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Even at Play, Boys Will Be Boys and Girls Will Be Girls

The Real Toy Story

November 22, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When boys play, heads get lopped off, blood gushes. Bombs explode in science fictional lands. You win or die.

When girls play, outfits get designed; puzzles, solved. Music wafts through familiar environments. You never lose--you always get another chance.

That's the theory, anyway, behind a new generation of interactive software designed to keep girls interested in computer and video technology and to tap a huge and previously ignored part of a multibillion-dollar market.

"People are trying to expand, and they're realizing the untapped potential are the girls," said Yasmin Kafai, who researches gender play at UCLA. "This year for the first time we have special CD-ROMs and games for girls."

In recent weeks, established companies have hit the shelves with girl games--ranging from Mattel's Fashion Designer, a hot pink CD-ROM that allows kids to design clothes and print fabric patterns for a moving, 3-D Barbie, to Philips' the Baby Sitters Club Friendship Kit and Simon & Schuster's Let's Talk About ME! a magazine-format CD-ROM with diaries and personal interviews with role models like studio executive Sherry Lansing and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

"We want to target the teen and preteen girls in the world in which they live," said Sandy Barry, a public relations representative for Her Interactive of Albuquerque, which last year produced McKenzie & Co., a live-action CD-ROM set about a group of boy-crazy high school juniors that comes with lipstick and a music CD. Players use computer power to change lipstick shades of characters or play a match-the-shoes game.

The girl games--even those for teens--are still such a novelty that computer stores usually tuck them away in the children's section.

These products are long overdue, say parents and educators, who agree it's important that girls get the same skill-building opportunities that boys get from playing electronic games. While boys generally move on from play to a more serious interest in computer technology, girls tend to progressively lose interest beginning at about age 8.

"Girls in computer classes steadily decline from primary to high school," said Sandra Calvert, an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University. Girls make up only 28% of beginning and intermediate computer classes, and only 14% of advanced programming classes, she said.

Then again, some researchers worry that even with the best intentions, the new gender-specific software will only reinforce stereotypes, for both girls and boys.

Until now, most interactive games have been designed by the graduates of those programming classes for younger boys like themselves, Calvert said. The male-dominated game world of fighting, racing and sports has thus become a "self-fulfilling prophecy," she said. In one study of 100 video arcade games, 92 did not include any female roles, and of the rest, six had females assuming "damsel in distress" roles.

As a result, it's been easy to target the boys' market, Calvert said. "The male role itself is more constricted, the female role is more flexible. . . . Boys, from the time they are tiny kids, are just not allowed to play with very much. Girls are allowed to play with lots of different things. The boys' role ends up being very constrained and play gets organized around particular themes.

"It's very hard to pinpoint the girls' market. There's so much diversity," she said. So far, girls have accounted for only about 20% of the electronic video game and software market.

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While many girls appreciate the so-called pink software, others like more gender neutral games like Sega's Nights or Sonic the Hedgehog. "Interestingly enough, some of them expressed quite some interest for all these horrific games," said UCLA's Kafai, who has studied the differences in how boys and girls play.

In 1991, she asked a group of 16 10-year-old children to design their own video games. While the boys predictably imitated the violent commercial games they already knew, the girls rejected "kill" games and fantasy worlds. While the boys programmed gender into their characters, girls chose familiar and likable figures, such as cats. Rather than a science fiction location, they picked a familiar place, like a classroom. Rather than loud and fast action, girls liked to control the pace of the game.

Ellen Seiter, a communications professor at UC San Diego, said it's easy for adults to think of girls' culture as "dopey and kitschy and kind of embarrassing. It's not as gender-neutral as we would like to think we're showing them the world to be."

Doug Glen, president of Mattel's media division, defended the Barbie CD-ROMs as valuable teaching tools. In Fashion Designer, he said, "You're learning about visual design. When you see your patterns translate into a 3-D model, you're learning about the geometry and engineering of clothing patterns, which is something I'd claim is altogether more sophisticated than you could find on the boys' side."

Most analysts consider girl games to be still experimental.

"I think if Barbie makes it, other companies will sit up and take notice," said Patricia Greenfield, a professor of psychology at UCLA.

Analysts said barriers to girls' involvement in technology go beyond how or whether games are designed for them.

For one thing, girls experience the age-old problem of getting control of the clicker in the first place, said UCSD's Seiter. "Some research suggests [that] girls who happen to be the oldest or happen not to have any brothers have a better chance to come to really like the technology or have fun playing."

Manufacturers said early indications show that the new products are successful; more are on the way. Products expected on the market next year include CD-ROMs for popular girls' book series "Vampire Diaries" and "Nancy Drew." A Mattel adventure game is set to feature a female hero who rescues the "handsome but witless" prince from the witch, Glen said.

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