Online paper doll game Doll War was a time capsule of early internet culture

I wasn’t really a fashion oriented tween, but I spent a lot of time in the mid 80’s looking for paper puppet games to create my own characters with. I think that’s how I must have stumbled in doll wara competitive online game where players create and dress up their dolls and then send them into duels where other players vote on who looks better.

I wasn’t very good at the game. My lack of interest in clothing was a hindrance. Another reason was that the game was unbalanced and complicated. For example, buying clothes required two separate currencies. One of them was fame, which you earned by getting other people to visit your profile. For a nobody like me, that didn’t happen.

Perhaps the desire to get my name out there for Fame first led me to the site’s forums. These became one of my first internet communities and eventually became an absolute crash course in online living.

I know I was 12 because I distinctly remember a 13-year-old saying that nobody really had a life until they were a teenager. I was so offended that I still remember it today as a 28-year-old. But I also remember other, less insignificant things. By using the forums to talk to strangers, I’ve actually learned to communicate textually and make sure I’m understood without the nuances of speech and body language. And not only with general conversations, but also with creative writing. I never really did my OCs doll war‘s actual game – I didn’t have the credit for that – but there were writing suggestions on the forums that I could use to explore the characters.

I learned about board games and fandom, petty interpersonal grievances and how to avoid them. I learned how to lurk and get the vibe of a community before jumping in. And I became a sycophantic tween somewhere online where my face and name weren’t appropriate, something that seems a lot rarer today.

And then there was the Debates subforum. In retrospect, I have no idea why it existed. The Wayback Machine doesn’t archive many forums, but in a snapshot, the latest post is titled “illegal immagrants [sic] Volume 2.” I can’t read it, but I’m sure nothing good happened in there.

Still, the Debates forum was home to a specific thread. It was something like, “Do you think bisexuals exist?” I had no idea what a bisexual was, but not only did I learn, someone had commented something bluntly along the lines of, “Yes. Source: I am.” Unfortunately, I haven’t thought about why this thread stuck in my brain for over five years, but I like to think that the simple acceptance that bi people exist and that you can only be one , helped me in the end.

doll war Closed in 2008, but by the time of the last Wayback Machine capture, the forum had about 450,000 members. Not everyone there would have received their early Internet education. But it’s not hard to imagine that with their first sense of freedom and exploration brought to them online, many young girls would have searched for a dress-up game and ended up having an experience similar to mine.

And yet doll war hardly leaves an echo on the internet. All that really turns up in a Google search is a thread of reviews from concerned parents about the dolls’ thinness and repelling children who are clearly pretending to be adults. Part of the site, but not much of it, is accessible through the Internet Archive. It wasn’t big enough to get a dedicated nostalgia community like Neopets or Club Penguin or various Tumblr subcultures. A few people tweeted, “Remember doll war?” But the answer is mostly no.

a similar page, Diva Chixseems to have emerged as a spinoff afterwards doll war closed. It still exists but with fewer members than doll war had in 2008. It has forums but they are sparse. Most sub-forums have collected few posts despite being open for more than a decade. The debate section only has two posts, one from 2016 and one from 2021. No one learns what bisexual means here.

This is not negative per se. Queerness is much more widespread both online and offline, and kids are probably past the point of wondering if bisexuality is real. On the whole, it’s probably better that 12-year-olds don’t search for dress-up games and end up reading about “illegal immigrants”. But newer platforms like TikTok bring their own challenges, as algorithms decide what we see and are much less anonymous than forums.

While it wasn’t directly better or worse, learning about the internet on a paper doll dressing website was something that could really only happen for a brief moment in internet history. I was somewhere between digital native and digital immigrant. And along with this shift in timeline, the platforms and communities of the internet have changed, largely leaving forums and their unique introductory powers behind.

It’s a difference that makes me nostalgic, and with the continued rapid decline of the earlier internet, it’s not even a nostalgia that scouring the internet can scratch doll war forum archive. But it survives in memories and in the imprint it left on those who spent time there, many now in their late 20s, scattered across the internet.