How to address the lost history of girls’ games

I had a moment during the “Looking back at ‘girls games’” keynote panel at this year’s Indiecade where I remembered a whole piece of my childhood that I had forgotten. I don’t know how, but somehow I had erased my memories of playing Purple Moon’s games on Windows 95.

And I was pissed.

Purple Moon was a software company that developed titles during the “girls’ games movement” in the late 90s, including Rockett’s World, a series of coming-of-age games based around a high school-aged girl named Rockett, and the Secret Paths series, which were more introspective and abstract. Both series had the distinctive purple packaging and came with small, plastic trinkets, such as gemstones. I remembered playing these games the moment a slide appeared during the panel’s presentation, showing the red-headed, freckled face of Rockett Movado. And I freaked out, hearing the music in my head and remembering choosing how Rockett would react to certain situations.

The fact that I didn’t remember these games until I was forced to remember them is a common reaction, according to Rachel Simone Weil, founder of FEMICOM Museum, which seeks to preserve girls games and push them into the public consciousness. While Purple Moon titles, Barbie games, and Nancy Drew adventures were popular on PC, there is still a lack of awareness about not only their histories, but their basic data: their box art, their copyright dates, for instance.

“[Critics] weren’t doing a lot of independent research,” Weil said about the databases that hold any mention of girls games. “And so these errors get moved from hobbyists into databases into all the way up to institutions.”

There’s a gap in how we talk about these games. In the past couple of years, there have been efforts to get them recognized, from articles in Kotaku and Vice to an exhibition by non-profit arts organization Rhizome on the works of Theresa Duncan, who created visual novels aimed at girls, such as Chop Suey. The panel at Indiecade, which was moderated by Weil, featured the voices of Purple Moon founder Brenda Laurel, Megan Gaiser of Her Interactive, and game design professor Emma Westecott. It discussed the history of the movement in its most basic form, which in itself is enlightening because the history barely exists. As Laurel snarked during the talk, there are no nostalgic T-shirts depicting Purple Moon games, so it can’t exist.

But the history exists. It’s just not recorded well enough. Weil found that, whether intentionally sexist or not, women and other gaming hobbyists just didn’t deem girls’ games important enough to preserve online.

“People contribute to the databases based on their personal collections and most collector communities are folks who put these games in these databases tend to be men,” she said. “Maybe they didn’t play those games so they don’t have them.”

This bias has repeated itself as Weil works on FEMICOM. On her website, she is building a database with information that she hopes can become a resource for those researching girls’ games. However, she often struggles with people questioning the value of her work.

“I’ve certainly run into that attitude when I’ve posted things on FEMICOM… and people are saying ‘why? What’s the point of doing this? Why does it matter?’” she said, adding that there’s an inner dialogue that runs through her head, along with the heads of others, about this validity.

This inner dialogue, she says, is what has kept girls’ games from reaching a level of popularity where they can be included in the gaming culture lexicon, or show up on influential gaming lists at well-read publications such as IGN. Since nobody talks about them, they must not be important.

It doesn’t help also that at the time of their release, Purple Moon’s games weren’t accepted by both mainstream critics and feminists. Laurel said that after years of research, interviewing girls and inquiring about what they wanted to see in games, she received negative feedback from people who she thought would be allies. In her essay in Beyond Barbie, Laurel said that a New York Times reporter had called a Rockett title “a bad game,” while feminist Rebecca Eisenberg stated that “if we truly want to integrate girls into the technological and gaming worlds, we need to focus on destroying the stereotypes that keep them out.” Purple Moon filed for bankruptcy in 1999 and was absorbed by Mattel.

Some of these criticisms are valid, especially considering how gendered Rockett games are, but their contribution to a movement that has largely been ignored in history is something that needs to be rectified.

Since founding FEMICOM in 2012, Weil has taken these games on the road. From Purple Moon to Barbie pinball, she collects them all, buying them off of eBay, creating installations that often puts the cartridges in protective glass cases, and organizing game jams that put the games as a source of inspiration for developers. She also hosts a podcast where she dissects specific games, and creates her own titles for the NES that counter her experience growing up, where there weren’t any girls games for the most popular gaming console. On her website, she calls these games “sweet, girly, glitchy games that are nostalgic for nonexistent pasts.”

Those nonexistent pasts are for those that don’t have the nostalgia of growing up with games. Weil wasn’t allowed to have an NES when she was younger and was discouraged from playing with her male family members. Looking back at games history is different for Weil, as it is for others that don’t have the memories of engaging with some of the more popular aspects of the medium’s lexicon. This is why she makes games for the NES. It’s also why she continues to do work to spread the word about girls’ games: she’s attempting to rewrite a history.

“How, as a feminist art practice, do I create a history that didn’t exist as a way to bridge a gap, to bridge a misunderstanding?” she said.

Weil’s work all adds to a mission that ensures that people know that these games exist. She’s less interested in the contents of the games and more about acknowledgment, about accepting that they existed at all. It’s why her work is about preserving data, updating databases, and keeping information accurate. By continuously talking about girls’ games, she is trying to convince others that they are important from a historical context. At the University of Texas, where she teaches a course in video game history, she discusses with her students about the ever-changing state of history. History, no matter what the subject, can be made up. After all, isn’t much of gaming’s history just somebody putting information on the Internet?

“That’s something that was really important to me,” she said. It’s nobody’s fault specifically that girls’ games were forgotten for decades, but it’s time to rectify that. “All I want to do is add to the culture.”

Carli Velocci is the editor of her webzine Postmortem Mag, and is a culture and technology writer seen at Paste Magazine, Motherboard, the Boston Globe, and anywhere else brave enough to publish her. You can read more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @velocciraptor.