Rachel Simone Weil knows video games aren’t just for boys.
Weil is a visual artist and second-year Master of Fine Arts design candidate. She creates 8-bit glitchable art under the name Party Time! Hexcellent!, based on graphics from the Nintendo Entertainment System. She also runs FEMICOM, an online museum dedicated to preserving feminine design games and gaming systems.
Raised on frequent trips to the arcade and afternoons gaming with her cousins, Weil realized the female-driven market of Sailor Moon and Mary-Kate & Ashley games was strictly a childhood phenomenon.
“As I got older, I kind of found myself struggling to see where I fit into gamer culture,” Weil said. “It started to feel a little more difficult to fit in being, not just female, but someone who really enjoyed girlhood and feminine things.”
The diminishment of this feminine aesthetic is where Weil’s work comes into play. She mixes feminine game design tropes like pastel roses and baby-pink bows with the glamorous materialism of femme icon Barbie to create the visual equivalent of a sugar rush.
“I think a lot of people who didn’t grow up in that culture see [the aesthetics] as very cute and kind of whimsical and funny but it doesn’t carry the same sense of nostalgia that it carries forme,” Weil said. “If we think it’s kind of silly and frivolous, why do we think that? What does that say about how we value femininity and value girlhood?”
Despite the oh-so sweet exterior of this girly design, Weil’s visuals contain a deeper social critique on the gender stereotypes within gaming culture.
“I feel like girlhood nostalgia does not transfer to adults as well as boyhood nostalgia,” Weil said. “So you have a lot of, for example, contemporary movies based on boys’ franchises from 20 years ago, like ‘Transformers’ and ‘G.I. Joe.’ This is an acceptable form of nostalgic enjoyment and pleasure, but you don’t see that in the same way for girls … I think there’s something interesting about girls becoming women and their history as girls is not deemed as legitimate for them to revisit.”
Weil’s efforts to study and preserve this inequality developed into FEMICOM, the feminine computer museum. The collection runs the gamut from Hello Kitty Game Boy Color cartridges to the Electronic Mall Madness board game and every odd Sailor Moon game in between. A glance through the museum’s online catalogue is an instant romp down memory lane for girl gamers of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“It’s almost like looking at the box art and seeing that it’s pink is enough to say ‘I can’t even look at it, just trash it,’” Weil said. “That was part of my inspiration for starting FEMICOM. I was participating in these forums and video game databases and reading articles on Wikipedia and there was such a lack of information about these games, in part I think because people feel uneasy about stereotypes and dismiss it. Either dismiss it because it’s not a legitimate game or dismiss it because they don’t want to feel that they’re promoting stereotypes.”
Skot Deeming, who has curated several exhibitions of Weil’s art, believes this critique transcends gender lines and rewrites gaming history.
“All too often the narrative of game history is dominated by the ‘great innovators’ of the industry, which in the majority of cases ends up reinforcing the notion that the medium is one dominated by male perspectives, in spite of the fact that the history of games is rich with examples of women in lead roles in game-making,” Deeming said. “Rachel’s work pushes back against that mainstream narrative and shows us all an alternate history, one which is as important to the culture as any other historical narrative.”
Rather than promote the ultra-femme or shopaholic stereotype present in many of these games, Weil hopes to preserve them as cultural artifacts. Elizabeth Lovero, a graduate student at the School of Information, feels that Weil’s work is an open-ended push to start talking about our society’s norms on gender and art.
“What I really appreciate about FEMICOM is that it seems to be premised on questions, not foregone conclusions,” Lovero said. “She sets aside the well-trod questions of value — is this ‘good’ art or the ‘right’ kind of feminine — and instead tries to open herself up to the objects themselves.”
Weil will speak at the North Door’s Nerd Nite on Wednesday.