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

Companies fail all the time, but this, this was different. For Brenda Laurel, it was personal.

Logistically, Purple Moon amounted to six years and $40 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.

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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 1990's, the market, which had 90% of American boys playing console games, was saturated. Other markets had to be found, tapped into. Computer games, meanwhile, weren't colonized 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 centered 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 essentialize 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, characterization, 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?

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

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 socialized 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.

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Ultimately, the Girls Game Movement and Purple Moon failed.

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

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 cognizance and accountability of what elements of a game may speak to gendered aspects we are socialized 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 emphasize 'what girls like' are highly denigrated by the hardcore crowd. That needs to change.

(Top photo: Big Stock Photo.)