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THE CUTTING EDGE

Let's Talk About a Market Niche Worth Billions

Games: Diaries and pen pals and interactive backpacks--that's what little-girl CD-ROMs are made of.

May 27, 1996|LAURIE BECKLUND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For nearly a decade, Silicon Valley companies have tried with limited success to retool their computer games to appeal to a vast but seemingly inscrutable market: girls.

Now comes Girl Games, a small Texas start-up company that is about to launch a lively CD-ROM called Let's Talk About Me that's based on a whole different premise.

"We decided to take a girl's world as it exists now and make that world digital," said Laura Groppe, founder of Girl Games. "Let's Talk About Me is not a game. It's really a whole franchise."

She describes Let's Talk About Me as the first interactive handbook for female adolescents. The look is magazine. The feel is power pastel. Inside are interactive versions of things preteen girls are into big time: backpacks, diaries, clothes, pen pals, food, clubs, themselves.

Never seen an interactive backpack? This one features a secret combination of trendy patches that act as a password to keep diaries safe from parental eyes. If a girl has the right equipment, the address book tucked inside will contain her friends' pictures and recorded voice messages too.

Publisher Simon & Schuster Interactive plans to market the title in time for back-to-school sales in September. The CD-ROM will be updated every few months, and it will be launched in conjunction with a World Wide Web site offering membership in an online club, downloadable goodies and pen pal connections.

If Let's Talk About Me catches on, prepare for spinoffs. Simon & Schuster, after all, is a subsidiary of media giant Viacom Inc., and Groppe is a successful co-producer of short films and MTV videos. It will thus be a very short leap to Let's Talk About Me lunch boxes, diaries and even television shows. A Simon & Schuster executive acknowledges he's already negotiating licensing and other deals with major consumer products companies.

Groppe, 32, left Hollywood two years ago to found Girl Games in Austin. She launched an Internet newsletter for girls and, in conjunction with Rice University, landed a National Science Foundation grant to study girls' computer use.

When development of Let's Talk About Me began, girls from Austin were brought in to give their input--a sharp contrast with the typical game industry practice of having kids test only a nearly finished product. Groppe and her mostly female staff still meet with the girls weekly.

One of the things Groppe said her research found was that girls tend to use computers for briefer periods than boys do. And, like their mothers, they want their computers to do something for them that is practical as well as entertaining.

"Our real competition isn't other CD-ROMs," Groppe said. "It's time, people and activities." Let's Talk About Me encourages girls to sign off and socialize.

The game is divided into four sections: "Let's Talk About . . . My Life, My Body, My Future, My Personality." It targets the 8-to-14 age group, though high school freshmen may find it too young for them.

When a girl signs on, she's asked to give her name and age. If she says she's 8, she won't be able to access advanced discussions about, say, sexual development, which are designed for older girls. She will be able to use her computer to mix and match clothes, sort of like the lead character in "Clueless."

"The Future" section features a "dream diary" and crystal ball, but it also offers up successful female mentors. Deliberately, most are not famous names. They talk about their teenage years and take the same personality quizzes offered to the girls. Thus, a kid may be surprised to find her profile matches, say, Dianne Feinstein's or Maya Angelou's.

The title also offers practical tips in a game-show format, along with calendars, scrapbooks with stickers, and sassy little quizzes that teach nutrition and bolster self-esteem without making a big deal about either.

Dating games were soundly rejected, but there's a quiz that asks, "Are you ready for romance?" A sparkling promotional handbook given out at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, where the product debuted, takes point-blank aim at anyone who harbors doubts about there being a substantial market for girls' computer games.

Women account for 41% of all online service users, the handbook says. The number of female video game players is growing by 25% a year. More pointed still: Girls spend more than $57 billion of their own money annually.

Freelance writer Laurie Becklund can be reached via e-mail at lbecklund@aol.com

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