Tell us about Purple Moon. How did it get started?
We started the project in '92. At that point, it was a research
project [at Paul Allen's think tank Interval Research]. David
Liddle is the founder of Interval and the cofounder of Purple Moon. David
and I agreed that the purpose of our research was to find out if there was
any way that we could bring about greater equity in terms of access to
computing and familiarity with computing. We wanted to know if we could
make that kind of
intervention by learning more about what girls were actually like, what
differences exist that we need to notice. We also made a solemn promise to
each other that we were going to put other agendas aside; that is, other
sort of humanistic or political or feminist agendas that we might have that
were orthogonal to the research.
But we got hooked, you know? We had the opportunity to do something deeper
and richer and more profoundly satisfying to us. We were really scratching
an itch. It got personal, even though we agreed that it shouldn't! There is
a way to honor and respect what it means to be female, what it means to be
a girl, what it means to be a preteen girl, which is a very lonely place.
It's a spot in the life of a girl that's kind of dead air. The culture
defines them as being older than children and younger than teenagers.
They are hyphenated. And what's out there for them besides books? Not
much really. It's just a desert, a wasteland.
That's [also] the time of a kid's life during which they're doing
the most active work
of self-construction. Adolescence is a firestorm and if you don't have
that stuff squared away in some kind of solid way when adolescence hits,
your chances get even less of even having any kind of intact
We're providing materials for girls to use in the act of self-construction
that are maybe richer than what's out there right now--or rich in a
different way--to really honor that moment in their lives, that
period in their lives as a place to be, as a place where you can be seen
to be a whole person, not in transit from here to there.
Boys have their own version of a very hard time; it's not to
say that anybody suffers more than anybody else--it's just different. So we
worked for three years and there were a lot of people involved--I
guess 10 or 15 people from Interval and several people from our market
What did the research actually involve?
We did three kinds of things. We did massive literature
searches in a lot of domains that computer companies don't normally pay any
attention to--the obvious ones like cognitive science, sociology, and
We looked a lot at the biology of sex difference. Brain-based sex
differences turn out to be
fairly important, not because they're huge but because they are
statistically significant and they get massively amplified by culture. So,
for example, girls tend to perform less well at mental rotation tasks,
especially when they're under time pressure. So either imagining an
object in a different relationship to yourself or imagining yourself in
a different relationship to the object is relatively harder for us when
we have to do it quickly. Well that eliminates most action games before
you even get to content.
People will argue "But women like Tetris and some women are very good at
Tetris and isn't that about spatial cognition? Isn't that about mental
rotation?" What we
found out is that women and girls tend to describe Tetris as a pattern
problem, which is an area in which we're statistically a little bit
better than boys, an area of math.
Interesting. I got hooked on Tetris from a male friend who
showed it to me. When he showed it to me and explained how to play it, I didn't do well. But when I sat down and played it myself, I loved it.
Right. So often it's the explanatory system that actually changes
performance. So for example, if you presented a computer-based task that
showed some locations with shapes and connections with lines as a
navigation problem for a map, they would
perform less well than if you told them it was a maze. Isn't that
My guess is that a map is by definition, an overview and a
maze is maybe by definition, sort of body-centric event where we think
about it, we imaginatively locate ourselves in the space as we think
about navigating to it. We [females] often turn maps upside down.
And one of the
ways we get teased by men is that we do this. Or when we give people
directions we will face our bodies in the way we're going and
point there. It's as if we need this vector extending directly out of
the solar plexus to navigate or to explain to anybody how to navigate!
It's biological, it's wired in. So things like that get to be important
when you're thinking about activities that are as abstract as what you
can create with a computer.
We also learned some things just from looking at chimps. Males and females
in other primate species use very different techniques for establishing
social dominance or for defining or deriving their social status. So there
are real differences in primates, besides humans. How we figure out where
we stand in relation to other people in our
society--I believe that a lot of that is wired in.
We did two other kinds of work.
We interviewed a lot of adults, both experts in the field and others. We
had an expert talk to us about flow theory, we talked to the head of the
at Mattel, we talked to clothing designers and university professors on
play and developmental psychology. We also held focus groups with adults
on the ground--with kids, teachers, scout leaders, playground
supervisors, computer lab teachers--to get their takes. Remember that the
topic of the investigation was the relationships between gender and age and
play. We weren't looking at entertainment. Playing is intrinsically
different from watching television.
The third, and the biggest piece, was interviewing thousands of kids, boys,
and girls, 7 to 12, all over the country (or in major places in the
country) because we knew if we just
interviewed smart little Silicon Valley brats we would not learn
anything about what the general public in America is like. We interviewed
kids usually with their best friends or with their friends so they would
talk to each other and keep
each other honest and verbalize a lot.
We had an extraordinary amount
of information by the time we were done with this, 2 1/2 years worth of
beating the bushes.
The last step in the process was to try to derive some design principles
from everything we found out. There were two things we needed to do. One
was to come up with our design heuristics, I guess you'd call them. "If
you're going to design something for girls you probably ought to do
this, this, this, this, and this, or some healthy subset of these things."
And the other thing we did was to try and define an ongoing
methodology for continuing our investigations, especially continuing to
talk to girls and to have contact with girls.
One of the most fundamental things that I found out in the
course of all of this is that life in America is changing much faster
than I thought. Having grown up female in the '50s and '60s
doesn't qualify me at all to know what's going on here. I have some
resonance with certain fundamental things--like turning maps upside
down--but body image is completely different as a result of girls'
involvement in athletics. It's not fixed, but it's different.
There are different ideas about competition and the
relationship between competition and self-esteem. The taboos
about being seen to be competing are different because of sports. Those
are maybe trivial examples, but one of the big differences in kids in
general between now and then is in their visual systems and their
ability to extract information from rapid-fire visual imagery because
the visual cortex is soft until adolescence and it's profoundly
influenced by what it's exposed to. So the actual wiring of the visual
cortex is influenced by the pace of television. It's not just that
the culture is different; the bodies are different. There are new humans
afoot--and they're my kids!
NEXT: Girlware that's not just nice