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Barbie Games Changed My Life, Now They’re Gone Forever

I didn’t consider myself a serious “gamer” until I started playing Barbie makeup games on my parents’ desktop in 2003. I knew in my growing soul that I was destined to play them because their host sites, including Flash game candy store GirlsGoGames and the official Barbie site EverythingGirl, had “girl” in their titles and hot pink in their logos.

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All right, these aren’t the greatest, most sensitive games of our time. But they helped me find strength in myself at a fragile age, when I started getting scared that everyone around me was out to wring girlhood’s forgiving neck.

I already knew about the lecherous karate instructors and social studies teachers, and the older girls encouraged me to be safe, silent, and appropriate. Barbie make-up games, from the handful preserved online (emulator site NuMuKi has the biggest collection), didn’t do anything to counter that narrative, or prod at the 19th century angel in the house dry-heaving dust. It wasn’t obvious to me, at the time, but I can say confidently now that Barbie games were uninspired cake molds for turning chubby five-year-olds into undiscerning, consumerist women. Greta Gerwig suggests the Barbie doll leaves a similar legacy in her new record-breaking movie Barbie.

Example: A fastidious round of Dazzling Nails, one of my favorite Barbie games, never lasted more than two minutes. There isn’t anything to do in it other than make a couple of low-grade decisions—should my doll’s characters be long or short? Matte purple or shimmery, deep sea blue? Do I want one rhinestone ring or 10?

At the end, you’re encouraged to print out a paper set of the nails you designed to match your character. I mean, really. Paper nails? How useless did toy manufacturer Mattel think we were? Even little girls have worms to mash with their fists.

Barbie make-up games were patronizing, not at all like the worlds boys were encouraged to conquer at the time (titles like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Super Mario Galaxy). They also hesitated to depict women that weren’t heroin chic size double-zero or darker than a spring break tan, which alienated me as a South Asian kid who felt too different from my all-white neighborhood, and had nothing to offer my developing appetite for epic, passionate stories.

But in spite of all of that, I learned that they could make me feel powerful.

I didn’t look like Barbie, but I didn’t have many options outside of her, either. The only magic mirror I felt like I had was Disney’s Princess Jasmine, though I knew she was supposed to be Arabic, and that identifying with her was a consolation prize. So I stuck with Barbie, and I eventually unlocked makeup games’ strength.

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The most important part of any makeup game is that it allows you to change things. While the dolls in games like My Scene: Beauty Studio and Makeover Studio weren’t my carbon copies, I soon understood that they didn’t need to be to become my sisters. I could dye their hair black to identify with them. Or I could use them like a palette for my imagination, picturing the person I wanted to be one day and experimenting with colors on her eyelashes. I could get back at blue-eyed Barbie by giving her atrocious bangs in Snip ‘n Style Salon.

I crimped, brushed, and painted, and it was like I had become a baby god. Instead of shaping women from clay or Adam’s ribs, I formed them with lip gloss, a blowdryer, and apple-red blush.

“Affection expresses itself in all shades of crimson and rose,” says the 1905 theosophical manual I have on my shelf, “[…] like the early flushes of the dawning, as the love becomes purified from all selfish elements.”

I was getting it, then; that was being a girl. That was what we were supposed to be doing—working to make something dazzling of ourselves. Creating, and retrying. I could make things happen, I learned, and that feeling has lived in me for 20 years.

Adobe officially stopped supporting Flash Player in 2020, and the majority of Barbie Flash games are currently considered lost media. My attempts to revisit them over the years have become more and more futile—all that’s really left are a few emulators, personal collections, and internet archive Flashpoint reserves.

It makes me sad that so many Barbie makeup games are gone, not necessarily out of feminism, or a pious inclination toward art preservation, but because I loved these simple, pretty games that encouraged me to invent myself.

But girls like me got distracted reminiscing, and our games turned into a pair of kitten heels, crumbling over the garbage pile of things we decided to make and give up on. That special, crimson and rose feeling doesn’t die, though. Days to reinvent ourselves are still coming.

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