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Software for Girls:
A Market is Discovered

by Andrew Maisel, editor-in-chief

In November 1996, Mattel Media brought out three programs based on the number one selling toy of all time, Barbie, and had a runaway bestseller.

How big? According to Ann Stephens, president of PCData, the leading market research firm in the industry, Barbie Fashion Designer alone sold over 200,000 copies in November, and nearly 400,000 in November and December combined. That's more than twice the previous record in the computer games market, and six times the previous top education title.

Why the sudden surge in sales of girls software? Although it's hard to believe, girls have rarely been targeted by the software industry. That's not to say that software makers have been blind to gender differences. Quite the contrary. Software for young children, say 8 and under, has historically made use of androgenous animal characters, rather than male/female humans, for just this reason.

Instead, it seems to be a chicken and egg problem. Software makers looked at market research showing that computer users were predominantly male, and studies showing a decline in computer usage by girls in the 9-14 age range, and decided to focus on the larger market -- boys.

In the last two years, several new companies have challenged that decision. The first to bring a product to market, was Her Interactive, with McKenzie & Co. Sandy Barry, spokesperson for the company, pointed to the need for software for pre-teen and teen girls that is "fun, and entertaining - and for girls who aren't afraid of a mouse."

Another early entrant, Girl Games, Inc., was started by Laura Groppe, who left a successful career as an Academy-award winning producer. She began by conducting some basic research, with a study of girls' preferences in software design, partially financed by the National Science Foundation.

The research supported the conclusion of several earlier studies, suggesting that girls have a different set of preferences in software design. While some parents may object to this seemingly sexist notion, an empirical parallel exists in the different preferences many boys and girls demonstrate in books, toys, and games.

"We're going after the mass market, by producing software that girls are interested in - rather than simply changing the activities or characters," Laura told SuperKids. Girl Games first program, Let's Talk About Me, was designed to be a handbook on how to survive adolesence for girls. I want girls to know that it's OK to be a girl!"

Taking a different approach is another start-up, Girl Tech. Their president, Janese Swanson, created the company after a successful educational software production career at Broderbund (Carmen Sandiego and the Playroom/Treehouse series, among others to her credit), and has a half-dozen degrees in education.

Her inspiration to make software for girls came from her daughter. "I just couldn't keep coming home to her without doing something to help keep her adventurous spirit intact. Our goal is to help girls reach their potential by introducing them to technology early. We want girls to have opportunities and choices."

Girl Tech's plans go beyond software, and encompass a family of books, toys, and a magazine and website featuring Tech Girl, a role-model character. They will be announcing a new book, Tech Girl's Internet Adventures in February that includes a CD featuring a simple home page builder that allows girls to create and post home pages on Girl Tech's website. SuperKids got a look at a pre-release version, and it's "pretty cool" in the words of one of our nine year-old reviewers.

These companies have great plans and intriguing products. But what of the behemoth, the 400 pound gorilla in the corner, Mattel Media? Nancie S. Martin, Mattel's Director of Girls Software Development, brings an equal amount of devotion to the concept of software for girls - and a stable of characters with global brand awareness.

"We want to provide titles that make computers attractive for girls, and not just for geeks. Our hope is to be able to translate the different play patterns of girls from the physical environment, to the virtual."

Does that mean Mattel Media is going to be making game software, rather than educational or edutainment titles? "Education takes different forms. Lots of companies make great math and spelling software - that's not what people expect from us."

In fact, within the industry there is some debate over which category to put the Barbie titles in. Ann Stephens told us that after Barbi appeared one month on the education charts, and the next on the game charts, she received calls saying "OK, I'm looking at the program, where's the education?" And other calls saying, "OK, I'm looking at it, if this is a game, who's winning?"

About all we can say at this point, is it looks like young girls will be the winners.

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