Our computer lab was in the basement. There was some sort of mold that grew in the Ohio humidity and it made my eyes itch. But there were games — edutainment, I guess I should qualify, given the internet’s stark distinction between games and games — to distract me. It was hard to beat the satisfaction of the grocery check-out simulator in Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. A countless number of pioneers died of dysentery in Oregon Trail. My sister and I would often travel the Trail together, naming and crafting stories around our pixelated adventurers, waxing poetic on their tombstones. And if there was a game that gave us free rein to explore this dramatic side, it was The American Girls Premiere. The version we were gifted was the Special Edition Collector’s Set, which cost a whole $10 more and came packaged in a fancy tin destined to become a pencil holder. The raised images of the core American Girls™ on the cover — Felicity, Josefina, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly — held a 3D promise of stories to be rewritten and written anew, to (seemingly) define for ourselves what it meant to be a girl and to be American. Not that a middle-school girl from Ohio recognized that at the time.
My parents started homeschooling my sister and me when I went into fifth grade. It was 1996. We lived in Appalachia by virtue of our home in southeastern Ohio, on the border of West Virginia where my mom was born and grew up. We weren’t characters from a J.D. Vance book, and we were relatively privileged — white, middle-class. Our dad was an engineer at one of the plants that stunk up the sky on the way to the mall across the river. You drove through a holler to get to our house, but we lived in a brick split-level on the hill beyond.
Appalachia, as a region, has a unique relationship with technology. It falls behind in its adoption or access to computers, to the internet (especially broadband), and to smartphones — not only because of the average socioeconomic status, but because of geographic isolation and a prioritization of self-reliance and privacy, both of which computers, and even more so the internet, threaten. Through my undergrad studies, when I commuted from home, we only had dial-up taking its screeching time to connect to email. Even now, when I plan to visit home, I prepare myself for slow data service on my phone as my only access to the internet. My current personal tablet isn’t even built to work with dial-up. In many tech discussions, we assume broadband and wireless is a given. It isn’t.
We got our first home computer sometime after 2000. I would go on to use this computer to write reports for my mom. And to play games on CD-ROM that did not require access to the internet. While we would watch my dad play bloody Westerns and reboots of classic jungle adventures (Pitfall), my sister and I would spend hours on educational games. And for me, as a wannabe writer, The American Girls Premiere was a favorite, giving me an opportunity to be a playwright and director. The game was first released in 1997 by Pleasant Company, maker of the American Girl dolls and books, and produced by The Learning Company (which essentially reskinned Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium’s Opening Night, which let you stage your own mystery dramas).
I was a diehard Felicity fan (though reviewing her character now, I’m… concerned by aspects I overlooked as a kid). I salivated over the Felicity doll and accessories in the catalog, even cutting out items from the catalog to play with as paper dolls when it became clear my parents would never buy the doll itself. They considered it too expensive, so I plotted to win enough money through seed catalog sweepstakes to purchase one myself. (This never happened, btw.) My parents, however, did gift my sister and me The American Girls Premiere, which provided a different type of immersive experience.
Felicity and her friends across the timeline of American history lurched across our computer screen, flailing in prerecorded gestures. They parroted our scripts in glorious ’90s techno-voice, adjustable by pitch and tempo (so you could really capture those nuances of character). They wore the outfits we knew, used the furniture and props we would never buy in their physical forms, and interacted with a familiar cast of side characters (primarily utilized for “lessons” in the books).
And the game let me write stories, something I was constantly seeking opportunities to do. It was one of those activities, when you look back at your childhood, that you remember as unadulterated joy, the kind that doesn’t seem to exist in the same way when you’re all grown up.
I did not realize, as I do now, that I was late to the “girls’ game movement,” which peaked in the late ’90s and sought to promote girls’ agency. Reviews of The American Girls Premiere and contemporary articles on this sudden boom highlighted how the software industry had suddenly realized that girls played computer games. “It’s a market that has been all but ignored in favor of the seemingly bottomless appetite of boys and young men for so-called twitch games, like the bloody, light-speed shoot-’em-ups Quake and Doom,” Michael Krantz wrote in a June 1997 Time article. These girls’ games satisfied their market’s supposed need for “covert competition, intricate narratives and group efforts based on complex social hierarchies.” They were not filled with the “overt competition, violence and mastery” of boys’ games — the violence of which apparently “appalled” girls.
Brenda Laurel, the co-founder of developer Purple Moon, was an important figure in this movement, grounding her designs in research, and she wanted girls to become comfortable with computers and technology as soon as possible. “If you’re going to change how girls relate to science and computers, you need to do it by sixth grade,” she argued in Time. That tracks with the intentions of Pleasant Company’s founder, Pleasant Rowland, who was a teacher and viewed her products as educational toys for girls. The game was meant to “engage girls and help them develop the skills they need in a world increasingly dependent on technology,” said Barbara Serwin, director of interactive media for the company, in an article announcing the game.
I could, of course, pause here and question some of these conclusions about what girls like to play and why, to examine how this reasoning is dependent on preexisting expectations of emotional intelligence in women. I would then become the negative reviewer that Brenda Laurel described in a 1998 TED Talk as “a certain flavor of feminist who thinks they know what little girls ought to be.” And I don’t want to use this article to discredit the aim of these companies and games — not with as much as I loved The American Girls Premiere. But the headlines of newspaper reviews for the game show us just how much the ’90s reinforced a binary view of gender and how much they still dictated games appropriate for boys and appropriate for girls. The American Girls Premiere was consistently described in terms of a solely girl audience. And headlines like “All dolled up but nowhere to go” relied on stereotypical jokes. The games were also distinctly separated from video games, raising the question of how we gendered the entire medium: “This Holiday Season, Leave the Video Games in the Store and Give the Gift of Knowledge Instead.”
For all that it wasn’t part of the girl game movement, I viewed Oregon Trail as a girl game — because I played it.
All of that said, these designers had a point. Women make up a minority of the employees in STEM fields (which, ouroboros-style, is a career field more respected and more highly paid than traditionally “feminine” fields, in part because of its masculine associations) due to educational and social gatekeeping. This is especially true in Appalachia (where I was once teased that I was never going to get a man since I was pursuing a post-baccalaureate degree). And gaming may be a way to even that playing field for girls. Play more video games, get more girls in STEM, one study shows. Certainly The American Girls Premiere nurtured my writing — which led me down educational paths I would not have imagined as a teenager in my basement.
In the computer lab, we learned that play itself was important to equity.