A little brunette girl walks down the street, clutching a blonde-haired doll with a toothy grin. The doll is a foot-and-a-half tall, and wears a pioneer dress reminiscent of Melissa Gilbert in Little House on the Prairie. The little girl and her parents turn a corner, and now you see another girl, this time red-haired, holding a doll with a similar expression, except that this doll has a darker complexion, and wears the buckskin clothing of the Nez Perce tribe. Further down the street are two sisters, one eight and the other looking about six. Each carries a doll – the elder holding a brunette dressed in Victorian garb, the younger child has a redhead in Colonial wear.
It may seem weird to be out in the world and see little girls all carrying essentially the same doll – but in outfits that were trendy long before you were born. Yet this scene is becoming more and more common among the playgrounds, birthday parties and family outings of America. These are American Girl dolls, and more than 11 million have been sold since the company starting selling them in 1986.
American Girl was founded in 1985, when Pleasant T. Rowland saw a gap in the market, a lack of dolls that were neither the buxom adult beauties of Barbie nor the round dumpling baby dolls that have been a mainstay of girls’ playtime for centuries. Three characters were created, little girls from varying points in America’s history (the series eventually expanded to eight main characters from different eras). Each girl was introduced and fleshed out in a series of books, each book telling a particularly themed story – a school story, a birthday tale, a holiday story.
They were meant to be educational, with unique stories little girls could explore through play. But what made this interactivity possible, what made the experience really different, were the dolls. Each girl was made into a doll (purchased separately or bundled with the introductory book), and every subsequent book was accompanied by the release of a collection of outfits and accessories straight from its pages. The accessories were more than just fashion accoutrements – they included vintage-style lunch boxes, pets, furniture, even miniature dolls for the dolls. Each set was meant to make history interactive.
In 1998, American Girl was purchased by Mattel, the company who so famously brought us the Barbie doll back in 1959. In a time when Barbie sales have taken a hit from the multi-ethnic, urban-themed Bratz line, the American Girl series has proven to be a consistent best-seller. The American Girl “experience” has expanded to include not just the dolls and books, but also a magazine, a stage show, two high-class retail outlets in Chicago and New York, and a movie on the WB (with another to follow this November). Despite all these attempts to make American Girl even more interactive, not much has been done to take the franchise into the electronic arena.
In the 90s, The Learning Company did release software based on the American Girls franchise: The American Girls Premiere. Players were given the opportunity to create and watch their own theatrical play based on the American Girl stories, selecting a script and casting characters to perform. They could even write their own play, and the level of control was such that players could adjust the lighting and sound. It garnered mostly positive reviews, though not necessarily for its educational value.
The problem is while the software certainly encouraged creativity, users had more fun inputting their own ideas, eschewing the rich historical universe of American Girl. The characters and their stories were just window dressing, not integral to the experience. For any piece of software to really make use of the American Girl license, it needs to play to one of the major strengths of the brand – the detailed historical universe and the engaging adventures that take place in it.
Imagine a fully immersive environment where the player gets to explore the house of one of the girls, like the pioneer girl, Kirsten. Players could walk around inside her humble farmhouse, check out the barn, explore the closets and trunks and all the clothing they may contain, pick up different items, and operate various household devices like looms or water pumps. Each book in the American Girl series has an appendix in the back which describes the historical context, divulging some factual information on what life was like for the people of that time and what their everyday lives might have been like. A video game could integrate this function into the gameplay. A player could highlight an object and get information about it, information that would be vital to using the item in-game.
A large part of what made Myst popular with casual and non-gamers was its pacing. They could explore the environments; walk around without the need to be somewhere right away. It wasn’t frantic – it was relaxing, inviting.
Each American Girl game would be similar to that. For each girl, there would be a story to follow, certain objectives to be achieved, but no urgent clock to push the player forward. Gameplay would be similar to an old adventure game like the ones LucasArts and Sierra used to produce, with the environmental detail inherent in Shenmue. The story would be akin to those presented in the books, perhaps even written by the same authors for a sense of consistency. There might even be multiple stories in the same game – but regardless of the number of stories, none of them should ever take longer than a handful of hours to complete. Since it’s inside the environment of a 10-year-old girl, none of the games would be too expansive, too intimidating. It would be an intimate experience that even a non-gamer could approach with confidence and become comfortable with.
With a ready-made concept – and their gaming pedigree – it is certainly surprising that Mattel has not taken their successful acquisition and expanded it into the video game medium with a true interactive experience. It seems like a missed opportunity – American Girl is about celebrating femininity. Turning it into a video game would allow girls to experience a medium normally dominated by boys, but not sacrifice any of their girlish characteristics or ideals.
But that is exactly the problem – the thing that makes the brand a perfect choice for a video game is also the perfect argument against it. American Girl is about celebrating ideals, old-fashioned concepts of what it means to be a child, specifically a little girl. Each doll will set back a family about $100 – and that’s not counting the myriad of accessories. Yet many parents gladly spend this money, as the dolls represent a childhood their little girls are still interested in. People often remark that kids grow up too quickly these days, and part of that is because many kids would rather have personal electronics than a simple teddy bear or a toy car. Electronics and designer clothing are already pretty high priced items. So it’s not much of a leap to spend the money on a doll instead, and people will jump on the opportunity precisely because it’s not an iPod, a cell phone or a video game. It’s something they can identify with, something they understand.
Some may say making an American Girl video game goes in a different direction than Ms. Rowland was trying to achieve when she created the brand (educational software is held to a different societal standard). This however, does not make the concept of a video game a bad one, or an impossible idea. A lot will depend on what the American Girl Company and Mattel decide the future of the franchise should be. Is it just a way to educate children about history? A tool for empowering little girls? Or is it a way to prolong the ideal of childhood for just a few more years? Given how ideals change, and how our own industry is catering more and more toward the young adult male gamer, perhaps it would be in their best interest to embrace the video game medium while there’s still a place for younger children in the industry – as well as in our best interest, to capture a larger female audience before they leave both their childhood and gaming behind them, heading into adult mainstream pastures.
Kris Naudus has written articles for Anime Insider and Anime News Network, and currently provides editorial at The-Brand-Management-Firm-That-Must-Not-Be-Named. She also keeps a video game blog which can be named over at 1Up.com.