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Her Turn

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sami Berley of West Hills loves computers, but she worries about what some industry pundits call “the geek factor.”

“I like playing card games, and I’ll probably use the computer for my writing, but I definitely don’t want to become a computer nerd when I grow up, ooooh, no,” says the fourth-grade Girl Scout.

Nine-year-old Sami is typical of young computer users, male and female. But by age 10, most girls tend to lose interest in computers except as a work tool, something girls’ software developers attribute to the lack of available games that speak to their language of play.

Whereas boys go on to play male-stimulating twitch games, such as Quake and Warcraft, girls usually turn thumbs down on these titles. But their lack of interest in taking on the role of an explosive killing machine doesn’t mean they want to get their multimedia kicks from “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.”

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A new wave of girls’ software designers--all of them women--argue that contrary to popular belief, girls do want to experience competitive, adventurous excitement. But they don’t want to do it with male-oriented shoot-'em-up games or gender-neutral “edutainment” software programs.

In tapping into this specialized interest, these emerging gal gurus of girls software say they’re on a mission: to create and market multimedia products that “speak” the female language. And with 19 million U.S. girls ages 7 to 17 waiting in the wings, it’s a subject to be taken seriously.

“This is the year for girls’ software,” says Nancy Deyo, president and chief executive of Purple Moon. The Palo Alto-based company will debut its first two CD-ROMs, “Rockett’s New School” and “Secret Paths,” at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta this month.

Deyo and Purple Moon Vice President of Design Brenda Laurel, along with Janese Swanson’s Girl Tech of San Rafael, Calif., are developing software for the 7- to 12-year-old girl market. Two other women-run companies, Her Interactive of Albuquerque and Girl Games of Austin, Texas, make software aimed at preteens and teenage girls.

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“The hot thing is girl games after the success of Barbie,” said David Cole, an interactive entertainment analyst and president of DFC Intelligence in San Diego. Mattel Media has sold 600,000 “Barbie’s Fashion Designer” CD-ROMs--$22 million in sales--since the software made its October debut. “Now it’s proven that it can be financially successful to sell girl games,” Cole said.

Purple Moon, Girl Tech, Her Interactive and Girl Games--all of which launched within the last five years--were founded for the sole purpose of producing quality products for girls.

“There are three things that drive games for males and females,” says Sheri Graner Ray, director of product development for Her Interactive. “Conflict resolution, stimulation and reward. Men prefer to resolve disputes by head-to-head combat. Women use diplomacy, manipulation and take their opponents’ feelings into consideration.

What girls want, the software developers say, are multimedia games with a good story and believable characters that let them manipulate the level of play, compete in a friendly but challenging environment and resolve situational problems.

Sales numbers show the developers must be right. Her Interactive’s “McKenzie & Co.,” an interactive high school soap, has topped the $1-million mark in sales since its release in November 1995, while Girl Games’ “Let’s Talk About Me,” which was released in September, has had sales of $500,000, according to PC Data. After Barbie, Creative Wonders’ “Madeline” series, which first came out in September 1995, heads the younger group, with two of its titles surpassing $500,000 in sales.

Until recently, few software publishers studied what type of computer game would appeal to girls, and few have produced any. Torrance-based Davidson & Associates made an attempt in early 1996 with “Fisher-Price Dream Dollhouse,” but sales were low. Gryphon Software included the girl character Sailor Moon in a Colorforms CD-ROM.

But just including a female character doesn’t make the product “for girls,” says Purple Moon’s Laurel.

Fantasy is important for girls, she says, because “that is their constructive play.”

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Indeed, fantasy is a key element in Purple Moon’s upcoming releases. “Rockett” focuses on being a new kid in eighth grade, and “Secret Paths” sends characters introduced in “Rockett” on a magical quest into the forest.

Fantasy is also central to Girl Games’ “Let’s Talk About Me,” where girls experiment with makeup and careers, and Her Interactive’s “McKenzie & Co.” and its recently released “Vampire Diaries,” an interactive thriller sans stakes through the heart.

The idea behind the programs is entertainment and fun. But is the focus on boyfriends, shopping or magical jewels just gender-typing?

“‘Nobody ever brings up that issue with boys’ programs,” bristles Graner Ray. “More important is, are the girls having fun? Look at it this way: Girls need to be comfortable with technology so it’s something they can have fun with and play with.”

Girl Tech takes a different view. Company founder Swanson, who designed Broderbund’s “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” series, wants to avoid traditional pink and purple fantasy, yet create computer adventures in which girls can use their competitive and communicative skills.

“Communication is important; sharing information and relationship building is important. I don’t want to stereotype myself, but these are play preferences,” says Swanson, who did her doctoral dissertation on play patterns and gender preferences. Girl Tech has released a book, “Tech Girl’s Internet Adventures” (IDG Books) with a CD-ROM Web page builder and Internet access. “Tech Girl’s Desktop Tool Kit” CD-ROM is available online at Club Girl Tech (https://www.girltech.com).

Girl Tech’s next CD-ROM is “an adventure program for girls where they will fly missions, learn aeronautics, flight patterns and strategies.” Swanson says NASA is considering funding the software.

A big hurdle for the developers is getting retailers to support the software so the public will see it and buy it. Mattel Media had no problem with its stellar “Fashion Designer,” but Barbie came with star status and a hefty advertising campaign.

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“I’m thrilled to death they did Barbie,” Graner Ray says. “We can’t afford to do $4.3 million worth of advertising. What they do helps us.”

Neither Girls Games nor Girl Tech can afford such a steep marketing campaign. But Purple Moon, which was spun off from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s think tank, Interval Research Corp., has the financial backing to launch an aggressive product-recognition campaign that will include sending out half a million samplers in Girl’s Life magazine.

The company hopes to establish a software category called Adventures for Girls.

“Purple Moon’s national packaging studies show that it is significantly easier for consumers to find girls’ software if it is part of a dedicated girls’ section,” Deyo says.

Laura Groppe, president of Girl Games, says her company could benefit from this plan. Her strategy has been to market “Let’s Talk About Me” in nontraditional outlets, such as clothing store Contempo Casuals.

Cole, who agrees that a girls’ shelf is important, warns that the market could be flooded with inferior products as publishers try to cash in on Barbie’s success.

But will girls’ games make a significant sales dent in the software market? “We think it could quickly be a $60-million category,” Deyo says.

CUC International, parent of Davidson & Associates, will test the waters again by backing Girl Games’ release of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ and “Let’s Talk About Me II” CD-ROMs. Mattel Media is expected to wow the electronics expo crowds with its “Talk With Me Barbie” CD-ROM and is also handling Girl Games’ “Clueless” software program.


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