Research and Advances
Computing Applications

Engaging Girls with Computers Through Software Games

The market is ripe, the time is now, for tapping into the potential gold mine that surrounds computer games for girls.
  1. Introduction
  2. Tapping into the Girls' Games Market
  3. The Need for Compelling Content
  4. Business Implications
  5. Future Generations
  6. References
  7. Authors
  8. Figures
  9. Tables

A recent report from the ACM Committee on Women in Computing (ACM-W) noted the alarming decrease of women graduating with computer science bachelor degrees. Indeed, the research showed a distressing 24% drop in women pursuing CS degrees over the last decade [1;].

Today, a growing concern is that girls are losing interest in computers, and thus, computer science, very early in the pipeline. The reasons behind this fact are quite complex and are due to the contributions of many societal factors. Here, we focus on computer games because for most girls their first computer experiences are solely through playing software-based games. Unfortunately, the majority of today’s games are aimed at a male market and in addition are not of particular interest to girls, as shown in Figure 1. Thus, in many cases a girl’s first experience with a computer is a negative one and can turn her off of computing right from the start.

Creating software games of interest to girls has the potential to bring more girls into computing at early ages, thus increasing the numbers throughout the pipeline. In addition to this positive effect, the game market for girls has tremendous business potential. In fact, the 25 million girls between the ages of 6 and 18 constitute one of the largest untapped consumer electronics markets in the U.S.

The realization of the prospects from this huge, untapped market came in November 1996, when Mattel Media, Inc. (El Segundo, Calif.), released “Barbie Fashion Designer,” a CD-ROM game for girls five years and older that allows them to design clothes for their Barbie dolls and then print them out on a light fabric with any laser printer. The game was the sixth best-selling CD-ROM game in 1996 and 1997. Mattel sold more than 200,000 units within the first month of its release. In the last two months of 1996, retailers sold $11.5 million worth.

With the success of Mattel’s “Barbie Fashion Designer,” game software developers realized the potential of this large and relatively unexplored market. Hoping for similar success, other game developers have scrambled to provide games for the girl market segment. Game companies released a number of titles they felt reflected girls’ interests and play patterns in the second half of 1997 and early 1998.

The interactive entertainment software industry generated approximately $5 billion in retail sales in North America in 1997, including games for dedicated video-game consoles and for personal computers (PCs), as well as online games. As shown in Table 1, the entertainment software industry is continuing to grow rapidly.

As the marketplace for computer-based entertainment changes, and as software developers design more content for girls, analysts expect females to spend more money on computers, games, online access, and other technology tools that have traditionally targeted male consumers. Indeed, SRI Consulting analysts estimate that if software game developers provide compelling and interesting game content, the girls’ game market could, at a minimum, account for more than 20% by 2001 of the CD-ROM game market, excluding console computer and online games.

In general, the entertainment software market focused on males is divided into three ages groups: over 35, 18–35, and under 18, as shown in Figure 2. On the other hand, the female computer game market can be broken into: the adult female market (18 and older), the teen market (girls between the ages of 13 and 17), and the preteen market (girls between the ages of 8 and 12). The primary female game markets are the teen and preteen age groups.

The teen market especially seems to have potential. A survey by Her Interactive, a division of America Laser Games Inc., found that 10- to 15-year-old girls contribute some $50 billion per year to the U.S. economy, not only by spending on such items as clothes, jewelry, and makeup, but also on software. Nonetheless, research shows that women are as comfortable with information technology as men and use it as often as men do, but not necessarily for entertainment. However, this may be due to the fact that games have addressed only male interests and play patterns. For example, males gravitate to games that incorporate scoring and fighting, whereas females of all ages typically enjoy a subtler level of competition. Women and girls tend to prefer adventure and games with a narrative. Consequently, consumer research shows that female buyers purchase only 12% of multimedia games despite the fact that females account for more than half the U.S. population.

Computer-based (including online or Internet) entertainment options for girls between the ages of 13 and 17—when gender differences become much more pronounced—are also lacking. Ironically, the online medium plays well to the interests and behavior patterns of young women, who favor chat, collaboration, communication, and competition (although less overt competition than boys favor). The major game developers essentially ignored this market in the early 1990s, illustrated in Table 2. We expect and hope this will change in the next century.

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Tapping into the Girls’ Games Market

How can software providers penetrate the girls’ games market and in the process interest more girls in computing? Designers must first address issues in understanding girls’ low participation in the computer-game market in order to create compelling content while at the same time understanding the context of use and societal attitudes of computer usage.

Before the success of Mattel’s “Barbie Fashion Designer,” software game developers and publishers had attempted and failed to tap into the female consumer market. This led some of them to believe that girls and young women have no interest in using computers for entertainment. However, the Mattel experience seems to indicate the low participation of girls with computers and computer games does not reflect a lack of interest but rather a lack of engaging and compelling content for girls.

A survey found that 10- to 15-year-old girls contribute some $50 billion per year to the U.S. economy, not only by spending on such items as clothes, jewelry, and makeup, but also on software.

Indeed, most computer games on the market—which, again, target boys and young men—are highly competitive and have rigid rules. Most games fit into the categories of action, strategy, adventure, simulation, and sports (see Figure 3). The main objective of these games is to win by obtaining the highest score or accomplishing a task in the fastest time. In contrast, girls do not play games only to win, and they are bored by repetitive games that require a player to start over again each time he or she loses or “dies.” In general, girls are more interested in creating than destroying. One study illustrated that girls preferred games that require thought and puzzle-solving skills, and they find the repetitive music and sound effects of typical male-oriented games monotonous. [2]. In addition, boys in North America were found to prefer loud games that involve quick reflexes rather than puzzle solving, and games that involve substantial amounts of fighting or killing.

On the other hand, the use of computers and online services among young children is consistent with their share of the overall population. According to Jupiter Communications, a market research firm, girls will account for nearly 49% of the online children between 2 to 12 by 2000, a ratio that is consistent with the overall number of girls in the U.S. Girls in this age group show no fear or lack of interest in technology. However, online use by girls between 13 and 17 drops significantly in relation to their overall population representation. In 1996, girls in this age group represented only 37% of the online population, whereas they account for 48.7% of the U.S. teenage population.

The decrease at these older ages does not reflect declining interest but rather a lack of compelling entertainment and other online content for teenage girls. In the age group 2 to 12 years, gender-neutral content online has successfully reached both boys and girls. America Online reports the use of its Kids Only Channel is almost even among boys and girls: 57% of boys and 51% of girls on the Internet, and Nickelodeon’s birthday database is 53% female. This argues for the development of games that include puzzle solving without a focus on fighting and killing.

Girls are more interested in creating than destroying.

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The Need for Compelling Content

To design and develop compelling games for the female preteen (8 to 12 years old) and teen (13 to 17 years old) markets, several companies have conducted research into the playing patterns of girls. These companies include Purple Moon (Palo Alto, Calif.; recently bought by Mattel) which conducted extensive research for over four years; Girl Games Inc. (Austin, Tex.) which conducted research with Rice University to determine what features girls like and dislike in games; Her Interactive (Kirkland, Wash.) which interviewed 2,000 girls before developing its interactive game product; and Electronic Arts (San Mateo, Calif.).

Purple Moon, in particular, interviewed some 2,000 U.S. girls between the ages of 8 and 12 as well as 500 parents to determine what appeals to girls in the preteen and teen years. The company examined play interaction among boys and girls and studied how girls play, what activities they enjoy, and what topics are interesting to them. In addition, the company consulted experts in the field of children’s play and consulted the research literature, including material on play theory, brain-based sex differences, and social behavior. Their research revealed the following play patterns:

  • Girls prefer collaboration to competition. Girls prefer working together to accomplish a task than trying to outdo someone else.
  • Girls enjoy nonclosure and exploration. Girls don’t put a large emphasis on whether they’ve completed a stage before moving on as today’s computer games typically do. Rather, they move freely in the game, without necessarily finishing or winning a stage.
  • Girls prefer to use puzzle-solving skills rather than test their eye-hand reflexes.
  • Girls like complex social interaction. They are fascinated by relationships between characters and other game players.
  • Girls often identify with characters in video games and mimic the main character. They like to act out other lives but prefer to do so in familiar surroundings with characters that behave like people they know.
  • Girls rate virtual reality (VR) applications as the type of software they think they would enjoy using most. Among the specific VR applications that appeal to them are bungee jumping, shopping, conference calls, travel, and talk-show hosting.
  • Girls are fond of transmedia: things that make a magical transformation from one medium to the next or things that can appear in more than one form.
  • Girls like rich texture, such as good audio quality.
  • Older girls prefer educational titles, where younger girls prefer stories.

These findings suggest the success of the Barbie game series is due to their representation of characters. Girls enjoy identifying with real-life characters (as in the case of Carmen Sandiego), and like to act out characters, as if they were in a story (as in some of the Barbie games). Mattel exploits its success by expanding its line of products to include other games that offer well-developed characters such as the Madeline series (before a Creative Wonders product), and the Rockett series (before a Purple Moon product).

Other research has found similar results. The Electronic Games for Education and Math and Sciences (E-GEMS) is studying what makes games interesting to girls and boys. They found that girls are particularly interested in a game when given the chance to socially interact with others and prefer playing on computers over video game systems [3]. However, while violent games are currently popular among boys, boys also prefer games that challenge them mentally [4]. This provides encouraging evidence that nonviolent games may appeal to both genders.

Since the early 1990s, several companies have attempted to market a line of software games specifically for girls. Companies such as Broderbund and Creative Wonders have marketed girl games that were designed to appeal to boys as well. Table 3 outlines key attributes of these games. The games from several of these companies include elements rare in the interactive entertainment world: teenage girl protagonists and story lines in which problem solving, investigation, and communication with onscreen characters are the keys to progressing though the game. Many of the start-up companies hope to tap into the potential of the girls’ games market and to encourage girls to explore cutting-edge technology through their products. These companies provide girls with fun and meaningful computer experiences that will encourage them to prepare for the demands of a technologically advanced future, as well as to buy their products.

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Business Implications

Finding ways to overcome problems of context of use of computers and the associated societal attitudes is difficult. Here are some suggestions:

Marketing strategies. Game designers cannot afford to overlook the strong evidence that girls 8 to 12 and 13 to 17 represent a different market segment from that of boys and young men. Understanding and leveraging those differences can create a competitive advantage and be a requisite for success. To overcome societal attitudes and barriers, companies have to adopt innovative marketing strategies.

Companies like Purple Moon and Girl Games pursued new marketing and retail strategies in an effort to reach their target market. In the Fall 1996, the game “Let’s Talk About Me” went on sale at Contempo Casuals, a national clothing retailer that targets teenage girls. To encourage girls to frequent the store, Contempo equipped its stores with lounges offering videos, music, magazines, and comfortable chairs. Software demos were another attraction.

Looking for ways to launch its premier titles—”Rockett’s New School” and “Secret Paths in the Forest”—Purple Moon formed a strategic alliance with a veteran clothing label, and allocated a portion of its $4.5 million advertising and marketing budget to a partnership with Jonathan Martin Girls. Purple Moon launched its back-to-school campaign at software retailers like Best Buy, where purchases of Purple Moon software entitled girls to a “friendship adventures” backpack that contained a limited-edition Jonathan Martin Girls T-shirt. Hang tags on Jonathan Martin Girls apparel and footwear in stores such as Nordstrom, Macy’s, Robinson’s/May, and Dillard’s also promoted the program.

Purple Moon also linked its CD-ROM games with its online Web site. The company’s Web site does not provide information about the company but rather introduces the characters, stories, and environments of the game, allows girls to interact and chat with other girls, and allows girls to design their own Web pages.

Mattel successfully marketed game products by appealing to girls’ interest in playing with dolls. Capitalizing on Barbie’s appeal, Mattel titles dominate the five top-selling girls games.

New tools for personalization. Personalization of computers is becoming increasingly feasible and would likely appeal to girls, encouraging more girls to use computers. A wide variety of products now attempt to take advantage of people’s desire to customize their computer systems. Current tools include voice recognition, text-to-speech programs, intelligent agents, and graphics. Many companies have given a voice to computers and to particular software programs. These voices range in age, gender, tonal quality, and attitude/personality. The more human computers become, the more individual they become. Thus, companies need to consider the implications of giving a gendered voice to computers. Research shows that users stereotype speaking computers along traditional gender lines [6].

According to Debra Lieberman, a media research consultant at Stanford University, personalization of games that involve learning is a key ingredient for success among children and teenagers. Lieberman extensively researched health-care education video games and interactive media for children and adolescents. Her research shows that video games can promote health care by offering unlimited opportunities for repetition and rehearsal and by individualizing messages to players in keeping with their performance in the game [5]. To engage children in health-related behaviors while they play video games can provide appealing role-model characters, provide scenarios for making health decisions and carrying out self-care skills, and depict realistic consequences of players’ decisions and actions. Game formats could offer opportunities for practice, requiring players to make hypothetical decisions about elective surgery or first aid, or to decide whether a medical problem is serious enough to merit an appointment with a doctor. Games could offer hints and pointers for finding essential information and teach players how to navigate in each online medical resource. As this example domain area illustrates, online games can become powerful learning resources because they combine information access and connection to other people.

Although personalization is possible in stand-alone applications, greater opportunities exist to personalize online software. Lieberman researched and collaborated in the design of games in which players can select a language, adjust the character’s therapy, and play a single-player or two-player version of the game. According to Lieberman, personalizations are possible online because storage capacity is more extensive in networks and because developers can change the games more frequently. For instance, developers can add new installments of an education video game so that it grows and changes over time. Such updates could encourage players to come back periodically to see what is new. In addition, presentations of questions about interesting topics could change dynamically throughout a game in response to players’ success or failure in answering a set of questions, thus tailoring the system to the user.

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Future Generations

Growing up learning and playing with computers may enable girls to be at ease with software products and become familiar with computers and their use. Moreover, playing computer games may encourage girls to pursue computer courses at early stages, and entice them to regard computer science as an attractive career choice. To succeed in this enterprise of engaging girls to play with computer games, companies are focusing on those activities that girls like the most. Research and already successful games show that girls may enjoy computer games if they provide compelling content and appropriate software design. Furthermore, the girls’ market could represent a beachhead toward a home software market for a new generation of females. Women who do not work in business or computer-related jobs represent a difficult market to enter. Future generations of females will become savvy users and buyers of hardware and software.

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F1 Figure 1. Entertainment software market by gender for 1998.

F2 Figure 2. Entertainment software market by age group in 1998.

F3 Figure 3. Top five categories in the entertainment software market (in percent).

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T1 Table 1. Game market revenue (billions of dollars).

T2 Table 2. Market potential of games for girls.

T3 Table 3. Overview of games.

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    1. Camp, T. The incredible shrinking pipeline. Commun. ACM 40, 10 (Oct. 1997), 103–110.

    2. Department of Education, University of Maryland County. Girls' Preferences in Software Design: Insights from a Focus Group. IPCT, Interpersonal Computing and Technology: An Electronic Journal for the 21st Century. 4, 2 (April, 1996), 27–36.

    3. Inkpen, K., Upitis, R., Klawe, M., Lawry, J., Anderson, A.., Ndunda, M., Sedighian, K., Leroux, S., and Hsu, D. We have never-forgetful flowers in our garden: Girls' responses to electronic games. Technical Report 93-47, Dept. of Computer Science, University of British Columbia (1994).

    4. Lawry, J., Upitis, R., Klawe, M., Anderson, A., Inkpen, K., Ndunda, M., Hsu, D., Leroux, S., and Sedighian, K. Exploring common conceptions about boys and electronic games. Technical Report 94-1, Dept. of Computer Science, University of British Columbia (1994).

    5. Lieberman, D.A. Interactive video games for health promotion: Effects on knowledge, self-efficacy, social support, and health. Mahwah, Heath Promotion and Interactive Technology: Theoretical Applications and Future Directions. Lawrence Erlbaum, Englewood, NJ, 1997.

    6. Reeves, B. and Nass, C. The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1996.

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