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Getting girls into the software game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Next time you're at the video store, take a stroll down the computer- and video-game aisle and peruse those covers. If you suddenly feel overwhelmed by testosterone, it's not your imagination.

The ratio of males to females pictured on the games' covers runs roughly 13-to-1.

Studies show one-half of males on game covers are portrayed as dominating; one-third of females are portrayed submissively.

Things don't get better beyond the cover: In the 47 top-selling video games of 1994, one-third of female characters are treated as victims.

It's hardly surprising that in the blood-soaked world of Doom, Isle of the Dead and Mortal Kombat, women get a raw deal, image-wise. What is surprising is that the makers of computer and video games still don't seem hip to the fact that there are scads of teen-age girls out there, and they have scads of dollars to spend. If only they could find the kind of entertainment software they want to spend it on.

According to Sex Roles Journal, 85 percent of young women say they would play more computer games if there were more titles designed with them in mind.

Enter Houston-bred entrepreneur and film producer Laura Groppe. If things go her way, her Girl Games Inc. software company will revolutionize an industry that's been slow to wake to the interactive needs of the other half of humanity. "It's simply a matter of an industry coming to its level of maturation," says Ms. Groppe, sitting in her downtown Houston office. "In order for [the software industry] to hit the mass market, you have to include females."

One reason girls haven't been included to date, says Ms. Groppe, is a dearth of women working at the top levels of the software industry. "It's the same as in the film business, where ultimately a [male] director controls all the strings," she says.

Ms. Groppe, 31, spent seven years in Hollywood producing and co-directing independent films. She won an Academy Award in 1992 for her short film "Sessions Man." She says she switched her attention to the field of software design last year, when she realized the needs of girls were being virtually ignored.

Her company, founded in May 1994, is made up primarily of female designers, developers, artists and writers, and targets girls ages 7-17. The first product -- an interactive CD Rom software series called Being U -- is scheduled to come out in the spring. Also in the works is an on-line environment for girls (to debut later this year) and a mystery-based series, also due out next spring, written by acclaimed juvenile mystery author Joan Lowry Nixon and Ms. Nixon's two daughters.

"The whole basis of this company is to get girls to incorporate [computer] technology in their lives, to get them through to the next century, so they can be competitive," Ms. Groppe says.

Formerly "computer-phobic," Ms. Groppe is still stung by the memory of being passed over for an important Hollywood project because she lacked computer skills. (She went out the same day, bought a computer and learned how to use it, she says.)

Games like Doom may be gory, says Ms. Groppe, but they've also provided boys with a "gateway" into modern computer technology. Girls have been cheated out of a similar gateway, because software makers mistakenly believe they're simply not as interested in computers as boys. They are -- just not in the same kind of interactive material, says Ms. Groppe.

Since forming Girl Games, Ms. Groppe has conducted focus groups among girls in middle and high schools in Houston, San Antonio and Atlanta, trying to find out what girls want in software. Recently she completed a project, under the auspices of Rice University, that lets girls build their own multimedia presentations. Girl Games also has a newsletter on the Internet, called Girls Interwire, that keeps a finger on the pulse of current girl-thinking.

Through her research, Ms. Groppe has discovered that girls enjoy some of the more violent video games -- for a short while, anyway.

"They like the action . . . at first, but after a while, they don't get the point. A lot of people in the software industry think if you just put in a female protagonist, it's going to appeal to girls. [But] if it's a poorly designed game, it doesn't matter if it's a male or female protagonist."

Ms. Groppe laughs about one game that features a female killer in high heels and a miniskirt. Girls in the focus groups complained she didn't stand a chance against the monsters.

What girls want more than kicks and guns is to be challenged and connected.

"They very much want control. . . . What we're trying to do, what's supported by our research, is to create software programs that are more open-ended, more exploratory, with more story, more character. Not [games] that are necessarily emotion-driven."

Series also work well with girls, because girls like to get hooked by something and stay with it.

What Girl Games is not going to do, says Ms. Groppe, is design software like that being offered by the one other interactive U.S. company that is targeting teen girls.

"They're developing interactive games that are all about how important it is to look cute, to get the boy, to get the date, to drive the cute car," says Ms. Groppe.

Being U will feature four modules -- body, relationship, future and mentors. The last is Ms. Groppe's favorite. It's a personality quiz hTC that hooks girls with successful women by matching up their traits. Her real goal, she says, is to help expand the field of technologically savvy females out there, for her own purposes and for a better world. "I want to eventually hire the girls who are now in the seventh or eighth grade."

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