Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice

Computer games girls play.

Interval Research Corp. is one of the many curious, putatively futuristic institutions that could never exist were it not for the largess of Paul Allen, the retired co-founder of Microsoft.

Its stated purpose is to explore the intersection of culture and high technology and, incidentally, to make money. It is one part think tank, one part venture-capital fund, and one part mystery.

Five years ago Interval Research hired Brenda Laurel, who had spent the previous 20 years developing computer games, to head a 10-person team investigating the nature of little girls. The $6-billion computer-games industry had been built to the specifications of the 11-year-old boy, mainly because it had been invented by male computer geeks with the mental age of 11-year-old boys. Girls had been largely ignored. Girls, it was felt, weren’t interested in playing computer games. “A $6-billion business with a vacant lot next door,” as Laurel puts it. “It made sense to build on it.”

Originally, Laurel set out not to create a business but merely a body of knowledge. Her team spent four years interviewing psychiatrists, teachers, parents, children, toy-company executives, and so on. At the end of the research they decided they understood girls between the ages of 7 and 12 as they had never been understood. They took this understanding and Interval’s money and created a computer-games company in Palo Alto called Purple Moon. Purple Moon refuses to divulge its research, but it does provide journalists with a summary of the results. The most salient of these are the differences in how little boys and little girls compete. Here they are:

Actually, I made that last one up. But the others are original to Purple Moon–and about, oh, a billion male-chauvinist pigs. Forty man-years of research have confirmed for the computer-games industry what anyone with eyes not blinded by ideology can see. It would seem a good example of business people chewing more than they had bitten off.

But before you sneer–or, at any rate, while you sneer–at the whole enterprise you must know that the two games released by Purple Moon have been fantastically successful. One is called Secret Paths in the Forest, the other is called Rockett’s New School. In the three months since their release, both have ranked among the top 50 best-selling computer games. Purple Moon may have reinvented the wheel, but the wheel rolls.

The first thing you notice about the games themselves is their packaging, which seems designed to alienate little boys. A self-respecting little boy might be able to get beyond the illustrations of flowers and jewels and little girls prancing across empty fields. But he would surely give up when he saw the message emblazoned on the side of the box:

Deep Friendships. Love of Nature. The confidence to be cool. The courage to dream. It’s what girls are all about. And it’s what girls share when they discover Purple Moon adventures. Which is why Purple Moon is just for girls.

I t turns out that the purpose of this warning label is to avoid what Purple Moon calls “the cootie effect.” The cootie effect is the death of interest suffered by little girls when little boys play a computer game and pronounce it to be “lame.” And that is almost certainly what the snips-and-snails crowd would do if it got its hands on, say, Rockett’s New School. The game captures the many reasons 11-year-old boys have historically made a practice of avoiding 11-year-old girls.

Rockett’s New School is what Purple Moon calls “a friendship adventure.” A friendship adventure, unlike the usual phallocentric computer adventure, is not about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. No wizards are slain, no goals are scored, no puzzles are solved. Rockett’s adventure is a simulated real-life experience, a soap opera starring 14-year-olds that attempts to capture the emotional complexity of awkward social situations. The principal social situation is a teen-age girl named Rockett’s first day at a new school. Rockett is a spunky, miniskirted, 14-year-old redhead faced with a series of psychologically fraught encounters: meeting the coolest girl, meeting the uncoolest girl, meeting the cute boy, deciding where to sit in the cafeteria, confronting a bully who is upset that she is dressed in exactly the same white blouse and green miniskirt, and so on. Maybe the most striking thing about these encounters is their rawness. The game does not feel like an old person’s idea of a young person’s point of view; it feels like a young person’s point of view. In one situation, for instance, Rockett is openly grossed out by a male teacher whose hand is deformed. The game requires her to shake the gnarled and withered stump.

In none of this does Rockett–or the player–have any control over ultimate outcomes. In each real-life situation, three separate thought-bubbles appear over Rockett’s head. They correspond to three social attitudes: bitchy, chirpy, and shy. The player, plugged into Rockett’s central nervous system, chooses her state of mind. But Rockett’s state of mind has no effect on Rockett’s destiny. The cool girl snubs Rockett whether she is a bitch or a suck-up–the only difference is the severity of the snubbing. No matter where the player points her mouse and clicks, Rockett marches inexorably to her fate.

The big difference between the computer games that little boys play and the computer games that little girls play lies in what the player controls. The little boy wants to control his destiny. The little girl wants to control her state of mind. At any time, for example, the player can freeze the narrative and send Rockett sneaking into the backpacks and lockers of the other students. She can read diaries and private letters, or write her own. (“OK, whatever I write down here is going to be, like, my most private thoughts.”) According to Purple Moon, the little girls who play the game spend fully half of their time snooping through other people’s private effects.

Thus the fantasy of little girls, it would seem, is not to win but to acquire slowly a sense of social superiority. If the games favored by 11-year-old boys resemble life in a high-tech startup, the games favored by 11-year-old girls are like life in a bureaucracy. Whether the cause is nature or nurture, who would care to say?