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Where The Girls Aren't--Yet

Source: Contra Costa Times, March 31, 1996
By Pat Craig
Knight-Ridder newspapers

Four girls sitting in the computer lab know what to do when they find themselves falling into a dark star at the edge of cyberspace.

They call a boy.

That's because boys know more about computers.

Because most computer games are made for boys.

Because when girls are doing other things, boys are waging virtual war at the monitor, and painlessly learning how to make a computer stand up and dance.

For boys, the computer screen is just as friendly and homey as the neighborhood video game parlor. For girls, it's pretty much foreign territory after the age of 12; about the time they abandon computers for nonsupport.

But that may soon change with a three-way alliance of feminism, commerce and economic necessity saying that the computer industry can no longer ignore half its audience and must develop games for adolescent girls.

And the girls say they're ready for some digital attention.

"The problem with the games is they're too violent," says Samantha Cole, a 14-year-old student at Pleasanton's Harvest Park Middle School. "There's too much flying and bombing and shooting."

Boys get an advantage because of the games, according to Kayla Smith, 14, who says she taught her younger brother a number of things about their home computer, but he has since gone on to learn considerably more.

"Most of the games we have at home are for boys," says Kayla, who agrees with pals Samantha, Denae Ramey, 14, and Laura Carroll, 13, that something has to be done to create games for girls.

"Maybe Looney Tunes or Disney cartoons, where you could decide what happens next," says Laura. "You want something you can make up as you go along."

Or maybe just a main character who is a girl, according to Jessica Felts, 13.

"That would make me more interested in playing," she says. "Now, even Mario is a boy."

Jessica's friend, Diana Spaulding, 14, says she'd also like to see girl characters, but she plays the games anyway.

"I just like seeing what the computer can do," she says.

A potential bonanza

But exactly what do girls really want?

The answer will pay big for the company that finds it. Teen girls now spend $43 billion per year on such things as clothes, food, entertainment and recreation, but the amount they spend on software doesn't even add up to spare change.

With the industry currently stalled at a point where 35 percent of American homes have computers, it makes good sense to court girls and women into gaming.

Conventional wisdom says that parents should be happy their daughters haven't been dragged into the gory world of Doom or the dismemberment fest that is Mortal Kombat. But while they aren't being exposed to such gore and violence, they are also losing out on valuable time spent learning to manipulate the computer.

"Playing games is one thing that makes a computer user-friendly," says Bill Ragsdale, who is a Harvest Park computer teacher and serves on several statewide computer advisory boards. "Playing games makes them familiar with how the computer works. And girls, they get to eighth grade, and they'd rather talk to each other than play the games."

It's something that happens quickly.

Early on and up to age 10, computer games are used by slightly more girls than boys, according to Laurie Strand of Broderbund Software. But by 12, girls' usage has dropped by as much as 50 percent. The reason is fairly simple -- there isn't much out there for adolescent girls.

But when it comes to preparing for the future, computers loom large. By the time today's middle-schoolers enter the job market, virtually every job will require some computer savvy. That's why state schools chief Delaine Eastin is trying to find $6.5 billion to bring California's schools out of the software Stone Age and see that students have enough computers to learn the skills they need to compete in the job market.

Right now, Eastin points out, only 20 percent of the people can meet the requirements for 60 percent of the job categories that will grow into the 21st century.

This is not a time for a girl to be afraid of a mouse.

Emotional involvement

Games that don't have an indicated gender, in fact, still do well with female players. Myst, for example, a well-executed and graphically interesting puzzle adventure game, attracts an audience that is 30 percent female, where traditional adventure games pull only an 18 percent female audience.

Girls, says Patricia Flannigan of Her Interactive, want games that include emotional involvement with characters, advance the story line through decisionmaking, offer a creative outlet, feature adventure without violence, and include familiar aspects of everyday life. On the other hand, they don't like killing, blood and gore and demeaning female characters.

Her game, McKenzie & Co. ($60 Her Interactive) is a $1.5 million investment in what she believes girls want. The game features McKenzie (a red Geo Tracker) and company, a half-dozen high school girls who have adventures, go to the mall, try on clothes, talk about boys, date boys, and talk about a variety of social, school and life problems.

Basically, it hits girls where they live. Designed to be played by girls just slightly younger than the characters in the six-disc CD-ROM game, it gives girls a chance to experiment with the near future.

In some arenas, this has tipped the feminist fury meter to overload, but the game is popular with the girls it's targeted to, and even the staunchest die-hard has to admit that the game provides some important computer skills.

It's what girls are interested in, says Jody Moore of Girl Games, a two-year-old business working with Rice University to develop games for girls.

Based on the research, Girl Games is in the process of assembling Let's Talk About Me, a magazine-style CD-ROM divided into four sections including quizzes and puzzles, diary and e-mail address book, health and fitness and a guide to potential mentors.

"What we've done is create interactive profiles of a wide variety of women, from science to the arts, to expose girls 8 to 14 to a variety of careers," says Moore. "The idea is to encourage girls to become involved. When I was at the Rice focus group, I saw the boys run to the front to use the computers first, and a lot of the girls not even try because they didn't care to climb over the boys.

"It's the encouragement. It was amazing. I started talking to some of the girls and a lot said they wanted to be teachers and nurses. If you don't have somebody you know in a particular career, you don't know about it and can't explore it. That's why we want the mentor in the game."

Creating what they want

But once the girls are given the opportunity to jump in and create games they like, they get solidly involved, according to Dr. Kathy El-Messidi, associate director for external relations at the Center for Research on Parallel Computation at Rice. The National Science Foundation-funded research group looked into what sorts of computer games girls wanted.

Working on the premise that girls and boys view computers and software differently, the researchers had groups of girls create their own dream software.

Virtual reality games, featuring vicarious adventures, include everything from bungee jumping to virtual shopping wandering a mall and trying on clothes -- were popular ideas.

Career exploration games were also popular, with girls wanting not only information on the jobs but a little about lifestyle as well.

Games that featured interaction with boys were also big. The two main categories here included games that would allow girls to find their "dream match," and others that would let the girls speak on-line with boys.

The girls also liked soap-opera-style games, games that include virtual travel and cross-cultural communication.

What comes out of this study, and another at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, is that girls enjoy games that are somewhat unstructured and like the idea of communicating with others via e-mail or across the Internet's World Wide Web.

"They also most enjoyed the activities that were the most visual and interactive, although I suspect that boys would have also done the same," said Rensselaer computer science professor Ellen Walker, who helped conduct a two-week summer computer camp for 20 high school girls. "Games that allow collaboration and communication would probably be very popular with girls, especially if the subject matter of the game were something other than killing monsters."

Games, however, aren't the bottom line; computer familiarity is what all of this leads to.

"Women are less prepared for undergraduate computer science courses because they haven't put in their on-line time playing games like the men have," says Walker. "The actual academic value of computer games is questionable at best. However, the girls come in lacking confidence in front of the computer, which hurts both their self-esteem and performance in the first course."

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