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Even in virtual reality, it is still a man's world
Games geared towards girls are few, and are any of them even fun?

From: Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1997

Amanda Vogt, Tribune Staff Writer

John Romero was 12 when he decided to spend the rest of his life playing video games.

Although his family despaired that he would ever amount to anything, they need not have worried. Despite barely finishing high school and having no formal computer training, the 29 year-old Romero is a legend in the $10 billion electronic game industry.

Designer of the revolutionary shoot-'em-up action games Doom and Quake, Romero spends his days playing games in his million-dollar mansion and dreaming of designing the ultimate game under the auspices of his new gaming company Dallas-based Ion Storm.

Although Romero's talent and drive may be exceptional for a young man with awesome hand-eye coordination, his computer savvy is not. Research shows not only that computer games are the primary interface between kids and computers but that they also are invaluable in teaching the coordination and cognitive skills necessary to thrive in today's virtual worlds.

"Such skills are becoming increasingly important as more science and technology is carried out in cyberspace," says Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles whose studies found that computer games are more effective than word games at improving certain spatial skills.

Graphic SD simulation is becoming more widespread in the workplace: It is used by Wall Street to track complex market trends, by high tech manufacturing companies to train employees on production lines and by engineering and aeronautics companies to construct bridges and airplanes.

What concerns information technology experts and gender researchers is that although the sexes start out with similar gameplaying habits and PC access, girls start losing ground around adolescence. Researchers attribute this disparity to a dearth of girl-oriented software and fear that unless this deficit is addressed a vital opportunity to narrow the technology gender gap will be lost.

Although the traditionally male-dominated electronic gaming industry has acknowledged there is a problem, it has done little to address it. Ask industry experts why, and the response is a Catch-22: Big retailers say games for girls don't sell, so the software companies don't design them.

So what's the big deal?

Given the violent and repetitive nature of many computer games, it might be difficult for many parents to get excited about such apparent apathy. Many might find it hard to believe such games can influence a child's career aspirations.

Yet, Jupiter Communications, a New York-based research firm specializing in interactive technology, speculates that with more than 40 percent of U.S. households now owning a personal computer, today's youngsters are growing up with computers much the same way their parents grew up with television.

In a 1996 study of the computer gaming habits of about 1,000 4th through 8th graders, Dr. Jeanne Funk, a child psychologist at the University of Toledo in Ohio, found that both girls and boys like to play computer games and prefer games to educational or other types of software.

When it comes to actual playing time, however, Funk's study echoes previous research on children's time commitment to electronic game playing.

"Boys of all ages spend twice as much time as girls, with girls' playing time declining in later years," she says. "Since we know that starting to play with the PC at an early age enhances general computer literacy, it stands to reason that if boys are playing more than girls, they're more likely to end up in computer-related careers," says professor Maria Klawe, a gender researcher and girl game designer at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

A recent major study by the Educational Testing Service, the world's largest organization of its kind, evaluated the computer-related coursework and career choices of 1 million college-bound seniors. Researchers found that for every 10 males who said they were majoring in engineering or math/computer science, there were two and four females respectively. Boys were also significantly more likely than girls to report having acquired experience or completed coursework in computer programming and literacy.

ETS linked these gender differences to patterns of interest and out-of-school activities. For example, for every 10 males who reported that in their leisure time they played on PCs, seven females reported the same.

That makes sense given the tremendous number of entertainment software options available to males, said Eileen McMahon, a children's media consultant and former executive for Lotus Development Corp.

"Of the 3,500 to 5,000 titles on the shelves, maybe 10 are exclusively for girls," McMahon says. Among these "pink software" titles are Her Interactive's McKenzie & Co., whose rather dubious objective is to entice a cute guy to the prom.

Boys, on the other hand - when exposed to a dizzying array of testosterone-laden titles and play options - feel a sense of entitlement. Like 14-year-old Lawrence Jordan of Wheaton, who is matter-of-fact about the industry's patriarchal structure. "That's the nature of the beast," says Lawrence, a serious computer gamer who is aiming for a career as a computer design engineer. "Guys design most games, so they're geared toward guys."

Games with names like Quake and WarCraft have not only helped him become "very fast on a keyboard and good with a mouse," Lawrence says, "they've encouraged me to learn programming."
The token female protagonist that on rare occasions shows up in the action/adventure genre - like Rogue in Blizzard's Diablo - doesn't appease Jeri Blair, 13, of Chicago.

"A large-chested female in spandex with four machine guns in one hand bothers me," says Jeri, referring disparagingly to the industry's tendency to portray female protagonists as Barbies in sexy combat gear.

Although the violence that pervades most computer games doesn't turn her off, Jeri says, she would be more interested in games "where players have to worry about drugs or solve problems like violence in the schools. How about a game about fighting for women's rights?"

When it comes to what adolescent girls want in computer games, Jeri hits the nail on the head, says Dr. Kathy El-Messidi, associate director of the Rice University Center for Research on Parallel Computation. After talking to hundreds of 8- to 14-year old girls, El-Messidi discovered that "girls like to master the same things boys do, but in a social context." Adolescent girls become bored, she says, with kill-or-be-killed action games not because of the violence, per se, but because it's meaningless.

"Girls like to solve problems and to tell stories," adds gender researcher Justine Cassell of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. "Storytelling is a good nexus for change in the relationship between gender and technology."

Three years ago, Laura Groppe, an established film producer and former consultant to Sega of America, a subsidiary of Sega Enterprises of Japan, became frustrated by the electronic gaming industry's lack of initiative in developing girl-oriented games and decided to do something about it. She founded Girl Games Inc., an Austin, Texas-based interactive entertainment company that develops software products for adolescent girls. Although Groppe didn't even own a computer until five years ago, an Academy Award and four MTV video awards have earned her standing among Hollywood's elite.

Working with El-Messidi, Groppe developed Let's Talk About ME, an interactive handbook that explores issues - like fashion, boys, health and fitness, which girls deem important. Groppe is aware that her software, to some extent, reinforces sexual stereotypes about girls, but she found that when it comes to marketing a software product for girls there are certain industry-driven parameters she is forced to stay within.

"Retailers don't know anything about the product since it doesn't fit into any well-worn marketing niche," Groppe says. "And when you get into a dialogue with publishers, they balk when they realize how different the design will have to be from what they're accustomed to building.....

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