Making Better Media for Kids

Interactive Frictions


June 1999

Brenda Laurel


I hate Barbie. After seven years of avoiding public Barbie-bashings in the name of good public relations, it feels so good to say it out loud.

My daughters, each of whom had a passing childhood relationship with Barbie, know that I hate her. Although I did not forbid Barbie play, I felt no guilt about seizing "teachable moments" to preach about body and self-image. When Hilary was about five, she was carrying a Barbie doll through the kitchen of a feminist friend. "How can you let your child play with her?" my friend exclaimed in a tone of righteous indignation.

"Hilary," I said, winding up for a good demo. "Tell Mona about anorexia."

"An-o-rex-i-a," Hilary recited. "That’s when you think you are fat even though you aren’t and so you die of skinny." She held out Barbie in a supine position. "It happened to one of Mommy’s friends."

Over time, the girls came to cater to my special feelings about Barbie. One Halloween we decided to make Barbie into a crone, painting white-out on her hair and dressing her in a dark, ragged costume. A wad of masking tape produced a great dowager’s hump. We experimented with lowering her bustline by holding a match under the indicated area, but this produced only melting, not sagging.

For my forty-fifth birthday, the girls created a special Barbie ceremony for me. "You might want to videotape this," Hilary offered. The two of them, dressed as executioners, brought a hapless Barbie into the kitchen and gravely placed her in the trash compcator. "Go ahead, Mom." I turned the knob. After much loud grinding, we opened the compactor to find that Barbie had survived completely intact. You have to hand it to Mattel for engineering a toy so durable.

I know all the reasons why Barbie is a supposed to be a great toy. I’ve had to list them many times with great equanimity in public talks. When girls move from baby-dolls to Barbie dolls, they are supposedly crossing into an area of fantasies about their own future identities. Barbie represents possibilities to girls - Fashion Model Barbie, Teacher Barbie, NBA Barbie, Dentist Barbie, Working Woman Barbie. She can be whatever a girl wants to pretend she is. As my good friend market researcher Christopher Ireland gently reminds me, Barbie can be understood as a scaffolding for imaginative play.

Nevertheless, I hate her. For me, Barbie was never about what was possible. Au contraire, she was precisely about what was impossible. Barbie was about who I could never be. Blonde, fashionable, thin, confident. Not in a million years.

I think that it may have been even harder than it is today to come by self-confidence as a little girl in the fifties. Feminism was certainly not a household word. Becoming a woman was presented as a process of perpetual self-editing, pruning yourself through will and discipline toward an ideal. Susan Brady, a licensed social worker and family therapist who studies girls and girlhood, once explained to me that among my cohort, girls’ poor self-esteem could result in depression lasting 20 or 30 years. I fit the profile. I felt a hopeless sense of failure as a girl, and I’ve battled depression all my adult life.

As a teen, I most often thought of myself as one of those miserable chimps dressed in frilly clothes at the circus. I was never popular; being smart, female, and nerdly was social suicide. Sometimes I wonder how different my life might have been if I had received the message that I was fine just as I was; that growing up wasn’t about abandoning yourself to become an ideal woman, but about allowing the beautiful woman inside to bloom. In my memory, Barbie is the earliest clear example of the unattainable.

I can forgive Ruth Handler and I can forgive Mattel and I might even be able to forgive Jill Barad, but I can never forgive Barbie for how she made me feel.

"Well," Psychologist Barbie says, "no one can make you feel anything. You do that yourself. It’s not about me, it’s about you."

As Eeyore would say, "thanks for noticing me."

You may know that I founded a company called Purple Moon to make computer games for little girls. I've been in the computer game business for about 22 years. I think I got into doing games for girls because I was so tired of seeing things explode. At Purple Moon we played with various structures for interactive narrative and we tried to do positive work for girls in the context of popular culture. I took a lot of heat from some people who call themselves feminists for portraying girl characters who cared about things like appearance, popularity, belonging, betrayal, and all the other sturm and drang of preadolescent friendship. Some people thought that I shoudn’t do that because girls shouldn't be like that. But they are, you see. And who they become depends a great deal on how they manage their transit through the narrows of girlhood. As a parent of girls, what one hopes for most is that they discover their own personal power in this time of their lives. Our heroine, Rockett Movado, was unique in her ability to see the possibilities open to her and to make conscious choices about what to do next. Our products allowed girls to try this skill and to see how things might turn out differently depending on what moods, attitudes, or choices we bring into the next moment.

We construct ourselves out of two deeply intermingled kinds of material: our life experiences, and our cultural context. In other words, who we are is the product of both the stories we hear and the stories of our lives. Obviously, this applies to both girls and boys.

Since the Columbine massacre and its copycat follow-ons people have started talking again about videogames and their influence on boys. Our blustering congresspeople grasped, however dimly, something that we have all known for a long time - that the videogame business is pretty monolithically violent and stupid. Unfortunately, Congress did not use this information to fuel thought, but rather fuel political scapegoating. One would wish that the leaders of our country might decide it would be worthwhile to look at popular culture as an expression of people’s values and needs. But no. Despite Henry Jenkins' eloquent testimony, our legislators chose not to tax their brains with any real thinking. Censorship was good enough for Plato and it's by God good enough for us.

Plato banned the Theatre from his ideal "Republic" because he feared that people would not be able to distinguish between theatrical representations and reality. The main reason that Plato's reasoning doesn't apply to our case is that he was wrong. We are actually pretty good at distinguishing media representations from life. The problem is not that theatre may be mistaken for real life, but that it may be substituted for it. The stereotypical examples are housewives watching soaps and geeks watching Star Trek. We might add to that list, little boys addicted to videogames. We tell these hapless media victims, "get a life." But we don’t tell them how.

Henry Jenkins, pop-culture scholar and founder of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, has some powerful insights about this. Henry has observed that a hundred years ago, a boy’s range of discovery and action was about ten square miles; today it may not even include a backyard. In this way, the videogame has become the boy’s space. The screen is not mistaken for space, but is substituted for it. In the same way, the representation of personal agency that is offered by violent videogames is not mistaken for reality, but it may be a substitute for personal agency - the ability to take action and effect things in the world.

Are violent videogames substituting for the experience of personal agency in the lives of boys? If so, how can we help? What sorts of experiences - real and representational - might we enable them to have that are ultimately more healthful than violence?

The other day I had the pleasure of a long conversation with Mark Schlichting, author of the children’s game classic, Just Grandma and Me and founder of Living Books. I asked Mark, if you wanted to design computer games that appealed to boys without a lot of violence, what characteristics would the games need to have? His answer was simply, "empowerment." We need to come up with some representation of personal agency other than violence.

Mark's suggestion goes a long way, but I don't think it's the whole solution. I think that videogames need to be more like theatre. By "theatre" I mean a form of narrative that is enacted in real time. Videogames are real-time but they are not generally not narrative. Although they may represent highly complex tactical situations, videogames usually have no plot. A plot is a pattern of action possessing rhythm, nuance, meaning and beauty. It is made up of actions taken by characters. Characters exercise thought and judgment when they act; they make choices according to their traits, their experiences, and the situations in which they find themselves. There is very little character and no thought to speak of in the most violent videogames. Incidentally, in our research with girls, we learned that it was not violence per se but rather the absence of character and story and the lack of narrative complexity that girls found most repellent about videogames.

Character is what gives us the possibility of empathy - the experience of feeling with the character and imagining oneself in the character’s situation. You can experience empathy with characters who are good, bad, or other. You can say, "I am like this character and not like this one," or "I'm like this character in this way but not in this other way." First-person action games may or may not have a clearly defined character that the player performs; for example, I may "be" Luke Skywalker or I may just be this random person who happens to be shooting down Space Invaders.

The impulse to construct character and story out of available materials is part of our narrative intelligence, one of the fundamental ways that humans go about understanding the world. It is very important to realize that to the extent that character is not given by the author, narrative intelligence predisposes us to construct it. If I am Luke Skywalker, then I’m playing a character who has explicitly defined traits beyond the actions he is taking - for example, loyalty, courage, tenacity, and commitment to freedom. Contrariwise, If I'm just shooting, I'm going to construct a character for myself from the material at hand. If I'm playing a character, the force at work is empathy. If there is no character to play, and I construct that character myself out of the choices I make and the actions I am taking, then I move from empathy to identity.

Identity can serve a positive purpose, especially in learning. When I worked at Atari, I spent a good bit of time talking to kids about games. I learned, for example, that when a child sees himself as captain of a starship, he may identify with the role to the extent that his sense of his own limitations can be suspended. A kid who would tell you, "I don't understand trajectory" can do a perfectly good job of predicting and manipulating the trajectory of his virtual spacecraft in the context of the game. This experience may later feed back to change his sense of his own capabilities.

The flipside of this is not so good. In the case where empathy is replaced by identity, character construction may become concatenated with the construction of the self. And if the action is simply violent and stupid, then I think you can get some pretty ugly backwash. In other words, hyperviolent videogames may be especially toxic precisely because they are NOT theatrical - not conducive to empathy, not based on well-developed characters, not interactive fiction, not "narrative" enough.

Looking at these games from the outside, many of us are appalled. From the inside, players are absorbed in actions that test the limits of their perceptual, cognitive and motor abilities, but their emotions and ethical faculties are getting no exercise at all. They are engrossed, not in choosing to act but in acting. In these representations, personal agency has shrunk down to a point. It is a point where there is no character, no ethos, no complexity of thought, no choice.

What can we do about this?

Censorship is no use. In fact, it is a really bad idea, for more than the Constitutional reasons. Ugly media is to the culture as pain is to the individual. It is a warning signal that something is wrong and needs attention. Your hand is on the stove, your body has been invaded by microbes, your kid is experiencing total powerlessness. The function of pain is to get our attention. If we eliminate pain - or ugly med - we lose a vital source of information about ourselves. Stopping the pain isn't the answer; we have to heal the problem.

By the way, gun control is not the solution, either. As we were discussing the Columbine syndrome the other day, my fourteen-year-old daughter confided in me that she made a bomb with her buddies in daycare five years ago. All they wanted to do was make it go "boom." Finding out how to make it was no big deal, and they didn’t use the internet because it wasn’t available to them. My point is, if kids take a notion to blow something or someone up, guns are not the issue. Making a bomb is trivial. Passing a gun control law is trivial. Passing a censorship law is trivial. Making healthy lives for our children is not trivial. It requires thought, time, energy, investment, and long-term commitment. There are no short-cuts. Parents, educators, and even those self-serving fatheads in Washington have to be made to turn their attention and efforts to the healing of our children. Ethical people must take responsibility.

And for you and me, folks, that means stepping up and making interactive media that gives children rich materials with which to construct themselves. No excuses. We have to make stories with characters and ideas and actions that nourish people. We have a healing to do.

No, it has not escaped me that I just got the snot kicked out of me trying to make a business with a humanistic goal. But I do not believe that well-motivated cultural enterprises are categorically doomed. One or two different business decisions early on could have made Purple Moon a financial success. I've learned a lot from this, and I’m not dead yet. The company made a difference in popular culture. We touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of girls, and our characters have been acquired by a very large company. We got our little redheaded representative into Mattel, where hopefully she will kick some bright pink butt . . . excuse me, I meant, where she may provide some fresh ideas.

A lesson I learned from Purple Moon is that it’s really a good idea to talk to kids and find out what’s going on with them, what their issues and tastes are, what their lives are actually like. The market has finally forced Mattel to face the fact that Barbie is irrelevant to preteen girls. If you want to be an innovator, there is no substitute for research. I don’t mean self-validating focus groups - I mean learning about people with your eyes and ears and mind and heart wide open.

I think that one of the main reasons why the videogame business has been so horribly stunted in its growth is that it has been unwilling to look beyond itself to its audience. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to middle-aged male executives hold forth on who boys are and what they want. These are guys who remember when Ronald Reagan was an actor. At best, they are living in the fifties; at worst, they are living in fifties-style denial of the fact that boys’ lives today are radically different - and perhaps even more culturally impoverished - than their own boyhoods were.

Another lesson we need to learn is not to let technology lead. In the days of player-missile graphics, projectiles were easy, so every game had them. Today, processors are leading the way to more realistic, faster, slicker action and animation, and so that’s where design tends to go. By contrast, for at least a decade, the prevailing view has been that language and characters were too hard for computers to do well, primarily because "artificial intelligence" didn't live up to its hype. As a result, most game companies abandoned depth of character and narrative complexity because they assumed that doing it well would require AI, and AI couldn’t spin straw into gold.

I’m sure that you are all aware - certainly more aware than the average videogame executive - of all the ways around these problems that are offered by new ideas of what interactive fiction can be. One of the most generative areas for me is the creation and use of back-story. The technical requirements are low and the potential for introducing character and complexity is high. At Purple Moon, we used the discovery of back-story materials as a play pattern. We provided materials for the construction of multiple back-story narratives as individual or social play. Player-created narratives were solicited and published on the website. This served many purposes: it included girls, it grew the narrative universe; it increased the likelihood that a girl could find personal relevance there; and it kept us in touch with our audience’s imaginations, values, problems, and desires.

As I am sure you all know, "interactive fiction" isn’t about technology, but about people. It can be seen as a radically inclusive theatrical experience. It lets us think and feel through character, story, action, and imagination. In many societies, for example the ancient Greeks and Hopi, theatre is akin to religion, a vibrant and vital part of the spiritual life of the community. Although we may not present portrayals of kachinas or gods, our work is fundamentally spiritual. Like any magick, great skill and commitment is required of the practitioner, but intention is the heart of what we do.

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