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NEA Arts magazine spotlight: Brenda Laurel: Girls Just Wanna...Play Video Games

In the early 1970s, Brenda Laurel was studying theater at Ohio State University. One night a friend invited her to take a look at some computer imaging he was working on, and that, as they say, changed everything. As she recalled, “I kind of fell to my knees and said, ‘Oh, my God, whatever this is, I want a piece of it.’” About a year later, that same friend founded Cybervision, an early computer game console company, and asked Laurel to work with him on creating interactive fairytales. Having since become heavily engaged in interactive theater, Laurel jumped at the chance. From there she moved on to Atari and several other companies in the video game arena. 

But Laurel became frustrated with the tired chestnut she frequently encountered: that girls don’t play video games. So in the early 1990s, she undertook a research study to find out if and why that was true. She then used that research to springboard her own company Purple Moon, which developed games specifically for girls and helped prepare young women to join the computer age. 

Today, Laurel has shifted her career from video games to interactive technology. Recent projects include developing a mixed-reality system for schoolyard gardens and working with the U.S. Department of Defense on how to use biofeedback wearables to combat post-traumatic stress. We spoke with Laurel about breaking into the video gaming boys club, how she amplified her research on gender and technology into games for girls, and what she thinks her legacy has been as one of the industry’s pioneering women. 

BREAKING INTO THE BOYS’ CLUB 

[One of my early jobs had] an extensively male environment. I can remember going to the women’s room and there were all these guys in there smoking marijuana. I said, “Now there’s a woman in here that needs to go to the bathroom, so you guys need to find another place to do this.” It wasn’t onerous at the beginning. I felt special. Most women who started early did have that moment where they thought, “Hey, I’m hot stuff. I’m the only woman in the room.” 

But quickly it became clear that there were obstacles to promotion, and it was difficult to get the respect of the men I had to manage, except for the ones I hired myself. At that time, resisting it was an individual thing; there wasn’t really a group of women saying, “Hey, we’re not getting treated fairly.” 

As I lived on through the industry, it was clear that my voice wasn’t being taken as seriously as anyone else’s, and I think this was compounded by the fact that I developed a strong allergy to the kinds of games that were being produced. All the shooting didn’t really do much for me, and I knew there was a huge audience out there that wasn’t playing video games yet. 

THE MYTH OF GIRLS AND VIDEO GAMES 

There was a steadfast belief in the game industry that girls didn’t play games, and didn’t want to play games. The origin of [the video game] industry was really vertically integrated. It was games made for young men, by young men, sold to young men in places where young men went, [such as] retail outlets that were pretty gender exclusive. There was an attempt at Activision to do a Barbie game in 1987, but there it was on the shelf among all the war games in a place where girls and mothers didn’t go. The designer of that game told me in an interview that the game mechanic was throwing marshmallows at the mall because girls weren’t very good at trajectory, and marshmallows moved more slowly. [That game] sank like a stone and it reified the folklore about girls and games that had been there since the beginning. 

An array of video games and toy figures from Purple Moon.

DEVELOPING VIDEO GAMES FOR GIRLS 

Part of our initial goal [with my company Purple Moon] was to design games that would get girls’ hands on the computer, and [allow them to] gain some comfort and facility with the technology that would bootstrap them into life as we know it. 

[An important finding from my research] was that girls at the ‘tween’ age tend to have two different lenses on themselves. On the one hand, they’re concerned about their outer social life. On the other hand, they have an inner life that is very different. If you put those two things across from one another, you have a commonality that’s narrative, and there’s a list of correspondences that go across the two views of one’s self but have different components. How popular am I? How successful am I socially? Both of those things collapse down to one’s view of one’s self. But they have different expressions depending on which part of your head you’re in. 

[That] led us to build two series of games, one for the outer social self, Rockett games, and one for the inner, secret self, the Secret Paths games. In the social games, [their characters] tended to be about two years older than themselves, because we found that that’s how girls think about themselves when they’re thinking socially. Like a kid in sixth grade will think of themselves as an eighth-grader, for example. In the inner, secret self, you are the age you are, maybe even a little younger, because there’s a lot of vulnerability in there. So we designed identical characters but expressed them differently art-wise and behavior-wise in the two sets of games. What’s interesting to me is that girls never had any trouble recognizing the same character in the two different styles. 

[We also learned] that girls of this age, as do boys, have some pretty specific personal and social needs that we can address through these games—insecurity, frustration, lack of courage, feeling small, feeling looked down on, having trouble with your friends. We wanted to make sure that we touched on [these issues] in the games. The games were actually an emotional rehearsal space for taking control of your life. We became kind of evangelical about that mission, but you couldn't do it in a way that wasn't fun, or it wouldn't work. 

WOMEN IN INTERACTIVE TECHNOLOGY 

I think [Purple Moon] cracked open a little bit of interest in gender-inclusive gaming—not girl games, but gender-inclusive games. Its major influence was on what happened on the web. There was stuff for girls and gender-inclusive stuff on the web very early in web terms, in 2000-2001. Very quickly girls migrated to the web as opposed to standalone games and game consoles because it was a more gender-friendly space and it was a social space. There began at that time also a growing population of girls who played console games, girl gamers, and they exist today as a very strong component of the console game market. So there was change in who played even the boy games. 

The fight continues but it looks a lot healthier than it used to. I think the place where it’s not so healthy is for the women who are in game design. There have been horrible repercussions for women who have [criticized gender dynamics in] the gaming industry. I’m thinking now of Brianna Wu and Elizabeth LaPensée. These are people who’ve done amazing work and who get death threats. So it’s still a rough row to hoe, but huge progress has been made. There have been women who have redesigned armor for women in combat games so that it’s not looking like lingerie. That sounds like a little thing, but it’s a big thing. We’re seeing a lot more female protagonists in action games now than we did before, and that’s a big deal. I think we’re slowly but surely gaining equal footing. 

All photos courtesy of Brenda Laurel

Read the new NEA Arts magazine on women artists who galvanize, encourage, and inspire us here!

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