Last week Brenda Laurel gave a talk to Katherine Isbister's CS class (where Justin and I also spoke a couple weeks ago). Brenda is a co-founder of Interval Research in Palo Alto, and founder of Purple Moon, a spinoff of Interval Research Corporation, focused on making technology for girls. She's written several books, including the ground-breaking Computers as Theatre (she has a PhD in Theatre) and The Utopian Entrepreneur. She's worked at several leading companies in the industry, including Apple, Activision, and Atari. She currently serves as the Chair of the Media Design Program at the Art Center College of Design.
She's been an inspiration to many people in the way she combines geek knowledge with humanist values. She is also an amazing speaker - funny, passionate, and absolutely thoroughly steeped in professional research. A real rabble-rousing shit-kicker, with a mane of strawberry blond hair and tatoos on her arm and peeking out over the collar of her purple tank top on her upper back. She spoke to the students about doing good design research, using her own experiences at Purple Moon as a test example. I'll attempt to paraphrase her remarks from my notes.
Brenda Laurel, as recorded by Jane Pinckard
This is old stuff. Think of this as historical, put it in historical perspective. The research starts from 1993. Children's attitudes towards technology have probably changed a lot since then.
A lot of designers feel that design is inspired, instinctive; who needs research? But research tunes your intuition. It's not a cage, it's a liberation. Purple Moon was my company, and it came out of four years of research on gender and technology, conducted by ten people.
I consider Purple Moon a business failure (it was bought, then dumped, by Mattel); but a cultural success.
And I learned how to be an activist, a subversive. You have the understand how business works, you have to arm yourself with research. If you're going to make a difference, inside a company, you have to work inside it. It's silent running. Research helps you do that.
There are four stages of good research work:
1. Create knowledge for yourself. Find out what you need to know. Gather your materials, talk to people.
2. Form a vision of what you want to work on.
3. Turn research into design.
4. The business of business - how do you keep the organism alive, how do you sustain work.
All good ideas should also have an economy or it's not worth doing.
Alongside the stages are also four values. The values co-exist, but some are more important at times than others. It's like Photoshop: when you need certain values, they come up to the first layer, and others stay in the background. But you don't ignore your core values.
1. research ethics
2. humanistic values - is your research making people better, helping people, expanding the knowlegde base?
3. aesthetics and cultural values - is your research personallyu serving a customer?
4. business ethics.
1. Research Ethics.
- You must examine your own biases, figure out what they are, be aware of yourself.
- Set aside personal agendas, especially with younger kids; kids know what you want to hear and they will try to please you.
- Ask questions more than one way. ask questions again and again. for example, in recent polls. "Do you support the war in Iraq?" 56% agreement. "Do you support the war in Iraq without a U.N. resolution?" 46% agreement, and so on. Asking questions more than one way gives you a much better picture of what's happening.
- Stay open. You'll find out things you don't want to know. But if you're serving people in a culture, you have to see those things, and understand them.
So let's examine how we framed the question at Purple Moon.
First we asked, "Why don't girls play computer games?" There are a lot of easy answers to that question, and none of them are right or useful. That was the wrong question.
Then we tried, "Why aren't there computer games for girls?" Again, too many easy answers that are bullshit.
Then, "Might computer games offer value to girls?" That was more interesting!
That made us ask, what does it offer to boys? Well, a lot of times computer games make boys lose fear of technology. They acclimate boys to playing with technology. They learn that you can hit the Enter key a bunch of times and not break the computer. That's very valuable. But we weren't quite there yet.
"What would it take to make a computer game that a girl might like?" Getting close, but the question still has the word "game" in it, and we were startuing to see that recreational computer play is more than games. Again, with the question, it was too easy to come up with stereotypical answers like "Girls don't like violence" and stuff like that.
"If computer games are a kind of play, then how does play vary by gender?"
This is a good question. It's more interesting, you can go deeper with it, and you can use the question to design lots of other things besides computer games.
Now that you have the question, there are three stages to research.
1. Secondary research: what do other people say. No one does this. Ever. No computer game company I've ever worked in did this stage of research - they all started from scratch. Yet the material is there! Los of people have worked on this, and it's all out there for people to find.
2. Literature survey, including expert interviews. Talk to people who've done this, read their stuff.
3. Immersion and observational ethnography. This is what's known as "Qualitative methods." Basically it's applied ethnography. Get in with the kids. Among the things we did were "Photo Audits": we gave the kids cameras (cheap, disposable plastic cameras) and asked them to take a picture when they were having fun. We got tons of pictures, probably ones their parents would never see. We got a lot of pictures of guns, actually, from both boys and girls. Kids think guns are neat. We also do interviews, and give "homework projects" - send us a picture of your room, for example. We worked a lot with dyads, screening for research subjects that meet certain criteria. And then we'd ask them to bring their best friend. This was great, you get two for the price of one, and they keep each other honest, like one will call on the other one. For example we had a girl come in with her best friend, and she wanted to seem like a real girly-girl, wearing a dress and her hair was all pretty and nice. She said, "Oh, I'm not a tomboy at all." But then her friend says, "Yeah, but she forgot to mention she's also the local softball champ!" As an aside, focus groups are really bad for kids. A focus group just becomes an exercise in peer relations, figuring out who's the coolest.
This stage is exploratory. You want to ask opening-up questions, not closing-in questions. This isn't quatitative, where you're collecting survey data. You want to go deep instead of wide, here. This can work really well IF you've done your homework and some quantitative research to prepare.
The Quantitative part includes:
- Questionnaires and surveys
- Expert interviews of course with academics and researchers, other writers. But also with professionals. We interviewed the head of marketing at Mattell, for example. Another group to look at are adults who spend a lot of time with kids: parents, teachers, toy store managers, coaches, and so on.
An overview of key findings include:
- Gender differences are both cultural and biological
- Feelings about technology
- Play patterns. We did a map of play. Some kinds of play are specific to either gender, and some are shared, although at different times.
- The importance of social structure and peer relationships.
The things which are important to know about cultural differences are that it starts at birth; it starts and never stops. An identical baby was brought in to a group of adults. When the group was told the baby was a girl, they cooed very specific things: "She's so pretty!" "So delicate!" "So cute!" The same baby brought to a different group who were told it was a boy elicited comments like "He's so strong!" "He's going to be a big boy!" and so on.
There are brain-based differences, but they are often exagerrated by cultural conditioning. It's hard to wrestle the two apart.
We should note also that boys' gender identity is more brittle than girls. At that age, they have it tougher. A girl can be a tomboy, but a boy cannot be a sissy. So we found that when girls appropriate "boy" stuff, the boys take a step back and away from it. This is happening in games the more girls get into games, the more boys create wilder, more outrageous, more gross games to keep girls out until they make such a repulsive game no girl wants to touch it.
We found that toys and objects were signaling gender to kids. At the time, all kids identified 3D animation as "male". That's probably not the case now - this was ten years ago. We were curious about what mixed gender traits in toys signified, so we hacked some toys!
1. We covered a truck in pink fuzzy material. Boys didn't go for it. Pink fuzzy overrides truckness.
2. We took a diary and put some bulletholes in it and labeled it "War Journal". No go. Diariness overrides warness.
3. Remember Ecco the dolphin? A friend of mine designed the dolphin. So we got him to do a version of the dolphin with fangs and blood dripping from the mouth - a mean, tough dophin. Boys liked it. Blood overrides dolphin.
4. And then the toy nobody wanted, "Battle Hair Barbie". [Brenda showed a photo which sent the students into paroxysms of laughter: Barbie, her shining hair encased in a helmut, dressed in fatigues, holding an AK-47.] The girls saw the gun and went "Argh!" and the boys wouldn't TOUCH the hair.
On the biological differences. Until recently, it was very difficult to even talk about this. No one wanted to hear about biological differences between male and female brains. But they DO exist, and it's important to understand them.
Remember that we're talking standard bell curve, overlapping Gaussian distribution here. There's a lot of diversity, but we're talking primarily about the big fat middle of the bell curve, so keep that in mind.
One important difference is mental rotation. In timed tests, boys did much better in this than girls. Boys can rotate objects in their heads - they turn the object around mentally. By contrast, girls turn themselves around the object - which takes a lot longer. When the time pressure was removed, girls' performance equalled boys'.
Another is navigation, and this appears to be hard-wired. Experiments on humans were replicated on rats - which is funny, it's usually the other way around! Groups of humans and rats were sent through mazes. When landmarks were removed, the girls and the female rats could not navigate as well. When landmarks stayed the same but distances in the corridors changed, the boys and male rats couldn't navigate as well. Girls tend to navigate with landmarks, boys with dead-reckoning. Girls are very body-centric, they keep their body facing in the direction which navigating. For example, let's say I'm giving directions. [Brenda gives directions back to where she parked by pointing and moving her body as she says "You turn the corner, and head out to the parking lot...].
Remember how I said culture exagerrates biological differences? Well, take the "Women can't read maps" thing. I'm in the car, looking at the map, and I turn the map around so it orients to me, the direction I'm going in, but then the map is upside down and the words are upside down and my husband laughs and says, "What are you doing, you idiot?"
In computer games, the technology is gendered. It punched girls in two of their weakest areas - navigation and object-rotation.
Then how did Tetris get to be so popular with girls? Well, girls are very good at pattern-matching - they excell in that type of mathematics. They played Tetris as a pattern-matching game, not an object-rotation game.
Some stuff we found out about play patterns: girls like to construct narratives. One girl said of the X-Men game, "The characters are so boring you can't even make up stories about them!" Girls value free play, and girl-only play. The value of mastery is different for boys and girls. For boys, mastery is a social plus. We heard boys say things like, "Hey, did you beat level fiften yet?" For girls, there is a social taboo against mastery. You can't seem to be bragging, or to be too good at something. So they would say something like "Did you see the purple dragon?" - the dragon you can only see at the end of level fifteen. It's a much more subtle way of expressing progress in play.
That's because of the social differences which underlie their play experiences.
- segmentation and trend movement
- importance of peer relationships
- acquiring friends
Segmentation and Trends: can be seen using Cheskin's model, the backwards curve.
We used this to do the avatar design. We were designing eighth-grade characters for sixth grade kids to play with (all kids want to be 2.5 years older, by the way.)
The "Non-Teens" are teens who act more like kids. They are very interested in adult approval, and don't really care about teen trends. They tend to do well in school, they are nerdy; this is where you'd find the girly-girl with a ribbon in her hair, still acting like a little kid.
The "Status Quos" are also high achievers; they do well in school and sports. These are the Gap kids, they are social but not hip. They will adopt current trends if the Visibles get them first.
The "Visibles" are what we think of when we think of teens. They are also pretty motivated. These are the popular kids, the party people, they excel in sports and school, they are the trend-setters of their groups. They are highly social.
The "Explorers" are what every teen marketer wants to appeal to. These kids are the alternative kids - they brought alternative music and piercings to the mainstream. These are your Goths, your artists, musicians; they are really unafraid to experiment with trends. They care less what adults think, and are more in tune to their own values and beliefs.
The "Isolaters" are usually high-risk kids. Many of them come from broken homes. They do drugs, they drink, they're at risk. They isolte themselves from both their peer groups and adults.
We created characters to represent each of these groups.
Social Status - similar structures to social groups found among chimps! (I love chimps, Jane Goodall is a hero of mine).
- Boys: overt competition, direct measures; status hierarchies are formed in both chimps and humans that look like org charts.
- Girls: covert competition, affiliation and exclusion, status networks. my status is determined by who i'm friends with - more like a network than an org chart. "The power of three" is often at work - a group of three girls builds social status by taking turns excluding the third.
Another we found which was important fro girls around this age is identity construction. Girls have two very distinct sides - an outer, social self, and an inner, private self that rarely is shared. It's very private. The two sides are often at war and girls often think there's something wrong with them. In part we created these games in which Rockett, our heroine, has two sides to her, to reassure girls that it's normal, it's okay to have different feelings.
[running out of time at this point, Brenda hastened to her conclusion.]
Good research can unite product development and marketing. You can make something of value, do good, and make money.
A question from the audience: "Would you do this [start a company] again?"
"What, and get the shit kicked out of me by a billionnaire?" [Laughter] "No, I absolutely would do it again. They say that only one out of ten business tries takes, so I figure I have seven more to go. But for now, I'm teaching, I'm in academia, I'm spreading the philosophy I learned."
"I'm building my army of the night."