nor a horse girl but I played Barbie Riding Club for years, even after the graphics started looking absolutely crap compared to newer games. One of my cousins even gave me a pair of hand-me-down riding boots and sometimes I wore them when I played the game!

    We always had computer games at home (my dad was an early computer adopter and gamer) and my brother and I would play just about anything together: Jazzy Jack Rabbits, Counterstrike, Half-Life, Age of Empires. (I was exceptionally terrible at the latter because my main priority was “protect the sheep”). And of course the Harry Potter games were wonderful.

  4. This was a great article, thanks for writing it. I had completely forgot until this article how much i loved the Barbie series of games. I only had the fashion one, but I had a friend who had all of them, and I would love to go to her house and spend the whole night playing. It’s really interesting to read abou it now from a new and different perspective. I’m from Brazil, so I imagine most of the games mentioned didn’t get there, but I remember those very clearly.

  5. I just learned so many new things! I’m probably one of those people that fuel the argument that girls don’t play games because I play(ed): DDR, Mario kart/party, Sonic, Aladdin, DK64, Spyro, Dead Island and Pokemon. I also remember loving the shit out of Barbie games. I liked dressing them up…….yeah.

    Great article sweetie!! Love you! 🙂 hehe

  6. I LOVE NANCY DREW GAMES. I’m 22 and I still play them with my best friend whenever I go home. They’re so good, but a lot of my friends who play video games (read: boyz) don’t consider them to be “real” games because they don’t require a lot of hand-eye coordination or button mashing to play. Nancy Drew games are much more focused on puzzles and strategy and figuring out complex problems, not fighting enemies (though that does happen occassionally). I wonder if part of the reason for the failure of these games is that they don’t require the skills that are typically valued in more popular video games like button mashing fights. My friends who play video games don’t consider point and click games to be real games, but I honestly think that it’s more rewarding to solve a few puzzles in a Nancy Drew game (I know they’re for 10-year-olds but they can be HARD) than flying through the levels of Super Meat Boy or the Binding of Isaac.

    Are “girl games” usually point and click games because they aren’t respected or do we not respect them because they’re for girls?

    • I think a bit of both, but more because of the “it’s for girls” mentality.

      Even the popular MMO Guild Wars 2 gets it a lot because it has a high number of women (and queer people) playing. You hear a lot of “it’s too casual”, or “Barbie Wars”, and other such things.

    • I ALSO LOVE NANCY DREW! What’s your favorite game? I was actually scared of Ghost Dogs at Moon Lake. I think I liked The Secret Spy best so far. I’m 26 and I play these games with my sibling at Christmas and other times of forced family get-togethers. Nancy Drew forever!

      • Ok so I screamed the first time I played Ghost Dogs because I did so alone in my basement. That was one of my favorites. The one that took place in Japan was also terrifying at one point. I don’t know how to pick a favorite! The Secret Spy was great, I’m always down to learn more about Nancy. I liked the one that took place in Germany because I thought it was hilarious that Nancy and Ned were in a fight the whole time. I also loved Waverly Academy because I thought the plot twist was SO GOOD.

        • Shadow at Water’s Edge (Japan game) was pretty scary especially once you get into the basement, and the games were really hard for me especially the last puzzle. I haven’t played the one that takes place in Germany yet!

  7. YAAASSSS!!! I played so many of these games!! Not so much the Barbie ones, actually. I think I found them boring. But I was all over Carmen Sandiego and Nancy Drew. My fave was the Madeleine mystery game in Paris or something. Oh, and Petz: Catz, but that’s a surprise no no one. But then I also pretty much played all the games my brother played, so if you think about it, I played more games than he did when we were little. So ha, patriarchy. Ha.

    ALEX THIS IS SUCH A GOOD ARTICLE!!! YOU’RE SO GREAT AND FLAWLESS AND TALENTED!!!

  8. Woah I’m glad this article was written. I didn’t even know or think about this movement as a thing, but perhaps I am a success story from the movement, as I started playing games as a tween in the late 90s/early 00s and started with PC games and leveled up to consoles and a Game Boy. I don’t know that I would have gotten that into it if I hadn’t had a male friend who was super spoiled and had all of the consoles.

    I remember playing more gender neutral if not feminine games on the old Gateway in my mom’s treadmill room, like Casper games and Sabrina the Teenage Witch along with stuff like Sim Park or Roller Coaster Tycoon. Some of the first games I remember playing and loving on the Playstation were either very masculine or weren’t marketed to girls specifically, like Spiderman (I maintain that the PS1 version of Spiderman is one of the best games ever made), Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, and the Harry Potter games.

    I’m still holding out for a sandbox style Harry Potter RPG that’s basically Pottermore but more immersive. A developer should make that so I can just give them all of the money.

  9. I don’t remember any girl games being available. Any Brits care to weigh in on early 90s girl games available over here? Was I just super butch from an early age *nods head* My BFF had Aladdin and jungle book for master system which is the closest I guess I saw this would have been ’93. Mostly I had Sonic or Mario based games. Waaaay back on the Spectrum SAM, which followed my ZXspectrum, I had Famous Five which had girls in it, this is the closest British equivalent I can think of to Nancy Drew. I so hated George but that’s because I was secretly George.

  10. Oh wow this brings back memories of Barbie Movie Maker. Me and my sister played it on Win95. Everything was pink or purple, but I remember there was a drawing section where you could colour things in any colour, so i mostly hung out there. My sister mainly did the wardrobe department. I was actually five years old, so long ago!

  11. I loved PC gaming growing up, I guess I somehow never saw it as “gaming” until this article thought!

    I loved Carmen sandiego and the Barbie horse riding game. I was also a big fan of I Want to be an Animal Doctor, Orly’s Draw a Story, and several click through picture books like Stella Luna. Later on, when I wasn’t playing Neopets (omg I LOVED NEOPETS) I was really into Jumpstart 3rd grade and Cluefinders. Nancy Drew was too damn hard for me! All of this eventually played into my love of Sims, aka my first opportunity to live a virtually gay life and flirt with the mail lady and my lady neighbors all damn day.

    • It’s sooo totally gaming! I think this is a lot of the reason women don’t call themselves “gamers,” even when they are gaming alll day (on their phones/PCs/whatever).

      Neopets was the bomb. My best friend and I shared an account and nurtured those pets like amazing gay moms.

      I think Sims was a gamechanger for queermos.

  12. In my personal experiences growing up as a gamer and part of the whole “nerd culture,” I noticed a certain trend that male nerds who prefer games such as Japanese rpgs (Final Fantasy for example), Nintendo games, or prefer manga tend to be less misogynist than male nerds who prefer comic books and western based video game companies. Also, the manga readers tend to be more tolerant of gender noncomformity and homosexuality. Has anyone else experienced this? The gamer/nerd culture in general can be sexist, but I’ve very rarely seen a girl accused of being a “fake nerd” at an anime convention, whereas this seems to happen more often at Comicon.

    • I’m a high school teacher and supervise anime club. I skipped pride to take the kids to Otakon, and Otakon was definitely gayer anyway.

      Half the kids in anime club showed up to the first GSA meeting.

    • I honestly think part of this is that rpgs facilitate collaboration between characters on a team often, and focus on friendship and story-building, whereas a lot of western games are about the solo heroic journey and are more focused on action, less on story.

  13. This is something I’m very grateful for in the elite Tetris community. There are many elite female players, so everything is usually respectful. There is an occasional troll, but I’m convinced you’ll never find an online space where you never see some kind of troll at some point.

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