HSF: Assignment 1
Research inspiring storyteller or project and prepare a blog post and presentation for next class on how they’ve changed or influenced storytelling or their field.
When thinking back on storytellers and projects that had a profound influence on my person, I kept returning to media I encountered during my childhood. One game still stands out to me for its unique game play experience that felt progressive even for the 90s.
The game was Secret Paths in the Forest, created by the now defunct software company Purple Moon.
In the game (what we might call today a Visual Novel), you follow the stories of several adolescent girls and help them make life choices.
I was about 8 when I started playing Secret Paths and I distinctly remember really enjoying them, feeling so immersed that I could spend hours on the computer but feel like I’d just been on a hike with my closest friends. It was the first time I’d interacted with a computer program that felt relatable and enjoyable, much in the same ways that at the same age Babysitter Book Club books felt – but this time, I got to take part in the story.
When I started researching the series, what I found was mostly about the software creator Brenda Laurel. Laurel has worked in human computer interaction design since 1976, is a proponent for diversity and inclusiveness in tech and considered the foremost theorist on game development for girls. She’s currently Chair of the CCA Graduate Program in Design.
In the 1990s, Laurel noticed that the technology industry, specifically computer gaming, was primarily created for men by men. Girls, however, weren’t considered in game development. It was just assumed that they weren’t interested. Laurel and others looked at this from another way – what if we aren’t making things that they would find interesting? Laurel and others saw this as a problem – in the 90s, games were a way to get kids engaged with technology. Were girls missing out?
The release of a Barbie fashion game showed that girls were interested in computers games (and these games could be lucrative). But in many ways the Barbie game was just another example of taking something that was already known to be appealing to many girls and re-packaging.
What Laurel was interested in was developing specific interactions based off of solid ethnographic research into what girls like. For Laurel, it wasn’t simply about designing a new kind of product but doing “culture work” – actively working to change the narratives surrounding girls and games. She did a combination of qualitative and quantitative research to find out exactly what girls (ages 8-14) liked and what they would want out of a computer game. Using this research they created the software company Purple Moon and launched the first of the Secret Paths and Rockett games in 1997.
Turns out that Laurel’s work was seen as fairly controversial. I remember enjoying these games, possibly because I was Laurel’s “ideal” user – 8 years old, white middle class, new-ish to computers. But there’ve been many critiques of the Purple Moon games and Laurel’s research. By looking for patterns and trends within a female demographic and some of her published comments on girls and games (in particular, this TEDtalk from 1998), Laurel doesn’t have the most diverse understanding of what the young female experience is like. Some have directly accused her of creating a monolithic identity for girls, promoting traditional gender stereotypes based around appearance and socializing while estranging those who might be interested in exploring other experiences. In reading some more contemporary criticism in Kotaku and Jezebel, both authors question why twenty years later we’re still debating the relationship between femininity and video games and technology in general (hello, GamerGate). Debates around gendered products of course aren’t limited to technology. So I found this quote from the Kotaku article the most pertinent:
“Perhaps it should have never been a matter of designing games that focus on a specific gender. Perhaps what was really needed was cognizance and accountability of what elements of a game may speak to gendered aspects we are socialized for, and to make sure the games the industry produces include something ‘for’ both genders.”
Despite the faults of the games and some skewed ideas on gender, Laurel and Purple Moon helped shift the conversation about the relationship between girls and technology. As one Wired article wrote, Computer games for girls is no longer an oxymoron. Laurel was one of the first people to voice that girls had a right to enjoy games and a right to see themselves and their experiences, desires, and fantasies represented as well.