Girls snared by the Net

They're not interested in violent computer games, says Jack O'Sullivan, but they know it's good to talk on-line

I'M being told a great adventure story by an 11 year old girl. "OK, there are these two kids exploring a cave," she explains breathlessly. "Then the girl drops down a hole and the man has to save her. There are rats and bats and piranhas which he has to get past to reach her. And there's a detonator that you have to blow up." My narrator knows her story well, because it's a game she has played for months on her home computer. And she is proud of her abilities - the girl is always saved. But her story-telling is tinged with disappointment. "I play the man because the girl doesn't really have a role. I sometimes wish that the man got lost instead and the girl had to find him. It would be better."

The speaker is Udy Onwochei, 11, from Peckham Park Primary School in south London. Her tale is typical of a medium whose technology may be a modern, but which got stuck culturally somewhere around the early James Bond films.

"It's not fair," adds Udy's friend Wumi Oni, 10. "I've got a game where this man is being attacked by crabs. If you don't shoot them, they crawl over your face and then you die. But they should put a woman in instead of a man." Naomi Gordon, 10, nods in agreement: "It's really sad, because girls like playing girls and girls can be explorers just like boys."

So what is the games world doing to assuage this discontent? Not much. Barbie computer games have recently been targeted at six to eight year olds, but they are sneered at by my older interviewees. Then there is Lara Croft, star of Tomb Raider, the adventure story of a female explorer. She plays a James Bond character in a D-cup, an action Barbie babe for fevered male imaginations. (She still has more male than female players). Nonetheless, when she pulls out her M16 and Uzi to kill a few wolves, many girls are thrilled to see a heroine protecting herself with not a male rescuer in sight. New products created by Girl Games have also tried to lure girls on to computers with games such as how to win a date with your perfect guy. Additionally, a new company called Purple Moon is marketing "girls adventure" software, with plots dealing with social and emotional issues.

Yet, despite these changes, most big games' manufacturers remain wedded to macho beef past its sell-by date. So girls still struggle with a medium in which they are often represented as passive. They have to be extraordinarily resourceful, says Kate Baggott, a youth media analyst at the New Paradigm Learning Corporation. "Girls have to go through mental gymnastics to change the victim position of the females who are being rescued and decrease the heroic proportions of the male characters. So they'll say 'I'm sleeping, but he works for me and I'm controlling him through telepathy to get him through all those barriers'."

So why do girls bother? For many it's just about fun - if the boy's game is the only one in town, they will play it. But for others it's almost a feminist statement, not that they would use that phrase. "We like acting boyish and independent," says Wumi. "We want to be loud and bold, instead of being girlie and quiet and shy." At which point she goes into raptures about fight games. "I like where you have two different people fighting each other and you have lots of different weapons to kill with." In short, girls want to prove to the boys that they can achieve in their terms.

Some of the other girls talk about how the staple male diet of computer games often leaves them cold. Here's Ayse on car racing games: "All you do is race and go through tunnels. It's so boring."

The girls also have to fight to get time on the computer.

"My brother has action man games," says Jade Whittock-Kent, 10. " I think it's quite good, but when my brother comes back in the room he says, 'Stop, it's only for boys'. I just walk away and watch TV or do my homework." And that's the danger - that girls will just walk away. The failure of games suppliers to meet female needs runs the risk of putting them off the most important technology of the next century.

Elizabeth McGrath, 15, from Oxford is typical of how older girls become disillusioned. "My friends are less interested now than they were a few years ago. When you were younger you did things the boys did, like play football, because otherwise the boys would tease you and say you couldn't do it. But when you're older you don't have to prove yourself so much like that. Also taste changes. I think my friends feel that they need more stimulation than a computer game can offer. A lot will read or watch a film rather than play computer games that can be very repetitive."

So is this the future - girls finally turned off computer entertainment because Barbie and Lara Croft are not interesting enough? Perhaps not. A new book, Growing Up Digital - the Rise of the Net Generation (McGraw- Hill) by Don Tapscott, suggests that girls are in fact poised to reverse the domination of computers by their male founders. "The computer," he says, "is changing from being a personal stand alone device for information management into becoming a communications medium, which suits girls at an earlier stage of life than boys." He is talking, in short, about on- line computers, e-mail, the internet and the capacity that computers now have for fostering cooperation and not simply competition. Once girls can have access to the Internet they will, Tapscott says, be free of the male-orientated games to which they are currently subjected.

The evidence in north America is, says Baggott, that girls are not walking away from computers, just dumping the old-style games in favour of playing on-line. But that's easy there because local telephone calls are free, making on-line gaming cheap. The moral for British parents is that if you want your daughters to be computer literate like your sons you have to make sure the girls get equal time on the terminal. And then you must swallow the cost of plugging your home computer into a telephone line.

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