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Gamemakers venture where girls like to go

Those slash 'em, shoot 'em and kill 'em computer games simply won't do for 11-year-old Susan Grossman.

"They're boring and gross, and I don't like playing them," she said.

So Susan, a sixth-grader in Westport, Conn., is excited about the new computer games now on the market that pair her interests _ fashion, friends and fun _ with adventurous computer play.

Behind these new girl games are industry giant Mattel and multimedia upstarts like Her Interactive, Girl Games and Purple Moon. All hope to reap big profits, especially this Christmas, by offering girls alternatives to traditional boy-oriented games.

"Finally, the computer industry has awakened to the fact that girls have lots of money to spend, but they don't want the same games that boys have," said Chris Byrne, editor of Market Focus: Toys, a trade publication in New York.

Girls never had a plethora of choices when it came to computer games. Softwaremakers for years shied away from games that targeted girls specifically, nervous about demand and fearful of stirring gender issues.

Yes, girls on occasion pick up action hits like Doom or Quake, and many will take a try at some gory science-fiction thrillers. Many also enjoy gender-neutral sports games and problem solvers, where they are required to complete a puzzle.

But many young women also yearn for games that mimic their interests outside the computer world.

"Girls like cooperative play instead of competitive play," Byrne said. "They want to involve their creativity into playtime, and some games geared for boys don't offer that."

Over the last year, games for girls finally emerged. There are now more than two dozen titles available, some linked to popular books, such as the Baby-sitters' Club series, or movies and television shows, such as Clueless and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

Many credit an old-time favorite, Barbie, for this new trend. Last fall, Mattel launched Barbie Fashion Designer, a program that lets the user create outfits on the computer screen, then print them out. Over 1-million copies sold, making the CD-ROM one of the best sellers of the year.

"There were some games for girls before, but Mattel's success sent out a signal that this was a market to get into," said Suzanne Groatman, children's software buyer at retail giant CompUSA.

This year, Mattel expanded its girls software line by six titles, including Barbie Magic Hair Styler and Barbie Ocean Discovery.

A number of small software upstarts, several run by women, also jumped into the girls' market this year. Many of these multimedia entrepreneurs spent years researching girls' play patterns before producing their first game.

"What girls and boys value as entertainment is different," said Laura Groppe, president and chief executive of Girl Games, based in Austin, Texas. "Boys get into one subject matter, while girls spread their interests across many fronts."

With that in mind, Groppe last year came out with her first CD-ROM, Let's Talk About Me, which lets girls pick an on-screen personality, keep a diary and change their wardrobe. Let's Talk About Me, Too is out this fall, which includes hairstyling, horoscopes and personality quizzes.

At Purple Moon, founders Nancy Deyo and Brenda Laurel spent five years studying girls before releasing their first titles this fall. In Rockett's New School, players help Rockett Movado deal with her life as the new kid at Whistling Pines Junior High, and in Secret Paths, girls start an adventure from a tree-house hideaway that touches on issues of families, friendships and feelings.

"From our research, we started hearing the girls weren't jazzed about the games out there," Deyo said, from Purple Moon headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

"They don't care about winning and losing," she said. "They want a good story plot, and they want to actually love a character, who they want to be as real to them as their best friend."

For these softwaremakers and others, cashing in on this virtually untapped girls market is the obvious goal. Industry analysts say there's big money to be made with the right software, which generally sells for $25 to $35 a game.

"It's a gamble because we know very little about this market," said William Zinsmeister, a senior research analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. "But if you get the content right . . . there is a big market opportunity."

Beside profits, many manufacturers also hope their software gets girls excited about computers and encourages them to spend more time on their PCs. A survey by FIND/SVP and Grunwald Associates in 1995 found that girls use computers as much as boys until seventh grade, when their interest fades quickly.

"We want to get girls interested and keep them interested," Deyo said.

With the holidays nearing, retailers are jumping at this new crowd of girl games, some even dedicating special sections for girls' software titles separate from the standard children's areas.

"This is something different that will capture both parents' and children's attention," said Anne Wise, senior software buyer at Computer City of Fort Worth, Texas, which has Just for Girls sections at its 91 stores nationwide.

In addition, some manufacturers are doing aggressive marketing on their own. Purple Moon will advertise its products on tags attached to Jonathan Martin apparel and shoes, which can be found at Macy's, Nordstrom and Dillard department stores.

Girl Games, meanwhile, is trying to extend its software lines to other media, such as books and the Internet.

Although the girls software market is still new, critics have already emerged. Many reject these gender-specific games, saying they do a disservice to girls.

"Some of these games build on the characteristics attached to girls, like pastel colors, fashion as a main topic, problems with friends," said Shelley Pasnik of the Center for Media Education, a Washington-based non-profit group. "They don't open up girls' minds to new ideas."

But Rebecca Luza of Smyrna, Ga., doesn't see it that way. She thinks her 12-year-old daughter, Jessica, has learned a lot about how to deal with teen issues, like peer pressure, from these games.

"Men and women _ we are different sexes," she said. "These games offer something special to girls that they haven't really had before."

That's what excites Susan Grossman about her new Cosmopolitan Virtual Makeover software, a new CD-ROM by Segasoft Networks Inc. and Hearst Magazines. Once she loads a picture of herself into the computer, she can experiment with different hairstyles and Cover Girl cosmetics.

"It's fun," she said. "More fun that boys games."