The Lost History of ’90s PC Games for Girls

For nearly twenty years, a small development company has been producing some of gaming’s most resilient, best loved PC games, but few in the mainstream games industry talk about it or take it seriously. The Nancy Drew computer game series will be getting its 33rd game this year, with little fanfare. Not many people know that these games have been hugely popular with a generation of female fans since 1998.  A community of Nancy Drew PC game enthusiasts continues to thrive to this day—just take a look at the Nancy Drew subreddit if you need proof.

Published by Bellevue based HER Interactive, each Nancy Drew game is a unique adventure  that sees players gathering clues and solving puzzles to unravel the game’s larger mystery. The games stood out for their superb storytelling and the fact that they didn’t rely on stereotypes to weave these tales.

The Nancy Drew video game series is also likely the last standing “girl game” of the 1990s.

Riding the wave of popular edutainment titles in the 90’s, some companies sought to produce PC games for the then un-tapped pre-teen and teen female market. What resulted was a short-lived burst of PC games for girls.

One developer, Purple Moon, was founded purely to create these types of games. After considerable research, Purple Moon set out to create the games girls said they wanted to play. The company is most well-known for its “Secret Paths” and “Rockett” series. The Secret Paths series featured a group of girls, each with their own distinct story. The stories are revealed by walking “secret paths” through natural settings, solving puzzles and collecting items along the way. The Rockett games (Rockett’s New School, Rockett’s Secret Invitation), followed the school life of teenaged Rockett Malvado as she navigated the social labyrinth of middle school. Girls were tasked with choosing the correct response to a number of situations to move the story along.

It was essentially a heavily toned down, interactive version of Mean Girls. Purple Moon ultimately failed to make waves in the industry, and was criticized by feminists for its more problematic elements.

The trend attracted big names, too. Mattel jumped on board with a number of Barbie games like Barbie Detective and Barbie Fashion Designer (which let you print out your creations so your real Barbie dolls could wear them).

American Girl Doll creators, Pleasant Company (now also owned by Mattel), jumped in with their own game, American Girls Premier, which let girls create movies based on their favorite characters.

There’s even an English language “The 3D Adventures of Sailor Moon” game.

Despite the popularity (and in Nancy Drew’s case, longevity) of these games, they were easily dismissed in favor of the “real” games the boys were playing (even though girls were also playing these titles).

Rachel Weil, curator and founder of the FEMICOM museum spoke to Becky Chambers at The Mary Sue a few years back, saying, “I’d also love to see a shift in the way players, journalists, archivists, and developers think and talk about feminine design elements. I think what we say about feminine games reveals something about how we value femininity in general.”

The few games with stereotypically feminine elements are often criticized for their staunch devotion to the gender binary and common stereotypes. Many of these games had their fair share of problems, it’s true.

More commonly though, these games are casually dismissed as too girly, too casual, or for the fact that they aren’t “real” games. Based on this dubious criteria, many girl games from the 90s received little to no critical attention from the gaming industry at large. A quick google search of video game flops and failures will yield plenty of results—the Nokia N-Gage, Duke Nukem Forever to name a few, but you’ll find little mention of the brief, yet prolific, burst of PC games for girls from the mid to late 90s. These games were deemed unworthy of a place in video game history for the fact that they were generally considered flimsy games for girls, barely games at all.

It’s careless to toss these games in the bin with no consideration, though. Regardless of whether or not they are feminist, this era of PC gaming should still hold a place in video game history. Video games have been struggling with gender for most of its relatively young life, and the 90’s girl game trend can tell us a lot about this issue in terms of both the past and the present.

Why did we decide making games especially tailored to girls was a good idea? Was it an early attempt to get more girls involved in technology, or was it a marketing-ploy by publishing companies?  What makes a game a “girl game” or a “boy game”, and how is this concept actually pretty problematic? What have we done to move past this idea and what progress has been made since then to include women in the gaming industry?

Women have always been present in the video game industry, despite its efforts to keep them in the margins. Whatever criticisms people might have of 90’s girl games, they’re still very much a part of this legacy, and we’d do well not to forget them.

Jessica Famularo is a freelancer based in Pennsylvania. Apart from video games, she enjoys hiking, reading, and travelling around the world. Follow her on Twitter.
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Jessica Famularo is a freelancer based in Pennsylvania. Apart from video games, she enjoys hiking, reading, and travelling around the world. Follow her on Twitter.

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