21st: The girl-game jinx

The girl-game jinx: By Elizabeth Weil. Computer games targeted for girls are storming the marketplace. Why haven't they found a place in their customers' hearts?

By Elizabeth Weil
December 1, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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The 1997 Computer Game Developers Conference, held earlier this year in Santa Clara, Calif., featured five sessions on computer games for girls, all of which were packed past fire code. This was not like past Computer Game Developers Conferences. Previously, discussion of computer games for girls consisted of some punk with a $100 million company saying, "Girls don't like our games? Well, good!" This year, when a staffer pinned a "session full" sign outside the final panel on "What Do Female Game Players Really Want?" a riot nearly broke out.

The trouble started with a Microsoft man proclaiming, loudly, that he was being denied access to the only session that mattered -- the only session geared at opening up a new market. Then the 30 or so shut-outs stormed the conference room.


Inside, decorum did not resume. The stragglers lined the windowless walls. They gaped as the '70s-feminist moderator (who was sure she knew what girls wanted) knocked heads with the frustrated industry vets (who clearly had no idea). The moderator wrote on the white board: "Female players want games that are social, games without gratuitous human violence, games that make them feel." The vets skewered her maxims as offensively neat.

A woman in the back corner raised her hand. "Excuse me, but I'm a woman and I'm antisocial."

Next a guy from Columbia Tristar Online suggested: "Couldn't we just rename this session 'How To Create Games for Somebody Other Than a 14-Year-Old Boy?'"


Finally, a designer with unruly brown hair slammed two fists on the table. "You want to know what female players would really like?" she said. "It's like this eighth-grade girl once told me: I would like it if it was good."

No one left with answers. No one left feeling good. Afterwards a few women stood cross-armed in the atrium, griping about the fact that few conference attendees seemed capable of making eye contact with a female, let alone capable of making an interactive experience to engage, wow or otherwise entice one.

But the issues surrounding the creation of computer games for girls are far more complicated than that. Over the past few years, two attitude-altering events have occurred. One, the gaming industry severely overextended itself in the adolescent boy niche, filling store shelves with look-alike products. Two, between October 1996 and March 1997, a game called "Barbie Fashion Designer" sold half a million units to supposedly technophobic little girls.


No one quite expects the girls' market to rival the $1.8 billion boys' market. Still, what we're seeing now is the adolescence of the gaming industry: The boys spent their formative years shunning female players, doing their best to make them squirm. But now they're having second thoughts. The cooties have subsided -- they see the appeal of girls.

Postures are shifting on the female side as well. Several girl-oriented companies have emerged over the past three years. Some are led by women, like Girl Games Inc.'s Laura Groppe, who didn't notice until recently that the boys were into some serious and lucrative fun. Others are run by longtime gamers like Sheri Graner Ray of Her Interactive.


Meanwhile, at least one pioneer of the girl-game cause has recently given up on it. Heidi Dangelmaier publicly took on the boys two years before anybody else -- but as she now sees it, the girl game is a doomed enterprise. The terms are all wrong. To label a product for girls implies that it's not for everyone who values intimacy, expression, depth of feeling -- all the things girls want. And to label a product a game implies that it's derivative and lightweight -- as if software that enables intimacy, expression and depth of feeling wouldn't be a revolution in and of itself.

Dangelmaier's Manhattan office floats on the top floor of a building on 32nd Street and Lexington Avenue. The loft has a shiny bronze floor and cool blue walls. The windows span 270 degrees. Visitors, upon walking in, often feel an ashramlike calm. Dangelmaier, however, feels no such peace. "Why isn't the product fresh?" she laments. "Why isn't the product elegant?" Her eyes seem to move closer together when she gets worked up. "I'm just so fucking tired of all this sterile righteous stereotypical girl stuff. I've had to dissociate myself from that."

Dangelmaier is 33, artsy, a scientist by training and unafraid of critique. In 1993 she published a groundbreaking article in the influential newsletter Digital Media. She demanded to know why, with half a billion girls aching for computer software, the industry had never made an intelligent effort to create products to meet their needs. The following year she leveled the charge again, this time in person at the Computer Game Developers' Conference. As she expected, the gaming community reacted with a firestorm of personal and professional attacks.


"What all these new girl products should have done was open up different ways the interactive medium can integrate into our free time and our social time, and instead what's being produced is just really cheesy and petty." Dangelmaier flings open a set of French doors and steps out onto the 18th-story deck. As she sees it, no one's thinking beyond electronic teen magazines and after-school specials. No one's cracked open a whole new form. "What needs to happen is for girls games to get out of the realm of gender and into the realm of design."

Dangelmaier walks to the deck's railing, stares across at the Chrysler and Empire State buildings and proceeds to share her own design insights -- most fundamentally, her belief that the history of the gaming industry is the history of how things evolve in an inbred male niche. When "Pong" booted up the market in 1974, videogames were not a boy thing or a girl thing. When "Ms. PacMan" hit the arcades in 1979, gender issues were no big deal. Nobody lost any quarters when, in the late '80s, the percentage of female videogame players started to decline. But in 1992, Dangelmaier decided to ditch her computer science Ph.D. program at Princeton to "lay my head into this sucker." She wanted to find out why girls were walking away from games, and why the game makers didn't seem to care.

Dangelmaier wangled herself a desk at Sega. She spent two years poking into play patterns, sex typing, software trends, and marketing, and what she concluded was stunningly simple: The gaming console itself was gender-neutral, but personal priorities -- the priorities of the young male gamers working in the industry -- dictated the products being made. "It's really basic," Dangelmaier says, downshifting her voice from passionate advocate to logical theorist, moving back from the edge to the deck's interior and sitting down on a wicker couch. "If you have to explain why something's fun it's not going to get funded. So I might come up with some game that's really exciting to me" -- one that pushes female hot buttons -- "but in order to get it produced, some boy of tech had to look at it and say, 'That's cool.'"


Thus boy bosses green-lighted boy-oriented projects because those were the ones they understood and liked. Myopic maybe, not nefarious. Still, the trend had consequences few thought to predict. Within a matter of years, gaming hardware started adapting to fit the titles boys preferred. Then, as now, more games were played on video consoles than on PCs. Then, as now, fighter titles -- bleed-and-twitch, as they're called -- were all the rage. Bleed-and-twitch games required quick response times and minimal storage. To hone the genre -- to create really sublime diversions for boys -- platform memory was sacrificed for speed. "Why don't game machines have memory?" asks Dangelmaier. "It's a choice. You don't need it for any response games."

All this leads up to Dangelmaier's point: Response games do not fulfill everyone's entertainment needs. They do not fulfill the needs of almost all girls. They do not fulfill the needs of most non-adolescent males, who along with most females, tend to prefer constructing things -- relationships, block piles, Barbie fashions, whatever -- as opposed to blowing shit up. "And guess what?" she says. "You need memory to run those other kinds of software." PC hardware, of course, has memory. The extension of the gaming industry onto the computer desktop has changed the technical landscape -- but not the industry's boy orientation. So ends Dangelmaier's parable of the gaming industry and the narrow niche: A small group of hard-core male gamers indulged their sense of what was fun to do, and eventually that's what the hardware could do best.

Out in Albuquerque, Sheri Graner Ray, Her Interactive's director of product development, sits in a cramped office in a clunky two-story building playing "Bad Mojo," a CD-ROM game involving a cockroach. She's twirled her blinds shut to the glare. Shoved in the back corner, still in shrink-wrap, lies a single copy of "MacKenzie & Company," Her Interactive's first title, a game about finding a date for the prom.

"We're still sort of like the dancing dog," Graner Ray says of the girl games business, scuttling her roach about the on-screen kitchen. "One marvels less at how well the dog dances than that the dog dances at all." Here she nabs a fly, let's out a "yesss!" and offers some personal history: "Back when I was working at Origin Systems I asked this producer, 'Why don't you make games to include your female players?' And he looked at me and said, 'I have more left-handed players than I have female players and I don't make games for left-handed people. Why should I make games for you?'"


Graner Ray is 35, pale-skinned, a hard-core gamer with an unfussy manner from a first career training dogs. She came to the industry the old-fashioned way: through Dungeons & Dragons. As far back as 1989, she had a sign propped on her desk that read, "And what if the player were female?" But her male co-workers -- who outnumbered her female co-workers 66-3 -- laughed. Then they got mad. And when Graner Ray kept pushing the issue, they quit telling her where to find team meetings. "Two years ago, there were 3,000 titles out there for boys, and if you were a 14-year-old girl, there wasn't anything out there for you," she says. Even the marketing channels, she notes, conspire against women. "You can't put a girls game in Egghead and expect it to sell. Girls don't shop there. They aren't comfortable. Not any more comfortable than they'd be in a men's underwear department."

More than the other contenders in the emerging girls' market, Graner Ray has kept her eye focused on the word "games." As part of a women's studies degree she's completing at the University of New Mexico, she has forged a neatly packaged theory of male and female entertainment requirements. She cites three main areas of "actual, physiological" variance. One, males respond most to visual stimuli, females to emotion and touch. Two, males like to tackle conflicts head-to-head; females prefer compromise, diplomacy, negotiation and manipulation. Three, males tend to be satisfied with visual rewards, while females require emotional resolution.

In other words, you can't put "Doom" in a pink box and expect it to sell. "If you're going to make interactive games for women, you must give them mutually beneficial solutions to socially significant problems," Graner Ray summarizes. "By mutually beneficial, I mean the solution benefits both the player and the characters in the game. And socially significant? I don't mean solving world hunger. I mean any situation that involves other people, a social group."

For examples, Graner Ray notes that your basic screaming car chase will excite only men, but put a kidnapped child in the first car and a panicked mother in the second and you'll excite women, too. She cites "Myst," a game that requires solving a family's problems in order to rescue them off a deserted island -- a game that, albeit unintentionally, drew a huge female audience, selling 3.5 million units, far more than any other computer game to date. From all this one might logically deduce that what girls want is better games. Unfortunately, though, that's not what's being produced under the "girls" banner.


One piercingly bright Tuesday morning I sit in as Graner Ray summons her crew -- five men, three women, all gamers but not devoted players of girl games -- around a fake-wood conference table, gripping 24-ounce coffee mugs, braced for an ad hoc team meeting. Today the task at hand is to drum up new plot twists and puzzles for Her Interactive's upcoming title, "Nancy Drew, The Case Files: Secrets Can Kill." A few minutes are spent rehashing last evening's highly charged tournament of the classic fighter game "Tekken Two." Then they settle in, loose but focused. Initially, at least, the team seems to be working in a productively irreverent way.

First, Her Interactive's webmaster suggests that Nancy engage in some low-grade hacking, cracking open a program called Ventana '97.

Next, the woman who designs the interiors spins an elaborate subplot involving Nancy breaking in to the teacher's lounge with glass cutters or, even more amusingly, plastique.

Nearing 11 a.m., Graner Ray herself chips in with a promising tangent about Nancy trapping the villain in the boiler room with the aid of an acetylene torch.


Yet somehow, by noon, all that's slipped away, and a more predictable scenario -- Nancy finds a purse, complete with compact, lipstick and credit card -- goes up on the board. "We're going to get hit with, 'It's so stereotypical. It's such a girl game,'" a graphic designer says under her breath. "But what are you going to do, you know? Girls like lipstick. I have lipstick in my purse."

It is tempting to assert that girl games fall flat because of their subject matter. But in fact most girl games today flounder because they're poorly executed, shallow and underrefined. The products can feel like artless preteen musings -- and to a certain extent, they are.

"I've had so many girls' eyes on my stuff. I never took a step without having their feedback," says Girl Games Inc.'s Laura Groppe, the force behind "Let's Talk About Me!" a title that boasts such characters as Miss Hottie Bottie, who advises drinking six to eight glasses of water a day for clear skin, and Señora Obscura Sabidez, who counsels carrying tissues, chapstick and a wet suit if your boyfriend kisses like a dead fish. "To me it seems so obvious how to succeed in this market: You do your research. You know your customer. You know the corporations who know your customer. You come at it from the mind-set of a 12-year-old girl."

Groppe is charming, blond, an Academy Award-winning producer, a formidable self-promoter with a coy Texan drawl. In 1994 she left Hollywood for Austin and founded Girl Games Inc. She spent a couple of summers at Rice University studying "what girls really want from technology." Now she refers to 9-to-12-year-old females as "her girls." For fun -- or so she claims -- she reads Seventeen, watches "Sabrina" and hangs at the mall.

"My programmers are always telling me buttons have to be in these specific states and handing me books this big on interface design," she says, spreading her thumb and index finger, playing up her role as anti-technologist/girl-advocate. "But I don't give a shit. I tell my programmers what the girls are responding to and what they intuitively get. ... Half the time the guys are looking at me and saying, that's fun? And I'm saying, yeah, that's fun. That's a barrel of monkeys."

In Silicon Valley, Purple Moon, an offshoot of Interval Research, has taken a similarly studied, if more rigorous, approach to creating games for girls -- basing much of its work on research by digital-design legend Brenda Laurel. As Purple Moon president and CEO Nancy Deyo explains it, the company spent three years hanging around with anthropologists, sociologists, primates and actual human children, acquiring what Deyo refers to as "a deep knowledge of girls."

For starters, Purple Moon pried into gaming myths: Girls don't like violence (truth: Girls just are bored by die-and-start-over, beat-the-game challenges products); girls aren't competitive (truth: Girls compete, but often in subtle and indirect ways). Next they "co-created, if you will" -- designing products "almost in unison with parents and with girls." And now, finally, with the aid of a strong-arm PR firm, they've launched "Rockett's New School," a "friendship adventure for girls."

Merchandising is central to Purple Moon's business plan: According to Deyo, for each of Rockett's characters, a posable 3-D doll and playing card will be available at extra cost. Girls will encounter these characters not just on CD-ROM but on the Internet, in books and on TV. "Eight-to-12-year-old girls just have an intense fascination with characters who span media forms," she says, betraying her background in brand management, coolly pitching her empire-to-be. "They love that ubiquitousness, that feeling of, oh my God, this character's everywhere! We want girls to hang out with Purple Moon wherever they go. And that pervasiveness, we believe, will help us deliver on a suite of experiences that is just really really relevant and meaningful to them."

In other words, Deyo wants a product like Barbie. Barbie has 99 percent market penetration. Ninety-nine percent of American girls between the ages of 3 and 10 own at least one Barbie doll, says Mattel, which claims the average number is nine. Barbie is ubiquitous and Barbie can haul in enough cash to make even Purple Moon's owner -- Bill Gates' former partner Paul Allen -- proud.

Inconveniently, though, Barbie on CD-ROM seems to require constant spin control. Critics have a way of demanding that software be good for girls. Thus, these days, Nancie Martin -- creator of "Barbie Fashion Designer," former editor in chief of Tiger Beat, author of "Miss America Through the Looking Glass" -- spends much of her energy dreaming up redemptive qualities for her work.

When I meet Martin for coffee, she's dressed in a pastel jacket and French cuffs. She explains that Barbie has to have the figure she does so she will look normal in the hang and nap of her clothes. She explains that girls aren't supposed to aspire to look like Barbie -- Barbie is supposed to be a vehicle through which they can play out their aspirations and their dreams. In a sort of rope-a-dope, she concedes the existence of "a certain kind of feminist framework which doesn't allow for the presence of a Barbie-like object." But then she comes back with a reference to Carol Gilligan.

"Recently I've been rereading 'In a Different Voice,'" she says. "I really wanted to do something about that plummeting self-esteem. I've always felt like it's really important to give girls something they can feel good about, a sense of mastery. And if we can do that with 'Barbie Fashion Designer' when they're 6 or 7 or 8, and if that carries over to when they're 11 or 12 or 13, then we'll be ahead of the game."

The exercise in rationalization is ludicrous, as ludicrous as claiming that this year's hot-selling "Duke Nukem" -- a title that packs massive guys, massive guns and erotic dancers who for five Duke dollars flash their low-res breasts -- is actually good for boys. As enlightened insiders are fond of saying, everybody knows there's nothing redeeming about the gaming industry. And in fact, only outsiders seem to be doing anything good for girls -- people like 28-year-old Theresa Duncan, a New York artist who spent her childhood dressing up in dime-store tiaras and shooting frogs with a BB gun and who names her goal as creating good art, not making millions or elevating psyches.

"What's the name of that movie where everybody's a zombie and you're the only real person?" Duncan asks from her office at Nicholson NY, her employer du jour. "I feel what I'm trying to do is just so alien to the rest of the market. It's like they take their inspiration from McDonald's and I take mine from Maurice Sendak."

Like alternative artists in both music and film, Duncan lacks a distributor but enjoys a cult following. She works when passion strikes her. She signs on actual artists -- author David Sedaris, conceptual artist Jeremy Blake, Fugazi drummer Brendan Candy -- to narrate, illustrate and compose music for her work. Thus far, she's released three titles: "Chop Suey," the sweet-yet-edgy story of Lily and June Bugg, who eat too much Chinese food and proceed to trip out, and "Mimi Smartypants," the kooky-arty small-town adventures of an overly brainy 9-year-old girl, and "Zero Zero," a Parisian fantasia. Once again, what Duncan's dishing out is not the careful deadness of market research but the subversive lyricism of modern storytelling, the folksy wit of cartoon art. "You know, I'm glad girls are finally getting some attention, but I'm worried that people are patronizing to them. I don't want to sound cocky," she says, "but I think I'll be here doing my thing long after some of those other, larger, producers are gone."

On the final day of the Computer Games Developers Conference, the big players in the girl games market all sat on the veranda of the Santa Clara Westin and ate salads for lunch. The mood was buoyant, edging toward sassy. Waiters flitted. Iced-tea tumblers clinked. A man slinked over and passed out his business card, letting the ladies know he wouldn't mind a job. The women spent a few minutes discussing how they would live up to their billing as "visionaries" for that afternoon's panel about how to succeed in the girl games market. But as Nancie Martin explained, this was really a victory party. "The guys said we couldn't do it and now we're doing it, so the girls are going nyah nyah nyah."

Shortly before 3, the women walked from the hotel to the conference center, taking their seats on the podium in front of the standing-room-only crowd. Groppe spoke first, claiming that the secret to the girl market is to collect prodigious amounts of market data and work backwards from there. Graner Ray talked next, spinning out her gender-based game theories, showing how to appease marginally more females by tweaking -- really, blanching -- standard bleed-and-twitch, find-the-treasure gaming modes. Finally, Martin chipped in, half-joking about Mattel's ability to trade on the nag factor, Freud's view of what women want and Barbie's kindly gesture of opening up the pink-software market for the rest of the group.

But in the end the audience learned precisely nothing. No one said computer games, while equal parts high tech and big business, eventually come down to handicraft. No one dared mention that market research is no substitute for inspiration, that transcendent products do not emerge from conference rooms. In the end, the secret to divining what female players really want is far simpler and more complex than anyone ever imagined. What it takes is the faith of vision, the courage of the blank screen, the quiet to hear the words of an eighth grader: I would like it if it was good.

Elizabeth Weil

Elizabeth Weil is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago.

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