The Practical Futurist: Girls Just Want To Have Games

What do Barbie and Nancy Drew have in common? Besides apparent genes for agelessness, the two characters may someday be seen as crucial turning points in the evolution of interactive games for girls. Or perhaps even the evolution of interactive games for everyone.

It started in 1996, when Mattel unleashed the CD-ROM Barbie: Fashion Designer on an unsuspecting world. I promptly sent that first Barbie title to a smart feminist reviewer out in California and waited for the explosion. When I didn't hear back I called to find out how the review was going. The reviewer said she hadn't yet been able to get the game away from her 8-year-old daughter. Anti-Barbie from way back, the reviewer was primed to lambaste the digital version but never had the chance. When her piece came in, it was thumbs up: sure, the game was about fashion design, but it was absorbing, well-designed and made kids--girls, more specifically--think creatively.

Barbie software was off and running, and in only a few years "games for girls" was an $85 million market. And while Mattel stumbled hugely when it tried to expand further in the software business (buying The Learning Company for nearly $4 billion), Barbie herself remained a strong franchise. The lissome miss has evolved well past fashion designer: the recent Barbie: Explorer, for example, has the star running around dangerous foreign locales in (admittedly nicely tailored) camouflage gear.

Success did not come quite so quickly for Barbie's less winsome colleague. Nancy Drew's publisher, Her Interactive, actually started in the mid-'90s with an elaborate five-CD-ROM girls' title called Mackenzie & Company. It was something of a Sim High School in which the player interacted with friends and made decisions about dating, slumber parties and the prom, not to mention clothes and makeup. Most reviewers saw it as quite stereotypical but fun to play for pre- or early teens. More importantly it sold enough copies to let Her Interactive release Vampire Diaries, a mystery-adventure game. That led directly to the rights to the Nancy Drew series.

But the Drew name alone, according to Megan Gaiser, CEO of Her Interactive, wasn't enough to get them on the big-time game screen. By then, game publishers had witnessed the crash-and-burn of Purple Moon, one of the most celebrated girl's software launches ever. A respected computer pioneer named Brenda Laurel, known for her expertise in interface design, spent millions of dollars at a Silicon Valley think tank studying what girls wanted in game software. The result was Purple Moon, a well-funded start-up that released several games around a character named Rockett. In Rockett's New School, for example, you could choose how Rockett would act--brassy, shy, confident--and then see how that helped, or not, her first day in a new school.

The Purple Moon series was well marketed--at one point, Rockett even showed up with a mustache in the "Got Milk?" ad series. The games themselves received mixed reviews, as they seemed again to involve stereotypes: Rockett's issues involved clothes and boys and the various insecurities of middle-school girls. To feminists it seemed an even greater disappointment in that Laurel was the very image of a Silicon Valley humanist. To less dogmatic observers it sounded like a bum rap: entertainment needs to reflect the interests of its audience--and teenage girls are deeply interested in the complexities of their social world. What precisely was the alternative? As it was, Laurel never got the chance to answer the question: by the late '90s, the CD-ROM-based game business had grown hugely expensive for any but the largest companies, and Purple Moon shut down.

Enter Nancy Drew. When Her Interactive couldn't find a big publisher to distribute their CD-ROMs, they turned to selling on the Internet--and via word of mouth, and Nancy Drew's multigenerational reputation, sales began to grow. By now there are six Nancy Drew titles out and over a half million copies in print. The latest, "Secret of the Scarlet Hand," is a sophisticated entertainment set in the museum world of Washington, D.C., that takes 15-20 hours to play, incorporating a variety of characters, puzzles and plot twists. The script is by an experienced screenwriter, the 3-D graphics are vivid and the voices of the characters realistic and compelling.

CEO Gaiser, who herself comes from a film background, talks about how at first the games were labeled for girls 10-16 until it became clear that adult women, who remembered Nancy Drew from their youth, were playing the games, as well. Now the age range is 10 and up. And the new trend, says Gaiser, is that more and more boys are playing the games. Rumor has it that Nancy Drew is even headed for the Sony PlayStation, one of the major strongholds of macho shoot-'em-up gaming. And just this week, Her Interactive signed a distribution deal with a major publisher, so Nancy will soon be coming to a mall near you.

What intrigues me in this story is that for years, computer-game creators have aspired to create something more than games--to make real, narrative entertainments. Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, used to say that he wanted to create a computer game that could make you cry. But somehow that higher goal always got lost in the need to make a compelling game. In my own brief time writing for the game industry, I would often hear: We want this to be a truly great story. And then the next question would be: how many rooms do you want in the dungeon?

Perhaps that higher incarnation of the computer game is still on the way. It's widely noted that the rise of the novel as a literary form closely followed the rise of middle-class women with the leisure and ability to read. Could something similar happen with games? "They target books, films, music for women," Gaiser says. "Why in the world not games? We'll see that change more and more in years to come as women become more involved in all aspects of the business." And in the meantime, there's another Nancy Drew adventure on the way, complete with ghostly packs of wild dogs and a long-dead notorious gangster. "These aren't girly games," Gaiser says firmly. "They are intelligent entertainment." And maybe that's all that girls--and some boys--really want.