She Tried To Make Good Video Games For Girls, Whatever That Meant

Companies fail all the time, but this... this was different. For Brenda Laurel, it was personal. Logistically, Purple Moon amounted to six years and $US40 million dollars spent on research where thousands of kids were interviewed and eight games were produced. Prior to 1996, when the company was created by Brenda Laurel, a pioneer extraordinaire within human-computer interaction fields, these kids had no voice.

Millions of little boys across the country were highly visible within video game culture, making them the primary demographic for game development companies.

Little girls, though?

Studies continually pushed the idea that women just didn't like technology — or games.

The Girl Games Movement, which saw titles like Barbie Fashion Designer and Purple Moon's own Rockett Movado series rising to the top of the sales charts proved everyone wrong. Girls liked games too.

Even so, Purple Moon — and most of the companies that arose around the movement — disappeared. The questions that the movement elicited, though — like whether or not 'games for girls' should even exist, or what 'games for girls' even meant — are still topics of heated discussion today, despite better gender inclusivity.

When Laurel set off in 1995 to create an industry that listened to little girls, she had high hopes, according to her field manual on socially positive work, Utopian Entrepreneur. Games were a product-driven industry, and Laurel's personal directive was to do "culture work". She didn't want to make a game that would be popular in a room full of executives. She wanted to make a difference. She wanted to engage and nurture young women positively, address their social, cultural and narrative proclivities, to create popular culture that shaped values and informed citizenship. Instead, at the time, all she saw was an industry that liked making digital explosions.

The idea was that a more inclusive industry would be more progressive, yes, but also that games could function as a gateway for girls to become interested in tech fields — which are scarce on women.

Social responsibility is not lucrative though, and it definitely won't drive stock prices up. In the book Utopian Entrepreneur, Laurel wrote that she would sometimes lose her job just for suggesting games could be more than shooting and fighting. It wasn't until Interval Research Corporation gave Laurel a chance (and a lot of money) to dig her hands into the issue that the viability of a non-hypermasculine game was tested.

***

The conditions were just right for Purple Moon and the Girl Games movement.

She didn't want to make a game that would be popular in a room full of executives. She wanted to make a difference.

In the mid 1990s, the market, which had 90 per cent of American boys playing console games, was saturated. Other markets had to be found and tapped into. Computer games, meanwhile, weren't colonised by Sega, Nintendo or Sony, which left computers and CD ROMs, now reasonably ubiquitous, as an available market. Getting girls to buy consoles might be a stretch, but they probably already had computers in the household. The trick was finding something they'd be interested in.

The inquiries Purple Moon fielded in their research were straightforward: why aren't girls playing games, and how can we make games for them? Previously, most attempts to court the elusive female market were imbued with assumptions: girls obviously like this and this (rainbows, unicorns, pink, etc). When games including these assumptions failed — there was literally a first-person shooter that moved at slower speeds than normal and had girls shooting marshmallows — companies would take that as evidence that there was no female market to have a stake in.

The "pink" games segment of the Girl Games movement managed to luck out despite working with similar assumptions. These games, like the highly popular Barbie Fashion Designer, were highly dependent on traditional values of femininity — addressing concerns about appearance, for instance. Barbie Fashion Designer was one of the highest selling games in the year it was released.

Purple Moon was a part of a "purple games" segment of the movement, which decided to just plain speak to little girls and see what they were interested in. The idea was to focus on the things that little girls actually cared about through ethnography and sociology — not what people thought they cared about. This meant going beyond surveys: the research followed the girls around, tried to get a sense of what their lives were like. It was a mix of qualitative information, like what made the girls insecure, and a mix of quantitative information, like how much television they watched.

This approach was controversial. Turns out, when you ask little girls what they care about, the subjects that come up are popularity, gossip, materialism, jealousy, cheating, lipstick, belonging and exclusion. Not exactly the most feminist of subjects.

What Laurel created was a game that put values at the forefront. The game centred on choice and asked girls to think about what type of person they wanted to be in the real world. Since the game dealt with their day-to-day lives, it functioned as a type of 'emotional rehearsal'. Games with values were met with some concern by parents, who weren't sure if they should trust a game to teach kids about that sort of thing. In Utopian Entrepreneur Laurel explains that one of the important design mandates was to make sure that she didn't create a game where the 'right' choice told girls how they should behave. This was the danger of having games for girls — they could be a too prescriptive in how girls should perform their gender.

The idea of games "for girls" in and of itself seemed problematic, too.

Social responsibility is not lucrative though, and it definitely won't drive stock prices up. Laurel wrote that she would sometimes lose her job just for suggesting games could be more than shooting and fighting.

What type of girl are we talking about, exactly? Not all girls are the same. It's not as if girls can't like things outside of what research showed, either. Then again, all the research said was that it wasn't that girls disliked violence, they just tended to prefer strong stories and well-written characters and were more likely to stick with a game that provided that for them. Is that really so problematic? Did it help essentialise gender?

Brenda was surprised to find herself under fire from both game reviewers, who thought Rockett was a bad game and feminists, who didn't think games for girls should look like what Purple Moon created. Meanwhile, the little girls themselves, the ones that the games were actually made for? They tended to like the game. It was the adults who were bickering over the implications of "games for girls".

"By trying to do anything socially positive at all, the utopian entrepreneur opens herself up to the endless critique that she is in fact not doing enough," Laurel wrote in a retrospective on Purple Moon.

Delving into the specifics of 'gendered play' is an even deeper nightmare. Research kept showing the same thing: boys 'preferred' violence, competition, power fantasies and winning, whereas girls liked cooperation, narrative, characterisation, and games that focused on the relationships between people and social dynamics. These findings were reinforced outside of the context of video game research, too.

Fun isn't gendered though... is it? Fun is fun! Right?

Both genders are capable of liking the same elements of games, to be sure. Research likes to focus on differences, because the assumption is that there must irreconcilable differences between the genders. Research that is conducted solely to reinforce pre-existing ideals is problematic, though. Taking a closer look reveals that the overlap between what both genders like is bigger than the difference, according to a long series of research papers presented in the book Beyond Barbie & Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming.

Historically, however, gender has determined how 'play' manifests itself for little boys and girls just by nature of what boys and girls tend to be allowed to do by parents. The question, then, is whether or not games take it upon themselves to challenge these modes of play, or whether they should acquiesce to an alleged reality where genders have specific existing tastes and interests (though they are fluid, and they don't exist because of some intrinsic biological mandate,). Ignoring that we are socialised to perform gender in certain ways can be just as dangerous as enforcing problematic gender stereotypes.

This is all still widely disputed. What we know now, though, is that gender isn't the sole determinant of what games men and women like — context matters. Research shows that the most pivotal moment for kids, which determines how invested boys and girls are with technology and games, is around middle school. Age can be a bigger influence in what people like in games than gender as well. Wider aspects of games culture can affect whether or not women play games, too — from the marketing games sell themselves with, to the spaces in which games are played.

***

Ultimately, the Girls Game Movement and Purple Moon failed.

For Brenda, who had invested so much of herself in the project, who envisioned a more inclusive, progressive future that she would pioneer, this was heartbreak. In the end, creating a successful product trumped humanistic work, as it always tends to. Purple Moon didn't perform to expectations and ended up like many other companies that made "games for girls" — purchased by Mattel, who wanted to keep a monopoly on the market. The many retrospectives on that period of time make it clear that Laurel still looks back on this time wistfully, with much melancholy.

The movement itself was too focused on what made its games niche, and not what made the games good.

What we know now, though, is that gender isn't the sole determinant of what games men and women like-context matters. Age can be a bigger influence in what people like in games than gender

Perhaps it should have never been a matter of designing games that focus on a specific gender. Perhaps what was really needed was cognisance and accountability of what elements of a game may speak to gendered aspects we are socialised for, and to make sure the games the industry produces include something 'for' both genders.

Regardless, what was made clear was that the gaming was in dire need of different voices that spoke to different audiences — both because it's good for business, and because it's the 'humanistic' thing to do. Female voices are but one of the possible voices to include. Still, games made by women tend to perform well with both men and women alike, unlike games made solely by men. Unfortunately, not only are there less women in the development side of games, but women are much more likely to leave the industry than men are.

Whether or not Brenda Laurel had the right approach is debatable. The need for her type of work, which aimed to create a more inclusive games industry, as well as a desire to make a difference in the world, is still sorely needed. Most games still cater to a primarily to boys and men. The markets in which female gamers are the most present in — casual games, educational games, social games — and the types of games that emphasise 'what girls like' are highly denigrated by the hardcore crowd. That needs to change.


Comments

    The problem lies in making games "for girls" or "for boys". Just make your games good experiences and both girls and boys will like them.
    Other things that were problematic but are changing are the notions that there are "boy toys" and "girl toys". As the article mentions, it often comes down to what the parent allows the children to play with. More and more parents these days are letting their child's play be led by the child themselves, rather than dictating how they're "supposed" to play. This will transfer beyond toys to games as well.

      I completely agree with you Strange. It's not about gender. And I really dislike gender based games.
      Games should not be made for a gender but rather should be considered genderless.
      For example Games like Katamari are not aimed at boys or girls or even adults or kids. It's one of those games that can be played and loved by anyone.
      While we're at it can we get rid of the "Everything for girls must be pink?" thing?

    I can understand targeting particular games for young boys and girls, as parents raise their kids into like particular 'gender restricted' hobbies and entertainment. But, once kids reach teenage years, tastes in games, film, music, art, hobbies etc cross the boundries of gender.

    This is why I want to stay in academia, and make games. This is why, in a roundabout way, its good for a government to invest in game development, the way they invest in other artworks. We need some opportunity to build media and art that isn't exclusively driven by perceived, pre-existing markets, boardroom decisions and shareholders.

    Not that this article presents a perfect vision--we are confusing gender and sex throughout this discussion, for example. I don't mind if we refer to certain kinds of play styles as masculine or feminine, but its often more trouble than it's worth to use adjectives like that and avoid associating them with biological sex. I am almost always more interested in the (so-called) feminine stuff in games than the masculine, but I'm pretty masculine in biological sex-related ways!

    I am fascinated though, by what motivates people TO play, and then DURING play. What causes a player to do X instead of Y in a medium that presents/allows both? I didn't gender them, but that's exactly what I looked at in my thesis :D

    I play games, I'm a girl. I like to think I don't need to play "girl" games, but if I just look at the games that I have bought over the last few years only 3 or 4 of them are games where the player character is always male. I find myself looking for a female main character or the option to play as one (think Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Wow, Diablo, Sw;ToR, Rift).
    The biggest difference I've noticed between the way women and men play games is (and this is a generalization, but with a sentence starting like that it kind of had to be) that women don't like games without a sense of reward. In each of the games I listed above, the more that you play the better your gear and/or character becomes. I could never play halo multiplayer for long because there is no reward for winning or penalty for loosing (aesthetic gear upgrades aside). All the female gamers I know are drawn to games with either a strong social element, a powerful story or a sense of leveling and improving as the game continues.
    (apologies for wall of text, I'm at work :D)

    I had a Purple Moon game as a kid, and I loved that game. It was pretty, it was fun, it was challenging. It was my first step into the world of gaming, and I think it was an excellent "socially aware" game, mixing puzzles with stories and music, but without a big learning curve.

    I wish more games like that were made now.

    If a game as a deep story, good character quality and something to sink metaphorical teeth into besides bangbang boomboom then you should be fine for these 'girl games' (a term which has always confused me as not the girliest of girls). A have a much younger sibling that have been playing predominately 'boy games' since she was big enough to hold the controller. Star Wars, Halo, Spyro, Moto GP; she doesn't understand what people mean when they say 'boy games' and 'girl games', especially not back then. She just wanted to have fun. Gendered games will never work out to be for that gender, there will always be a minority that spoils that statistics.

    Personally, I've never really seen games as for girls or boys, what I did always notice though, was the marketing. Make a shooting/fighting, horror, in depth, or action game? It usually gets marketed towards boys. Make an overly emotional, casual, very colorful or non fighting game? It gets usually gets marketed towards girls. It's the same thing with toys. Then there's (as I think the article points out somewhere) the whole "boys get X, girls get Y" idea that a lot of parents can have.

    It's probably more important to just give kids different types and genres of games every now and then. I originally grew up with Mortal Kombat, a Nigel Mansel something or other racing game, Aliens and another horror genre game I can never seem to remember, and later Donkey Kong Country, Bubsy and a few Mario/Yoshi games (basically a ton of other SNES games), and even later on the first Spyro series, not including the hell that Enter the Dragonfly was. They pretty much influenced what I like in games ever since, but I can still wander in to "girl games" when there's a good one. If you give a kid the chance to play (good) games, it doesn't really matter much if they're seen as for boys or girls.

    In that way, it makes the parents partially responsible for this until their children can buy their own.

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