Cmdr. B. Laurel, a Navy test pilot, and I rode a modified F-14 into the dessert floor. I've made the 60,000 foot downward spiral in some of the F-4 Phantoms and F-18s of the computer game industry -- Atari, the old Activision, Epyx. This last time it felt different -- I think I was founder of the plane. My F-14 was Purple Moon, a company I co-founded, which was devoted to making interactive media for little girls. It was a dream come true.

The ironic thing about this flameout was that I got into doing games for girls precisely because I was so tired of seeing things explode.

The following is an interview with Cmdr. B. Laurel based on the flight recorder recently salvaged from the ocean's floor and transcribed in her wonderful little pamphlet, Utopian Entrepreneur, published by MIT Press. Brenda has been involved in personal computing since the late 70s designing interactive fairy tales for the Cybervision system. She has worked at Atari and Apple; she co-founded a company devoted to virtual reality and lately Purple Moon, a girl game company whose motto was Friendship Adventures for Girls.

In Utopian Entrepreneur you describe yourselves as 'culture workers', was this a shared description of what you were doing? By all involved? From the start or retrospectively? Did anyone think of themselves as an 'artist'

I'm sure that many people involved with Purple Moon would call themselves artists. But we all knew that we were working in the field of popular culture, and that there were values - about respect for girls and their issues - that needed to shine through our efforts, and that our goal was to reach many people, not just a few.

When you say "Doing culture work requires research. Our work relies on our understanding of perception, cognition, and how people construct meaning", how does the 'art' come out of this interactive medium in the same way the art came out of performances, music, books, film and TV before games?

Artist may be more or less well tuned to people's lives and values. Sometimes, the fact that an artist makes a "hit" is sheer genius and luck, like Jackson Pollack. Other artists, like Chekhov or Shaw for example, study their cultures deeply and make work that is intentionally relevant. Research (or immersion or sensitivity to one's cultural milieu or whatever you would like to call it) simply improves the odds that your work will move other people. Good art is extremely rare. Good popular culture is less rare, but still not the norm.

I think that much hinges on the direct exchange of value. For example, television as it currently exists promotes the facile ideologies of consumerism through the production of fantasies that successfully manipulate our personal insecurities as well as our hunger for connectedness and self-esteem. This is true of all advertising-based media, but especially true of television. In contrast, cinema is much more likely to make positive use of our narrative intelligence to give us insight into our culture and context. In cultural terms, I think it's fair to say that television masquerades, cinema reveals. I think that this has more than a little to do with the direct value exchange (relatively speaking) offered by cinema as opposed to the indirect value proposition of advertising-based television. It all comes down to personal power and respect.

You mention that Purple Moon had interviewed thousands of kids over a 6 year period. Could too much research have been a problem? Do you think that ID or Cyan interviewed thousands of kids before they launched their products ( Doom & Myst)?

I would imagine that ID was responding to their knowledge of the fact that people enjoy hacking and would like to make their own games - that was a great innovation in Doom. [ Level editors invited players to create their own levels of new play and share them with others over the net.]

However, the shooter formula was a tried and true one. With Myst, I don't know whether research was done or not. They did get the idea of offering alternative paths if one way was "blocked" and so succeeded in making a non-obstructionist architecture, which had the side effect of appealing to women.

I don't think you can do too much research; however, you can follow your findings too literally or slavishly. I don't think we did so in the case of Purple Moon. We had a long-standing and difficult problem to investigate - the historical fact that girls did not, by and large, play the computer games and video games that were out there. I think we took the right approach in starting with fundamental play patterns and gender signaling, then moving up to specific preferences in computer game formats.

The problems, briefly were these:

  • we were up against an established brand character, Barbie
  • Mattel had massive distribution deals and could undercut our retail price by about $6 per unit
  • The CD-ROM computer game business was consolidating and shrinking between 1997 and 1998, making shelf space even tougher to get for a non-name-brand
  • The retail shelf space available shrank by approximately 30% in 1998 due to consolidations (Comp USA and Computer City, for example) and closures of about 40% of K-Mart retail outlets

Did PM target girls or girls parents? Which ones does Barbie target? Did you have any research which indicated who would make the purchase decision?

Purple Moon concentrated on making the product directly attractive to girls (I dislike the word "targeted"), while also making sure that it would not offend parents. We learned from a variety of research projects that kids make the purchase decision most of the time. For example, when we looked at 6-year-olds, the parents claimed most of the time that they were making purchase decisions. However, when we followed parents and kids in stores, we found that about 80% of the time, it was the kid who was driving the purchase.

I would guess that Barbie targets girls, but the brand also has strong appeal to parents, as an historical "comfort" brand, and also as a "safe" brand for their kids. Mattel also has a strong research group and for their premier Barbie interactive product they made an informed choice of gender-appropriate play pattern.

Would research have predicted the TV, Hula Hoop or even the computer game?

Research did predict TV but did not do a good job of predicting what it would be used for. Researchers were drooling over the idea of computer games before Ivan Sutherland gave them the means to make "Space War." The hula hoop was a great idea, and it probably came from somebody watching kids play and noticing the emphasis on rhythm and balance in some play patterns. Research would have helped an entrepreneur recognize the hula hoop as a good idea, although it may not have inspired the invention itself.

Not sure if I buy this one. I think the Hudsucker Proxy does a better job of showing the serendipity of discover which seems to be as much related to play than research, more Buddhist.

I'm not denying the role of serendipity. But I am certain of the value of research. For example, when Cheskin did research for Pepsi several years ago, Pepsi's market share in the teen market was about 30%. By learning about segmentation of the teen market and how trends move through that market, Pepsi was able to increase their market share to about 70% in one year. Again, my point is not that research necessarily makes us better inventors, but I think it improves the odds that what we invent will be of value to a customer.

What are the dangers of a researcher with an agenda discovering what makes our hearts beat a little faster? Doesn't this all come down to manipulation and the bottom line?

It depends. A roller coaster does that. The person who pays for his ticket knows what he is going to get. There is a direct exchange of value. Now contrast that to a billboard for brandy that suggests that you'll have great sex if you drink this alcohol (these are targeted especially at African Americans, by the way). Or fashion or cosmetics brands that suggest that there is something wrong with YOU if you don't have this or that quality, which of course their product provides. That's consumerism - that is, engaging in the creation of "false" need and then selling something to satisfy that created need.

You say that 8 CDs and an award winning web site did not make you profitable enough to satisfy your investors; does this mean you were in the red or you just didn't make enough for the venture investors?

Typically a start-up company must burn into the red at the beginning. Venture people look for a return on investment 18 or 24 months out. When you are building a new brand, the initial burn is especially risky (TV ads and media buys, for example). Our business plan showed us moving into the black about 8-12 months from when the investors closed the company down. They were spooked and didn't want to wait.

We didn't forecast a huge sell-in and were amazed when it happened. However, that was still only about 8-10% market share. Competition was hitting hard at that point with Barbie, American Girls Premiere, Clueless, and Cosmopolitan Makeover, for example - all from big publishers with marketing muscle, and all based on established brands. By the time we released our second round we were down to about 6% market share because the segment was suddenly crowded.

Looking back, an obvious move would have been to start working on a TV deal sooner. Certain members of our board discouraged us from pursuing TV, but we had strong interest from Nickelodeon. If you look at it in the small, TV costs money, it doesn't make money. TV producers want a percentage of your merchandise revenues in order to put you on the air. However, in the large it does a tremendous job of boosting brand recognition and pulling other products along. If you are in a business that requires you to establish brand identity quickly, you have to use every available means.

Do you think your website would have been as successful if it charged? Could more attention to the web have supported your growth?

If supported, the site would have continued to provide a very strong community for girls. The problem of advertising and/or transactions as a revenue model for a web site would still have come around and bitten us, just as it did most other such sites. However, it is conceivable that we could have continued to support the web community if it influenced people to buy more of the CD-ROMs and books. We had a strategy of interweaving stories between the three media (web, CD, and books) that would have been interesting to try.

How do you think current investment money would view a group which came to them as 'utopian entrepreneurs?'

It would depend upon the investment group. Just as there are "green" and "socially responsible" mutual funds, there are also investors with such interests. The more people see business as an exchange of value that works within the larger context of culture, the more likely it will be that investors will see things that way. And there are some stunning success stories, for example, those reported in the book Natural Capitalism, by Paul Hawken et al.

You say "I suspected the most effective way to make girls comfortable with computers was through play" do you think Purple Moon actually proved this point?

Generally, I think the girl game movement proved this point. However, now it's moot in the sense that girls are gravitating very strongly to the web. Our goal was never to make girls game players; it was to invite girls into technology use. I feel that the girl game movement played a part in making that a reality. While the burning social need may have been met, there is still a large and viable female market (actually, many female markets) for contentful interactive media.

You say that personal storytelling is an endangered human sensibility, did Purple Moon actively enhance personal storytelling?

Absolutely. There were many opportunities for girls to tell stories built into the structure of the website and even of the CD-ROM software (for example, diary entries, captions for yearbook pictures, and even the creation of entirely new characters along with their personal qualities and preferences).

How can personal storytelling develop a business model which can allow it to not just survive but grow?

Direct exchange of value. Micropayments would facilitate this. Subscriptions might work as well.

You mention that robust simulations make us better thinkers. Are you talking about education here? The history of educational software and simulations has been a history with few dollars and even fewer results. How and why would this suddenly change?

A robust simulation deals with a complex system and represents it as faithfully as our knowledge permits. A rule of thumb might be, this simulation should be able to surprise you. Ideally it could be driven by sensors in the real world. Some weather prediction simulations are approaching this level. The simplistic simulations produced for PCs in the last few decades are pretty bad, but that is largely because of the limited computing power available to drive them. Today we have a different situation. More powerful PCs and the phenomenon of distributed computing make such robust simulations possible (for regular folks) for the first time.

But how does education like this become affordable? Anything you see on the horizon? Does SETI have potential for this sort of simulation?

SETI is actually doing this sort of simulation via distributed computing. There is talk of a weather modeling system that will work the same way, taking cycles from idle PCs. I would think that for now a teacher would need to hook into one of these larger projects (funded by NSF or whatever), or start one.

Teachers are used to helping students build stories but you say in an interactive/VR mediated world building worlds will be more important. How does a teacher with years of experience building stories make the transition?

I don't think you have the technology to do that directly, yet. However, you probably do ask students to describe the landscape and setting and write profiles of characters even when these things may not appear in the linear story. That sort of non-temporal explosion of elements is the beginning of VR design.

But how does a teacher or a school district do this? How can they afford to do it?

Well, what i proposed above - descriptions of environments and characters - can be accomplished with pencil and paper. Improvisation with these elements might also be a useful tool - again, requiring no high tech. Although I am not happy with so-called "desktop VR", that would be a next step. Also Bruce Damer's avatar worlds might be helpful. These things run on PCs and are accessible over the web.

Who owns the PM research now? Will it ever see the light of day? I'm sure a lot of folks would love to think about it? Does Mattel now own it?

The research is co-owned by Vulcan and Mattel. I am fairly sure that no one at Mattel has looked at it. As you know, their entire interactive division has shrunk to nothing. They serviced the Purple Moon brand for a while, then ran out of steam, cutting off the website when it had about 500,000 registered users. As for , all I know for sure is that 17 boxes of data were shredded to reduce storage needs. I have some summary information and videotapes, all of which is in the public domain by virtue of the fact that I disclosed it in public conferences and white-papers while the business was a going concern. When we were starting the company, we had to prioritize using the research to inform design over preparing the research for proper peer-reviewed publication. It would seem now that opportunity is lost. The good news is that the research could be replicated fairly easily, and there is actually a fair amount of literature on gender differences in play.

Can you expand on this statement in practical terms of teacher could use? "Saying no again -- this time to movies and games that provide the illusion of personal power through violence -- is more likely to lead to classroom shootings and suicides than so-called violent media"

What I am proposing is that designers set themselves the challenge of inventing a context and play pattern that equals or surpasses shooters in giving (male) players a sense of personal power and agency.

Kids games have always involved shooting for the most part: cops and robbers, cowboys and indians. Most of these games seem to be variations on tag, capture the flag and Ringelerio which might indicate that they might be hard wired into our play patterns.

Wrong. Most boys' games have "always" involved shooting. The gender difference is marked and appears to be cross-cultural. Shooting may in fact be hard-wired into boys' play patterns. There is some evidence, for example, that in boys pleasurable endorphins are produced when rapidly moving objects are in the visual field. Girls are much more likely to play house, or to play-act their favorite stories or movies.

You already said that research showed that girls didn't object to the FPS but to the lack of story and connection. So, if I'm a teacher do I want to go away from this or toward it? Can you draw a lesson which should be learned from serious FPS play which a teacher should be involved with?

Again, I think that if we are concerned about violence in media and its effect on children, then we have the challenge of finding out how violence works, what it does for the player, and then look at other play patterns or action forms that accomplish the same goals. I am suggesting that at least part of the "payoff" for violence is the fantasy of personal power and agency.

Did you ever wind up communicating with parents or teachers with concerns about girl-games, computer media, whatever and their kids?

Yes. We did several focus groups with parents. There is a story in the book about one father who was concerned that our products were about values, but who didn't see any "values" in shooter games. By and large, parents seemed glad for games that addressed the realities of girls' lives and could also give them comfort and advice in the form of stories. A few parents were concerned about the idea of "girls' games," afraid that this was going to be something second-class or dumbed down. Many expressed enthusiasm for an alternative to Barbie and Cosmo, which focused girls on attractiveness and fashion in what many parents considered to be an unhealthy way. We did not interview teachers but heard positive comments from several, some of whom were using the Rockett products in social studies classes. I even got email from some boys and adult men who felt that the products helped them learn how to related better to girls and women.

Did PM ever cross cultural boundaries? Europe, Asia?

Generally, no. The products were sold in English-speaking countries abroad but we were not able to ramp up and international marketing campaign. Also, we realized that the content - especially of the Rockett series - was quite specifically connected to American schools and teen social life. We were unsure whether it would be best to localize it for other countries - Japan, for example - or leave it as is because Japanese girls in particular are curious about their American counterparts. That would have been an interesting piece of research, and I'm sorry we didn't have the chance to do it.

The drawing style does have an anime feel to it.

Yes, we found that girls preferred 2D to 3D animation at that time. I think that 3D may have been a gender signal in those days because it was so characteristic of "boys'" games. Our lead artists were both Asian, and one of them was actually a graffiti artist before he became an animator.

Is it still possible to buy any of the CDs from anywhere?

Not that I know of. It's sad. I have one copy of each CD.

Are your white papers discussing some of the research on your webpage or anywhere else?

On my site the best source of overview information on our research is "Technological Humanism and Values-Driven Design." I will post other stuff to my website when things settle down a bit.

You say "If you don't make your numbers, it's probably better to dial down your burn rate than to borrow money." You missed your numbers, got canned, wrote this little pamphlet, So, are you getting back on the horse? What will you do next? You didn't make it with funding from the big boys, excuse the pun, would you consider smaller investments from others interested in supporting a utopian entrepreneur with a vision for how the world should be?

We missed our numbers and we should have dialed down our burn rate. I wrote this "little pamphlet" because I think that experience should not be wasted. I am teaching (graduate students in Media Design at Art Center College of Design). That's not quite back on the horse, but I can see the stable. My students are building wonderful stuff. This year they built a transmedia project to raise awareness among teens about the promise and perils of the human genome project. Next year we will be working on a transmedia project that deals with the intersection of energy conservation and personal lifestyle.

I would love to work in a real company again, maybe even start one. I'm working on an interactive project with Public Broadcasting right now that shows some promise. However, investment opportunities do not abound in Mr. Bush's economy. But yes, small investments can make small projects successful, and small projects may be leveraged to change the way people think. When a really good idea comes along that I think I can help manifest, large or small, I will certainly jump on it.

Final thoughts?

One final follow-up - there ARE socially responsible and green investors' organizations out there that can provide both venture funding and investment opportunities for individuals. Look at for examples. What I am really trying to promote is not some sort of passive resistance to consumerism, but rather an active reframing of the role of business and how we measure its success. I'm also asking designers to rethink how they measure their own success, and to see that values are always embodied in their work. Every person who takes these attitudes into the work place will contribute to a positive change in the world.


B r e n d a L a u r e l
Graduate Faculty, Media Design, Art Center College of Design
Design / Research Consultant
408-741-5865 fax 408-741-5458

UTOPIAN ENTREPRENEUR by Brenda Laurel, published by MIT Press is the first in a series called Mediawork pamphlets, which pairs writers who matter with innovative to create compact, itellectually sophisticated, visually compelling texts