CHILDREN'S SUMMER SPECIAL / Gamegirl zapped

MARGIE THOMAS is a high-flying corporate lawyer. But when she isn't putting together multi-million pound deals, you might find her playing Tetris, her favourite game, on Nintendo's hand-held Gameboy.

In the male-dominated world of computer games, a high-achieving woman player is particularly unusual. 'I have a couple of lawyer friends who play,' she says, 'but they're men. Most people don't understand my interest in Gameboy and dismiss it. What attracts me are the elements of speed, strategy and the challenge of mastering a game. It's a way of filling unproductive time with something absorbing that stimulates your mind. It's the perfect airport lounge pastime.

'I guess you could say it fulfils a need; I find it soothing, particularly when you want to focus your mind on something in those slightly anxious moments just before a plane is about to take off. I like to be fully absorbed then and reading just doesn't do it for me.'

It's not uncommon for adults to become computer game fans in this way, but the best publicised have been men. When Gameboy was launched, Nintendo placed ads in 'smart' men's magazines such as GQ to try and capitalise on what they saw as a potential secondary market. Jonathan Ross was said to be hooked on Gameboy, while comedian Vic Reeves was supposedly devoted to rival Sega's Sonic The Hedgehog game.

In the United States, the game market is evenly split between boy and girl consumers. No equivalent research has been done in the UK, but it is generally accepted that girl players are heavily outnumbered.

Critics such as Meenu Vora, responsible for a Tec (Training and Enterprise Council) initiative to encourage girls into computing, point out that branding computer games as a boy's thing perpetuates the problem. 'Half of all computer staff in the US are women, where the equivalent figure here is around 22 per cent and dropping,' says Ms Vora.

'It doesn't help if kids are made to feel, as young as six or seven, that computers are for boys. Nintendo claims its marketing is not gender-biased. Yet its hand-held machine is called Gameboy, and most of the games are to do with fighting, racing cars, flying planes . . . traditional boys' stuff.'

There is the odd girl's title, such as Barbie Goes Shopping in the Nintendo range, but it looks out of place next to Streetfighter II, Brawl Brothers and Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninjas. 'Research shows boys are turned off if a product is marketed specifically at girls,' says a Nintendo spokeswoman, 'whereas girls will join in with boys' pursuits.'

Margie Thomas adds: 'If female characters appear in a game, it's usually at the beginning, where they get kidnapped. It's then your job to rescue them. I don't mind being Mario as he tries to save the Princess, but I don't see why it always has to be the guy saving the girl.'

(Graphic omitted)

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