Why do far more boys than girls play computer games? According to conventional wisdom, it's obvious.
"Everybody thinks girls haven't chosen today's games because they're really violent," said Nancy Deyo. But Deyo, the president and chief executive of Purple Moon, which has just launched an online community for girls, thinks she knows better. After years of exhaustive research, she concluded that girls aren't grossed out by today's shoot-'em-up games. They're bored by them.
"Girls want rich characters," Deyo noted. "They want story lines. They want to immerse themselves inside a really interesting experience. They want to be able to collect things. What we're trying to do is deliver to them exactly the experiences they're asking for."
Purple Moon is one of a growing number of technology companies seeking to cater to a virtually untapped market: girls. While boys have lots of games and online sites that cater specifically to their tastes, it wasn't until the surprise success of Barbie Fashion Designer CD-ROM that developers began to focus on girls.
Barbie, the plastic doll picked on by feminists for creating impossible body ideals, is turning out to be something of an online pioneer, breaking down barriers for girls. The success of the CD-ROM "really opened the door for many companies, particularly the retail community," Deyo said. "It validated the importance of the category of product dedicated to girls."
Now, several companies are running sites that use deep story lines, offering products as well as community forums to reach girls. The goal is at least twofold: to get girls online and get them to buy.
Purple Moon's Web site not only gives girls the opportunity to explore new worlds and communicate with each other, but also gives them the chance to participate in good ol' American capitalism by making CD-ROMs and merchandise available. Girls can simply go online and browse or make purchases, with the permission of a parent.
While most sites have profits as their ultimate goal, many of them also were founded to turn girls onto technology so they won't be left out of high tech, whether it's the job market or the shopping mall.
"We've been looking at this as a huge, untapped opportunity to see what would excite girls about an entertainment medium," Deyo said. "What we learned is they were falling behind boys in usage of computers by the time they reached sixth grade. We thought, 'What would it take to create an experience that was so compelling that it would get girls comfortable using computers?'"
Like others, Deyo and Purple Moon think they've found the answer.