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Brenda Laurel on making video games for girls

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Back in 1992, I started working for a company called Interval Research, which was just then being founded by David Lidell and Paul Allen as a for-profit research enterprise in Silicon Valley.

I met with David to talk about what I might do in his company. I was just coming out of a failed virtual reality business and supporting myself by being on the speaking circuit and writing books -- after twenty years or so in the computer game industry having ideas that people didn't think they could sell.

And David and I discovered that we had a question in common, that we really wanted the answer to, and that was, "Why hasn't anybody built any computer games for little girls?" Why is that? It can't just be a giant sexist conspiracy. These people aren't that smart. There's six billion dollars on the table. They would go for it if they could figure out how.

So, what is the deal here? And as we thought about our goals -- I should say that Interval is really a humanistic institution, in the classical sense that humanism, at its best, finds a way to combine clear-eyed empirical research with a set of core values that fundamentally love and respect people. The basic idea of humanism is the improvable quality of life; that we can do good things, that there are things worth doing because they're good things to do, and that clear-eyed empiricism can help us figure out how to do them.

So, contrary to popular belief, there is not a conflict of interest between empiricism and values. And Interval Research is kind of the living example of how that can be true. So David and I decided to go find out, through the best research we could muster, what it would take to get a little girl to put her hands on a computer, to achieve the level of comfort and ease with the technology that little boys have because they play video games.

We spent two and a half years conducting research; we spent another year and a half in advance development. Then we formed a spin-off company. In the research phase of the project at Interval, we partnered with a company called Cheskin Research, and these people -- Davis Masten and Christopher Ireland -- changed my mind entirely about what market research was and what it could be. They taught me how to look and see, and they did not do the incredibly stupid thing of saying to a child, "Of all these things we already make you, which do you like best?" -- which gives you zero answers that are usable.

So, what we did for the first two and a half years was four things: We did an extensive review of the literature in related fields, like cognitive psychology, spatial cognition, gender studies, play theory, sociology, primatology. Thank you Frans de Waal, wherever you are, I love you and I'd give anything to meet you.

After we had done that with a pretty large team of people and discovered what we thought the salient issues were with girls and boys and playing -- because, after all, that's really what this is about -- we moved to the second phase of our work, where we interviewed adult experts in academia, some of the people who'd produced the literature that we found relevant. Also, we did focus groups with people who were on the ground with kids every day, like playground supervisors. We talked to them, confirmed some hypotheses and identified some serious questions about gender difference and play.

Then we did what I consider to be the heart of the work: interviewed 1,100 children, boys and girls, ages seven to 12, all over the United States -- except for Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin because we knew that their little families would have millions of computers in them and they wouldn't be a representative sample.

And at the end of those remarkable conversations with kids and their best friends across the United States, after two years, we pulled together some survey data from another 10,000 children, drew up a set up of what we thought were the key findings of our research, and spent another year transforming them into design heuristics, for designing computer-based products -- and, in fact, any kind of products -- for little girls, ages eight to 12. And we spent that time designing interactive prototypes for computer software and testing them with little girls. In 1996, in November, we formed the company Purple Moon which was a spinoff of Interval Research, and our chief investors were Interval Research, Vulcan Northwest, Institutional Venture Partners and Allen and Company.

We launched a website on September 2nd that has now served 25 million pages, and has 42,000 registered young girl users. They visit an average of one and a half times a day, spend an average of 35 minutes a visit, and look at 50 pages a visit. So we feel that we've formed a successful online community with girls.

We launched two titles in October -- "Rockett's New School" -- the first of a series of products -- is about a character called Rockett beginning her first day of school in eighth grade at a brand new place, with a blank slate, which allows girls to play with the question of, "What will I be like when I'm older?" "What's it going to be like to be in high school or junior high school? Who are my friends?"; to exercise the love of social complexity and the narrative intelligence that drives most of their play behavior; and which embeds in it values about noticing that we have lots of choices in our lives and the ways that we conduct ourselves.

The other title that we launched is called "Secret Paths in the Forest," which addresses the more fantasy-oriented, inner lives of girls. These two titles both showed up in the top 50 entertainment titles in PC Data -- entertainment titles in PC Data in December, right up there with "John Madden Football," which thrills me to death. So, we're real, and we've touched several hundreds of thousands of little girls. We've made half-a-billion impressions with marketing and PR for this brand, Purple Moon. Ninety-six percent of them, roughly, have been positive; four percent of them have been "other." I want to talk about the other, because the politics of this enterprise, in a way, have been the most fascinating part of it, for me.

There are really two kinds of negative reviews that we've received. One kind of reviewer is a male gamer who thinks he knows what games ought to be, and won't show the product to little girls. The other kind of reviewer is a certain flavor of feminist who thinks they know what little girls ought to be. And so it's funny to me that these interesting, odd bedfellows have one thing in common: they don't listen to little girls. They haven't looked at children and they're certainly not demonstrating any love for them. I'd like to play you some voices of little girls from the two-and-a-half years of research that we did -- actually, some of the voices are more recent. And these voices will be accompanied by photographs that they took for us of their lives, of the things that they value and care about. These are pictures the girls themselves never saw, but they gave to us This is the stuff those reviewers don't know about and aren't listening to and this is the kind of research I recommend to those who want to do humanistic work.

Girl 1: Yeah, my character is usually a tomboy. Hers is more into boys.

Girl 2: Uh, yeah.

Girl 1: We have -- in the very beginning of the whole game, always we do this: we each have a piece of paper; we write down our name, our age -- are we rich, very rich, not rich, poor, medium, wealthy, boyfriends, dogs, pets -- what else -- sisters, brothers, and all those.

Girl 2: Divorced -- parents divorced, maybe.

Girl 3: This is my pretend [unclear] one.

Girl 4: We make a school newspaper on the computer.

Girl 5: For a girl's game also usually they'll have really pretty scenery with clouds and flowers. Girl 6: Like, if you were a girl and you were really adventurous and a real big tomboy, you would think that girls' games were kinda sissy.

Girl 7: I run track, I played soccer, I play basketball, and I love a lot of things to do. And sometimes I feel like I can't really enjoy myself unless it's like a vacation, like when I get Mondays and all those days off.

Girl 8: Well, sometimes there is a lot of stuff going on because I have music lessons and I'm on swim team -- all this different stuff that I have to do, and sometimes it gets overwhelming. Girl 9: My friend Justine kinda took my friend Kelly, and now they're being mean to me.

Girl 10: Well, sometimes it gets annoying when your brothers and sisters, or brother or sister, when they copy you and you get your idea first and they take your idea and they do it themselves.

Girl 11: Because my older sister, she gets everything and, like, when I ask my mom for something, she'll say, "No" -- all the time. But she gives my sister everything.

Brenda Laurel: I want to show you, real quickly, just a minute of "Rockett's Tricky Decision," which went gold two days ago. Let's hope it's really stable. This is the second day in Rockett's life. The reason I'm showing you this is I'm hoping that the scene that I'm going to show you will look familiar and sound familiar, now that you've listened to some girls' voices. And you can see how we've tried to incorporate the issues that matter to them in the game that we've created.

Miko: Hey Rockett! C'mere!

Rockett: Hi Miko! What's going on?

Miko: Did you hear about Nakilia's big Halloween party this weekend? She asked me to make sure you knew about it. Nakilia invited Reuben too, but --

Rockett: But what? Isn't he coming?

Miko: I don't think so. I mean, I heard his band is playing at another party the same night.

Rockett: Really? What other party?

Girl: Max's party is going to be so cool, Whitney. He's invited all the best people.

BL: I'm going to fast-forward to the decision point because I know I don't have a lot of time. After this awful event occurs, Rocket gets to decide how she feels about it.

Rockett: Who'd want to show up at that party anyway? I could get invited to that party any day if I wanted to. Gee, I doubt I'll make Max's best people list.

BL: OK, so we're going to emotionally navigate. If we were playing the game, that's what we'd do. If at any time during the game we want to learn more about the characters, we can go into this hidden hallway, and I'll quickly just show you the interface. We can, for example, go find Miko's locker and get some more information about her. Oops, I turned the wrong way. But you get the general idea of the product.

I wanted to show you the ways, innocuous as they seem, in which we're incorporating what we've learned about girls -- their desires to experience greater emotional flexibility, and to play around with the social complexity of their lives. I want to make the point that what we're giving girls, I think, through this effort, is a kind of validation, a sense of being seen. And a sense of the choices that are available in their lives. We love them. We see them. We're not trying to tell them who they ought to be. But we're really, really happy about who they are. It turns out they're really great.

I want to close by showing you a videotape that's a version of a future game in the Rockett series that our graphic artists and design people put together, that we feel would please that four percent of reviewers. "Rockett 28!"

Rockett: It's like I'm just waking up, you know?

BL: Thanks.

Video Details

Duration: 12 minutes and 56 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 439
Posted by: tedtalks on Mar 2, 2009

A TED archive gem. At TED1998, Brenda Laurel asked: Why are all the top-selling videogames aimed at little boys? She talked about her two-plus years of research to create a game that girls would play and love. It's pioneering work that resonates today.

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