Most years when we pick the finalists for the World Video Game Hall of Fame—and then when our International Selection Advisory Committee and fans help determine the inductees—there is controversy over one of the picks. Our very first year in 2015, for example, we named Angry Birds as a finalist along with eventual inductees Doom, Pac-Man, Pong, Super Mario Bros., Tetris, and World of Warcraft. Hardcore gamers were outraged, even after it wasn’t selected— “Angry Birds does not deserve to be remotely close to ‘runner up’ yet,” wrote one miffed commentator on EuroGamer. The game was too new, in the opinion of some; too casual for others. Real games had to fit a certain profile.
Over the years, however, we’ve been intentional about including games as finalists that broadened the conversation about what are the most significant games of all time. Nürburgring, a little-known German arcade game, was nominated in 2016 because it launched the arcade racing genre. Bejeweled became the first mobile game inducted when it earned entry in 2020, signaling the seismic impact mobile games are having on the universe of play. Microsoft Windows Solitaire earned entry in 2019 (after being nominated in 2017), easing past such classics of gaming as Half-Life and Myst because of the way it expanded the universe of game players, often teaching them to use a mouse in the process.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, games earn entry into the World Video Game Hall of Fame based on four key criteria: icon-status, geographical reach, longevity, and influence. Influence is the most important of these and can trump the other ones, which explains why a game like Spacewar, which is largely unknown to the general public and was only really played for about a decade, could make the list. Some have called it the “first” video game (a much disputed title, as I write about here) and it certainly influenced a generation of designers, including Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney who used it to create Computer Space, the first arcade video game. Its influence on gaming history ensured its selection, even if it never became a direct commercial success.
That brings me to Barbie Fashion Designer. It is different than most titles that make lists of all-time great games. There’s no shooting, no fantasy adventures, no intrepid space warriors battling cosmic enemies. Instead, it’s a game that invites players to design fashions for Barbie and then print those fashions out with special paper for their dolls to wear. In some ways it doesn’t even fit the criteria of what some might consider a formal game, as opposed to a toy or plaything—in this respect it’s like Minecraft. If there’s a stereotype about what a gamer’s game is like or what a “gamer” likes to play, then Barbie Fashion Designer is as close to the opposite as you can get.
And that’s the point. When Barbie Fashion Designer came out in 1996, computer game companies had fallen into a rut, seeing a market that was only composed of males. Retailers bought into this myth too. The software section was aimed at men and boys, and therefore games for girls or women had little chance of succeeding because they didn’t go into that section. In order to break this cycle, Mattel had to think differently.
The fact that Mattel was a toy company proved to be a blessing, for as then-CEO Jill Barad remembers, “One big innovation with this game was placing it in toy aisles [where girls went] rather than in the boy-dominated software section in toy stores.” Certainly the power of the Barbie name helped sell product. First introduced in 1959 under the leadership of Ruth Handler, Mattel’s co-founder, Barbie had been a staple of the toy market for decades, vaulting Mattel to the position as industry leader. By the mid-1990s, however, the market was beginning to stagnate, as girls abandoned doll play at ever earlier ages. Mattel Media, the branch of the company devoted to exploring new forms of play for children, set out to change this, creating a market that would appeal to older girls. Expanding the audience to older girls was a point that Pamela Kelly, who launched Mattel Media within the company, stressed to me when I talked to her about the induction of Barbie Fashion Designer.
The results of the game’s launch were phenomenal. The game sold hundreds of thousands of copies in its first month and more than half a million in the first several months, outselling fan favorites like the real-time strategy game Command and Conquer. More important than raw sales numbers, it also proved that girls were a viable and important market for game developers. Companies took notice. Soon other games for girls appeared, and the number of these games went from basically non-existent in 1996 to hundreds by 1997. While some companies such as Purple Moon distanced themselves from dolls, fashion, and other traditional play patterns among girls, others found success in shaping girls’ age-old favorites into new digital forms.
Barbie Fashion Designer is a key part of a longer history of expanding audiences for video games. In the 1970s, for example, coin-ops such as Computer Space (1971) and Pong (1972) helped bring gaming from the preserve of restricted computer labs into public arcades. Similarly, the Magnavox Odyssey (1972), Home Pong (1975), and the Atari 2600 (1977) brought games into the living room. Barbie Fashion Designer expanded the market not spatially but demographically, proving that girls enjoyed playing electronically as much as boys did.
But I don’t want to let all this talk about Barbie Fashion Designer’s historical importance obscure a key fact: it’s just a great game, impeccably executed. Not only did it provide a template for many fashion games to follow as players designed and selected outfits, it did so flawlessly, with clear interfaces, peppy music, and animation that was impressively fluid for a mid-1990s game. The fact that players could not only send a virtual Barbie sashaying down a runway, but even print out their designs for real-life Barbies was a brilliant touch. It was a deftly designed product, created by an amazing team, including voice actress Chris Landsdowne Anthony who brought Barbie to auditory life.
Article written by Jon-Paul Dyson, Vice President of Exhibits and Director of ICHEG at The Strong.