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Failures in Edutainment: the mid-’90s “girl game” fad

Paprika the Fortune Teller from 'Chop Suey'

Brandon Boyer, via Twitter, inadvertently (advertently? well, whatever) directed me toward this post at Jezebel about girl games.

Its writer, Anna Breslaw, opens her piece with a quick hat-tip to a 1995 computer game called Chop Suey, which I’ve mentioned on Infinite Lives thrice before and am about to mention again. That’s because it is a great game that isn’t mentioned often enough. I’m trying to change the world, here, people.

But yes, our coincident timing is totally awkward, ha ha. Earlier in the week I’d snuck a bunch of Chop Suey playthrough videos onto YouTube, hoping to jog memories. (For a long time the only footage of the game available online was Bruno’s.)

But also, I was already laboring over this Chop Suey retrospective. Please do read it! It is a tragedy Chop Suey isn’t better remembered: it was celebrated in its day, and with reason. But most people did not use the Internet in 1995, which is to say, Chop Suey and all its accolades have not been very well preserved. (Duncan’s extraordinarily bizarre death doesn’t help anything; it’s almost impossible to discuss Chop Suey without mentioning that part, too, and the game is thusly difficult to google.)

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were such a great time for edutainment, and while the medium isn’t entirely dead (your child’s school computer lab may yet have Storybook Weaver!), I do think the middle-’90s’ “girl game” craze went a long way in murdering it. Worse, the “girl game” genre probably scared a generation of woulda-been PC gamers away.

Most girls did not actually play girl games in the ‘90s, of course, because most “girl games” were stupid. Girls are not idiots. Girls are not boy-crazy strumpets. Girls are 8. Girls are 9. Girls play Oregon Trail and You Don’t Know Jack. Can people not picture 9-year olds?

This is what girls really want: girls want horse training simulations; they like fortune-telling; girls read spy stories and tales of adventure and daring; girls enjoy the Super Nintendo version of Mario Kart and computer games about being in outer space. Girls would like chemistry lab sets for Christmas, or planetariums and cheap telescopes, or periscopes and walkie-talkies. Girls like crafts. Girls like Minecraft! Girls like dolls, toy theaters, replicas, scale miniatures, and “character editors.” Girls like She-Ra. Girls like Labyrinth. Girls like sci-fi, unless it’s just a bunch of dweeby dudes standing around talking into their own lapels. Girls like pirates and especially stowaways, and especially stowaways who look like boys but are secretly girls. Girls like scrappy heroines—resourceful, freckle-nosed troublemakers—heroines with scraped knees and scuffed shoes. Girls are impatient to learn something new, and if you don’t give them brain-food they eventually wander off. There! There is your blueprint for a “girl game.”

So, yes, Breslaw’s and my Chop Suey -themed posts both went up on May 12, both incorporating that same playthrough footage. Oops! How embarrassing. It’s a little like arriving at a dance in matching dresses.

Fortunately, the dresses aren’t identical! (Ha, ha, ha!) Breslaw’s piece isn’t about Chop Suey at all, thank goodness. It’s actually about a new project called FEMICOM, an online museum that aspires to catalogue and archive every manner of game-for-girls. This is noble work—it’s why I’ve made Chop Suey evangelism one of my pet hobbies, actually—exactly because the project illustrates the enormity of the gulf between “this game or toy is edifying” and “why would you ever give your child that.”

The nicest thing about seeing this article about “girl games” on Jezebel, though? It’s elicited all these comments, where the readers themselves are essentially sorting the lady-treasures from the lady-tripe. One reader mentions Heavenly Sword for PS3. Oh, boy, do girls love that game. (Because we love third-person beat-em-ups starring She-Ra! It’s pretty much the only game you should give an adult woman. There, I said it.)

Other notable “girl-friendly” game mentions: Sim City. The Sims. Little Big Planet. Metroid. Zelda. Carmen Sandiego. Ecco. Pokemon. No One Lives Forever. Nancy Drew games. Street Fighter, Soul Calibur. Doom, Marathon, BioShock. Killer7 (most girls do really well with first-person rail-shooters; this has something to do with spatial attention). Final Fantasy. Fallout. Diablo. Starcraft. Mass Effect. Star Wars KOTOR. Guild Wars. Skyrim. Braid. Age of Empires. Civilization. Portal and its sequel. (“I loved that about Portal…really the only way you knew the character was female was from the brief glimpses you got of yourself if you lined Portals up right. Her female-ness wasn’t a factor one way or the other in the game.” Thank you, Susan Fry! I agree.)

And a thread, four comments long, about Woodruff and the Schnibble.

And also from the Jez comments,

See, this is why I get so frustrated with the whole conversation about games for girls. If you’d tried to design an ideal non-people based game for little girl me, it would have featured dinosaurs fighting each other, not dolphins swimming around being pretty.

3 responses to “Failures in Edutainment: the mid-’90s “girl game” fad” »

  1. My favourite piece of fan mail ever (yes, I do receive it; no, I don’t receive it for Split Screen) was from a housewife who was playing through Ecco with her two kids- one boy, one girl. It made me really happy that they’d used my walkthrough to help complete the game!

    I still think the whole “boy games, girl games” thing is a non-starter as an argument. Girls like good games, boys like good games, neither like bad games. More games should find a common ground between machismo and sensitivity, like Ecco: when pretty dolphins are attacking space aliens, that’s something everyone can get behind.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      Hear, hear.

      Unrelated: I still receive mail asking how to “tunnel” the PSP using multiple ad-hoc wireless points. Really. Of all things! (The tutorial in question is eight years’ out-of-date, so my too-short reply is always “Good luck!”)

  2. Jbot says:

    Didn’t we have a game where dinosaurs fight each other? Primal Rage?

    Oh man, Woodruff. My mother got that game for me. When I was nine. I had no idea what the hell was going on in that game, and I loved it, though I probably spent 40 hours in the very first hour of the game.

    On the topic of little girls and games though, couldn’t agree more. My sister and I have a substantial age gap between us—a decade—so watching her grow was amazing, as well as her taste in video games. She’ll play anything with with a dancing theme, anything with Mario in it, anything that had a puzzle she could solve.

    Games are for everyone and men need to stop acting like the ‘girl who plays video games’ is some rare and elusive legendary creature that needs to be captured and mollified.

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