Move over, Pac-Man, here comes Harried Housewife - a home computer game that has participants cleaning, working, and juggling an endless list of chores. The big payoff for high scorers: a video hot bath and a nap.
HH is one of four games in a package called Working Mother's Dilemma, invented by two software satirists who run a brand new firm called 2-Bit Software in Del Mar, Calif. ''The Harried Housewife comes straight out of my mother's experience,'' says 2-Bit director of marketing Jan Zimmerman. ''She raised four children and used to fall asleep in the den at the end of the day. For her, the best reward was getting to put her feet up.''
Mad Dash, another game, poses a dilemma her mother was also familiar with, giving players ''typically impossible household situations.'' A pot boils, the phone rings, the baby cries - and you've got to cope with it all.
This mother gets out of the house in the other two games: in Carfool, she must run all over town with little gas in the car; and in Shopping Mall, she must find her car in a parking lot maze.
The games, which are selling in southern California stores and by direct mail ''in the hundreds,'' says Ms. Zimmerman, were invented to make computers more accessible to the average woman. She and her partner, Sandra Hutchins (who taught reentry skills to women at the college level), decided that most computer games have ''imagery and content that is irrelevant to women,'' says Ms. Zimmerman. ''There's very little software that appeals to women, and so most women are turned off by computer games.
''We wanted to create something that would validate a woman's experience, and something that was reality oriented, not just another 'Go find the blond princess' dilemma.''
Inabeth Miller, a librarian at Harvard University who has tracked the use of computers in educational institutions for the past four years, says she ''agrees with the philosophy 100 percent,'' saying that most software today is designed for the ''white male market - the fantasies are male fantasies, and computers are presented in male environments at school'' such as the math and science departments and in ''basement rooms that are jock hangouts.''
Researchers have long observed a difference in the way males and females over the age of 12 approach computers, says Ms. Miller, with males acting far more interested and enthusiastic. Some companies - such as 2-Bit Software - are trying to design software that generates the same enthusiasm in women, she says.
But she has problems with 2-Bit's solution, which she believes is stereotyped the other way. ''It's more than a little offensive to have women banging into cars in a parking lot, or running through a day with pots boiling and babies crying,'' she believes.
But Ms. Zimmerman disagrees, contending that playing such games will help many women become more comfortable with computers and ease them into its use. And the programmer noticed something else about many housewives and mothers: ''They haven't got time to play a long, elaborate game,'' she says. ''So we designed short games they can sit down and play in just a few minutes. Also, we don't know any women who are going to spend $35 just for a game for themselves, so we're selling this package for around $15,'' she says.
They aimed it deliberately at one of the simplest, least expensive computers - the Timex Sinclair - because ''women are intimidated by computers, and won't spend a lot of money on a big, elaborate system,'' Ms. Zimmerman explains.
Suzanne Corl Gee, one of 2-Bit's customers in Cortland, N.Y., finds it inoffensive and relaxing. ''When my day gets overflowing, it's fun to sit in front of the computer and play this,'' she says.
Others have ''bought it for their mothers or their husbands,'' says Ms. Zimmerman.