Originally created 05/17/98

Software manufacturers begin catering to girls



There is no natural antipathy between motherboards and daughters, and software manufacturers are stuffing their pockets with the long, green proof of this.

After a dark age of neglect, designers are producing games based on the idea that girls learn, play and relate to each other in a different way than boys.

Publishers have realized that putting big-bosomed heroines in shoot-em-up games is not the way to sell games to girls. They've learned that slowing down action games to make them "easier" is not the answer, because girls don't find the games too hard, they find them too boring. They've learned that girls are not interested in mastering a game, but want to interact with it.

"Putting fangs on Echo the Dolphin might make boys like it, but simply painting a truck pink won't ensure girls will use it. And if you put Barbie's clothes on Ken, neither will play with it," says Nancy Deyo, president and CEO of Purple Moon, whose girl games have startled the market out of its slumber.

Because software designers long misread and neglected half of the market, girls drifted away from computers by the time they reached middle school -- abandoning tools and skills that the world now requires.

Until middle school, surveys showed, girls and boys used the computer equally. But as soon as children outgrew the "edutainment" games of their early years, boys elbowed girls out of the way and dominated computer time. They played games that girls couldn't connect with. Ironically, in doing so the boys developed a confidence level that far outstripped their actual facility with computers -- a stark contrast to the unwarranted discomfort of girls.

Brenda Laurel, Purple Moon's vice president and co-founder, sees this as a natural outcome of the game industry's roots.

"The computer game industry was invented by men -- young men -- in computer labs in the early 1970s," she says. "The packaging, the themes ... were all male spaces. Girls' objections to computer games aren't what you'd expect. It's not that they're too violent ... Girls are extremely bored by them."

That's changing. In 1995, there were five entertainment titles designed specifically for girls. In 1996, there were 20, an increase of 200 percent. Right now, there are 44 titles.

Sales mushroomed from $27.6 million in 1996 to $64 million by the close of Christmas business last year, according to PC Data, a computer marketing research company. Unit sales of girl games jumped from 858,000 in 1996 (the first year PC Data tracked them separately) to more than 2 million in 1997.

Purple Moon executives are predicting $135 million in sales for 1998.

Ironically, it was the runaway success of Mattel's Barbie Fashion Designer that broke the girls' software market wide open. Barbie sold 400,000 copies during the 1996 Christmas season. Whatever you think of Barbie as a role model or a body image, she delivered the wake-up call to software publishers: If you write it, girls will come.

"I'd rather it was `Gloria Steinem Fashion Designer,' too," says Karen Bokram, editor of Girls' Life magazine, based in Baltimore. "But what we have heard from our readers is that they like games where the object is not to destroy civilization as fast as you can. What girls like to do on computers is explore and connect."

Into Barbie's vacuous wake stepped Purple Moon, whose designers spent four years studying girls' interests and play patterns before launching "Rockett's New School." It was a groundbreaking translation of friendship -- the overwhelming preoccupation of young girls -- into a computer game.

As a new eighth-grader at Whistling Pines Junior High, Rockett is the amalgam of all the things a middle-school girl is and yearns to be. In the original and its sequels ("Secret Paths in the Forest" and "Rockett's Tricky Decision"), girls can generate up to 60 different story lines by making different decisions for Rockett as she tries to fit in and make new friends.

"You get to try out Rockett's life," said Bokram. "It tackles issues and situations and relationships. "

Other publishers have had similar experiences. The Learning Company, which taught a generation of kids to read, spell and create bibliographies, jumped into the girl games market by partnering with Pleasant Company, makers of the wildly popular American Girls dolls.

"American Girls Premiere" allows girls to create plays around historical adolescents Felicity, Samantha, Kirsten, Molly and Addy . Players can choose the scene, add music, lighting and sound effects, or record voices for each of the characters.

American Girls dolls have 91 percent name recognition among 7- to 12-year-old girls, and the game was the top-ranked educational program during the 1997 Christmas season, with 250,000 units sold.

Mattel has since launched more Barbie titles, including "Barbie Hair Styler," along with a fashion extravaganza based on the movie "Clueless."

Creative Wonders turned Madeline, the precocious little French schoolgirl, into a series of educational games. Broderbund introduced a new installment of the adventures of Carmen Sandiego, the glamorous and elusive female thief who plunders the treasures of the world.

Girl Games Inc. followed "Let's Talk About Me" with "Let's Talk About Me Some More." These are interactve, point-and-click versions of teen magazines, complete with horoscopes and personality quizzes.

Even so, for every four games parents buy for their sons, they purchase just one for their daughters. Reaching girls with news of the explosion in software designed for them has been a problem. Face it, girls don't hang out in arcades -- and they don't pore over game magazines.

In response, Computer City has announced that it will create a special space in its stores for titles that appeal to girls. Several producers also joined forces in a web site -- www.just4girls.com -- where they list girl-friendly titles for interested parents.

One of the ironies of this explosion is that the Internet -- where cautious parents particularly restrict their daughters -- was largely responsible for reviving girls' interest in computers. E-mail and chat rooms are made to order for the half of the species that likes to talk.

Games that play off girls' affinity for communication and connection, that let girls get to know all about a character such as Rockett, are successful because computers are no longer that solitary, isolating experience that girls abhor.

But some advocates of girls' software wonder if there's a downside. Does success of girl games re-enforce the stereotype that girls care only about clothes and gossip?

"We make our technology and our technology makes us," says Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of "Life on the Screen." "We have an opportunity here to use this technology, which is so powerful, to make of ourselves something different and better."

"The challenge is for software designers to go beyond traditional female subjects like shopping and dolls while keeping the creative features girls like," said Roberta Furger, author of the book "Can Jane Compute: Preserving Our Daughters' Place in the Cyber Revolution."

Usage surveys show girls like gender-neutral games such as SimCity. And they also like problem-solving games that require them to complete a puzzle. Girls don't like physical violence against other human characters, but they seem to have no problem blasting critters and aliens into oblivion.

However, girls also want games that mimic their interests outside the computer world. They like to fantasize about what their lives will be like when they are older, so they play house, high school or career. They love nature and they romanticize it and imagine themselves in magical forests or living in the clouds.

And girls are interested in people, so they want to meet characters who are real to them and they want to see these characters in situations that seem like their own lives.

"We are staying close to the lives of girls and we are listening to what they like to do and what is important to them," said Karen Gould, spokesman for Purple Moon, which will release "Secret Paths to the Sea" this summer.