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What are girls made of?

SAN JOSE, California--Brenda Laurel wants girls to have fun. And if they pick up a few computer skills along the way, that's OK too.

CNET Newsmakers
April 14, 1997, Brenda Laurel
What are girls made of?
By Margie Wylie
Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM

SAN JOSE, California--Brenda Laurel wants girls to have fun. And if they pick up a few computer skills along the way, that's OK too.

The cofounder of software start-up Purple Moon, Laurel is making software that she hopes can tempt girls to use computers, have fun, and learn something, without being preachy or patronizing.

It's no mean ambition. Of the combined $5 billion market for games and software, analysts estimate that girls still account for only 20 percent, at best. If you consider that girls spend upward of $50 billion on "stuff" each year, that figure seems woefully low. The siren song of that vast untapped girl's software market, has lured other companies, including Sega and Sanctuary Woods, onto the rocks.

A woman who defiantly pointed out the sexism and shortsighted management that are often at play in the video gaming world, Laurel's just the Silicon Valley anachronism to take on the challenge. She has not only managed to survive, but she is counted among the techno-illuminati of her generation.

Don't mistake Laurel for too much of an insider though. After 20 years in the business, she is still wickedly disdainful of self-important industry-types, and still the wrong sex to be a top-dog in Silicon Valley. She smiles slyly when she recounts being fired four times, once getting sacked and rehired by the same company on the same day.

Unlike earlier flops, Laurel isn't making wild guesses or simply shoehorning female characters into twitchy blood-and-guts action games. She's done her homework. Before Purple Moon spun off from Paul Allen's industry think tank Interval Research Corporation, Laurel spent 2-1/2 years researching girls aged 7 to 12: how they think, what they want, how they play, who they are.

Purple Moon won't release its first line until the Christmas season this year, so Laurel is a little coy about how exactly she'll put all that research to work. What she will say is that much of what she found didn't suprise her. After all, she lived through those silent ages between little girlhood and womanhood herself. "It was nightmarish, it was hellish, I hated it," she says.

Laurel is first to admit that Purple Moon doesn't possess the magic key to unlock the riches of the girl's software market. But, if the research doesn't do it, then the sheer force of her personality combined with Paul Allen's notoriously deep pockets--he's also a major CNET backer--just might do the trick. "Anybody who knows me will see me in the products, at least in a couple of them," she said.

With Barbie, the first successful girls title, selling a half-million copies during the last Christmas season, Laurel finally has a target to gun for. Not that she dislikes the Barbie CD-ROM; she doesn't. But she admits the competition has forced Purple Moon to move a little faster.

NEWS.COM interviewed Laurel in March during this year's 50th Anniversary of the Association for Computing Machinery, where we discussed how others have missed the mark, her research, and making good girlware.

NEWS.COM: The Barbie CD-ROM that came out last Christmas sold 500,000 copies in two months, yet girls have been virtually ignored when it comes to software and games. Why have you invested three years of your life researching and creating software for girls?
Laurel: First off, I should say we're not in the exclusive possession of the Holy Grail here. The more women there are building Web sites for instance, the better the stuff is out there for girls. I've just been amazed over the last year to see amazingly cool stuff showing up. A lot of it is being done by women in college, women in graduate school, young professionals in Media Gulch.

I think it's taken us so long to do this because nobody saw a good business reason to pay attention and on the few occasions when people did try to pay attention, they paid attention in the wrong way. They basically extrapolated. So if a girl doesn't like an action game, it obviously must be because it's too hard or it's too technical. So let's make it stupid and have characters throwing marshmallows instead of shooting guns. And then if that doesn't work, then you get to say, "Well see, girls don't like computer games" and you get to walk away from it, you're off the hook.

The radical idea that girls are intelligent and inquisitive and get off on complexity hasn't occurred to people in the video game industry very often.

NEXT: Sugar? spice?


Age: 46

Claim to fame: Gunning for Barbie in the girl's software market

Claim to respect: PC gaming pioneer; computer-human interface design guru; virtual reality doyen; interactive storytelling expert

Writing: The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design (Addison-Wesley, 1990); Computers as Theatre (Addison-Wesley, 1991); plus articles about interface design, virtual reality, agents, and interactive fiction

Self-description: Recovering self-marginalizer

CNET Newsmakers
April 14, 1997, Brenda Laurel
Sugar? spice?

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 self-esteem.

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 intelligence partners.

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 anthropology.

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 matching 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 interesting?

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 Barbie line 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

CNET Newsmakers
April 14, 1997, Brenda Laurel
Girlware that's not just nice

So, tell us what you found. Do girls like computers?
Girls like computers when they're doing something with them that's useful or interesting. And they don't when they're not.

I think that boys, because of the way they establish their sense of self-worth and their standing among other boys, are more competitive in terms of how well they perform at something: the initials on the arcade game thing. It's a much more acceptable way of establishing yourself with your peers for boys. So they've had a lot of built-in attraction to the culture of computing thus far, both as game players and as programmers.

Girls aren't motivated by the same things, or at least not in the same way. Although they are looking for similar sorts of gratification, there are alot of taboos and caveats surrounding the way they can act on those impulses.

I guess the short answer is there's no reason why girls shouldn't like computers. When you give them something to do with a computer that engages them in some meaningful way, then it's probably not the case that they like the computer. They just like what they're doing and they'll reach through the problems with the technology to do it.

We looked some at girls making movies. I was astonished--they'll just whackaway at a camera or a VCR, just flail at it until it does what they want. They won't read the manual, they won't ask Dad to help. Once they get the idea that they can make a movie, they'll just judo-chop the thing until it works right. I've seen similar behavior with girls and computers when they're really highly motivated.

There seem to be two minds in the pink software arena: either it's fun or it's good for you. Can you do both? I mean, shouldn't girls be allowed to have fun too?
Can it be good and good for you too?

We hope that we've found some territory that other companies haven't explored: what it's like to be a girl. But, make no mistake, we are doing things that are for fun. We don't want to sell them to schools, we don't see them as belonging in the edutainment category.

The reason we spent all this time and money and effort and passion talking to girls and trying to understand them was to give them something that deeply engages them. Luckily that's also a kind of a successful business proposition we hope. I'm in a happy position finally of doing something that my heart says is right that may also make money! [Laughs] I like to say I'm a recovering self-marginalizer!