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What About Us Girls?

Another Side Of Computer Games

By Gen Katz

Traditionally, computer games have been the province of boys (of all ages), featuring shoot-'em-ups, hack 'n' slash, and a hefty complement of noise and action. More recently, the cross-gender appeal of offerings like Myst has caused game developers to consider and cater to the preferences of female players. Gen Katz takes a look at some of the more interesting options.


This article looks at games for girls. Some games are designed specifically for girls--the kind boys would ostentatiously barf at. Some feature girls as the prime movers; some are constructed so girls and boys have the freedom to play it their way. Some are just fun to play, with good story lines, great characters--and no blood.

Pretty In Pink

Barbie Fashion Designer
Ages 6 and up

If mothers aren't afraid that an excess of pink will doom their daughters to lives of mall shopping, the Barbie products have a lot to offer. For many girls, the world of Barbie is a comfortable, familiar play world, and Mattel is very successful in knowing how to please its young customers.

The first part of Barbie Fashion Designer is a pretty standard paper-doll-type experience. Various pieces of clothing--skirts, blouses, jackets--are put together, fabric selected (unfortunately from only twelve patterns) and color applied.

What follows moves paper dolls into the 21st century. The outfit appears on a 3-D Barbie, who then struts down a runway in traditional model walk wearing this outfit, and then, with a press of a button, the pattern is printed out in color or black and white depending on your printer. Using the special fabric-backed paper, the pattern can then be cut out and assembled with ingeniously flexible tape and tiny-tiny Velcro snaps. Voila! Barbie has a new outfit.

Mattel has done its homework well. This could spawn an endless variety of pattern-making products--cars, planes, furniture, buildings. (Barbie Fashion Designer, $44.99, Mattel, Windows 3.1 and Windows 95. Mac version available Fall '97)

Barbie Magic Fairy Tales
Ages 4 and up

In this year's release, Barbie Magic Fairy Tales, Mattel tries for a more assertive role model than the Rapunzel of the long golden hair. In this version of Rapunzel, it is Barbie who saves the prince by cutting off her long hair and using it to escape the tower.

The game includes simple puzzles, memory matching and ordering puzzle games, a fairy godmother, and lots of roses. The learning activities are designed using things that appeal to girls--dresses, jewels, flowers, even a wedding cake. The wedding cake was fun.

Control buttons like forward, back, quit and help are represented as leaves, roses, suns, and gates. While this is cute, having a more standard interface might provide a child with some carry-over skills to other computer activities. (Barbie Magic Fairy Tales, $29.99, Mattel, Mac/Win hybrid disk )

Vampire Diaries
Ages 10 and up

Her Interactive's new title The Vampire Diaries is meant to entertain.

Its main character is Elena, a 16-year-old high school girl who has just returned from Europe and attends a party with her little sister. The sister is found mysteriously bitten, and Elena must find out what is going on.

Live actors engage Elena in conversations to further the plot. Responses depend on what has occurred before, so if the sequence is different, the responses are different. The use of live actors and voice conversation appeals to girls' often-stated desire for communication. This game is densely populated with people who talk with you--some you like and some you don't.

The original story is taken from a popular book by Lisa J. Smith. Her Interactive maintains an active Web site that previews scenes from their games along with other topics for girls--news, books, links to other sites. (The Vampire Diaries, $39.95, Her Interactive, Windows 95, 1-800-561-0908)

Let's Talk About Me
Ages 8 to 14
Let's Talk About Me, by Simon & Schuster Interactive and Girl Games, feels more like a front end to the Internet or an activity beyond the computer screen then simply an interactive game. The colors and artwork are funky, the voices amusing and the music cool and thankfully relatively non-repetitive. Some parts are better than others but most will please their target audience.

The program is filled with clothing, hairdos, puzzles and advice based upon personality quizzes, dreams and color preferences. Some will scoff at horoscopes, palmistry, dream interpretation and fortune telling as aids to foretelling one's future--but hey, I can remember the Ouija board, and who doesn't know her astrological sign?

There is a section on mentors, where real women on video answer a variety of questions selected from the screen. While not all of the mentors appear on video, those that do create an extremely compelling one-to-one effect. Girls can correspond with the mentors via email, and there is an online AOL access kit included in the CD-ROM.

The program skirts around some real information on subjects that girls are concerned with; many responses to the questions are trivial and read more like fortune cookie advice. The section exploring "Misery" exhorts you to tell the truth and delivers "advice" such as "You are in utter misery...Buck up" or "Things will get either much worse or better very soon." While none of the advice is harmful, teenagers who are looking for serious answers will have to find them elsewhere.

Meanwhile, perhaps some of the questions raised will prompt girls to meaningful self exploration. A sequel Let's Talk About Me--Deluxe, is already in the works and will be produced by Davidson. (Let's Talk About Me, $29.95, Simon & Schuster/Girl Games, Mac/Win hybrid disk)

Rockett's New School and Secret Paths in the Forest
Ages 7 to 12

After four years of study at Interval Research as to what girls like, Interval's spinoff Purple Moon has two games, Rockett's New School and Secret Paths in the Forest, ready to arrive on the shelves in September.

The stories are populated by a host of well-developed and widely mixed characters. Rockett is trying to negotiate the challenges of a new school, new friends and the usual assortment of teenage relationships. The characters return in Secret Paths in the Forest, which features a tree house like a chat room where the girls try to understand and help each other.

There will be free merchandise in every box, such as bendable characters from the story and magic healing gems. The founders' credentials are impressive enough to warrant checking these out when they arrive. (Rockett's New School, Secret Paths in the Forest, $29.95 each, Purple Moon, Mac and Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, release date September '97)

The Female Lead

A whole series of games doesn't overtly cultivate the female audience, but features a girl as the main character. (Some self-described "gender-neutral" games have characters of both sexes, but the lead character is male.) In the following games, the heroine appears as a spunky, adventurous character who reinforces girl's leadership roles.

Madeline's European Adventure
Ages 5 and up

Creative Wonders has repeated its success with a second Madeline game--European Adventures. The character is taken from the book by Ludwig Bemelmans, but the story is completely original.

In a mission to save the genie of the lamp, Madeline must travel through France, Switzerland, Italy and Turkey. Along the way, Madeline picks up the sounds and words of the various countries and gets a painless lesson in geography.

Deborah Cook, the producer, is sensitive to the sound quality in her games--a sensitivity all too often lacking in a number of kids' games. You only have to hear one game with a repetitive musical phrase and a grating or saccharine voice to really appreciate the voices and music in this one. (Madeline's European Adventure, $34.95, Creative Wonders/Electronic Arts, Windows 3.1 and Windows 95)

Ages 5 to 10

If you remember Chop Suey, you will be delighted to find that Theresa Duncan has produced another title, Smarty.

Smarty features a nine-year-old mischievous whiz kid called Mimi Smarty Pants. Theresa understands a child's fascination with observing the often inexplicable, glamorous, and mysterious behavior of adults.

Smarty is given ample opportunity to interact with the eccentric adult characters when she summers at Aunt Olive's. There's Percy, who runs a pirate radio station and keeps his Christmas decorations on all year; there's the cashier at the Dollar Dream Store, who does spells and horoscopes, and wears purple nail polish while learning to become a librarian.

Aunt Olive's house is filled with things to do, and clicking on things can land you anywhere from a pirate's den at the bottom of the fish tank (where you can listen to the Oyster Orchestra), to a bubble bath, or to an assortment of kitchen weirdness. Outside there is a garden with a Hollywood-producer bug drinking martinis, and a telescope in the back yard for spying on the neighbors.

We all could use an Aunt Olive. (Smarty, $34.95, Tom Nicholson Associates, Mac, Windows 95 and Windows NT.)

Orley's Draw-A-Story
Ages 5 to 10

Brøderbund's character in Orley's Draw-A-Story is a young Jamaican girl who speaks with a musical island patois. She leads you through the story, introduces you to Jamaican culture, and encourages you to paint. Players help Orley tell story adventures by drawing pictures. Children will be amazed when their pictures magically come to life and animate the story. (Orley's Draw A Story, $29.95, Brøderbund, Mac/Win hybrid disk)

Beyond the Limit--Ultimate Climb
Ages 9 and up

This game will have players straining to pick the right handholds on a rock face to make it to the top in this engaging rock climbing experience. Novices will learn how to recognize good footholds, when to use clips, and how to interpret the body language of your climber for clues as to unsafe holds. Interspersed with climbing are adventures involving mine shafts, wild beasts and strange characters.

You start the game by choosing the character who will represent you from a choice of two men and two women, all with varying degrees of experience, strength and knowledge. I enjoyed Jett, a fast-talking New York City woman with an attitude and swagger. The humor in having one character who has learned climbing by reading up on it and whose name is Billy will not be missed by any adult playing this Microsoft game. The characters look, climb, walk and talk like real people with their own individual characteristics.

To successfully complete the game you have to choose your equipment wisely, pick up information along the way, select the right team and learn a little about rock climbing. (Beyond the Limit--Ultimate Climb, $34.95, Microsoft, Windows 95, NT.)

Gender Neutrality

Ages 8 and up

Some games are as gender neutral as a camera. The Sim series of games by Maxis has always had a reasonable complement of girl players, although boys and girls seem to play the games differently.

In SimPark, learning insidiously seeps in from the time you first select the location for your park, populate it with plants and animals and try to maintain a balanced ecosystem.

To keep you on your toes, there are email messages from a bossy supervisor and hints from Rizzo, the too-helpful frog. This game develops environmental awareness without preaching: You can cause disasters, watch species become extinct (or so populous as to overrun other species), or make changes to the climate to see how it affects the animals and plants in your park.

This kind of "what would happen if" scenario encourages a self-directed exploration, which results in the best kind of learning experience. This is family fun, and the adults can sneak back, turn off Rizzo, and learn to recognize bird calls, bone up on their tree identification skills--or cause a few disasters themselves. (SimPark, Maxis, $39.99, Windows 95)

Top Secret Decoder
Ages 7 and up

Everyone likes playing with secret codes and messages. Herisson Fox in conjunction with Houghton Mifflin Interactive have created Top Secret Decoder--a code maker and code breaker in an attaché case.

The opening screens and sounds--a clever cross between James Bond and Mission Impossible--sets the mood for the activity. Type a message in the top screen, select a code, and the encoded message appears in the bottom screen.

There are twenty-two individual codes, some with names you may remember from your childhood--Mirror, Reverse Pig Latin, Cipher Offset. Plus, there are inventive geometric folded codes done by Scott Kim, codes in shapes like hearts, and codes which require a comb to read.

Messages can be printed out and faxed to co-conspirators. Voiced help is available to explain all the codes. It's an activity that kids will return to time after time. Adults might try using the program to send coded faxes when standard communication fails to get attention. (Top Secret Decoder, $39.95, Houghton Mifflin, Mac/Win hybrid disk)

No Assault Weapons

Well, perhaps a revolver or two, but that's it.

Here are games that conform pretty much to what women have said they want in their games--an engrossing story line, engaging characters, attractive settings to wander through, and no bloodshed. It's not surprising that a number of boys/men find these types of games satisfying to play as well.

The Last Express
Ages 13 and up
The Last Express is a brand new game, designed by Jordan Mechner for Brøderbund, aimed at the teenage market. The game uses 3-D rendering and rotoscoped animation instead of video, which gives it a hand-drawn, storybook feeling.

There is a mystery to be solved, dangers to be avoided, treasure to be found and a romance to encounter. Clues are picked up by interacting with the characters, and because the game is essentially being scripted as you play it, it is never the same twice.

The action takes place on the Orient Express just before the first World War. The train is accurately and lovingly detailed, and playing in this elegant deco interior adds to the pleasure of the game. While the main protagonist is Robert Cath, two strong female characters, Anna and Tatiana, are involved in the action. (The Last Express, $40, Brøderbund, Mac, Windows 95, DOS)

Titanic--Adventure Out Of Time
Ages 13 and up

No, you won't be able to prevent the ship from going down--but you do have the opportunity of changing the course of history.

This is another example of a game played in a wonderful environment. Because game developers noticed that women played Myst differently than their male companions (they enjoyed exploring the space), we may be in for a whole spate of exquisitely rendered, sumptuous environments for games.

The opportunity to experience the lush excessiveness of the accurately rendered Titanic is a game in itself. The format for the game is similar to The Last Express--You are a spy, and in the course of recovering certain important items you meet a wide variety of fellow passengers who engage you in conversation and drop you clues.

The game moves at a leisurely pace until the ship hits the iceberg. At that time you have two and a half hours (the actual time it took the Titanic to sink) to finish up the game before the ship sinks. The disk is filled with interesting information about the ship: who was saved and who drowned, as well as news clips and photos from that period. I was surprised at the haunting sense of loss I felt when the ship finally went down.

There is an online Web site (http://www.cyberflix.com) where you can add additional tour guides, tips and information. It doesn't sell tickets to the musical, but it's almost the next best thing. (Titanic--Adventure Out of Time, $49.95, Cyberflix, Mac, Windows 95, NT)

Magic the Gathering
Ages Kids to Adults

How would you classify a game that has beautiful graphics, strong female characters, spell casting, fantasy, magic, no blood violence--and it can be played at your own pace?

While Magic the Gathering has been thought of as primarily a boys' game, it contains many of the elements that women and girls would like to see in games.

Magic the Gathering is a strategy game with the mission to vanquish evil from the land of Shandalar. This is accomplished through dueling contests of magical skills, using spells and creatures to wear your opponent's energy down to zero--at which point you win.

Much of the activity in both the card game and the computer game involves amassing duel-winning decks.

The computer game player will have a number of technical devices to help her with this task, such as a Deck Builder utility program for designing and building decks, and The Duel, another utility program where the deck's efficacy can be tested. Filters are available to sort cards by color, creatures, spells and land types; decks can be saved for future use.

There are 400 cards to start with (the actual trading cards number in the thousands) and Microprose is planning expansion sets. Multi-player support is planned for the future; until then you are playing against the machine. Beginners are given a break--the machine's AI has been programmed to make stupid moves at the novice level.

Magic the Gathering is for not for those who want the instant gratification of load, click or shoot. This strategy game has a steep learning curve; it would probably be helpful to have a Magic aficionado by your side. The live video tutorial is beautifully done, but a simpler step-through of the screens would have been more helpful. (Magic the Gathering, $55­$65, Microprose, Windows 95)

Ages Kids to Adults

Obsidian, the game that has been favorably compared to Myst, is too much of a good thing.

There are three major dream realms to explore--The Bureau, The Spider, and Bismuth. I got my money's worth after the Bureau Realm--and was ready for the end game.

The graphics for the Bureau Realm convey an endless world of rooms, libraries, plazas. The lighting gives the entire space a luminous quality, and the clever concept of turning this space on each of its six sides works well. The effect is a dizzying six dimensional space.

The puzzles are done by Scott Kim and have his graphical signature. This world is populated by Vidbots--mechanized video screens offering you amusing platitudes and sometimes--but not always--helpful hints. The challenge in this realm to get past the bureaucracy which is doing all it can to thwart you--a clever construct for an adversary.

There are still two more realms to explore before the finale, and I must admit that I turned to the strategy guide. If games are going to become this obtuse, we mere mortals will need some help in finding our way through to enjoy them. (Obsidian, $39.99, Segasoft, Mac, Windows 95)

Copyright © 1997 by Gen Katz. All rights reserved.

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