I grew up playing with paper dolls, dutifully cutting figures out of McCall’s magazine week-after-week. The girls in the magazine rarely looked like me — they offered a limited version of femininity, reduced mostly to petite bodies with perfectly coiled blonde hair. Often, I colored in the hair to a dark brown and added overwhelming freckles to the girl’s face.
Soon after my family got a computer in 1997, I started trolling AOL chat rooms, mostly ones dedicated ‘NSYNC. It was from those AOL chat rooms that I found out about The Palace, a visual chat server where I could interact with other people pretending not to be 11 year old girls. There, I found digital paper dolls much like the ones I used to play with. I could customize these, too, but that wasn’t only an option — it was encouraged. Digital paper dolls on The Palace, which represented the users chatting to each other, didn’t have to be cut out of magazines, with no careful maneuvering around each ruffled embellishment. There were no tabs to accidentally cut off, no clothes to accidentally rip. Messing up was part of the process, a way to learn.
The Palace, as envisioned by creator Jim Bumgardner, was a place where users could create avatars and chat semi-anonymously. There were rules about behavior, but enough space to experiment. Bumgardner had been dreaming up a chat server like The Palace since the mid ‘80s, though at that time, it was more of a text-based bulletin board called “The Mansion.” He finally created The Palace while working at Time-Warner as a lead programmer in 1994, and after a year in development, The Palace’s main server opened in 1995.
The Palace’s first avatars were generic smiley faces — essentially, 3D-modelled tennis balls with faces instead of seams. Before the public beta, a colleague convinced Bumgardner to turn on avatar customization. “[Avatar customization] initially scared me, because I was afraid it would cause the place to fill with shitty artwork, and it kind of did,” Bumgardner said. Early on after The Palace’s release, players stuck with smiley faces wearing hats or glasses. But in 1996, things changed. “There was a Valentine’s Day party on [the main palace] Mansion, and suddenly there were a ton of romantic nine-prop scans from Victoria’s Secret catalogs everywhere,” Bumgardner told me. “That kind of thing, or pictures of Fabio, or various bodice-ripping stuff.”
“I was not happy about this turn of events at all, as this new style took up more screen real-estate and made it harder to cram people into a room,” Bumgardner added. But soon, a better size compromise emerged: the digital paper doll. The earliest recorded paper doll–styled avatar popped up in the summer of ‘97, Bumgardner said. Called “little people,” these dolls were slouched over with hair dangling in front of their eyes. They often wore baggy pants and held skateboards or surf boards. Clothing varied — users edited avatars using The Palace’s prop editor — but one thing was always the same: you rarely saw the eyes.
The Palace avatars became known as “dollz,” or digital paper dolls, in the next evolution of avatars. Dollz started with three pieces — the naked body sliced up into a head, torso, and legs. That left six props left for clothing, as the The Palace only allowed users to wear nine props at a time. A user looking to save slots, perhaps, for accessories, could manipulate pixels atop the naked body to save space — a move that would become very important in The Palace’s avatar editing contests, which propelled the servers’ growing traffic.
“I have no idea who deserves credit,” Bumgardner told me. “What I do remember is that suddenly they were everywhere. When they first hit, for a few days, that was all you saw.” Various online accounts of the doll explosion are credited towards a guy known only as RainMan, who based the avatar he created on a comic strip. The Palace’s dollz are often also credited to a woman called Melicia Greenwood, who wrote an account of how the craze started. She recognized that users were already wearing “badly edited cartoon avatars,” and wanted to create customizable avatars with mix-and-match outfits. Like RainMan’s avatars, hers were specific to a counter-culture: goth girls and skaters. (Greenwood could not be reached for comment.)
Traffic is difficult to estimate; Bumgardner said he didn’t keep any hard numbers. The most popular rooms could host hundreds of users chatting at the same time. “Nobody really knows how many users it had, because it was decentralized in that weird way,” Claire Evans, author of Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, told me. “There was a main Palace server for the common spaces, but most people just hosted their own Palaces on their own computers. There could have been thousands of them, there could have been tens of thousands of them.” The platform was not obscure, at any rate: Korn hosted frequent chats on its own server, Korn Korner, which did a lot for The Palace’s popularity with brooding teens.
The Palace’s teen users gathered in avatar-editing contests that stuffed the game’s servers with users. A space for practicing pixel-editing skills, The Palace’s editing were peer-run and self-organized, with users rotating judges and themes. The rooms were created specifically for The Palace’s contests with some crude designs quickly drawn up in Paint, while others were decorated with Paint Shop Pro brushes and swirls. Players placed their avatars on top of boxes, with the “judge” at the top. Most avatars stood naked on their boxes awaiting the judge’s theme, revealing what was often banned on The Palace’s servers — a naked body. Sometimes the bodies had on undergarments, while others showed one-pixel dots where the nipples should be. Tiny tattoos, often of hearts and stars, were common, marking a body’s angled hip.
The Palace’s editing contests had its users navigating complex, digital yet social worlds — a likely new experience, given the nascency of the internet. These spaces were safe spots for users to experiment in art, design, and expression. It was both work and play — unraveling how to earn the social currency awarded from winning, while also just trying out new shapes, colors, and shading. Themes were often vague, like an outfit for a first date or as a substitute teacher. Sometimes the judge would lay out a piece of clothing for contestants to edit, and other times the players could adjust whatever they wanted.
“There was a lot of emphasis placed on the idea that cyberspace would collapse divisions between people,” Evans said. “Not just gender divisions, but racial, economical ability, everything — that we could just connect mind to mind through creative representation of self through the avatar.”
The Palace’s users had a fifty-fifty gender split, Bumgardner estimated. It’s a ratio The Palace crew was proud of, given how the internet skewed heavily male in that time. Dollz were especially popular with women, who generated more diverse avatars through pixel editing, which is seen through saved files from the time. The anonymity that the space brought forth created its own challenges, but it was the feature that let girls and women on the internet experiment with power, identity, and creativity. A users’ avatar could stand naked in a crowded room, experiment in gender or sexuality, or tell their secrets.
“Women in that time understood already what it meant to perform online, and were already experimenting with ways of subverting that,” Evans said. “It was just a more fluid time on the internet.”
But The Palace’s dollz dress-up games were considered “girls’ games” — and thusly, vapid and uninteresting. Outsiders on The Palace looked down on them, and deemed them illegitimate from the games community-at-large, despite their outsized footprint. Why would anyone play that? And how could something so simple offer any complex meaning? (A former moderator told me over Facebook comment that trolling teen users ruined The Palace for “the rest of us.”)
Meanwhile, other games that made use of a create-a-player mode — where players can endlessly fiddle with an original avatar — were lauded, as long as they fit into a preconceived notion of how a game should be. Compare The Palace to a game like WWF Smackdown!, released in 2000, and marketed explicitly to boys. Spending an hour or two on a wrestler in WWF Smackdown! was acceptable, for then you’d watch your meticulously decorated wrestler body slam others over and over again — whereas in a “girl’s game,” the act of creation was superficial, not creative.
It’s easy to look back and find the “meaning” of these contests in winning, but the real significance was the process of building out a digital wardrobe with hand-edited styles. For users, The Palace’s prop bag was a strategy in finding versatile and unique pieces that were easily editable and applicable to different scenarios. The Palace’s fashion contests were also built upon relationships with other users. Who were you going to trade custom clothing with? What editor could teach you a new technique? The moments before and after a contest were just as important as the judging itself.
The Palace wasn’t some panglossian ideal: The avatars themselves showed a certain homogeneity, as there were a lot of thin, white women. Some tried to challenge cultural standards of beauty within The Palace’s dollz rooms: an improv performance group, Desktop Theater, tested norms by entering doll spaces with a crudely drawn avatar, challenging users to consider fat bodies or queer expression. It didn’t always work: Screenshots from the “Fat Girls” performance show the avatar being ridiculed by some and ignored by others — “what it’s like to be a size 14 in a size six world,” according to a description of the improv event. Often times, other users just didn’t know how to react, so the women were ignored.
“Women in that time understood already what it meant to perform online.”
Non-white avatars, like fat bodies on The Palace, were rare, though Greenwood acknowledged there was a demand for them. “Where have all my black and latino and asian dollz gone?” she asked. “I hope all the people that requested them still have them, because I didn’t save stuff I was editing.”
Games have gotten better about dressing varied bodies, but it’s still a problem. The Sims, which is known for its expansive character creation menus, has options for days, but still under serves people of color. (The Sims 4 is changing that, finally.) Like with The Palace’s pixel editing, The Sims players have created their own options for skin tone, hair, and clothing. A notable creator, xmiramira, uses The Sims content creation tools to make new options for sims. On The Black Simmer, a forum for folks looking for diverse sims, players create community around the typically single-player game — similar to the ways in which The Palace’s users created community for themselves.
The Palace is still around in different forms, though activity has dwindled. Today, the idea of a digital space where teens can work out the mess of social interaction while toying with identity isn’t nearly so novel, though it comes with greater risks. “Spaces from that era where you could kind of conceal who you were or experiment with your gender were more welcoming to women than social media is today, where you have to be who you are very publicly in a way that makes you vulnerable,” Evans said. “[On The Palace], you could be anybody. You could be a toaster. You could be a doll, a superhero. You could represent yourself — male, female, everything in between.”