Between Barbie and Life is Strange: the History of the “Girl Games” Movement 2

This feature is part of our special series on History and Games.

In 1996, a game was released that would change the course of gam­ing his­to­ry. You might think this game was Super Mario 64, Diablo, Pokémon, or even Resident Evil. But the most impor­tant game of 1996 for any­one inter­est­ed in women and gam­ing was Barbie Fashion Designer, which out­sold indus­try titans Quake and Doom,1 and in doing so, proved to indus­try pro­fes­sion­als that girls liked to play games. There were games for girls before Barbie Fashion Designer – Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins point to devel­op­er Sanctuary Woods’ 1994 release Hawaii High: the Mystery of the Tiki as being the first girls’ game in exis­tence2 – but Barbie was the first to prove truly suc­cess­ful. I would like to make the spec­i­fi­ca­tion at this point that I am only dis­cussing games that were designed explic­it­ly for girls, or games that were pop­u­lar with a female audi­ence. There have been “game grrlz”3 since there have been video games. Girls and women are not a mono­lith, and for every girl who was drawn to Secret Paths in the Forest, there was a girl drawn to Quake.

The ini­tial girls’ games move­ment of the 1990s was a great time to be a girl (full dis­clo­sure: I am just about the per­fect age to have enjoyed this magic moment in his­to­ry). Due to the suc­cess of Barbie Fashion Designer, small inde­pen­dent com­pa­nies like HerInteractive and Purple Moon were allowed to thrive, releas­ing orig­i­nal games designed specif­i­cal­ly with girls in mind. Unfortunately, Barbie cast a large pink shad­ow; larg­er game pub­lish­ers were only inter­est­ed in cheap Barbie clones.4 As a result, the girls’ games mar­ket became sat­u­rat­ed with ter­ri­ble licensed titles, a trend that con­tin­ues today. A Google search for “games for girls” turns up games about play­ing dress-up, putting on make­up, or the gen­er­al cat­e­go­ry “beau­ty” – still, 20 years later, falling into the Barbie assem­bly line.

Purple Moon closed its doors in 1999. Although its games were well researched and playtest­ed, they couldn’t meet the sales num­bers need­ed to keep the com­pa­ny in busi­ness. Publishers feared that kind of fail­ure and didn’t want to take risks on games for girls that didn’t fit the mold, nor did they want to spend much money on the “pink” mar­ket.5 Industry pro­fes­sion­als were only will­ing to spend small amounts of money on low-budget licensed titles, which the audi­ence didn’t like – licensed games, mean­ing games based on exist­ing intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ties like Barbie, Disney Princesses, or films, don’t often play well. The crit­i­cal fail­ure and deri­sion of Superman: The New Adventures for the Nintendo 64 (col­lo­qui­al­ly titled Superman 64) is a per­fect exam­ple. A good licensed prop­er­ty is not enough to make a good game, espe­cial­ly when the copy­right own­ers are mak­ing most of their money from the orig­i­nal con­tent.

Sheri Graner Ray, author and for­mer HerInteractive employ­ee, calls the peri­od after Purple Moon “pink poi­son.”6 The dearth of true orig­i­nal, qual­i­ty con­tent explic­it­ly for girls caused games like Nintendogs, Neopets, Animal Crossing, and The Sims to grow pop­u­lar. These titles weren’t explic­it­ly designed “for girls,” but they fit the bill of the types of games girls pre­ferred per Brenda Laurel’s research: games con­tain­ing “mate­ri­als for nar­ra­tive con­struc­tion,”7 with inter­est­ing char­ac­ters and inter­est­ing rela­tion­ships, and room to explore a world.8 Although games like these got girls play­ing, their pop­u­lar­i­ty with girls and their dif­fer­ence to other titles of the time, like Pokémon or Mario games, caused them to be unpop­u­lar with boys, and heav­i­ly crit­i­cized. Boys, who gen­er­al­ly pre­fer more aggres­sive play,9 didn’t under­stand the appeal of a game like Animal Crossing, in which the play­er makes friends with ani­mals in their vil­lage, picks fruit, and catch­es insects. Animal Crossing can be played for as lit­tle as 15 min­utes, since much of its play involves check­ing in and keep­ing up with the neigh­bors. In an era when games like Final Fantasy VII, a game that takes 40 hours or more to fin­ish, were wide­ly pop­u­lar, a game that encour­ages such short stints seems ridicu­lous; how could any­one be prop­er­ly enter­tained in such a short time?

The Nintendo Wii, released in 2006, became a haven for girls’ games. The Wii’s mar­ket­ing and launch titles, like Wii Sports and Happy Feet, were designed with fam­i­ly play in mind. This brought girls back into the gam­ing mix, if only on this one plat­form. However, as is com­mon in the his­to­ry of video gam­ing for girls, the Wii also became a locus for poor qual­i­ty licensed titles. Disney Princess, Barbie, Monster High and Nickelodeon prop­er­ties (iCarly, Hannah Montana) dom­i­nate any store’s Wii sec­tion. The Wii, although adven­tur­ous for its time with its motion con­trols, was not accept­ed as a seri­ous con­sole due to its lack of larg­er main­stream titles and inabil­i­ty to com­pete with its brethren, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. In terms of graph­ics, the Wii boasts 480p res­o­lu­tion, where­as the Xbox 360 and the PS3 fea­tures 1080p res­o­lu­tion, and in terms of devel­op­er sup­port the Wii gets left behind as well. Although Call of Duty: Black Ops was released for all 3 sys­tems, it sold 1.37 mil­lion units on the Wii, com­pared to 12.62 mil­lion on the PlayStation 3 and 14.59 mil­lion on the Xbox 360.

2006 brought women and girls Cooking Mama, an orig­i­nal title for the Nintendo DS. Like Animal Crossing or Nintendogs (also for the DS), Cooking Mama was not devel­oped specif­i­cal­ly with girls in mind, but it was extreme­ly pop­u­lar with them. Handheld sys­tems (video game sys­tems like the Gameboy, DS, or PlayStation Portable) are anoth­er sec­tion of the game indus­try where games for girls were allowed to thrive. The Gameboy Advance fea­tures games from prop­er­ties like Barbie, Disney Princess, Kim Possible, Hamtaro and the Powerpuff Girls. This trend con­tin­ues with the lat­est Nintendo hand­held, the 3DS, and with smart­phone gam­ing. The Imagine series of games, fea­tur­ing titles like Imagine: Babysitters and Imagine: Salon Stylist, are incred­i­bly pop­u­lar and are devel­oped for sys­tems like the DS, 3DS, and Wii – gaming’s pink hubs.

In 2009, the Facebook game Farmville was released, ush­er­ing in an era of games that could be played on Facebook or on a smart­phone. The tremen­dous suc­cess of Farmville led to dozens of games in a sim­i­lar vein – busi­ness sim­u­la­tion games and city sim­u­la­tion games, with titles like Bakery Story or Tiny Village and cute graph­ics. It is dif­fi­cult to men­tion smart­phone games with­out men­tion­ing Candy Crush, reign­ing King (pun intend­ed – Candy Crush was devel­oped by King​.com) of match-three games. Like Animal Crossing, most smart­phone or Facebook games can be played in short inter­vals, in between other respon­si­bil­i­ties or dur­ing some sort of down­time – a bus ride to school, for instance.

The crit­i­cism of games women enjoy by “real gamers” con­tin­ues to this day – the deri­sion thrown at Gone Home (2013) for being a “walk­ing sim­u­la­tor” or the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of Life is Strange (2015) as a “teen girl self­ie sim­u­la­tor” are clear exam­ples of this phe­nom­e­non. Labeling the entire genre of smart­phone and Facebook games “casu­al” cre­ates a con­de­scend­ing dis­tinc­tion between “prop­er” games and “improp­er” games – games that men play, and games that women and girls play. This divi­sion stretch­es so far as to cause women and girls, who may be incred­i­bly pro­fi­cient at Candy Crush (2012) or Kim Kardashian: Hollywood (2014), to choose not to con­sid­er them­selves play­ers of video games, since these types of mobile games are not count­ed. I spoke in a col­lege class in 2014 and asked the stu­dents (most­ly women) who in the room played video games. Two or three raised their hands. I respond­ed with “Who’s played Candy Crush or some­thing like it?” and almost every hand in the room went up. The local­iza­tion of girls’ games to con­soles like the App Store, DS or Wii fur­ther solid­i­fies this bar­ri­er – “real” gamers own PlayStations or Xboxes, “casu­al” gamers own Wiis and DS sys­tems.

The clas­si­fi­ca­tion of Gone Home as a “walk­ing sim­u­la­tor,” a deri­sive reac­tion to its mechan­ics, is inher­ent­ly sex­ist. A year after the release of Gone Home, a playable trail­er for a new Silent Hill game, titled PT was released on the PlayStation store. PT and Gone Home have sim­i­lar mechan­ics: in each game, the play­er explores a house to dis­cov­er clues about its inhab­i­tants. The play­er can unlock new con­tent by deci­pher­ing clues and per­form­ing actions in spe­cif­ic orders. There are no true puz­zles in either game, so they are sim­pler than a game like Myst, which is of a sim­i­lar playstyle and huge­ly pop­u­lar. But PT was clas­si­fied as a hor­ror game and wor­thy of play, and Gone Home was clas­si­fied as a point­less walk­ing sim. This is because PT is intend­ed to scare the play­er, and Gone Home deals with explor­ing a rela­tion­ship between sis­ters.

When we divide the indus­try this way, we do women and girls no favors. If par­ents only buy poor­ly made Monster High games for their daugh­ters, and only for a sys­tem their broth­ers mock, video games don’t seem fun to girls. I have long thought that the bor­der­line unplaya­bil­i­ty of low-budget licensed games has dri­ven girls as an audi­ence away from games, and YouTuber TamashiiHiroka has voiced this opin­ion as well. We need more orig­i­nal con­tent sole­ly aimed at girls, with the same love, care, and fund­ing as the con­tent which is osten­si­bly “for every­one,” but is real­ly “for boys.”

We must be very aware of the way we talk about mod­ern games. The Steam reviews for Cibele, a game about a woman’s first sex­u­al expe­ri­ence, received an over­all “Mostly Positive” rat­ing through the Steam ser­vice’s user-based review sys­tem. However, the game’s page itself is lit­tered with scores of “Not Recommended,” throw­ing the pos­i­tive rat­ing into doubt. This is due to review­ers call­ing it “less of a game a more of a short story,”10 a “fine movie with ter­ri­ble game­play,”11 and “just a short “film” with brief ago­niz­ing­ly poor­ly designed game­play seg­ments.”12 By den­i­grat­ing a game cre­at­ed by a woman for other women, men may suc­ceed in pre­vent­ing Cibele’s intend­ed audi­ence from ever expe­ri­enc­ing it.

If young women con­nect with an expe­ri­ence like Gone Home or Cibele and are told it is a worth­less expe­ri­ence, their emo­tion­al reac­tion is deval­ued. How can we expect women to par­tic­i­pate in this indus­try if they only ever have bad expe­ri­ences with its prod­ucts and half of its audi­ence? It is crit­i­cal for the future of video gam­ing for women to par­tic­i­pate, and that means start­ing with qual­i­ty titles for girls and end­ing with games for women get­ting fair reviews.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, in 2015, 56% of gamers were male, and 44% were female, with the aver­age female game play­er being 43 years old.13 My hope for the future of this indus­try is that these 43 year old women are shar­ing the joy of video games with their daugh­ters, in spaces pro­tect­ed from unnec­es­sary, unfair, and sex­ist crit­i­cism – so that we can ulti­mate­ly have an indus­try that peo­ple of all gen­ders can enjoy.


    • Dontnod Entertainment. 2015. Life is Strange. Square Enix.
    • Entertainment Software Association. “Essential facts about the com­put­er and video game indus­try.TheESA​.com. 2015.
    • Glu Mobile. 2014. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Glu Mobile.
    • Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. “Chess for Girls? Feminism and Computer Games,” in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, 328341. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
    • Jenkins, Henry. “Voices from the Combat Zone: Game Grrlz Talk Back,” in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, 328341. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
    • King. 2012. Candy Crush Saga. King.
    • Kojima Productions. 2014. P.T. Konami.
    • Laurel, Brenda. “An Interview with Brenda Laurel (Purple Moon),” in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, 118135. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
    • Mattel Media. 1996. Barbie Fashion Designer. Mattel Media.
    • Maxis. 2000. The Sims. Electronic Arts.
    • Nintendo. 2001. Animal Crossing. Nintendo.
    • Nintendo. 2005. Nintendogs. Nintendo.
    • Office Create. 2006. Cooking Mama. Majesco Entertainment.
    • Sanctuary Woods. 1994. Hawaii High: The Mystery of the Tiki. Sanctuary Woods.
    • Sheri Graner Ray, inter­view, November 16, 2016.
    • Square. 1997. Final Fantasy VII. Sony Computer Entertainment, Eidos Interactive.
    • Star Maid Games. 2015. Cibele. Star Maid Games.
    • Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia M. Greenfield, “Computer Games for Girls: What Makes Them Play?” in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, 4667. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
    • The Fullbright Company. 2013. Gone Home. The Fullbright Company.
    • Titus Software. 1999. Superman: The New Adventures. Titus Software.
    • Viacom/Knowledge Adventure. 1999. Neopets. Viacom/Knowledge Adventure.
    • Zynga. 2009. FarmVille. Zynga.
  1. Cassell & Jenkins, 15 []
  2. Cassell & Jenkins, 10 []
  3. Jenkins, 328 []
  4. Graner Ray, inter­view []
  5. Graner Ray []
  6. Graner Ray []
  7. Laurel, 122 []
  8. Laurel, 123 []
  9. Subrahmanyam and Greenfield, 51 []
  10. Steam user Bohimen, November 2nd, 2016 []
  11. Steam user Daveva D. Rain, November 10th 2016 []
  12. Steam user Madnoir, June 1st 2016 []
  13. ESA Essential Facts 2015 []

Abigail Johnson

About Abigail Johnson

Abi Johnson holds both a Master's and Bachelor's in Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies from the University at Albany. She is the developer of the Twine game transmissions, and runs the blog "Playing in the System," where she writes about feminism and video games. Her persistent garbage habit shows some signs of payoff.

2 thoughts on “Between Barbie and Life is Strange: the History of the “Girl Games” Movement

  • Zed Clampet

    I gave Cibele a bad review because I did­n’t enjoy it. The fact that there might be an audi­ence for the game did­n’t change that fact. Everyone knows that there are dif­fer­ences between what men and women like. My wife and I most­ly ignore each oth­er’s movie rec­om­men­da­tions, for instance, and even make a joke out of it. The point is (and this is ram­bling and poor­ly writ­ten, sorry) that a woman see­ing a neg­a­tive review by a man on Cibele and see­ing what their crit­i­cisms are, should know whether those crit­i­cisms apply to them. I said there was too much bor­ing game­play between story ele­ments, for instance. If I saw a review (by any gen­der) on Doom that said there was too much gore, for instance, I would just ignore it. Basically, I think you give women too lit­tle cred­it. They are per­fect­ly capa­ble of think­ing through the reviews and deter­min­ing whether a game is some­thing they would like or not.

  • Gizensha

    Wait. The end­ing of Gone Home isn’t intend­ed to ter­ri­fy? Not the actu­al con­clu­sion to the nar­ra­tive, I mean specif­i­cal­ly that the end of the third act, just before you get the
    con­clu­sion, is one of the most ter­ri­fy­ing parts of any video game I’ve
    played. Scarier than the psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror of SH, any­thing
    Until Dawn throws at you, the fourth wall break­ing jump scares of
    Eternal Darkness… The mun­dane, every­day, hor­ror that a homo­pho­bic
    soci­ety might have dri­ven yet anoth­er (fic­tion­al) girl to sui­cide
    because of who she loves, until you get to the attic and find out to your relief that there’s a run­away let­ter rather than a corpse and a sui­cide note, as way too many sto­ries with lgbtqia char­ac­ters have.

    Extremely effec­tive, wound up rush­ing through that third act with the ratch­et­ing ten­sion of not know­ing how long ago my char­ac­ter’s sis­ter did what I did­n’t know if she’d done, hop­ing that if the story had gone the way so many do and I’m glad this one did­n’t I would­n’t be too late to avert it, despite no indi­ca­tion that there was any actu­al time pres­sure. Very easy to for­get how video games work and just sus­pend my dis­be­lief and buy total­ly into the sce­nario.

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