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CPSR Newsletter Winter 1997


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'Edutainment' and Girls

by David Cornell

CPSR News Volume 15, Number 1: Winter 1997


Think of the countless hours kids spend playing video games. They're hard (tried one lately?), but kids are highly motivated to learn them. Since motivation and learning are critical to education as well, might we combine the two - combine electronic games and education? While the challenge is great, the potential payoff is so much greater that I believe it would be irresponsible not to try.

A seemingly easy way to get from video games to educational games might be to do what the term "edutainment" implies: tack entertainment onto education. Simply intersperse existing educational material with themes from popular video games. The problem with this approach is that there's a heavy gender bias in video games. A 1992 study of the 47 top-rated Nintendo video games found that only seven did not have violence as their major theme, the covers of these games portray a total of 115 male and 9 female characters, and 13 of the 47 games contain scenarios with women kidnapped or having to be rescued (McGrenere, 1996, page 13).

Another aspect of gender bias in edutainment is that a majority of designers are male. Their game ideas are most likely influenced by the games they played growing up, and masculine cultural tastes in general. One excellent solution is to educate and encourage female software designers, thus breaking the loop of "men designing for boys growing up to be men." But until this happens, edutainment designers must learn to be more sensitive to the tastes and sensibilities of girls.

The E-GEMS project at the University of British Columbia has done some wonderful research into gender inclusiveness in electronic games. They've discovered that "The majority of girls felt that the important elements were story line, characters, worth-while goals, social interactions, creative activities, and challenge. Most boys on the other hand, liked fast action and adventure, challenge, and violence." (Klawe et al 1996, page 2). They then attempted to apply this knowledge in designing a game that appealed to both girls and boys. For example, at one point in the game, "players win by either raising the Karma of every member of their own team to 9, or by reducing the Stamina of every member of their opponent's team to 0" (Klawe et al. 1996, page 3).

Valuable as this information is for design, it can be applied to other areas as well. If you have a hand in the purchase of edutainment for use by both sexes, consider its cross-gender appeal as a criterion. Similarly, if you have a say in deciding which educational games get loaded on a system accessible to boys and girls, consider a balance of titles that would give each something of interest. Of course, this area of study is relatively new, children's tastes are notoriously volatile, and each child is unique, so observation, intuition, and common sense must always be part of such decisions. Still, it's good to keep these issues in mind so that they can influence the evolution of the edutainment culture.

Besides providing software that appeals to girls, we must do the same for computing environments as well. This is another area the E-GEMS project is studying. One report reveals that "The presence of others in the electronic game environment appeared to strongly influence the playing patterns of girls. When a particular station was filled with a group of boys, the girls were very hesitant to approach" (Inkpen et al.1994, page 12). Another study found "a strong boy culture in effect - girls felt excluded from this culture that was fused seamlessly with computer use" (Koch 1995, page 7). Thankfully, the researchers suggest some possible solutions to these problems.

One of their suggestions is to "create a space" for girls at the computers with assigned computer times, or "girls only" and "boys only" sessions (Koch 1995, page 14). Another suggestion is to give boys and girls an equal feeling of ownership over the computers. If the computers are named, all students should have a say in choosing the names, or perhaps there could be multiple names. Also, certain computers might be desig-nated for use explicitly by girls, and others by boys. These steps may also help with a related problem, namely girls' access to the computer community or "in-group." Because tips and strategies for learning a program (often not found in manuals or online help) are shared in such groups, access to them can be important to exper-iencing success (Koch 1995, page 8).

The social interaction of girls at the computer is another aspect of the computing environment that the E-GEMS researchers have investigated. One study discovered that "Female/Female pairs playing together on one machine, on average, completed significantly more puzzles than Female/Female pairs playing side-by-side on two computers," or by themselves (Inkpen et al. 1995, page 1). Boys also solved the most puzzles playing together on one machine, but unlike the girls, did better side by side with another player than alone.

These differences suggest that competition may be more motivating for boys than girls in educational games. Fortunately, the results show success for both sexes in collaborative game-playing, which the researchers attribute to the increased verbal interaction when playing together. Grouping children at a single computer is also cost-effective, but attention to details such as having more than one control device (mouse) helps to avoid conflict (Inkpen et al. 1995, page 4).


Inkpen, Kori, et al. 1994. "We have never-forgetful flowers in our garden:" girls' responses to electronic games. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching 13.

Inkpen, Kori, et al. 1995. Playing together beats playing apart, especially for girls. Proceedings of Computer Support for Collaborative Learning '95.

Klawe, Maria, et al. 1996. Phoenix Quest: lessons in developing an educational computer game for girls . . . and boys. Vancouver: Department of Computer Science, University of British Columbia.


Return to Table of Contents, Winter 1997 CPSR Newsletter

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