Hey ’90s kids, can we please talk about that board game, Dream Phone?
As a kid growing up in the ‘90s, there was no better way to spend a weekend than attending a sleepover with the various essentials: endless snacks (Dunkaroos anyone?), episodes of Boy Meets World recorded on VHS, a Caboodle full of beauty products for obligatory makeovers, and at least several rounds of the board game Dream Phone. Like clockwork, my friends and I would gather around the brightly colored hexagon-shaped board at every get-together, passing around the hot pink plastic phone in order to find out which of the game’s 24 boys liked us. It was essentially a mash-up of our favorite things: gossiping about boys, making phone calls, and sharing secrets. We were nothing short of obsessed.
Dream Phone was released by Milton Bradley in 1991, and it quickly became an iconic staple in homes across the country. The object of the game was fairly simple: figure out which of the 24 studs has a crush on you by calling up each and every dude for a clue, then use process of elimination in order to identify your secret admirer. Whoever figures it out first wins the entire game. (And maybe gets to be that boy’s girlfriend? We made our own rules!)
Perhaps more interesting than the guidelines is the game’s inception. According to Michael Gray, a former manager at Milton Bradley who designed Dream Phone, his team was tasked with creating an electronic game centered around a phone—but no one could think of a concrete idea. “It got down to the wire; it was a Thursday and we had to present something on Tuesday, and they didn’t have anything,” Gray, who also designed the popular game Mall Madness, tells HelloGiggles. “So I called them in my office and I said, ‘All right, listen, this is what we’re going to do.’”
From there, Gray suggested the game’s players would have to wade through clues in order to determine who liked them. “We’ll have a bunch of boys with their names and maybe their pictures all the way around the board,” Gray recalls suggesting, adding that his team then created a grid to assign features to each of the different boys. “One might have a skateboard, one might have a basketball, one might be wearing a hat… That way, you could have a score pad and you could keep track of all these things. Eventually, you could narrow it down.”
At the time, Dream Phone fit in perfectly in my world with my friends. In an era when we dared one another to call our crushes on the phone only to hang up when a parent answered, having a game centered around making calls to boys was directly relevant to our interests. It allowed us to feel like we were taking those same risks without any social consequences, and we loved it.
The boys themselves were also a point of discussion. We most certainly swooned over Steve, Matt, and Dan (all of whom were sporting flowing, shiny hair), and we developed opinions based on the clues we learned throughout the game. (“What kind of person doesn’t like ice cream?!” was a sentence definitely shouted on multiple occasions.)
Lauren, a 30-year-old from Pennsylvania, has similar memories of Dream Phone. “I feel like it was my one way of making all my dreams about boys actually calling me on the phone come true,” she tells HelloGiggles. And Anya, a 29-year-old London resident, even found ways to continue playing Dream Phone when she was away from the board itself. “I would sometimes take the phone or the cards to school in my bag, and we’d discuss which boy we fancied the most,” she recalls.
But alongside our nostalgia, there are some pretty burning questions that still linger to this day. For one, why were all of the players competing for the same secret admirer? I’m surprised this game didn’t end more friendships, TBH. Secondly, why were some of the boys teenaged and others definitely in their ‘30s or ‘40s? Carlos looks like he should be someone’s weird uncle, for example. As Anya puts it: “I remember…being able to call a number that was actually ‘picked up’ by quite a grown-up sounding man.” This wasn’t creepy to us at the time, but maybe it should have been.
What’s more, in today’s era of texting and social media communication, most of us would never even dare to make an actual phone call — and would probably go out of our way to avoid it. Can you imagine the horrors of picking up the phone, dialing, and actually talking to your crush? No thank you.
Perhaps the game’s most notable—and most serious—flaw was its heteronormativity. Dream Phone marketed itself to young girls, its entire premise hinging on the (obviously false) assumption that all girls had crushes on boys. In the nearly three decades since its release, pop culture and media has arguably become more reflective of diverse identities, with a more widespread understanding that sexuality can exist on a spectrum. It begs the question: What would Dream Phone look like today?
“It encapsulates a time marked by frosted eyeshadow, the distinct taste of Lip Smackers gloss, the sugary sweetness of Dunkaroos, and the long-lost bravery to pick up the phone and simply dial your crush’s number without ever looking back.”
Gray agrees that a 2019 Dream Phone would likely need to be more inclusive. “We don’t want to make anybody feel bad,” he tells HelloGiggles. “[If] a girl who played it was like, ‘Well geez, I like girls and it’s some boy who likes me, and that’s not for me,’ …we wouldn’t want to ever do that.”
Still, despite its shortcomings and confusing afterthoughts, Dream Phone remains a classic—both of the ‘90s and within so many childhood memories. It is reflective of a world that’s no longer tangible, and can only be visited via a rabbit hole of nostalgia. It encapsulates a time marked by frosted eyeshadow, the distinct taste of Lip Smackers gloss, the sugary sweetness of Dunkaroos, and the long-lost bravery to pick up the phone and simply dial your crush’s number without ever looking back.
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