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Girl Games on Computers, Where Shoot'em Up Simply Won't do

Source: The New York Times, Monday, June 23, 1997
By Karen De Witt

AUSTIN, Tex. - Laura Groppe sat in front of a computer as several male programmers looked on, demonstrating to a visitor the difference between boy games and girl games.

"See that little funky, spacey button there in the comer," Ms. Groppe,
President and chief executive of Girl Games Inc., said. She pointed to a tiny four-pronged star in the corner of, the screen.

"The navigator," a programmer said with a groan.

"That lets a girl go anywhere any time," Ms. Groppe said. "From her closet, to her diary, to a mentor. The programmers just threw a fit because we broke the rules of interface design when we told them we wanted the girls to be able to do that.

"The interface that girls intuitively understand," she added, "appears to be different from that of boys."

No shoot 'em up, rack 'em up scoring here. In "Let's Talk About Me," the company's first CD-ROM, a girl can keep a diary, determine her personality or alter her wardrobe. Here, relationships, not big scores, count.

That difference is one that Ms. Groppe and half a dozen other female multimedia entrepreneurs hope will produce new customers for the combined PC game-education software market, which has $1.5 billion in retail sales.

The market has been dominated by financially successful action games like Doom, Pac Man, Super Mario, Duke Nukem and Microsoft Flight Simulator. These games appealed primarily to males with their focus on racking up scores or blasting, an alien to smithereens.

Companies like Girl Games ( here in Austin; Her Interactive ( in Albuquerque, N.M., Purple Moon (www.purplemdon-com) and Girl Tech ( in the Silicon Valley of California expect to tap into this multimillion-dollar revenue stream with specially designed products that they maintain make computers and technology more accessible to girls.

"Our market is the girls who are older than Nickelodeon's but younger than MTV's," Ms. Groppe said. "She can't drive; she can't stay out late, but she's got dollars to spend. She's the untapped market.,'

Even though ideas for developing such games have been percolating in Silicon Valley and elsewhere among software makers for a decade, there seemed to be little financial incentive.

"You said, computer games for girls, and eyes just glazed over," Ms. Groppe said. "They thought niche market."

But Lee McEnany, vice president for corporate and marketing communications for Sega of America, a subsidiary of Sega Enterprises of Japan, scoffed at the idea of games for girls only.

"We don't market specifically to girls," she said. "We're not sure there is such a thing as a girl's game. We've found that 23 to 33 percent of our market is girls. Sega focuses on great games because if the game is good, girls and boys want to play it."

Ms. Groppe, who had helped develop her company's CD-ROM with focus groups of 12-year-olds, said that getting girls to buy the products was never a problem.

"I sold 1,000 units right out of the office," said Ms. Groppe, who started the company with less than $100,000 of her own money. "It was the manufacturers and retailers who I discovered were my target audience, the people I had to sell."

She found an opening late in 1994 when Simon & Schuster and other publishing companies were starting interactive divisions.

In a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster, which is owned by Viacom, Ms. Groppe introduced "Let's Talk About Me" last fall. This fall, CUC International, a multimedia company in Hartford, will release "Sabrina,

The Teen-Age Witch," another CD produced by Girl Games based on the ABC television show, which is No. 1 in the ratings among girls who are 12 to 17, according to Nielsen Media Research. Girl Games also produced "Clueless," based on the second most popular show for that age group, which Mattel New Media will put out later this year.

It may seem obvious, after years of feminism, that girls and women are a potentially huge market for computer games, but that has not been the case.

The industry began to take notice with Mattel's CD-ROM "Barbie Fashion Designer," which racked up sales of more than $500,000 in the three months after it was introduced last November.

"We think the market for girls is equal to that of boys," said Pamela Kelly, vice president for worldwide market the Barbie Media division of Mattel. "Retailers were a little hesitant because they'd never seen girls buy software. But if You make it, they will come. That is exactly what we did. It's proven. We've disbanded that myth. Girls are not afraid of technology." .

Brenda Laurel, vice president for design of Purple Moon, who has worked for 20 years in the entertainment software and technology industry, said it was less the software than the Mattel name that. got retailers' attention.

"it wasn't that someone needed to make one good example; it was that the one good example was put out by a company as powerful as Mattel," she said.

Founded in November after four years of research, Purple Moon is trying to develop a new segment of the girls' entertainment market with adventures for girls.

The company is a spinoff of the Interval Research Corporation, a Silicon Valley-based enterprise started by Microsoft's co-founder, Paul Allen, and the computer entrepreneur David Liddle.

The company introduced two of its product series, Rockett and Secret Paths, at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta on June 19 and will begin operating a World Wide Web site this fall.

Nancy Deyo, president of Purple Moon, took issue with the idea that girls were less interested than boys in computers because girls did not like the violent content of many computer games. Rather, she said, girls found such games boring.

"What they wanted were very complex plots and rich characters who are as real to them as their best friends," she said. "They didn't want only one right answer. They wanted many, many ways to play."

That male-female difference drives Janese Swanson, 39, who is chief executive of Girl Tech. Ms. Swanson - who has also been in software industry many years produced the popular Carmen San-diego for Broderbund and invented the recording toy Yak Bak for Yes Entertainment - was brought up short when, in 1995, her 8-year-old daughter pointed out that there were no computer games for her.

"I'd been inventing toys for kids that were being licensed by Sega and other companies," she said, "and suddenly realized that the message was loud and clear that technology wasn't for girls."

Ms. Swanson, who wrote a doctoral dissertation on play differences between boys and girls, said one of the company's first products, a book and CD-ROM, "Techgirl Internet Adventures," was published by the International Data Group's IDG Book Worldwide unit in March. IDG publishes the popular "For Dummies" series of how-to books.

"Girls aren't all pink and fluffy, though some are," Ms. Swanson said. "They're adventurous as well. We want to produce products that encourage girls to have adventures to explore, to compete and be cooperative."

Ms. Groppe added, "It's all about the girl, developing really awesome girls."

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