Games for Girls: Theresa Duncan

Even before Gamergate there were games made for girls, by women, without much thought or reference to the things boys typically like. Theresa Duncan made three such games –Chop Suey, Smarty & Zero Zero – in the mid-90s, and this month the games will be available to play at the DCA in Dundee.

The games were originally made on CD-ROMS for home computers, but constant technological developments left them unplayable. Fortunately, in the wake of the Gamergate controversy, Duncan’s titles were restored by a New York based arts organisation called Rhizome – who have collaborated with the DCA to bring the games to a Dundee audience.

Each title follows a young girl (or two young girls) as they navigate through a moving storybook, filled with interactive elements, games and hidden content. At the time Duncan said: “My stated goal in life is to make the most beautiful thing a seven-year old has ever seen.” This is particularly true in the two later titles – Smarty and Zero Zero – where Duncan teamed up with her real life partner Jeremy Blake to create a rich, but childlike visual style.

Greyscale. A drawing of Theresa Duncan holding a chocolate chip cookie. She is wearing sunglasses. Around the drawing are the words "Writer/Mise En Scene: Theresa Duncan"
Theresa Duncan

All three games are narrated in a playful, highly theatrical tone. For instance, when describing the protagonist’s Aunt Olive in Smarty the narration goes: “Smarty imagined that it was always summertime wherever Olive went. Aunt Olive’s pockets were filled with sequins and string. Her purse perpetually contained two kinds of candy. Her mind was filled with mysterious meanderings.”

The character of Aunt Olive shares a house with her best friend Rose, implying a lesbian relationship without explicitly saying so within a children’s video game. Elsewhere female characters speak more often to the protagonist, are friendlier, and are given their own backstories in a refreshing reflection of the potential reality of the young girls who would have played the games.

Greyscale. Two women sitting around a table in a kitchen, drinking tea. Underneath, text reads "Olive and Rose were best friends. On Saturday afternoons they would whisper together over a pot of mint tea in the kitchen"
Olive and Rose, Smarty

The Gamergate controversy of recent years centred around the idea that video games are being ‘hijacked’ by feminists, with Depression Quest (a short ‘choose your own adventure’ text-based game) by Zoe Quinn being the catalyst for an incredible amount of online hate. And yet playing Theresa Duncan’s games you’re deliberately reminded that girls play games too and always have done. That young girls can be adventurous, imaginative, funny & smart – like Mimi Smartypants is in From credits of Zero Zero, Smarty, or like Lily and June Bug in Chop Seuy (which was co-created with Monica Gesue).

Restoring games like these and bringing them to a new audience is vital if we’re to understand the history of the medium and defend games made for girls from self-appointed misogynist gatekeepers.

All three games can be played online at archive.rhizome.org/theresaduncan-cdroms/

Theresa Duncan, CD-ROMS exhibition will run at Dundee Contemporary Arts (152 Nethergate, Dundee, DD1 4DY) from July 16 to September 4.

Why not also have a playthrough of these other ‘games for girls’:

Depression Quest
The interactive fiction game that boiled the blood of legions of basement-dwelling misogynists…is actually a soft and sad little game about depression.
depressionquest.com

Gone Home
Set in 1995 during the initial wave of Riot Grrrl, this game (released this spring) tackles themes of lesbianism, alienation & abuse.
Available on Steam for £14.99

Zine Fair Lady
Made by Morgan Sea using the programme Twine, this game shows you how it feels to be a trans woman at a queer zine fair.
morgansea.itch.io/zinefair-lady

Words: Ana Hine

Images: Smarty, Zero Zero

 

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