With titles like “Mortal Kombat” and “Doom,” the most popular computer games have traditionally been violent, action-packed toys designed to appeal mostly to boys. Girls’ tastes were largely overlooked by the industry until recently, when a new movement emerged to design computer games specifically for girls. The goal is to help girls gain the same kind of early familiarity with computers that boys haveÑand ultimately help women gain more equal access to careers in computers and technology. The result, say experts, will be a more equitable society for all.

Two MIT professors, Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, have recently published a book about the girls’ games phenomenon called From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. In it, they and other experts discuss the complex social and commercial trends within the movement, which is still in its infancy.

“Last year the video game industry made more money than Hollywood,” says Jenkins, who directs MIT’s new Comparative Media Studies program. “That suggests we should be paying attention to the games, the people who play them, and the people who make them.”

What girls want

Sporting titles like “Barbie Fashion Designer” and “Let’s Talk about Me,” the new girls’ games recognize what experts have long known: Boys and girls play differently, and violent, action-oriented games just don’t appeal to girls.

“The violence and absence of female characters in traditional computer games are a turn-off for most girls,” says Justine Cassell, professor of media studies. “But there’s also a lack of attention to problems that many girls find interesting. Girls tell me these games are just boring.”

Research shows that, in general, boys are more interested in fantasy games involving combat and conquest. Girls, on the other hand, generally prefer more reality-based problems of social interaction.

“Women tend to be more interested in character and emotion,” says Jenkins. “Men are much more interested in hardware and action. Traditional video games have cool graphics of spaceships and emphasize shooting it outÑthey’re very bad at conveying character. One of the first things the girls’ games makers have done is find ways to introduce character and a focus on the emotional choices people make.”

In one popular girls’ game, “Rockett’s World,” girls can experiment with different responses to social situations. Brenda Laurel, the designer of the game, says, “There are a lot of expressions that Rockett makes that a girl might be afraid to try in real life. Like confronting someone when they’re mean to you. Or deciding not to let somebody copy your homework. It gives girls an emotional rehearsal space.”

In her research at the Media Lab, Cassell focuses on similar kinds of narrative games that she says appeal to boys as well as girls. “Everybody wants to tell a story – kids do it all the time,” she says. “Narrative is one of the ways that we learn who we are. It’s very valuable for kids.”

Laurel, who is also a member of the Comparative Media Studies advisory board, agrees, saying, “I’m hoping the progress we’ve made in interactive narrative and emotional gaming in the girls’ world can be mapped across onto the stuff we design for boys.”

New technology

According to Cassell and Jenkins, girls have a lot to gain from computer play. “Playing computer games gives kids a head start on computer literacy,” says Jenkins. “Boys on average play computer games much earlier than their sisters do. As a result, they are much more comfortable with computer technology by the time they start school.”

Experts say that familiarity is one big reason men hold more high-tech computer jobs than women. “The number of women entering computer science fields is declining,” says Jenkins. “We need to figure out how we’re going to give our daughters better access to this technology.”

Girls can benefit from early exposure to computers, but according to Cassell, the technology can also benefit from exposure to girls. “There’s a role girls play in the development of technology. If girls and women aren’t represented in the field of technology, then technology suffers as well as girls,” she says.

The hugely successful “Barbie Fashion Designer” is an example of how the girls’ game movement has expanded the notion of what a computer game is. The software allows kids to use the computer to design Barbie clothes, which they can then print out and assemble.

“‘Barbie Fashion Designer’ takes the doll, which is so familiar and so basic to American girlhood, and applies the computer to it in a way that makes the computer less alien and threatening,” says Jenkins. “It’s an innovative use of technology.”

Such innovative toys, especially those that involve interactive narrative, might even appeal to boys, and according to Jenkins, that is where the girls’ games movement is headed. “My prediction is that a gender-neutral play space is likely to emerge because the girls’ game movement has proven there is an existing market for girls,” he says, adding that such shared play has important benefits for society at large.

“If girls and boys can begin to share fantasies and learn from each other at an early age, that’s where a culture of equality is going to emerge.”

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