Future Tense

Game Developer Barbie Can Actually Code!

And that’s not even the best thing about her.

game developer barbie.
Game Developer Barbie.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Image by Barbie.

You may remember that, according to Mattel’s book Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer, Barbie was actually very, very bad at being a computer engineer. If you didn’t hear about this at the time, you might be thinking, “It couldn’t have been as bad as all that.” Trust me: It was as bad as all that. According to this book, being a computer engineer means: 1) coming up with “design ideas” for a game but then requiring the help of boys to make it “real”; 2) infecting both your computer and your sister’s computer with a virus through sheer incompetence; and 3) getting boys to help you fix that, too.

As I wrote here in 2014, the overwhelming reaction to that book by many people—especially women in technology fields—was outraged disappointment. Such squandered opportunity! Sure, it might have been a little silly that the actual Computer Engineer Barbie (first sold in 2010) has a pink laptop that perfectly matches her glasses and writes code in binary—but the fact that she existed was pretty awesome. Given how underrepresented women are in computing careers, young girls may not have any computer engineers (or programmers, or game developers, or interaction designers) around them as role models. Barbie, with her fashionable pink laptop and her plushy Linux penguin, signaled that computers aren’t just for playing games. There’s even a black version of the doll, also important since women of color are even more underrepresented in computing. Unfortunately, Computer Engineer Barbie was discontinued some time ago, so if you want to snag one now it will cost you upward of $100 on eBay.

But alas. Mattel’s book was a huge step backward—back to when Barbie declared, “Math class is tough!” in 1992. However, more than two decades later, Mattel’s latest misstep evoked a huge amount of internet ridicule and activism. Programmer Kathleen Tuite created the Feminist Hacker Barbie meme generator, which launched hundreds of new versions of Barbie being an awesome hacker who definitely didn’t need boys to help her. Meanwhile, I wrote a remix of the entire book, changing the narrative from one of Barbie’s incompetence to one about the problem of sexism in technology fields.

“I just posted a screenshot from my game on Twitter,” says Barbie in my version. “Someone replied and assumed that I must have just done the design but Steven and Brian are coding it!” Horrified, Skipper asks why they would think that. “Because I’m a girl,” Barbie replies. But don’t worry—there’s a happy ending. Barbie still makes a great game with Steven and Brian’s help. Because as I tried to emphasize, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a designer. The problem was the assumption that Barbie wasn’t coding because she was the girl on the team. Game development is about teamwork, and “design ideas” are just as critical as storyline or, yes, the underlying code.

Mattel swiftly took the book out of print and issued an apology, stating that the book did not reflect its vision for what Barbie stands for, and promising that future books would “portray an empowered Barbie character.” So far we haven’t seen more books, but at the beginning of June 2016 Mattel released Game Developer Barbie, who, despite my intense skepticism, is … kind of awesome.

Game Developer Barbie is wearing jeans, sensible shoes (!), and a T-shirt that is both nerdy and kind of cute. (I think it could be translated as “control-alt-ponytail.”) She has a laptop that is laptop-colored, because women can actually use tech products that aren’t pink. There are no pictures of Ken or fashion magazines around her workspace, just coffee, headphones, flowcharts—not to mention actual programming books (C++ and C#) and action figures (He-Man!). She still likes some pink, of course; this is Barbie, and there’s nothing wrong with pink.

Perhaps most striking, Barbie can actually code. With some help from my colleagues as well as the Twitter hive mind, we were able to just barely make out the code on Barbie’s laptop. The interface appears to be Alice, an educational programming environment, and the code it’s outputting is ActionScript (or maybe Haxe). Basically, she seems to be making a Bejeweled clone in Flash. And whatever you think about that choice, it’s a huge step up from Computer Engineer Barbie’s laptop showing nothing but ones and zeros.

However, even more important than her newfound programming prowess, Game Developer Barbie learned the same lesson that I tried to impart in my remix: that making a game is more than just writing code. The back of her box tells us: “Game development involves storytelling, art & graphic design, audio design, & computer programming. Because there are so many aspects to creating a game, teamwork is important.”

barbie inline.
Mattel’s book on the left, the author’s remix in the middle, and the back of Game Developer Barbie’s box on the right.

Casey Fiesler

This is particularly important is because as much as we don’t want to suggest that girls can’t code, we also don’t want to suggest that coding is the only path to working with computers or games. Sometimes other parts of computing—like design or human-computer interaction—are delegitimized, considered less rigorous or less important. Or maybe they’re delegitimized in part because they happen to be the parts of computing where there are more women present (in other words, more inclusive), which is even worse.

When I wrote the Barbie remix, I faced some criticism along these lines: Essentially, how can you complain about Barbie not being portrayed as a real computer programmer, when you’re not a real computer programmer? Someone even wrote a blog post dissecting my biography, my research (concerned more with understanding how people use existing technologies than building new ones), and my Ph.D. program in human-centered computing, to point out that I wasn’t writing code (even insultingly highlighting the fact that a system I studied as part of my research happened to be built by a male Ph.D. student). Regardless of whether this is fair to me personally (yes, I know how to code, it just isn’t that relevant to the work I do now), creating this kind of hierarchy is dangerous because it might discourage girls who are interested in other parts of computing. And we don’t want a world in which Google or Facebook have no user experience researchers or interaction designers. So the fact that Game Developer Barbie highlights all the different types of people who contribute to game development is awesome!

My only disappointment is that Mattel didn’t take this opportunity to partner with some computing education folks to suggest that not only can kids be game developers when they grow up—that they can be game developers right now! If you give your child a Game Developer Barbie, I highly recommend pairing the gift with a pointer to Scratch, which is a popular environment for kids to learn to code and to create games. There is also a huge community of kids working on the platform, which means that they can learn those same lessons about the value of teamwork. Even better, Mattel might consider partnerships to create its own programming tools tied to the Barbie universe. Wouldn’t it be cool if kids could make and share interactive Barbie stories—learning some programming while also having the agency to create their own “empowered Barbie characters”?

In the time since the computer engineer Barbie controversy, I’ve finished my Ph.D. and started a job as a professor of information science at University of Colorado. I went from one unusually gender-balanced computing department (interactive computing at Georgia Tech) to another, and I’m constantly struck by how fortunate I am. I always have women around me to collaborate with, and statistically, this is not always the case for women in technology jobs. So now that there are two Barbies working in this field, they can support each other, collaborate, and even create games together—with or without Steven and Brian—which is the type of empowered Barbies in STEM story that I would choose to write.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.