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Austin Chronicle Girl, Upgraded

How Women Are Changing the Face of Computer Games

By Sarah Hepola

DECEMBER 20, 1999: 

1. What are you most excited about learning from this article?

a. Where I can find games that interest me -- it seems like boys get all the computer fun. (5 points)

b. Where I can find other sisters online. (3 points)

c. Why games for girls are so lame. (1 point)

In an effort to reinvent the century's most resilient -- and maligned -- girl toy for a modern world, Mattel unleashed a splashy new ad campaign. "We girls can do anything!" the anthem went, and to match the emphatic pronouncement of feminine power, the company launched a new line of Barbies, working women with a bod and a brain to boot. I suppose their effort is commendable. But I wonder if -- even as a child -- I would buy that. By the age of 10, I knew that poor Joy Evans three rows down from me could barely master simple addition and subtraction. To dangle promises of rocket science before her would just be cruel. Anything? I'd like to see Barbie jump rope without the assistance of a sturdy jogging bra.

All-girl movements and sweeping all-girl pronouncements have always left me feeling a bit prickly. I may have been a 16-year-old with a predilection for pink and an attraction to shiny things rivaled only by trout, but I wouldn't have been caught dead reading Teen magazine, with its cheap, whoring pleas for my attention: "Find the perfect prom date! Wanna know what's hot this year?" The thought of schmaltz fests like Steel Magnolias and Waiting to Exhale leaves my mouth squirting bile. And the saucy Spice Girls, strutting their fannies and their "guhl powah!," just strike me as hilariously phony. If you comb my bookshelves, you will find nary a trace of Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and I will never be among the tanned, tank-topped girls swaying in the breeze at Lilith Fair. While girlfriends of mine rah-rah'ed around the WNBA and U.S. Women's Soccer team, the only thing to capture my interest at sports bars were good salty pretzels and draft beer.

So about three years ago, when I began hearing about computer games designed specifically for females, you can bet I didn't play them.

Of course, to my mind, gamers weren't girls anyway. Gamers were pimply faced losers with bad Eighties haircuts, shrouded from daylight in a dark apartment stinking of dirty clothes and kitty litter, their hands crabbed from endless hours of morphing into dragons, their Rush T-shirts dribbled with pizza sauce. We girls can do anything? No thanks, I think I'll pass.

Boy, have things changed. For one thing, gaming has grown so popular that it defies any reductive description like the one espoused above. Since 1996, game sales have increased over 60%, to become a $5.5 billion industry. Gamers may still wear Rush shirts (that is, if anyone still wears Rush shirts), but they also wear button-downs, blouses, suits and ties, Ralph Lauren shirts. According to the 1999 Interactive Digital Software Report (IDSA), the majority of people playing computer games are older than 18, and 38% percent of the people most frequently playing computer games are women. While that may be about 12 percentage points shy of a feminist's ideal, the gaming industry just continues to grow. "By the end of 1999," IDSA reports, "total computer and video game sales will approach the total box office revenue generated by the motion picture industry." And you know Rush was never that popular.

But something else has changed, too. It's not just the way we view gamers, it's the way we view technology. Once looked down upon on as geeks, technologically savvy adults are like the triumphant victors of a John Hughes film. Just open up the Business section of any paper to find a daily reminder that while you pound out another day in the salt mines, computer-savvy entrepreneurs in their 20s are amassing millions in an IPO. When a loser like Bill Gates becomes one of the most influential people in the world, maybe it's time to change the definition of "loser." The fact is, familiarity with technology and access to it will be essential for a prosperous life in the next century. Hell, it may even be essential to survive. And just as children's literature and great comic books can get kids to read, computer games provide a gateway to learn technology's basic building blocks. Sure, you can teach children technology in other ways. And you can teach them to read by studying Shakespeare, too.

That's why I became interested in games made especially for girls. Girls who are told too frequently that computer games are for boys. That technology and gadgets and discovering the way things work are a man's business. I know that because I lived it. No one, least of all my parents, told me that directly. In our society, it's far more subtle: in the presents you're bought, in the way a teacher talks to you, in the ways beloved television and film characters behave, (and here's the biggie) in the way advertising and the media treat you. I know things have changed since I was a girl -- but not that much. Changing the way we think is a painfully slow process that happens in tiny, invisible increments. And yet, that's just what many of the women interviewed for this article set out to do: Change the way we think. About games and girls.

2. Which of the following computer games is your favorite?

a. Cosmo Virtual Makeover (5 points)

b. Myst (3 points)

c. Doom (1 point)


Making Their Play

"In 1994, you would walk down an aisle at Comp USA, and it was just miles and miles of black boxes and dragons and gold writing," explains Laura Groppe, president and CEO of Girl Games Inc. A savvy businesswoman who speaks in a disarmingly smoky alto, Groppe started her one-woman company following a successful eight-year stint in Hollywood, where she received a 1992 Academy Award for Best Short Film, "Session Man," and a handful of 1994 MTV awards for co-producing the San Antonio-lensed R.E.M. video "Everybody Hurts." Along with Girl Tech, Her Interactive, and Purple Moon, Girl Games was part of a movement of all-female start-up game companies which sought to close up the great technological divide between girls and boys. Make no mistake, they were also interested in making money -- anyone who starts a business and isn't interested in making money is either hopelessly self-defeating or a trust-fund baby. But they also wanted to ensure that girls had products to play on the computer -- so that she could have just as much fun as any boy today, and so she could have a hand in shaping and sculpting the technology that comes down the road. As Groppe asks, "Who knows what the telephone would be like if women were involved in its evolution?"

But game distributors weren't buying it. Unfortunately, neither were girls. That is, until a little plastic doll with boobs hit the game market and became such a success that when girl game developers made their play, the bigwigs were pricking up their ears.

3. Do you think girl-only software should continue to be developed to keep girls interested in technology?

a. Yes! Girl products rule! (5 points)

b. I don't know. It seems like a good start, but I wish they offered more variety. (3 points)

c. No way. All this talk is a bunch of hoo-ha. (1 point)


Barbie to the Rescue

Mattel's Barbie Fashion Designer CD-ROM became the industry's first unequivocated success, selling more than 500,000 units in two months and outstripping the sales of testosterone-laden Doom and Quake. Soon after, Girl Games put out its first CD-ROM, Let's Talk About Me, a creative "aspiration" game (in that it deals with girls' concerns and aspirations) focused on finding your own identity, with categories of discussion like "my body," "my personality," and "my life." Purple Moon offered what they termed "friendship adventures," starring an entirely original lineup of female characters, lead by a precocious redhead named Rockett. But despite financial success and accolades from the press, critics were coming out of the woodwork to dismiss, or even bash, their efforts. This wasn't the empowerment any girl needed: Pink boxes? Aspiration games? Friendship adventure? Barbie?!?

And so the debate began. Whether it was a higher-echelon producer, who insisted girls were only interested in makeovers and jewelry, or female core gamers, who thumbed their noses at any higher-echelon producer's efforts to suck a girl's babysitting money dry -- it seemed as though everyone in the gaming community had an opinion on whether -- and the conditions under which -- girls should be invited to their party. And it left the leaders in the girl gaming industry in a delicate balancing act between getting people to listen and saying what no one wanted to hear.

4. Do you think young girls should play with Barbie?

a. Sure. I played with Barbie as a child, and I turned out fine. (5 points)

b. I might let her play with Barbie, but I'd make sure she had plenty of other role models, too. (3 points)

c. Get out of here. We'd all be a lot happier if she went to that Dreamhouse in the sky. (1 point)


From Womb to Tomb

Heather Kelley came to Girl Games in 1995, where she worked for three years before heading to Human Code. Of the many changes she's witnessed in the industry of the past few years is an increase in the number of girls in a typical mixed-gender game. "I think there's been an emphasis on not totally excluding girls and not giving boys this one-dimensional universe," she explains. Fighting games like Virtua Fighter have made the effort to bring in more female characters. According to Kelley, they're not just token characters, either. "They're often the more interesting characters. Just about every guy that I know picks the female characters first." Part of this change -- which Kelley admits is only a dent in shattering a larger public perception of what girls can do -- owes to an increased awareness about what messages video games send boys in a post-Columbine world. But even before that devastating event, there was someone else changing the way big distributors and gamers themselves looked at female game characters. Her name is Lara Croft.

With her balloon breasts, bee-stung lips, and sliver of a waist, Lara Croft propelled Eidos Interactive's Tomb Raider series into a multimillion-dollar phenomenon. And as a woman who kicked a fair amount of ass in the process, she became a key crossover figure who proved that men wouldn't just play with female characters, they would also buy magazines with her on the cover and build Web sites in her honor (another story altogether). Croft's success has become a thorny topic for women who have been waiting to see the game community embrace a popular female heroine. Kelley admits that she likes Lara Croft, although she does complain that "with every game that comes out, her boobs get bigger and bigger." But for many women, among them Girl Games' Laura Groppe, Tomb Raider is not any evidence of gaming enlightenment -- just another example of male play-patterns and male fantasies. "There's still the same users buying that game," Groppe argues. And though many of those gamers might be women, she insists they're the same women who play fighting and action games in the first place. "Lara Croft didn't win over a number of new gamers that were women." Probably not. But what she did do, for better or worse, was provide developers interested in including female characters a window of opportunity.

5. What do you think of Lara Croft?

a. She's the typical male fantasy -- as if anybody would EVER raid tombs in hot pants! (5 points)

b. She's a great heroine, but don't the boobs get in the way? (3 points)

c. She kicks ass and she's hot -- the perfect woman. (1 point)


What a Pair of Juggernauts!

Barbie proved girls would buy games, and Lara Croft proved boys would accept female protagonists -- key turning points in the development of software for girls -- but they did nothing to change the ideas about what kind of games and characters. The appeal of Lara Croft unleashed a flood of sex kitten heroines, poured into leather pants and throbbing with grrrrl attitude. And though Barbie jumpstarted the girl gaming movement, her overwhelming success eventually had some of the independent girl gaming community running scared. With over 25 CD-ROM titles to her name -- from Barbie Jewelry Designer to Barbie Totally Tattoos -- Barbie maintains a stronghold on the young girls' software industry. At no time was that more apparent than last March, when one of the movement's pioneers, Purple Moon, was absorbed by Barbie's own line: Mattel.

Uninterested in competing with Mattel, Laura Groppe is directing her attention to an older crowd, aggressively positioning her company as not just a game company but an entertainment company -- "the entertainment company for teenage girls." Groppe sees Girl Games moving into a variety of entertainment mediums, which includes a continuing online presence with their Web site, PlanetGirl.com, as well as the possibility of bringing their adrenaline sports brand, Indygirl, to console games, Webcasts, and television.

After years of struggling to compete with the big B, HerInteractive has finally found success with their new line of interactive mystery games based on the iconic Nancy Drew series. Having been chosen this month as one of the Editors Picks on Amazon.com, Nancy Drew: Stay Tuned for Danger continues to climb in sales on the popular e-commerce site, where it is currently slotted at No.12 -- sandwiched between Barbie Riding Club (No.14) and Barbie Gotta Groove (No.8). On the phone from the company's offices in Bellevue, Washington, HerInteractive public relations coordinator Lori Stacy is ecstatic about the game's rocketing sales -- "ready to pop the champagne," she jokes. And there's good reason. HerInteractive maintains all rights to the Nancy Drew books, of which there are more than 150. If they're sharply written, a compelling game can tap into even half the audience the books found; this would mean a thriving future for the company. But what does it say about an industry when the only titles that find financial success are merely the popular titles of another genre? HerInteractive president Megan Gaiser sees the Nancy Drew series as merely another crucial step in fully fleshing out an undeveloped market. "We're still in the infancy of interactive entertainment," she explains. "Eventually, there will be as many categories of games as there are categories of girls."

6. What do you want from a game?

a. Quizzes, communication, playing around with my look (1 point)

b. Puzzles and logic problems. I love to explore and exercise my brain. (3 points)

c. Pure adrenaline! (1 point)


Broad Appeal

Henry Jenkins knows a lot about girls and computer games. Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, Jenkins wrote a book on the topic, along with MIT colleague Justine Cassell. That book, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, is a comprehensive analysis of the rise in the girl gaming movement, the complicated gender issues surrounding it, and the debate it inspired.

I asked Jenkins what challenges he would pose to game developers and distributors today. "If you look at successful works of popular culture," Jenkins writes via e-mail, "you usually find works that appeal to multiple audiences -- young as well as old, men as well as women." For the gaming industry, that kind of mass appeal has occurred -- in logic games like Myst; puzzle games like Tetris or Alexey Pajitnov's latest title, Pandora's Box; or simulated reality games like the SimCity line -- but it's rare.

"It seems to me," Jenkins continues, "that the games industry is at something of a turning point where it remains more or less permanently ghettoized (though highly profitable) or it broadens the scope of its audience to become a true mass media." This is a challenge that has been repeatedly issued by the girl gaming movement. Changing the way distributors look at their market is, in fact, one of the movement's biggest successes. But in order for the girl gaming industry to thrive, it, too, will have to broaden the scope and the depth of its products.

I am chatting with game designer Maria Meinert in the Congress offices of Human Code, where she has worked for six years. Human Code is not a "girl game" company, although more than half of the company's producers are female, but in the past year and a half, they have developed three titles made specifically for girls: Barbie Riding Club for Mattel, Girl Talk for Hasbro, and Ellie's Enchanted Garden for Zowie Entertainment. An exuberant, articulate woman who jokingly calls herself a "tomboy/nerd girl" and admits to cooling her heels with a few rounds of the gory point-and-shoot House of the Dead, Meinert isn't exactly living in a Barbie world. And yet, when Mattel contracted Human Code to work on Barbie Riding Club, Meinert served as producer for the title. She sees that as one of the challenges of working in the industry -- "I have the opportunity to change those games, to make them grow, even in small, incremental amounts."

But she insists that that's not enough. "Now that we've identified that there's a girl market that's worth exploring," Meinert says, "let's really start innovating." Meinert sees many of the original titles for girls as a "first generation" of products -- reliable formulas designed to get a foot in the door. But now, it's time to pry the sucker open. It's not that Barbie and makeovers should be elbowed out of the market, it's that they should be put in their place. "I want to be really clear when I say that I think there's a place for everything out there," Meinert explains. "My end goal as a designer is to see the diversity that I see in other markets for girls." And that means games for tomboy/nerd girls, like herself. Games for sports fanatics. Games for bookish writer types. "What I want to see is innovation and diversity. I want to see something that balances out what I would call market-safe products." Not just Barbie. Not just Nancy Drew. But "new, rich, and deep characters" in a game that offers "more compelling narrative."

"I'd like to see whole new groups represented," says Jan Bozarth, an independent game developer who runs Blue Arrow Productions from her home in Austin. "There's a lot more to do. I want to expand what we think of as girls' products. If you don't like Barbie, then go create something new."

Heather Kelley, Meinert's colleague at Human Code, would like to do just that. In the course of our conversation, she can't keep herself from brainstorming new ideas, and her face lights up with excitement as she describes what she would like to see in the future of girl games: more intelligence in the products, with characters who can interact in complex emotional ways; great female role models that "set the standard for other media"; more variety for girls' online gaming; 3-D Web pages that would provide their own virtual personalized space for a girl and which visitors could come and explore. New games. New characters. New play patterns. New we-don't-even-know-what-they-are-yet.

7. If you could invent a game that did anything, what would it do?

a. Tell you what other people are thinking. (5 points)

b. Cure world hunger (3 points)

c. My homework and chores -- so I can play more games! (1 point)


A Chatroom of One's Own

Here's the great part.

After years of worrying that girls are falling behind boys in computer literacy, and after being ignored by the gaming industry for so long, where girls are making their presence known is on the Web. Currently, the percentage of girls and guys online is approaching 50/50, and as girls become increasingly familiar with technology, they will probably surpass their male counterparts. "I think the Internet is the thing that's really leveling the playing field in terms of guy and girl," former girl game developer Katherine Jones points out. "Because that's their place. Girls can just rule that world." Girls love the social aspect of the Internet -- e-mail, chat rooms, bulletin boards -- and the utility of it. But with the explosion of online gaming and Web sites providing content for girls, it also offers a much wider variety of interesting things to do. Because it's cheaper and requires no distribution, it allows game developers the kind of innovation they've been craving. "You don't have to have some publisher sit there and decide which box to put all the girls in," Jones says. "The Internet is the big equalizer."

Girl Games has relaunched a new version of their Web site, Planet Girl.com. Groppe describes it as "basically a network with different channels -- the sports channel, weather channel -- and on each channel there's different programs." Most users will probably make the immediate association with teen magazines, with the site touting advice columns, multiple quizzes, and fashion advice. But what the site adds to that old paradigm is far more flexibility, more immediate interaction, more options, and the opportunity for girls to directly influence and shape what they read.

Although Purple Moon's games have been absorbed by Mattel, their Web site is still in operation (http://www.purplemoon.com). HerInteractive offers downloads of their Nancy Drew games on their Web site (http://www.herinteractive.com), and Janese Swanson of Girl Tech describes their Web site, Club Girl Tech (http://www.girltech.com), as the "hub of the company." But these sites are just a few in a huge community of women online, creating content that is unique and daring. Jenkins suggests this is where the new wave of innovation will happen: "We will see the emergence of a "garage' aesthetic in games, and games for girls which can't compete with Barbie will have a chance to survive and find a market in this new media economy." Of course, there are still issues to wrestle with online -- issues of privacy and safety, which transcend gender. But the good news is that the opportunity for girls interested in technology and gaming is just getting bigger all the time.

Girls who want to know if the boy they have a crush on likes them can do that; girls who want to blow stuff up can do that; girls who want to solve puzzles can do that. "Girls love the accessibility, the creativity, the community of it," Groppe explains. "That's why the Web is the golden egg."

And in Austin, all-girl technology groups like Beth Sams' Giga Gals (at the Austin Children's Museum) and Stefani Austin's SmartGrrls not only help girls get online, they help them create their own Web sites and become more confident using the technology. SmartGrrls recently announced the launch of the first all-girl technology center in Texas, to open close to the University of Texas campus this February, and they expect to serve more than 1,000 women in the first year.

8. What's the best thing about the Internet?

a. It's a way to talk with my friends. (5 points)

b. It's a tool for learning -- I can surf and find out anything I need. (3 points)

c. It's a virtual playground. (1 point)


Thinking Outside the Box

The frustration I feel about girl-centered anything really boils down to one thing: The awful, prickling sensation that courses through my body when someone tries to tell me who I am -- and gets it wrong. So much of what is marketed for girls does not appeal to me -- whether it's emotionally gooey television shows or sensationalist fashion magazines like Cosmopolitan. But I don't speak for all girls. I don't intend to. No one can, and that's why it's so important that the industry continues to push for more variety -- in girls and boys products. Both camps could learn a thing or two from each other -- why can't more girl games channel the excitement and thrill of traditional boys games? And why can't a game for boys emphasize important life skills like communication or buying toilet paper when it runs out?

Still, what's exciting about the girl gaming industry is that as technology evolves, and as the first generation who grew up online enter the marketplace searching for how they can change the face of technology -- girls will be there.

We girls can do anything? Well, I guess we'll find out.


How'd You Do?

Total your points for questions 1-8. The number you come up with will tell you what kind of a gamer you are!

30-40: You are a true-blue girly-girl. You love to chat online with your friends, and you're sensitive to others. Friends love your fashion sense and the way you talk with people. The Backstreet Boy you are most compatible with is cuddly Howie.

20-29: As far as you're concerned, variety is the spice of life. One day, you might unwind with a little Goldeneye, but another day, you might spend hours on a girl's Web site. Friends love your flexibility and your varied interests. The Backstreet Boy you are most compatible with is diplomat Brian.

9-19: You are a hardcore gaming mama. You quake with joy to feel the power of the joystick in your hand. You are independent and don't care what people think of you. You go, girl! The Backstreet Boy you are most compatible with is racy A.J.


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