Girls Want to Have Fun on the Computer, Too

The children's software industry likes boys. But girls?

Walk the aisles of the local video-game store and you'll find slim pickings beyond the shoot-em, bash-em, race-em variety of software titles. Even well-regarded software is often male-oriented. When Children's Software Revue surveyed lead characters in computer games during 1996 and '97, it found only a third of them were female.

No wonder girls fall behind boys in computer use around the sixth grade. The industry virtually ignores them.

Fortunately, some companies are trying to readjust the balance. Publishers like Her Interactive and Simon & Schuster have put out girl-specific games such as "McKenzie & Co." and "Let's Talk About Me." Mattel gave a huge boost to girl's software last year by selling more than 1 million copies of "Barbie Fashion Designer." This fall Mattel will release "Talk With Me Barbie," a doll that is programmed via computer to speak (moving lips and all).

While these programs address the void in girl's software, they're not exactly breaking new ground - or old stereotypes. Only a few titles go beyond the doll-play and fantasy clothes-closet concepts that are common. These include "Telling Our Stories: Women in Science" (Tom Snyder Productions) and another Her Interactive title, "The Vampire Diaries," if you care for vampire mysteries.

Starting this fall, new software companies will venture into this underserved territory. They aim to prove in the marketplace what researchers already have figured out: Girls like adventures, but they play them differently than boys do.

"The No. 1 reason that girls don't use a computer [adventure game] is not because it's too violent, it's because it's too boring," says Karen Gould, public relations manager for Purple Moon, a Mountain View, Calif., software company. The characters in traditional computer games aren't complex enough for girls and the simple outcomes - you win or you lose - are too limiting even for preteen girls, she adds.

That is why, next month, Purple Moon is releasing the first two of what it calls "friendship adventures": Rockett's "New School" and "Secret Paths in the Forest." The challenge in these titles is not simple win-or-lose but exploration and the complexity of human relationships.

Priced at $29.95, the games will run on Windows-based and Macintosh machines.

Another newcomer is two-year-old Girl Tech, which will release three girl-oriented software adventures next year. The company is keeping quiet about its exact plans, but it clearly plans to broaden the emerging category of girls' software. "We're not relying on the stereotypical makeup, boyfriends, go-to-the-mall, lets-see-how-many-ways-we-can-cut-our-hair" type of software, says company spokeswoman Linda Halunen. There's nothing wrong with these programs, she adds. But "we're going after that innate adventurous spirit that all girls possess."

Both companies are relying heavily on extensive research about girls and what girls like in software. Purple Moon was spun out of Interval Research Corp., a research group funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to find out why girls were being left out. Girl Tech is led by Janese Swanson, who produced among other things, the award-winning Carmen Sandiego games.

This doesn't mean girls shouldn't play traditional arcade-type games or that boys can't enjoy more subtle, character-rich challenges. The research also shows "there are more differences within a gender than between them," says Ms. Halunen of Girl Tech. But all children ought to have a wide spectrum of choice in playing with the tools that will shape their jobs and their futures.

* Send comments to lbelsie@ ix.netcom.com or visit my "In Cyberspace" forum at www.csmonitor.com

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