Preserving Computing’s Feminine History

FEMICOM Museum celebrates Barbie games on the same level that popular culture celebrates MegaMan and other masculine games.

Throughout his latest book “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution,” author Walter Isaacson often cites diversity in thought and collaboration as key to breakthrough innovation, as well as a culture keenly tapped into the intersection of the humanities and sciences.

He champions Ada Lovelace, who begins his timeline of innovators in 1843, as the embodiment of these ideals.

“Ada’s love of both poetry and math primed her to see beauty in a computing machine,” Isaacson states.

“She was an exemplar of the era of Romantic science, which was characterized by a lyrical enthusiasm for invention and discovery,” Richard Holmes wrote in his book, “The Age of Wonder.” “It was a period that brought imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work, driven by a common ideal of intense, even reckless, personal commitment to discovery.”

Ada’s inclusion in these books speaks to the role of women in pioneering technology that positively impacts generations ahead. Today, many celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on October 14.

“When [women are] written out of the history, you don’t have great role models,” Isaacson recently told NPR’s Laura Sydell.

He talked about how his daughter was inspired after learning about the Lovelace, Grace Hopper and women who programmed the ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer, which was announced in 1946.

“[My daughter] read about all these people when she was in high school, and she became a math and computer science geek.”

Sydell of NPR suggested that a lack of reference points and role models may help explain the plummet in women majoring in the computer sciences, which dropped from 40 percent in the 1980s to 17 percent today.

The masculinization of both the professional scenes in computing and gaming is a huge reason why Rachel Weil saw a desperate need for a space like FEMICOM, the online museum archiving feminine software.

“Among archivists and collectors, there’s this practice of deciding what is and is not a game, for the objective reason of knowing what to collect or not collect,” said Weil.

“Often, it seems like the girly titles get shoved out of this ‘game’ category.”

That’s why we probably won’t see Barbie Fashion Designer (1996) next to Super Mario 64 (1996) in a historical games roundup, despite the fact that the Barbie game’s enormous financial success lead to the pink games CD-ROM boom of that era.

Weil says that this preservation bias is bred out of an unexamined feedback loop: developers assume girls won’t want combat or typical “gamey” elements like conflict, which makes them only market titles to girls with gameplay that doesn’t fit the parameters of the “game” category, which means all the girly games get left out of the archives.

“I just think it’s worth considering which games our parameters are leaving out, and what that kind game-keeping does,” Weil explained.


While some of the soon-to-be-forgotten feminine games of the 1990s and 2000s were copycats of Barbie Fashion Designer, many others were games reenacting acts of kindness and compassion: animal rescue, child-rearing, friendship, cooperation.

“It might be a stereotypical way of representing women, but at least it’s still bringing diversity to games themselves and challenging what we think games are capable of addressing,” said Weil.

Another worrying gender difference Weil notes is the male versus female relationship to childhood games.

“At a certain point in a girl’s life, she rejects those toys as being inconsequential, inferior, or superficial. It seems somehow encoded into feminine toys,” she said. “It’s obvious that they’re not for boys, but at some point they also stop being for girls.” Women then participate in this odd disconnect when reflecting on their childhood.

“I became this anti-girl, and only wanted to hear about boy stuff and boy hobbies — because I thought that was how people would take me more seriously.”

Like the masculinization of computing at a time when people like Steve Jobs and the popularity of the personal computer made people see the profession as more than just grunt work, the feminized games get categorized as too juvenile to even mention.

On the other hand, the classic boy toys of old like MegaMan inspire whole movements of nostalgia-driven retro game design years later, cementing their place as a significant contributor to gaming history.

“We can only understand a game like Shovel Knight because we all played MegaMan — or even if you didn’t, you remember it in some way because our culture reminds you of it,” Weil says. “My fear is that when we forget to collect or archive these old Barbie or old Hello Kitty games, it’s not possible for them to inspire a new generation of female game developers or feminine software. Those developers will feel like they don’t have any reference points to pull from.”


FEMICOM is a testament to Weil’s belief that preserving feminine games is preserving source material for contemporary game developers. She saw some proof of that belief at a recent show in the Visual Arts Center in Austin, Texas, where she curated a selection of Barbie LCD handheld games. The games, all exquisitely preserved in their original 90’s packaging and displayed under heavy-duty museum glass, inspired an unexpected reaction from the younger female audience.

“Of course the whole joke was that nobody thinks these games are valuable, but I put them in this valuable framing in the gallery,” said Weil. “But every time a little girl saw them, she’d run into the room screaming ‘BARBIE GAAAAMES!’ Obviously, they didn’t know that the display was commentary or art. They just wanted to figure out how they could get these games out and play them.”

For Weil, the difference lies in a culture not only willing to feature feminine games in privileged spaces like museums, but from a culture that itself values female-centric qualities.

A Forbes article reporting on the most popular college majors states that “women still dominate many of the traditionally ‘soft’ majors,” which are listed as education, English and liberal arts. While the battle to raise the percentage of women perusing STEM majors and careers remains a noble one, both Isaacson and Weil might argue that the real problem lies in a society that devalues studying the humanities in general.

Or worse still, a society that fosters an impassable division between the two.


Worlds inside video games are as varied and colorful as the real world outside. As part of a larger look at diversity in our world, this series explores the talent behind and in front of the games people play.


Related Stories:
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So You Want To Be a Pro Gamer: 8 Tips?
Making Workplace Diversity Match reality
Report Shows Maker Movement a Natural Entry for Girls, Women in Technology
Empowering the Next Generation of Women Scientists
Stoking Courage Among Women of the World
Turning Attention to Next Wave of Female Innovators
Something in the Air Turned Her on to Science


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