Saving Nancy Drew: 
How a Video Game Made Nancy Cool Again

by Ashleigh Hudson first time I encountered a Nancy Drew mystery novel I was eight years old. I distinctly remember rummaging through my mother’s boxes of books as we were unpacking from our most recent move, struggling to find a book that appealed to my liking. I passed over the cookbooks, how-to-books, and any book that led me to believe a boy was the protagonist.  The first book that grabbed my attention is the first novel in the fiction series Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene. The binding was yellow and the cover was dominated with the image of a young strawberry blonde woman, obviously distressed, attempting to fix an old clock with a screwdriver.  I traced my hands across the hard bound book, which appeared fairly old and used, and stared at the portrait of the heroine on the cover becoming entranced with the image of a girl using a screwdriver.  My mother immediately stole the book from my grasp and smiled as she examined it, clearly reminiscing on the days when she was captivated by the Nancy Drew stories. She instructed me that while reading this book I must treat it with the upmost care because it had originally belonged to her mother. After reading The Secret of the Old Clock, I became fascinated with the Nancy Drew Mystery Series reading every book starring the female super sleuth I could get my hands on. As I aged and technology evolved, my realm of experiencing the Nancy Drew tales expanded as the texts were adapted into new formats including films, television programs, and computer games.

The fictional mystery series entitled Nancy Drew Mystery Series, which stars the assertive, vivacious Nancy Drew as the female heroine, was originally published in 1930 by publisher Edward Stratemeyer. Although Stratemeyer published the series, the famous girl sleuth’s true creator was an award-winning, feminist journalist, Mildred Wirt, who worked as a “ghostwriter” for Stratemeyer under several pseudonyms, including Carolyn Keene (The History of Nancy Drew). Wirt created a female character that was considered revolutionary for the time period. Through the character of Nancy, Wirt was able to transgress the traditional gender stereotypes that constricted women and limited the roles they inhabited within 1930s society and literature.  The original Nancy is a sixteen-year high school graduate, who “although only sixteen was unusually capable” (Keene, Secret of the Old Clock, 12).  Nancy embodies the epitome of a modern and progressive woman in the 1930s series.  She is independent minded, active in her community, and possesses the agency and freedom to solve mysteries that male dominated agencies of the time, like the police force, were unable to solve.  As the series progresses, Nancy Drew becomes a beloved character.  She operates as a role model for young girls of the 1930s and 1940s, offering them a view of an empowered female character that broke free from the bondage of domestication. Wirt’s creation of such a feisty female character led to Nancy’s widespread popularity and her development into an enduring character.  Nancy Drew has become a cultural icon and “a pivotal childhood experience for millions of girls” (Dyer 2).  Since Nancy’s debut novel in the 1930s, the character of Nancy Drew has evolved with each adaptation and revision.  Literary scholars have divided Nancy’s evolution into four categories, which I have entitled: Era One: The Original Nancy Drew (1930-1949), Era Two: Transitional Nancy (1950-1956), Era Three: Revised and Adapted Nancy (1957-1979), and Era Four: Modern Nancy (1979-present).  The revision and adaptations of the Nancy Drew Mystery Series have led to the continuous diminishment of Nancy’s qualities as a revolutionary feminist heroine leading her to lose her identity as a powerful female character for decades.  Nancy’s character does not transform back into the powerful supergirl she embodied in the original series until software company Her Interactive adapts the Nancy Drew Mystery Series into the format of a computer game with release of the first game, Secrets Can Kill, in 1998.  The transmedia adaption of the Nancy Drew Mystery Series into a computer game saves the character of Nancy Drew, recreating her in a manner that represents the archetypal feminist characteristics and qualities of the first Nancy Drew character. 

Era One of Nancy-time is set between the years of 1930 and 1949, encompassing the first twenty-six of books of the original series, which began with the publication of The Secret of the Old Clock (1930) and ending with the release of The Secret of the Garden (1959).  In Era One, Nancy is portrayed as a highly progressive female protagonist that possesses a great deal of agency and power.  She defies societal stereotypes of the era providing an unconventional role model for young girls.  During the 1930s, women were heavily oppressed under the rule of a patriarchal society.  Their roles in society were restricted to the realm of the home where they took care of domestic tasks.  The original Nancy is considered progressive in that she embodies the role of superheroine and “steps beyond the limits of her role and advances into forbidden territory” (Chamberlain), outside the home.  The original Nancy is bold, outspoken, and authoritative, possessing freedom and agency uncharacteristic of females during the era.  She is extraordinary, “the type of girl who is capable of accomplishing a great many things in a comparatively short length of time” (Keene 12).  The Nancy Drew of Era One is often regarded as “a milestone [character] in early feminism” (Burns) because she provides an empowered role model for young women with her uncharacteristic female power and agency.

Eras Two, Three and Four of Nancy-time embody the revisions and adaptations of the Nancy Drew Mystery Series.  Each era of Nancy’s evolution reduces her powerful feminine mystique little by little.  Nancy loses her “coolness” as a female superheroine as the authors adapt the character of Nancy Drew to portray a more idealized version of feminine and use her to reinforce gender stereotypes. The essence of Nancy from the first era is lost in her evolution as she is debilitated in the revisions and adaptations by her ever-changing cover image, the further empowerment of the adult roles in the narrative, and through modern authors romanticizing her adventures and sexualizing her image.  

The Secret of Red Gate Farm Two (1950-1956) of the series gave us the Transitional Nancy.  In Era Two, the original author and illustrator of the series withdrew and “various other writers were given assignments to continue the post-war adventures of the famous amateur detective” (Caprio) resulting in the first adaptation of the Nancy Drew Mystery Series.  The Transitional Nancy is diminished mainly in the artistic changes made to the cover.  The original covers done by Russel Tandy depict Nancy as a strong female heroine by portraying Nancy standing upright, actively engaging in the mystery.  The covers of Era Two illustrated by Bill Gillies evolve, displaying Nancy in a less assertive manner.  Unlike Tandy’s covers, the covers designed by Gillies do not paint a picture of an empowered girl detective.  Instead, Nancy is depicted as terrified.  She is hiding behind a tree as if she is thwarted into these mysteries leading the reader to believe Nancy is no longer the assertive female sleuth of the 1930s.  

Era Three continues the theme of diminishing Nancy’s heroic qualities.  This era of Nancy-time ranges from 1959 to 1979 and is famous for its revisions of the Nancy Drew adventures.  The character of Nancy Drew was revamped in the revised series because the publishers believed that the Nancy of the 1930s was “too bold and bossy” (Caprio). They wanted the “new Nancy” to be “more docile and gentle” (Caprio) reinforcing the stereotypical role of women that was being questioned by the beginning of the second wave of feminism; therefore, the authors “watered-down Nancy” (Caprio) stripping her of her agency and “larger-than-life-mystique” (Caprio), forcing her to become a representation of the ideal girl.  One way Nancy is stripped of her agency in the revised texts is through the housekeeper character, Hannah Gruen.  In the original series, Nancy is portrayed as Hannah’s boss and head of the household conveying to the audience she is capable and free from the control of adults.  The boss-employee relationship is established in the first novel when Nancy tells Hannah she is leaving for the afternoon but not to worry because “I have made out the dinner menu and ordered the groceries” (Secret of the Old Clock 12) implying Nancy has dominion of Hannah.  In the revised series, the relationship between Nancy and Hannah diverges from the original boss-employee relationship into a mother-daughter format.  This revision strips Nancy of her agency because now Hannah has dominion over Nancy, dictating rules when her father is away and offering motherly advice throughout the text.  By giving the adults more authority in the revised texts, the authors lessen Nancy’s agency and power.

  Era Four continues revamping Nancy’s image.  This age takes place from 1979 to present and sees Nancy entering into the modern world.  The beginning of Era Four sees Nancy’s heroic qualities continue to diminish.  In 1986, a new series based on the character of Nancy Drew is released entitled The Nancy Drew Files.  In this series, Nancy is no longer as an amateur detective but as a career woman private eye.  Despite displaying Nancy as a career-orientated woman, Nancy still is not portrayed in a progressive manner that is representative of the original Nancy Drew.  The series highly sexualizes Nancy and parallels her adventures with romantic endeavors, reinforcing to the audience that Nancy needs a male figure in her life.  Even in the modern age, it appears that Nancy will never regain her identity as a progressive female character.  However, after fifty years of adaptations and revisions failing to capture the essence of the original Nancy Drew character, the transmedia adaptation of the series by Her Interactive finally restores the character to her progressive identity as a female heroine and role model for young women.

            Her Interactive began adapting the timeless Nancy Drew Mystery Series into computer game format in 1998 with the release of Secrets Can Kill, the first of twenty-eight released computer game adaptations.  The game begins by offering the player a tutorial depicting how to operate Nancy throughout the game.  Following the tutorial, the game prompts the player to select a level: Junior Detective or Senior Detective, making the game suitable for multiple age levels.  In the realm of the game, the player seemingly becomes the character of Nancy, manipulating her actions with the click of the mouse.  Players move Nancy around the virtual environment to talk to suspects, pick up clues, solve puzzles, play games, and eventually solve the mystery.  For those unfamiliar with the computer game series, I have provided a link below that shows a brief video of the game. 

            The computer game adaption of the Nancy Drew character and her adventures reclaim the essence and power of the 1930s Nancy. This transmedia adaptation restores Nancy Drew to the status of the assertive, vivacious girl sleuth of the 1930s by reestablishing Nancy’s lost agency in a modern way.  The computer games portray her as an independent, technologically savvy individual who “is capable of accomplishing a great many things” (Keene 12).  Virtual Nancy Drew is an empowering role model for young girls because similar to the Nancy Drew of the 1930s she “translates the positive traits of Nancy Drew – intelligence, determination, independence and resourcefulness to the person playing the game” (Her Interactive).

            Nancy’s independence is regained in the virtual world by her isolation.  Each of the mysteries Nancy engages in with the audience is at a different setting outside her home.  The setting isolates Nancy from her friends Bess and George, her boyfriend Ned, her father, and the housekeeper; therefore, Nancy and the player must solve the mystery on their own with little outside help.  Although Nancy’s friends and family are only a phone call away, she can only obtain certain bits of helpful advice from her friends when engaging in conversation with them.  The digital adaption reestablishes Nancy’s coolness by portraying her as a self-reliant individual.  In the digital adaptation of the text, Nancy is no longer restrained by her mother-figure housekeeper Hannah like in Era Three of the works and no longer obsessed with the male characters of the text like in The Nancy Drew Files.  The only outside force affecting Nancy’s actions in the digital realm is the player, who essentially becomes Nancy while playing the game.

The cover of the computer game series continues to represent the modern Nancy as a character who possesses agency and freedom.  Although the cover of the games are dominated by scenes representing the setting of the mystery, Nancy is always depicted in a small shadow form on the cover.  She returns to looking as if she is actively engaging in the happenings of the mystery just like the original Nancy of the Tandy covers.  She is bent over looking for clues with a magnifying glass instead of cowering behind a tree like in Gillies’ covers.  The Nancy of the digital realm is actively engaged in the computer narratives not passively thwarted into the events.

Her Interactive continues establishing Nancy as a modern progressive character by showing her “stepping beyond the limits of her role and advancing into forbidden territory” (Chamberlain).  By starring as the main character in a digital game Nancy is entering the “forbidden territory” of the virtual game world, which is dominated by male protagonists and male-centered games.  Traditionally, digital games are a male source of entertainment.  While according to a study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association in 2012 “forty-seven percent of all game players are women” (Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry), “social games, simple games, or games dealing with household or domestic life,” are the style of games generally marketed towards women (Martin 146).  Her Interactive designed its company to break away from this phenomenon and “create high quality, fun and inspiring games for girls of all ages” (Her Interactive – Philosophy) with the goal of raising female participation in digital games.  Nancy Drew as the protagonist of Her Interactive’s most successful computer game has inspired young girls to become more engaged in digital media play, allowing them to further engage with their favorite literature and providing them with a positive role model who transcends societal expectations of femininity.

In conclusion, Nancy Drew has been revamped and evolved over her eighty-five years of stardom.  The original Nancy offered an empowering role model for young girls as they read how Nancy faced perilous dangers and relied on herself to solve mysteries.  As Nancy was revised and adapted, though, she began to lose her “coolness” and powerful qualities.  Over fifty years of adaptation diminished Nancy Drew as a progressive character with authors and publishers adapting her to promote the ideal woman of the age.  It was not until Nancy became a character in digital media game that she regained her lost identity, agency, and power.  The computer game portrays Nancy just as Mildred Wirt intended her; a progressive character of the age who demonstrates her power by diving into uncharted waters.


Works Cited


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Chamberlain, Kathleen. "THE SECRETS OF NANCY DREW: HAVING THEIR CAKE AND EATING IT TOO Online PDF Viewer. Read, Download Any Share Any PDF File About:." THE SECRETS OF NANCY DREW: HAVING THEIR CAKE AND EATING IT TOO Online PDF Viewer. Read, Download Any Share Any PDF File About:. Lion and the Unicorn, June 1994. Web. 01 May 2013.

"Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry." 2012 Sales, Demographic and Usage Data. The Entertainment Software Association, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

Heilburn, Carolyn G. "Nancy Drew: A Moment in Feminist History." Literature Resource Center. University of Iowa Press, 1995. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

Keene, Carolyn. The Secret of the Old Clock. New York: Stratemeyer Syndicate, 1930. Print.

"The Mysterious History of Nancy Drew." The History of Nancy Drew. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.

YouTube. YouTube, 19 Nov. 2008. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.