"From Barbie to Mortal Kombat," a conference on gender and computer games to be held Saturday, April 5 in Killian Hall (Rm 14W-111), will explore the consequences of girls' lesser and later access to computer play compared to boys.
"The current concern comes from two directions," said Assistant Professor Justine Cassell of the Media Lab, one of the presenters at the conference. "First, the numbers of women in computer science and technology-related fields are not increasing the way we would like them to. Second, the industry senses that games attractive to girls could be a real money-maker."
Yet, despite the material incentives for the computer industry to focus more on games for girls, companies still simply change the appearance of games already popular among boys (by turning them pink, for example) rather than designing games from scratch that will intrinsically appeal to girls, Professor Cassell added.
"Future consequences of how technology is now presented and used include a vicious circle of fewer girls being interested in computer games, leading to fewer women working in computer science and technology fields--which leads to fewer women developing computer games and fewer girls being interested in technology," Professor Cassell noted.
She especially encouraged girls from junior and senior high schools to "use the morning session critiques to weigh what the industry is presenting. Then ask [industry], `What stereotypes of girlhood is your game encouraging?' In my view, the best computer games allow the child to use the technology to build her own or his own games."
Industry representatives at Saturday's conference will include Nancie Martin of Mattel, Heather Kelly, of Girl Games and Marsha Kinder of Intertext Media and the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California. They will demonstrate new products from 2-4pm.
Associate Professor of Literature Henry Jenkins of the Program in Film and Media Studies will open the conference's morning session at 9am. Talks on cultural implications and on cognitive and developmental issues raised by girls' unequal access to computer games will follow.
Professor Cassell and Media Lab groups will present games designed to draw girls to computer technology starting at 4:30 pm.
Jennifer Glos, one of Professor Cassell's research assistants, will demonstrate a game technology that uses storytelling as an activity that a child and a computer can do together. Her computer game is hidden within the belly of a large stuffed elephant--a creature that appeals to the cuddling and storytelling aspects of play. "Ms. Elephant" can be used by one child or shared among a group of children.
"Our hope is that the combination of a much-loved girls' activity [storytelling] and technology will allow girls to become even more technology-literate and boys to become even more storytelling-literate," said Professor Cassell.
Ms. Glos is hoping to found a company, RoseBud Toys, with the story-telling game as its centerpiece. She presented her techno-animal designs to a group of other entrepreneurs celebrating MIT: The Impact of Innovation, the MIT-BankBoston study of MIT alumni/ae company founders, in March.
"From Barbie to Mortal Kombat" will conclude with an open mike session hosted by Professor Jenkins from 6-7pm.
The conference is free and open to the public. It is sponsored by the Program in Women's Studies, the Program in Film and Media Studies, the Media Lab, the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Dean Robert Brown of the School of Engineering, and Dean Philip Khoury of the School of Humanities and Social Science. For more information, call the Program in Women's Studies at x3-8844.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 3, 1997.