What computing loses when it forgets its feminine history

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

Walter Isaacson’s latest book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution begins with a frank discussion on how an atmosphere of innovation was bred for the digital age. Unsurprisingly, he often cites diversity in thought and collaboration as key, as well as a culture receptive to 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. It was a period that brought ‘imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work,’ Richard Holmes wrote in The Age of Wonder. ‘It was driven by a common ideal of intense, even reckless, personal commitment to discovery.’”

Ada’s inclusion in the book not only helps introduce Isaacson’s thesis on innovation, but also speaks to an issue he believes we all have a personal stake in addressing. In an interview for an NPR article reporting on the forgotten history of female programmers in the early computing era, Isaacson laments how, “When [women are] written out of the history, you don’t have great role models. But when you learn about the women who programmed ENIAC or Grace Hopper or Ada Lovelace … it happened to my daughter. She read about all these people when she was in high school, and she became a math and computer science geek.” As the NPR article speculates, a lack of reference points and role models may help explain the plummet in women majoring in the computer sciences—dropping from 40% in the 80’s to the 17% it is today.

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

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

That’s why you 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 explains.

While some of the soon-to-be-forgotten feminine games of the 90’s-00’s were copycats of Barbie Fashion Designer, many others were games reenacting acts of kindness and compassion: animal rescue, child-rearing, friendship, cooperation.  As Weil says, “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.”

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. It’s obvious that they’re not for boys, but at some point they also stop being for girls. Women participate in this odd disconnect while reflecting on their childhood,” she says, admitting to her own period of rejection as a young person. “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 gets 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.”

The feminized gets categorized as too juvenile to even mention. 

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, where she curated a selection of Barbie LSD 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. 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.

Ms. Pac-Man image by Alexisrael via Wikimedia Commons