The Visual Arts Center in Austin, Texas, currently has a very unusual exhibit: a vintage girl's bedroom, perfectly preserved. There's a chunky monitor pegged to a Nintendo Entertainment System, all dove's breast gray and violet.
Pom poms decorate the television as a pink pinata slumps alongside; a pearly Polly Pocket toy, Judy Blume novels and posters depicting the romantic heroines from popular anime series Sailor Moon complete the picture. It's presented in the museum as a "typical girl's room" from the early 1990s. Also in the museum is another exhibit: a set of plastic digital Barbie game capsules under glass, hushed and precious. It looks like a priceless slice of history.
Except none of it's real, exactly. The little girl's room never happened. And the Barbie games are virtually worthless.
This is the art of Rachel Simone Weil, who has reimagined the nostalgic digital past as it might look if girly things had mattered then. A digital artist, programmer and rom-hacker, Weil found herself increasingly drawn to obsolete technology and collector culture – where she was surprised to learn that the traditionally feminine had no real value, financially or otherwise.
Nostalgia is somewhat obligatory for video game fans, who loyally subscribe to the iconography of 1UP mushrooms, blocky space invaders, neon power-ups and the wistful bleeps and bloops of Link and Mario. But rarely in that 1980s boy-hero vocabulary is there room for hearts, frills and dolls. While she liked computers and going to arcades to play Skee-Ball, Weil herself didn't have much interest in console games as a young child; the advertisements for the NES made it seem tough, competitive, and ‘for boys.’
"I remember different instances in my childhood of watching boys playing the NES, and feeling I couldn't interrupt," she reflects. "I didn't have the courage to have a turn at the controller. I don't know what possessed me to behave that way, but I internalised this idea that girls didn’t play video games."
Once the games became vintage objects, the pressure was off. Nobody wanted a Sega Megadrive or a NES anymore; cartridges cost 49 cents. Little by little, Weil became passionate about collecting older games. She browsed dusty garage sales in fascination, at last with the full permission to touch, buy and try.
"When I was about 12 or 13, I got the internet for the first time, and I was able to go online and read about games that had never made it to the US from Japan," says Weil. "They were really cutesy and girly, these Sailor Moon and Hello Kitty games. It opened up a whole new world for me – and this area of inquiry led me to ask other sorts of questions."
She began hanging out in collector forums online, among other devotees of the obsolete who focused on cataloging and collecting old cartridges and logging and discussing every entry both grand and obscure in the history of video games. She fell in love with the cute, pink sensibilities of Kirby's Adventure, a well-regarded platformer where an adorable, marshmallow-like ghost sucks in and swallows objects in his environment.
At the same time, Weil had begun hacking and emulating old games online, flexing a programming vocabulary which helped her learn to love old games and their palette swaps and sprite sheets even more; artifacts viewed from intimate angles.
But Weil remained interested in learning more about the Japanese girl-games about teen soldiers in sailor skirts, about the dollhouse oddities filigreed with princess crowns and Barbie branding. She wanted to know where to find them, and how much they might be worth. And when she asked the collector community about Barbie games, or princess games, she found they were not valued.
"That got me interested in researching more about these games," Weil says. "Collectors were very dismissive of them, and I thought that was interesting."
Weil soon realised the only way she was going to learn more about pretty, cute old video games was to collect them herself. She found vast amounts of missing or incorrect information online, and often there was a lack of interest or even outright derision regarding games about domesticity and girlhood.
In order to address this, she launched the Femicom Museum project in 2012, an ongoing catalog of the cute, pink and girly in obscure gaming history. Some of the museum's catalog lives on a massive shelf in her personal collection, others are digital listings maintained by Weil and contributors. In particular, the Japan-only games offer a uniquely fascinating space, where gender expression doesn't always map directly to the ways it's understood in the west. Often in Japan, games that look like they're aimed at women enjoy a majority-male audience.
When she borrowed imagery from those games for her audiovisual projects – chiptune music shows often feature handmade mashups of old game iconography by artists like Weil – audiences responded positively, but many would tell her they thought her aesthetic choices were "funny" or "ironic." She wondered why. When she included one of her personal flowery favorites, Kirby's Adventure, in the Femicom Museum collection, she received protests from male collectors who thought the action title didn't belong. How, they asked her, could something they enjoyed be thought of as feminine?
Weil's joyful embrace of corny 1980s fuschia girlhood seems, at a glance, to run counter to the most vocal feminist messaging about video games right now: that princesses are sexist, that pink is just cynical pandering that reinforces gender roles, and that such a binary history embarrasses the medium. Sometimes passionate feminism online forgets not to be legislative, forgets that there are plenty of girls who just like pink, or who want to wear tiaras, and that their agency and their experience deserves permission and respect.
"It’s a little challenging," Weil admits. "I understand where this feminist critique is coming from, the concerns about stereotypes, but I think it's important not to erase girls’ and women's experiences, either. I think it's important we don't throw all these girly games and cultural artifacts in the trash and pretend they never happened. It’s part of a recurring theme, I think: works by or for women are so often deemed marginal or embarrassing or inadequate or inappropriate, and therefore omitted from history. And then decades later, we're wondering, ‘Where were the female writers, politicians, artists? Where were the girly games?’"
And game culture is so often interested in and entertained by the quirky, the ugly, the failures. Some collectors and historians are devoted to elements of games that were never quite finished or are legendarily rare (Ninja Turtles pretender Cheetahmen II is a favorite), or to famous legendarily awful or silly commercial busts.
Why shouldn't the awkwardness of a Barbie mermaid game get to join this circus of the strange? Especially in the modern age, as games that let players exploit glitches, record hilarious mistakes, and otherwise enjoy games in ways that weren't necessarily intended are subjects of popular visitation. One of Weil's old Barbie games lets players build their own short films, well ahead of its time.
"We can really give these games a cultural consideration that's more nuanced than, 'oh, it's pink, it definitely really sucks,'" Weil says.
"I hope what will happen with the Femicom Museum is that boys and girls alike can look back at these historical games and interpret them in their own ways, in perhaps nontraditional ways," she adds. "I'm interested in that sort of play: authenticity and truth and accuracy are things that, over time as a collector, I've become sort of wary of, and I think there's a lot of value in our ability to read new things into our past – and to make new things from it."
Weil has even begun tucking her own hand-made interlopers into gaming's "history" – games that repurpose or simulate vintage graphics, games she might have wanted if they really had been available in her childhood. Recently, she did a subtle but striking hack of Capcom's classic Mega Man 2: "The only thing I changed about the game is I replaced the typeface with the typeface from an NES Barbie game, which was just slightly curly and italic."
Just a subtle change to such a lionised classic feels profoundly disruptive, even disturbing.
Taking a cue from old fortune-telling devices and Nintendo's old Game & Watch portable machines – the folding plastic cases of which were modeled after cosmetic compacts – and influenced by tacky teen-girl magazine horoscopes, Weil also created an NES game called Electronic Sweet N Fun Fortune Teller, which allows players to enter their birthday and blood type, and hiccups out a "horoscope" made out of glitchy sentence fragments. It also includes a love compatibility test, inspired by similar online tools such as the Love Calculator.
Sweet n Fun Fortune Teller is also part of Weil's exhibit at Austin's Visual Arts center, which posits an alternative, girly history for game culture, complete with narrational placards. The Barbie For Girls Portable Arcade Collection, six LCD handhelds still in their little blister packs, live in their fine museum glass vitrine, lit dramatically and treated as important historical artifacts.
"The reality is these games were purchased very, very inexpensively on eBay," Weil laughs. "They're not considered to be collectible or valuable. What was really exciting to me was seeing, on the exhibit's opening night, younger girls and women who were just running over to the case and going, 'whoa, that's cool,'... something as simple as putting them in the case gave them value."
Exhibition as criticism
These examinations of what does and does not have value – both monetary and cultural – in game history and collection is how Weil does videogame criticism. It's important to her that her work is additive, and comprises a critique that doesn't tear down or punish the legitimately sweet childhood memories of the world of video games that people hold dear.
"I'm hopeful that in this work, I can inspire people to think about other ways to do criticism, and one of those ways might be to create these utopias and reimagined histories," she says.
As gaming diversifies in the future, and includes more and broader experiences of race, gender, culture and class, it's fascinating to see in Weil's work an example of how it's possible to rewrite history so that underrepresented or undervalued fans may see themselves in it. Weil cites the 2010 addition of Kevin Keller to the Archie Comics universe – an openly gay young man in the Riverdale world of quaint 1950s Americana and letter-jacket masculinity – as another example of using an old, established aesthetic to reimagine the past and how it is remembered and valued today.
"I want to build something new," Weil enthuses.
It's worth wondering whether, in another 50 years, onlookers and researchers will even be able to tell the difference between true history and this type of surprising, subversive reimagination. Many things may have little to no value in gaming's history now, but what would the world look like if they had?
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