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Girl Games: Adventures in Lip Gloss

February 13, 1998
 

You are Rockett Movado, about to begin your first day of eighth grade at Whistling Pines Junior High. Your one concern is that you don't make a "mega blunder " on your very fist day -- "that would be really choice."

As you sit on a bench in the school yard next to a freckled girl named Jessie, three of your future classmates arrive, their noses high in the air. "Ho-hum. Another year with Jessie ... I wonder if she got any more interesting over the summer?" the tall blonde one laughs. Jessie looks shaken, but after the clique passes she asks you if you want to walk in with her.

Do you (A) turn her down, because you are "not ready for sidekicks yet"; (B) go with her, since she's better than no one; or (C) stay put, since you are too scared to move. You click (A) to turn her down (after all, the popular girls don't like her!) and are immediately confronted by yet another dilemma--a redhead wearing the same skirt and tights as you! Now you've really blown it!

Welcome to Rockett's New School - the first in a new slew of computer games aimed at the "hard-to-reach" market of pre-adolescent girls.

Armed with research they say proves girls don't like the "overtly competitive" games that "boys like", and fueled by the success of Mattel Media's CD-ROM game Barbie Fashion Designer last fall, new companies like Purple Moon, the maker of Rockett, have come onto the market to attract the dollars of young girls.

But these "girl games" offer little hope for greater gender equity in the gaming world. By focusing on popularity and fashion--even if this is what some girls want to focus on--the majority of them reinforce the very same stereotypes they purport to combat.

The Problem With Rockett

Rockett's New School is a "choose your own adventure" game--a common type of software in which each selection you make determines what scenarios will follow. But unlike most games of this type, Rockett's choices advance no plot--they merely affect how well Rockett gets along with others. At the end of the game, Rockett has no score or resolution--she stands alone outside the girls' room, with only her "girl message getter" answering machine to check into. In the second of the Rockett series, Tricky Decision (due for release this spring), Rockett gets to choose between "two cool parties, same night."

Purple Moon's other CD-ROM, Secret Paths in the Forest, follows a similarly aimless route. Also point-and-click, Secret Paths claims to help girls resolve their problems--like sibling rivalry, body image, handling parents' divorce, going to summer camp, or losing the soccer championship--by means of searching for hidden crystals and turning them into "magic necklaces."

Both products are marketed with an extensive line of optional merchandise: colored crystals and Adventure Friend dolls (some of which come free with the software), perfumed and fruity-flavored lip gloss, Jonathan Martin Girls backpacks and baby-tees, and subscription offers to Girls' Life, the magazine "packed with real-life advice on everything that matters most to girls...friends, family, school and guys, clothes, skin and hair!"

With six billion dollars in sales, the game market is immense. Purple Moon will sell its wares in major department stores and software outlets, advertise on national television during Friday night programs like Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and distribute sample copies of its CD-ROMs to half a million households. Through this "innovative marketing strategy," it claims, "girls win by finally getting the meaningful interactive entertainment they deserve."

But are "Friendship Adventures" focusing on popularity and clothing really what girls "deserve?"

They are what the "average girl" wants, insists Purple Moon founder Brenda Laurel, who as an employee of Interval Research Corporation (a high-tech marketing strategies think tank funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen) spent four years researching what kind of computer games girls want to play. The research, which is based on 1100 interviews with girls and boys in "friendship pairs," their teachers and camp counselors, and video arcade managers, was later dubbed by Purple Moon "the first comprehensive profile of girls."

Laurel's main finding is that girls and boys play differently. According to her interpretation of the data, girls compete horizontally and boys compete hierarchically; girls assert social influence and structure relationships while boys seek to dominate and defeat. She also says that girls gain social status by affiliating with some people and excluding others, and boys gain social status by achievement and physical domination; girls want multi-sensory immersion, discovery, and strong story lines, and boys want speed and action; girls succeed through development of friendships, and boys through elimination of competitors. While girls play "to explore and have new experiences, with degrees of success and varying outcomes," boys, Laurel's research contents, play "to win."

For these reasons, Laurel concludes, girls need "friendship adventures," boys need "action games." And, because "historically, the industry has defined games based largely on boys' interests and play behaviors," Laurel spun off Purple Moon from Interval to create a separate market niche for games designed with girls in mind. Her stated goals are nothing if not ambitious: "If Purple Moon is successful," she wrote, "we think that we can do for girls and technology what Title IX did for girls and sports...[that is] open the floodgates and transform the role of technology in girls' lives" via a line of software and merchandise under several brand names aimed at girls ages 8 through 12.

Laurel's perspective does raise the point that our violent and combative society undervalues the qualities of cooperation and relationship-building. But her games do little to teach girls about true friendships. The characters range from shallow and self-absorbed ("A face without makeup is so un-chic!" says Nicole) to cliquey and cruel ("It never hurts my status as part of the popular crowd to be seen with Chaz!" Steph brags).

Furthermore, in her quest to design games that are "intrinsically meaningful to girls" by addressing "their most important needs and interests," Laurel discounts the possibility that boys learn techniques for success in the business world--including competitiveness and drive for achievement--from "action games." Depriving girls of that training will not change the way the economy operates; in fact, it will more likely serve to perpetuate the sexist status quo.

Experts in the fields of sex equality and socialization agree. "This is just another example of the tawdry history of sex difference research that is driven by stereotypes and results in reinforcing those stereotypes," says Dr. Barrie Thorne, Professor of Sociology at U.C. Berkeley and author of the definitive text Gender Play. According to Thorne, who has 20 years of experience studying play patterns of girls and boys, "most researchers are now focusing on variation among girls, and among boys, and on areas of commonality, rather than on simplistic claims of dichotomous gender difference."

In other words, if we truly want to integrate girls into the technological and gaming worlds, we need to focus on destroying the stereotypes that keep them out. "Given that computers are so integral to the high-paying math and science employment opportunities," Thorne says, "It is tragic that a profit-motive is driving so much of this product development. These developers, who claim to be working in the best interests of women, are dressing up the stereotypes they reinforce in a demonstrably false mantel of science."

Sharon Presley, Executive Director of Resources for Independent Thinking, a Northern California non-profit educational organization, echoes Thorne's sentiments. "The gender differences that these companies point to are not supported by the research. Perpetuating the idea that girls are good and nice and boys are violent does a disservice to us all." Why would girls buy these games? "At that age, it is important to fit in, and gender identity constitutes a big part of one's self-esteem," says Presley.

And thus is born a market of girls behaving in gender-"appropriate" code, pulling pastel boxes of software from pink-colored shelves.

Do Girls Play Games?

For the millions of women who grew up playing video games like Space Invaders, PacMan, Frogger, Pong, Tetris and Centipede, the "fact" that girls don't play games should come as quite a surprise. It comes as no less of a surprise for the game companies.

According to Lee McEnany-Caraher, vice president of corporate and consumer communications of Sega of America, the manufacturer of the popular Genesis and Saturn console game systems, more than half of all American households have some sort of video game console, and, in approximately 40 percent of those households, girls are the primary players.

Says McEnany-Caraher, "The other day I asked a seventh grade class, 'Who has played a video game?' Every student raised their hand except for one boy, and the class was pretty evenly split--74 girls, 76 boys. I asked the girls, 'Who has brothers?' Only half raised their hands, but every student had a video game system in their home."

Sega deliberately designs games that appeal to the broadest possible audience. It's most popular, Sonic the Hedgehog, was designed for universal appeal across age and gender and a recent release, Enemy Zero, stars a heroine with the voice of a singer from the popular all-female rock band, Luscious Jackson.

Sony Computer Entertainment, manufacturer of the Playstation game console, takes a similar approach. According to Andrew House, vice president of marketing, some of the Playstation's most popular games are the ones that have shown "crossover appeal."

Tomb Raider, for example, which involves a female protagonist named Lara Croft, has sold copies into the millions and was named Game of the Year by several top game magazines. In Tomb Raider's rich landscape, Lara runs, scales mountains and skyscrapers, drives a 10,000 hp motorcycle, and shoots dangerous animals with a gun in each hand as she explores the mountains, valleys and oceans in pursuit of stolen treasure. Lara Croft's unnecessarily busty figure has led to some complaints of sexism from feminists, but others insist there is a certain appeal to having a traditional male hero in the form of a female character, one who attracts female players without repelling the male market.

Following Tomb Raider's success, Sony's fall 1997 line-up includes other games that have universal appeal--Final Fantasy VII, a role-playing Japanese anime-style adventure; Intelligent Qube, a three-dimensional, more-complex version of the puzzle game Tetris, and, best of all, PaRappa the Rapper, a Simon-says-style "musical" genre game, that has already sold almost a million copies in Japan (where the consumer base is said to be 40 percent female) and Europe.

In fact, the best-selling computer software game of the decade is Broderbund Software's MYST, an immersive role-playing puzzle, that has sold more than 3.5 million copies since 1993, one-third of which were sold to females. Similarly, according to PC Data, a market research firm that tracks software sales, non-violent games like Monopoly, Civilization and Sim City have often edged out more violent action games like Doom, Diablo and Quake.

For younger kids' "edutainment" as well, crossover games such as Broderbund's Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego have consistently dominated sales. (In the case of the Sandiego series, over six million copies have been sold since the original was released in 1985.)

Most of these games exhibit the very characteristics that Purple Moon says girls want ("multi-sensory immersion, discovery and strong story lines") while lacking what she claims boys want (speed and action). All of which should lead Laurel to an obvious question: could it be that both girls and boys simply want challenging games with rich graphics and great sounds?

A Non-Gendered Solution

All of the successful cross-over games described above notwithstanding, the world of games--from developers to characters to players--is still dominated by males. Why is this so?

We live in a gender-segregated world, with social reinforcement at every turn. Parents, teachers, and mass media all influence the play behavior of children. In some families, traditional and progressive, girls may be discouraged from playing overtly competitive and violent games. And sports-games like football and hockey appeal more to the children--and adults--who play the sports themselves.

Gaming companies tend to advertise primarily in media space they view either as male or mixed like MTV, rather than female-targeted publications like Seventeen. "We have found that boys are more likely than girls to buy the games without playing them first," says Sega's McEnany-Cararher. It seems possible that changing the marketing of currently available games--for example by advertising in female-targeted spaces with female models -- may diversify the gaming world without resorting to "friendship adventures."

One aspect on which girl-game manufacturers and their critics agree is that bringing girls into gaming will better integrate them into the world of technology. The question is: how to attract girls without resorting to stereotypical social roles?

One non-sexist alternative to gendered games like those of Purple Moon is offered by Susan Lammers, President and Founder of Headbone Interactive. Lammers insists on hiring female game developers and creating games with intelligent and interesting female (and male) characters, such as the colorful and musical Iz and Auggie Escape from Dimension Q and Elroy Hits the Pavement. Headbone's collection of 8 CD-ROMs and its game-enriched Web site serve a 50/50 female/male audience. Lammers's formula is simple: "If you create a character that is balanced, it can appeal to both boys and girls."

"Segregating girls' games from boys' sends a very clear message," says Kate Schram, technology manager of a "cybercafe" that rents out game and computer time to children. "Instead of telling girls they can do anything boys can do with technology, it tells girls that they are different, that they occupy a different--and lesser--role." Schram observes the behavior of countless kids at play every day and since she herself is one of the few females in this male-dominated world of high-technology, these issues resonate with her.

"A lot of times people don't take me seriously because I am a girl. Girls just are not being given a chance," she says.

Choose-your-adventure click-games offer few of the benefits that competitive, strategy, and even reflex-oriented games offer boys. Perhaps even more important, segregating girls' games from boys' games can reinforce similar segregation in other aspects of life--such as work and school. After all, "child's play" can be viewed as practice for adult life. In any case, girls and young women deserve better games that break down gender barriers instead of building even bigger ones, based on research flawed by outdated gender stereotypes.

Rebecca L. Eisenberg (mars@well.com) is a freelance writer, consultant, attorney and regular columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, covering issues of technology, business and culture from San Francisco. Eisenberg lives on line at http://www.bossanova.com/rebeca/.


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