Late at night, while my partner is watching basketball in the other room, I excuse myself to play video games. This is a half-truth. Instead of playing one of the many games I’ve purchased and queued up, I open my computer and go to a familiar bookmarked page: dolldivine.com, a website that collects online dress-up creators, the digital counterpart to the paper dress-up dolls one could find in the back of girls’ magazines.
In online doll dress-up games, players can dress up a 2D illustration of a person in any number of styles: fantasy, fashion, period piece, horror. Despite the range in aesthetics, there’s not a lot of variation from one online doll dress-up to another. Most start with a full-body shot of a randomized human avatar. From there, players can change the doll’s appearance: their clothes, their hair, their skin color.
Both dolldivine and its near-clone, azaleasdolls.com, have Lisa-Frank-lite pink and purple color schemes and feature an area where users can share screenshots of their favorite creations. On dolldivine.com, this section is called “Most Beloved Dolls,” and I have yet to find a comment that is not bubbling over with praise. (“She’s BEAUTIFUL!!” “You’re spoiling us with these beautiful dolls!”)
Avatar creation is a common first step in a role-playing video game, a necessary preamble before embarking on adventure. In online doll dress-up, it is elevated to the entire purpose. There’s no other gameplay. And here lies the reason I only play doll dress-up games when I’m alone: they barely feel like a “real” video game, given their lack of existence beyond aesthetics. They hold on to their video game title by virtue of their medium, in that they are both computer-generated and interactive.
There is certainly pleasure in their mindlessness, which might be why I come back to them so regularly. However, they also provide a certain sort of other relief, one that is reminiscent of something I was once allowed (in fact: encouraged) to do, but am not anymore. By stripping away everything else, doll dress-up games go back to a root element of gaming: playing pretend.
Mainstream video games have invited gamers to play pretend for decades, even if they don’t advertise themselves that way. If we’d had the words for it, we might have seen this in middle school, when Sarah got The Sims and we’d tumble en masse through her front door to crowd around her parents’ computer. The game’s description was in bright blue lettering across the front of the jewel case: A People Simulator from the Creators of SimCity. In the game, the player creates digital humans, called “Sims,” and monitors the wide scope of their lives: from building them a house and family, to their quotidien need to use the bathroom. There is no “game over” screen in The Sims. It continues indefinitely, so the player has to create goals for themselves.
In this land of possibility, what drew us to Sarah’s house every day was The Sims’ detailed character creation screen. Being in middle school meant were past the point in our lives when playing with dolls was appropriate behavior. (Instead, we mocked whomever was suspected of still harboring Barbies.) However, we were still trying to figure out who we were. Our personalities were in flux, and the urge to try on new versions of ourselves was strong.
Nowhere was the clearer than when we waited for The Sims to boot up, knowing that in a few minutes, we could create whatever version of ourselves that we needed to see that day. In the throes of middle school hormones, what we wanted most was to make Sims who looked like us and our crushes. We would orchestrate to have our avatars meet cute with the virtual version of our real-life loves. When this went awry, we’d squeal in horror as a digital version of a friend fell in love with someone they weren’t intended to.
When we realized that Sims could fall in love with other Sims of any gender, we wrinkled our noses in performative disgust. At least, we did until we saw a gentle spark in one friend’s eye when her Sim fell in love with another woman. “I didn’t know they could do that,” she whispered, and we went quiet.
In the February 12/19, 2018 issue of The New Yorker, an 11-year-old girl named Violette Sera Delfina Hiser Skilling wrote in to respond to, “When Barbie Went to War with Bratz,” a piece that explored both dolls’ influences on young women. Violette said:
I never wanted a Barbie or a Bratz doll until I discovered doll reconstruction. What you do is erase the features of the doll with nail-polish remover, and then remove the hair and make other body modifications. Then you give the doll a new face, new hair, and new clothing. [...]
What I like about doll reconstruction is that I am in control. I can make them pretty, or not. The two dolls that I have reconstructed represent two parts of me: one nerdy and very unfashionable, and one strong and cool. I make up their stories, and they represent my passions, my hopes, and my feelings.
This was the spark that was in my friend’s eye all those years ago when we played The Sims. What she might have seen in the moment that her Sim fell in love with another Sim woman was the possibilities that her own life could encompass.
We generally relegate “playing pretend” to children: kids acting out involved fantastical worlds is nothing new. If adults engage in the same activity, it is culturally seen as an inability to “grow up” at best, or a diagnosable psychosis at worst, even though opportunities for self-realization don’t disappear once we hit puberty. We may ship our dolls off to the secondhand store, but we’re no less desirous to try on new skins. Just look at social media presences: we create images of our best selves, presenting to the world how we wish to be seen, even if it might not accurately reflect our day-to-day lives.
Or take, for example, that perennial scapegoat of Satanist panic and grandfather of role-playing games: Dungeons & Dragons. In D&D, a group of players each develop a character in the fantasy genre, who is then led on a collaborative adventure by one central game leader. Players are encouraged to think of their character holistically; the more involved a character’s backstory, the easier it is to imagine how they would react to in-game challenges. (“Would my character try to charm the elven bartender to get information, or would they prefer to intimidate them?”)
This invitation to dive deeply into an imagined character is the source of D&D’s notoriety. When James Dallas Egbert III wrote a suicide note and disappeared from his dorm room in 1979, his family hired a private investigator who suggested that Egbert’s regular D&D games were to blame. The media latched on to this theory, and now it’s difficult to separate the name Dungeons & Dragons from the image of the perceived player: awkward, antisocial nerds with loose grips on reality.
As the digital offspring of role-playing games like D&D, I’d bet that the video game industry’s desire to qualify itself as a legitimate form of media stems from a defensive need to distance themselves from this image. Games aren’t marketed as ways to “play pretend,” but as either games of skill (the language of sports) or things of beauty (the language of visual arts or literature).
But there’s a reason that D&D remains a hugely popular despite the 1970s backlash, and there’s a reason that The Sims is one of the highest selling games of all time, and there’s a reason dolldivine pops up as one of my most frequented sites. I would argue that the popularity of these games and their progeny is based around one point: that video games allow us adults the rare opportunity to play pretend, to imagine and explore other characters, so that we can more clearly see ourselves.
The online doll dress-up I return to most is based on the cartoon Steven Universe. Since the show’s main characters can take almost any humanoid shape, the dress-up is similarly vast in scope — characters can have multiple limbs, or multifaceted eyes, and are in hyper-saturated colors. I spend a not-insignificant time picking out different elements of the character. They’re all things I wish I had (either actually or metaphorically): long flowing hair, sharp teeth, an ability to look good in cut-off shorts.
One evening, lost in these moments of creation, I didn’t hear my partner come into the room. Before I could switch to another tab to pretend I was doing literally anything else, he leaned over and asked if he could play. I turned my computer over to him and watched him knit his brow in concentration, squinting at the screen. When he finally turned the computer back around to show me his doll standing next to the one I had created, I couldn’t contain myself. Though the dolls looked nothing like the two people who made them, between bursts of surprised laughter, I said, “Oh my god. It’s us.”