F E A T U R E S    Issue 2.11 - November 1996

Gender Blender

By Michael Meloan

As president of Mattel Media, Doug Glen is taking Barbie into cyberspace, stereotypes and all.

If all the Barbie dolls sold since their introduction in 1959 were placed end to end, knobby little head to tiny plastic toe, they would circle the Earth seven times. Two Barbies are sold every second. Those are attractive numbers to Doug Glen, president of Mattel Media. Glen hopes to use the success of Mattel brands like Barbie to help fill the gaping hole in multimedia products designed for girls. Not surprisingly, the first wave of CD-ROM-based interactive products from Mattel Media is centred around the world's most famous 12-inch blonde.

Wired: What is the basic difference between software games that are designed for boys and those created for girls?

Glen: Play patterns. Playtime allows boys and girls to construct a fantasised version of what their lives will be like when they get older. For boys, those fantasies lean toward the primordial: the male as defender of the tribe. Boy play usually involves good versus evil. Boys want to occupy the good character, destroy the bad character and assert their power over the world. Anything that extends that power - a vehicle, a weapon or the occupation of an action figure - has enormous appeal. For girls, occupying the role of observable adult women is more attractive. That's why we have Teacher Barbie, Astronaut Barbie and Doctor Barbie. Girls also play more cooperatively. A group of girls will often agree on a joint goal and work toward it. When you get a group of boys together, they generally agree on a game with rules, and one will come out with the most points and win.

Media in general has been accused of promoting sex stereotypes. How do you create a balance between reflecting sex roles in society and creating them?

We're very pragmatic. We design an awful lot of toys compared with the number we actually release. We put kids in a room with the toys. We release the ones that kids play with first, most and last.

So it's very Darwinistic. The toys that don't work die.

Exactly. But here's an interesting anecdote regarding stereotypes: we were experimenting with superheroes for girls. We asked some girls to tell us a story of what the superheroes' exploits would be once they found the ultimate evil Dr Nogoodnik. They wanted to rehabilitate him. Boys would tell you in gory detail how they'd draw and quarter and do all sorts of horrendous things to finish him off.

Are there common story themes for kids?

Transformation is big. Boys and girls are all going through constant change - you see it in Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, King Arthur, Beauty and the Beast. You also see it in toys that are designed to transform from one kind of vehicle into another. For boys, however, the transformation is generally from less powerful into more powerful. Girls want to become more glamourous and magical. Kids also have a lot of fears that come from being small in a world of large and powerful things. They fear the breakup of the family and they fear toxicity. They fear bigger kids and they fear the dark or the unknown. Really successful antagonists typically bundle a number of these fears together, such as size, power and toxicity. These fears are manifested more in linear entertainment than they are in interactive.

Can exposure to high bandwidth and fast-moving multimedia enable a new kind of visual literacy in today's kids?

TV ads that do well with kids - in terms of the usual measures of persuasion, retention, recall and playback - have become more stroboscopic. Larger and larger amounts of information are being sent in smaller and smaller time frames. Television commercials that were considered very effective 20 or 30 years ago now seem quaint. They don't get results. Some TV ads have as many as 100 edits in a 60-second spot. People over 30 tend to find these commercials annoying, but many kids are able to play back somewhere between 60 and 80% of these fraction-of-a-second images.

Is it possible to retain that skill into adulthood?

The way to find out is to track it over time. It's only recently that we've exposed young people to huge amounts of high-density information. To put it in perspective, a typical issue of the Los Angeles Times contains more information than a 17th century Englishman was exposed to in his entire life.

What can media-savvy kids teach adults about navigating this overload?

To be fearless about entering a world that is going to be initially unfamiliar and will change every few days.

Do you think that there is a paradigm shift on the horizon for multimedia?

Rather than a shift in design, we'll see a shift in the audience. The multimedia revolution has been confined to a small part of the global population. There are only a few million people who have been loyal consumers of PC multimedia entertainment. But now, around one-third to one-half of American kids grow up with multimedia, taking it for granted as one of the ways we play and take in new information. This is the generation that will set expectations for the masses.

Michael Meloan is a writer based in Santa Monica, California.