by Dorothy Heller
Violence is in the news these days. Recently, millions of Americans tuned in to a television special that portrayed "The Day After," a nuclear attack -- the ultimate violence. The plot of another popular film, "War Games," portrays the prospect of nuclear Armageddon as a giant computer game.
Most people don't want real violence in their life, and would be horrified if the zapping, smashing, blasting shoot'em-up on their computer screen turned from fantasy to reality. Nevertheless, violence seems to be a pervasive theme in lots of computer and arcade games.
"When I take my nephews out for pizza and arcade games, I'm really bothered by the violent content," states one young businesswoman. "I like computer games, but I don't get a charge out of winning by smashing a space ship or blowing up a planet. That kind of reward doesn't feel good to me."
The questions for this month are: how much killing and carnage take place on your home computer screen? How does it affect the way your family uses the computer? And finally, what's the alternative?
Violence, Competition, and Aggression
When Tom Malone began doing research for a doctoral thesis on the qualities that make a successful computer game, he wasn't looking for the results that he found. To his surprise, he discovered that there are differences in what girls and boys like about computer games.
For example, he studied student reactions to an educational game called "Darts." Malone concluded that boys liked the fantasy of making arrows pop balloons. Girls disliked it. He discovered there were other statistical differences in the way girls and boys responded to themes of violence, competition and aggression in computer games.
Of course, human beings aren't statistics. You may be the mother of four and the family Star Commander. But look around you the next time you're in a situation where kids are playing arcade and computer games: How many of the active participants are girls? In your own home, do the female members of your family get as much use and enjoyment from computer games as the males?
"Our concern," says Elizabeth Stage of the Lawrence Hall of Science, "is that many more boys than girls are getting intuitive knowledge and experience through computer games. Women who haven't experienced this crucial first stage of playing with electronic media will lack confidence and hands-on knowledge when it comes to learning programming and other skilled activities."
Remember the scene in "War Games" when the arcade game-playing computer whiz hero told his girlfriend to keep her hands off the keyboard ?
Social Pressure and Social Maturity
"It's reasonable for many girls and women to dislike explosions, bombing, shooting, and killing in computer games," Stage says. "It would be wonderful if more people in general didn't like violence!"
In addition to a dislike for violence, social pressure starts to turn off many girls from computer games -- and ultimately, from computer confidence and computer careers.
According to a recent study by Far West Laboratories about computer education in the school, girls show equal interest in computers at the elementary level, but begin dropping out in junior high. "Girls still face discouragement from parents and teachers." Even more powerful is peer pressure.
Girls also tend to mature socially earlier than boys; and girls are encouraged to pay more attention to social relationships. As a result, teen-age boys are "object-oriented." girls are "people-oriented."
Friendly Games for Girls (And Boys)
Does this mean that computer games should be packaged in pink and blue, or that software for women should be limited to cookie recipes?
Definitely not! Fortunately, there are creative and friendly alternatives that make it possible for everybody to enjoy computer games.
San Francisco State University's Mathematics Network Curriculum Project, for example, has developed computer activities that appeal equally to girls and boys. Says educator Bill Finzer: "In designing our materials, we minimized aggression and competition" encouraged cooperation, created network situations so kids could communicate with other classrooms via modem, and encouraged the use of computer graphics for artistic purposes."
Finzer found that junior high school-age girls loved networking and communicating with electronic pen pals with the modem. (The secret password for one female computer club was "Boys"!) He also discovered boys also enjoyed the creative and nonviolent activities just as much as the girls.
Researchers at Atari's Home Computer Division commented that games stressing cooperation, "creature" games that feature likeable characters rather than space enemies, and word games that have components of humor, surprise, and whimsy are more attractive to female players.
Pac-man, of course, is one of the most successful arcade games of all time, and the most violent activity in it is munching! It is also the first arcade game to attract a substantial female following, hence Ms. Pacman.
I've also noticed that our blood-thirsty 13-year-old and his computer friends spend hours playing Miner, Frogger, Pacman, Salmon Run, Centipede, and other computer games that use charm instead of violence. They even sing along to the music in Miner (if they think no one is listing!)
The Friendly Alternative
There are many positive steps that parents and educators can take to make sure computers are for everyone, not just for fledging space warriors.
1. Support learning and game software that uses imagination instead of violence. Use the computer for family fun and learning, not just zapping enemy aliens. Enjoy the exciting, mind-bending capabilities of Atari LOGO TM, learning games such as Crossword Magic TM and SCRAM TM, and encourage your kids to create their own excitement by learning how to program.
See "Equal Games for Girls" and "Evaluating Game and Educational Software" in COMPUTER CONFIDENCE: A Woman's Guide, by Dorothy Heller and June Bower, Acropolis Books Ltd., to learn more about game and learning software and resources.
2. Organize an "Expanding Your Horizons in Science and Math" conference for junior high school-age girls in your school district or community. The Women's Math/Science Network, which has been helping women to organize conferences. since 1974, provides a comprehensive handbook and coaching.
One of its recent conferences included panel discussions and Career Exploration Sessions with women who are carpenters, electricians, nuclear physicists, physicians, computer systems analysts, rangers, podiatrists, cabinetmakers, data-processing managers, and elevator mechanics! Write to:
Women's Math/Science Network, Math/Science Resource Center, Mills College, Oakland, CA 415430-2230.
3. Get involved with computer education in your local school district, as an educator, PTA member, aide, or volunteer.
- What computer activities are being offered.
- What percentage of girls participate.
- What programming languages are being taught.
- If math is a prerequisite for taking a computer course.
4. Since many schools require algebra as a prerequisite to learning BASIC, encourage computer education with Atari LOGO and PILOT. LOGO and PILOT are "friendlier" languages that are great for beginners and children as young as, elementary school age. Better yet, both languages really encourage young learners to think, solve problems, and use their own creativity.
5. Learn to program your own games! A wonderful new resource that teaches game programming with fun and humor is Dr. C. Wacko's Miracle Guide to Designing and Programming Your Own Atari Arcade Games, (Addison-Wesley). Dr. Wacko and his wife Petunia demonstrate that games can have heroines as well as heroes, and can be about getting to school on time or who put the clam dip in the computer instead of death and destruction.
6. Encourage "networking" via modems and the telephone as a home and school computer activity. Using the computer to contact electronic pen pals and exchange information is a "people-oriented" activity that girls enjoy as well as boys. A valuable resource is Free Software for Your Atari Computer, Enrich/ Ohaus Publishers, $8.95.
7. Practical applications aren't just for business. Word processing is a fantastic tool that can help you and your children develop creativity and learn self-expression. Encourage your entire family to learn about all computer applications.
Give peace a chance! And give everyone in your family the chance to express their personal creativity with the versatile Atari computer.
More to Come
In future columns, we'll interview an expert on arcade games and women; a women's software group that writes games based on their own experiences as homemakers and working women; and discuss creative programs that enable you to use your computer as an artist's palette.
Dorothy Heller lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, California and writes about people and computers. She is co-author of COMPUTER CONFIDENCE: A Woman's Guide (Acropolis Books) and Free Software for your Atari, (Enrich/Oahus).