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An original illustration shows two women dressed in different shades of pink talking to one another using speech bubbles Illustration: Christine Lee for Polygon

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A lost paper doll game gave me an abrupt crash course in living online

Doll War showed that the community around a game could be more important than the game itself

I wasn’t really a fashion-focused tween, but I spent a lot of time in the mid-aughts looking for paper doll games that I could use to create my original characters. I think that must have been how I stumbled into Doll War, a competitive online game where players would create and dress their dolls, then send them into duels where other players would vote on who looked better.

I wasn’t very good at the game. My lack of interest in clothes was one barrier. Another was that the game was unbalanced and complicated. For example, buying clothes required two separate currencies. One of these was Fame, earned by having other people visit your profile. For a nobody like me, that didn’t happen.

Maybe wanting to get my name out there for Fame is what first took me to the site’s forums. These became one of my first internet communities, and they ended up being an absolute crash course in living online.

I know that I was 12, because I distinctly remember a 13-year-old saying that no one really had a life until they became a teenager. I was offended enough that I still remember it now, as a 28-year-old. But I remember other, less petty things, too. In a real way, using the forums to speak to strangers taught me how to communicate textually, making sure I was understood without the nuances of speech and body language. And not just with general conversation, but with creative writing, too. I never really made my OCs in Doll War’s actual game — I didn’t have the Fame for that — but there were writing prompts in the forum I could use to explore the characters.

I learned about forum games and fandom, petty interpersonal grievances and how to avoid them. I learned about lurking and getting the vibe of a community before jumping in. And I got to be a cringy tween somewhere online where my face and name weren’t attached, something that seems much rarer today.

And then there was the Debates subforum. In hindsight, I have no idea why it existed. The Wayback Machine doesn’t archive a lot of the forums, but in one snapshot the latest post is called “illigal immagrants [sic] Volume 2.” I can’t read it, but I’m positive nothing good happened in there.

A screenshot of the Doll War forum lists categories such as Name & Shame and Diary of a Dollsite Owner Image: Doll War via the Internet Archive

Still, the Debates forum was home to a particular thread. It was called, approximately, “Do you think bisexuals exist?” I had no idea what a bisexual was, but not only did I learn, someone had also bluntly commented something along the lines of “Yes. Source: I am one.” Unfortunately, I failed to think about why this thread stuck in my brain so much for upwards of five years, but I like to think that the straightforward acceptance that bi people exist and you can just be one still helped me out in the end.

Doll War closed down in 2008, but in the last Wayback Machine capture, the forum had about 450,000 members. Not everyone there would have been getting their early internet education. But it’s not hard to imagine that many young girls with their first sense of freedom and exploration handed to them online would have looked for a dress-up game and ended up having a similar experience to the one I had.

And yet Doll War leaves barely an echo on the internet at large. All that really comes up in a Google search is a thread of reviews by concerned parents about the skinniness of the dolls and defenses by kids clearly pretending to be grown-ups. Some of the site, but not a lot of it, is accessible via 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 tweet, “Remember Doll War?” But the answer is mostly no.

A similar site, Diva Chix, seems to have been created as a spinoff after Doll War closed. It still exists, but with fewer members than Doll War had in 2008. It has forums, but they are scant. Most subforums have gathered only a few posts even though they’ve been open for more than a decade. The Debates area has just two posts, one made in 2016 and one made in 2021. No one is learning what bisexual means here.

That’s not inherently negative. Queerness is much more widespread both online and off, and kids are probably past the point of questioning whether bisexuality is real. On the whole, it’s probably better that 12-year-olds aren’t going looking for dress-up games and ending up reading about “illigal immagrants.” But newer platforms like TikTok bring their own challenges, with algorithms deciding what we see and being much less anonymous than forums.

While not straightforwardly better or worse, learning about the internet on a paper doll dress-up 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 alongside that timeline shift, the platforms and communities of the internet have changed, mostly leaving forums and their unique introductory powers behind.

It’s a difference that leaves me nostalgic, and with the earlier internet’s ongoing speedy decay, it’s not even a nostalgia that can be scratched by searching through the Doll War forum archives. But it survives in memories and in the imprint it had on those who spent time there, many now in their late 20s, scattered across the internet.