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Computers Aren't Just a Boy's Game

Companies are forming to develop games designed to please girls and find out what they do and don't want.

Source: The Morning Call, Allentown, PA, June 8, 1996
By Mary Ellen Alu
The Morning Call

Eighth-graders Deanna Hamman and Tiffani Unterberg have played their share of computer games, but there's much that they find troubling.

"It's always a guy rescuing a girl," said Hamman. "Why can't it be a girl rescuing a guy?"

And how about the way that female characters are presented? Lots of cleavage, small waistlines and skimpy clothing.

"The guys are all dressed, the girls aren't," said Unterberg. And, she said, so many of the games center on fighting. "There's a whole bunch of blood all the time."

It's no wonder the two teen-agers would rather spend time on computer chat lines than wage war at their terminals. Said Unterberg about computer games, "They don't appeal to me that much."

Computer companies, are you listening?

They apparently are.

Recognizing a gender gap in the software business, companies have sprouted up to develop games for girls. They've been organizing focus groups, trying to determine what adolescent girls want and don't want in games.

It makes good business sense. Girls spend more than $57 billion per year on clothes, music, food and other items, according to information from Girl Games Inc., an interactive technology firm based in Austin, Texas.

But Laura Groppe, founder of the company, said she has a loftier goal in developing games for girls-to better prepare them for a technological future.

"The gaming experience for young boys has been the diving board into more advanced technologies," she said. "There needs to be a concerted effort to give the female audience something they'd be interested in."

Let's Talk About Me, the first CD-ROM from Girl Games Inc., is expected to hit the market this fall. After more than a year of research, the company developed the software knowing that girls want story-driven experiences and challenges that have less to do with winning and more to do with personal rewards.

"There isn't necessarily a need to reach an ultimate end," said Groppe. "It's the process."

Last summer, Girl Games Inc. and the Center for Research on Parallel Computation collaborated on a project involving high school girls to determine what types of software appealed to the teen-agers. The science and technology center, headquartered at Rice University in Texas, is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Popular among the girls were virtual reality games that would allow them to bungee jump, travel and shop at a mall. They liked exploring careers, but also finding their dream mate.

The girls preferred to hear that they did well, rather than beat, defeat, and rack up scores. They also liked working in teams and communicating with pen pals.

"It's apparent from our study that existing software didn't completely address the typical approaches to computer games that a girl might take," said Kathy El-Messidi, the center's associate director for external relations.

The center's mission includes finding ways to encourage girls to be interested in pursuing math and science course work and careers. Last summer's project was one avenue the center has taken to interest girls in those areas.

"We saw boys were getting a jump and had a great field of entertainment that would innately interest them in math and science," said El-Messidi. "And that girls really did not."

She said it's important to develop software that appeals to girls so that they become more comfortable with computers. That, she said, can provide a segue into careers in computer science.

"They need to have equal access to mastering the technology, but they also need to have equal access to the opportunities themselves," she said.

By 1999, there will be 60 million homes with multi-media personal computers, said Patricia Flanigan, of Her Interactive in Albuquerque, N.M. Can companies assume those homes will only have boys? she asked.

"To me, it seems ludicrous to ignore 50 percent of the population," said Flanigan. "Girls must have computer skills to be competitive in the work environment. We want to keep girls on the computers."

Up to sixth grade, girls use home computers more than boys, according to a survey last summer by Find/SVP, a New York-based research and consulting firm, and Grunwald Associates, a research consulting firm in California.

But beyond sixth-grade, something happens, resulting in more boys than girls venturing into cyberspace, said Dan Campbell, research director for Find/SVP.

Part of the reason is that teen-age girls tend to be more social, and they become more interested in getting together with friends or becoming involved in outdoor activities, researchers said.

But computer interest also drops off among girls, they said, because not much computer software appeals to them.

Among high school-age girls, the amount of time that boys and girls spend on computers starts to level out again, because girls need the computers for their school projects, Campbell said.

"If they had more games that were actually for girls, then maybe we would spend more time on the computer," said Amanda Schrey, 13, as she worked in the computer lab last week at the Trexler Middle School in Allentown.

Still, she has joined her younger brother in playing games that have the characters fighting each other.

"I've learned to play them because that's all we have," she said.

The potential value of computer games was not lost on Elizabeth Barrett and Dana Wise, both 14, as they worked last week in Trexler Middle School's computer lab.

"The computer is going to be the future," said Wise. "So if you don't know how to use them, you're going to be lost."

Games teach computer skills, she said.

"So many games now are for boys," said Barrett. "They want to play more, and therefore, they get more experience."

Flanigan said girls are indifferent to software that focuses on body counts to get through a game. "Most of the girls find that that kind of game playing is just boring," she said.

Her Interactive will soon release Vampire Diaries, which calls on girls to solve puzzles and problems.

The company also produced Mackenzie & Co., which she described as a comedy adventure. The game is set at a high school and has sections for makeup experimentation and shopping. Flanigan has fielded some criticism from those who say the game feeds stereotypes.

"We can love math and we can love makeup. We can love science and we can still love to go shopping on the weekends," she said. "We have to build the bridges between things that girls love and the technology and make it comfortable and easy for them to enjoy."

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