Tuesday, September 29, 2009

girls roaring into the online game space

My two sons (aged 5 and 9) play a wide range of video games on their Nintendo DS devices, our Wii, and online at the family PC. Of the online games, several are community-oriented such as Club Penguin and Webkinz. There is a great difference between the action games they play such as the LEGO series (Batman, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones) and this other type. The action games are violent (yes, LEGO games involve a great amount of destruction and “killing” although there is no blood), competitive, fast-paced, and adventure-based. The boys are constantly seeking ways to outscore and outplay one another.

On the other hand, Club Penguin and Webkinz are tame, safe (no one gets hurt), non-competitive, puzzle and relationship-based games. Although there are scores to earn in both types, the points in the community-oriented games amount to a form of currency that players can spend on a variety of items that serve to create atmosphere. For example, in Club Penguin, players can buy an assortment of housing goods and style-related accoutrements to “trick out” their pad or character's appearance.

Although I have not made a gender distinction between these markedly different styles of gaming, our American cultural mores and ways of perceiving gender interests will undoubtedly create the divide for us. Action games are for boys and community-oriented games are for girls (penguins and stuffed animals do not rank high on the testosterone meter). The fact that my sons play these games is not so much a statement of their gender association as it is a testament to the overall design integrity of the games. Simply put, boys didn't play these kinds of games when I was growing up because these kinds of games weren't being designed (for boys or girls).

One person who can be credited with a large share of the popularity of the second type of game is Brenda Laurel, who over the course of several decades, has pioneered games for young girls. Laurel is a writer, researcher, and game designer. In the early 1990s, she joined Interval Research to begin looking at the question of how play varies by gender. In an interview for Designing for Interaction (http://www.designingforinteraction.com/laurel.html), she discusses why she didn't start with the question “why don't girls play computer games?” – an answer which corroborates my experience with games growing up: “... the answers to that question (at least at the time we were asking it, in the mid-1990s) were at the same time highly predictable (e.g., the early, rapid vertical integration of the computer game industry around a monolithic male demographic) and not particularly actionable (e.g., girls don't play games because games aren't design for them or offered in retail spaces where girls go).”

After several years of research involving over a thousand children and literature reviews which covered thousands more, Laurel and her team began developing heuristics for interface design practices that applied to young girls and gaming. The project, called Safari – as it sought the big game girls would play – sailed against the prevailing winds of the industry. At this time in history, the $10 billion dollar computer game industry largely ignored girls.

Some of the research involved mixing gender signal traits: “For example we made a pink furry truck, and we learned that pinkness overrides truckness. We did a diary with bullet holes in it, and found that it is still a diary and boys won't use it” (http://www.designinginteractions.com/). Based on the findings of the Safari research, Laurel founded Purple Moon in the mid-90s, a startup company funded by Interval. The company consisted of three interconnected business ventures: “interactive CD-ROMs, the purplemoon.com website, and an array of Purple Moon collectibles.” At one point, over 40,000 young girl gamers occupied the virtual space of Purple Moon. Descriptions of the now-defunct site read like a playbook for Club Penguin and Webkinz-style community-oriented games with an emphasis on participatory narrative play. Like these newer game environments, “There was an internal postcard system, like an internal e-mail system, so that we could protect kids from predatory behavior by adults.” Before Disney bought Club Penguin, the site owners emphasized the safety of their internal game communication system as having similar characteristics.

It is, in my estimation, Laurel's research acumen that helps to set her apart from others who may walk a similar path. She stresses several times in various sources the need for solid research: “I fervently believe in research as a necessity for good design and I teach it that way” (http://blog.ted.com/2009/03/interview_with_2.php). One of the first courses students must take in the Graduate Program in Design Laurel designed (and chairs) at California College of the Arts is Design Research. In her own work, listening to the girl gamers gave her insight into the special world they occupied as players. The girls said they wanted to “make up their own stories about the characters and to make up new characters and possibly put themselves as characters into the stories.” Research into ways girls engage in sports “had a huge influence on both the plots and the UI” for the successful Starfire series.

In 1998, Laurel was invited to speak at the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Conference in Monterey, California. During that talk, she showcased and discussed several of the features of Purple Moon and the nature of designing games for girls:

At the height of the dot com boom, Mattel purchased Purple Moon. However, in a frustrating turn of events, Mattel killed the venture in 1999. Laurel writes about her experience in the book Utopian Entrepreneur. Even though her bitterness is justified, she still takes pride in seeing the continued cultural artifacts of her failed game empire in other areas: “The 'emotional navigation' interface we developed ... [has been] useful for working with folks with autism in helping them read emotional cues” (http://blog.ted.com/2009/03/interview_with_2.php).

The impact of the work Laurel did at Interval and Purple Moon shouldn't be underestimated. Will Wright's The Sims and Spore stand as exemplars of the participatory narrative frameworks championed by Laurel. Even the ability to customize one's Mii on the Wii game settings is an idea whose roots extend back to the kind of work Laurel was doing even before Purple Moon - she holds an MFA and a PhD in Theater and her dissertation was the “first to propose a comprehensive architecture for computer-based interactive fantasy and fiction” (http://www.tauzero.com/Brenda_Laurel/BrendaBio.html).

The fact that girls occupy such a large space in the world of gaming as compared to the virtual terrain of the 80s and early 90s speaks to the impact her work and research has had on a once boys-only zone. And although she is generally unwilling to take much credit in this regard, she does concede that “interventions like Purple Moon enhanced girls' comfort with computers, which we set out to do, and brought girls roaring into the online game space” (http://blog.ted.com/2009/03/interview_with_2.php).