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Software Company Markets Video Games for Girls

August 27, 1985

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ Move over, Tarzan of the Jungle. Here comes Jenny of the Prairie.

Jenny is the protagonist of the first video game created by Rhiannon Software, a Richmond-based company that bills its products as ″computer games for girls.″ She and her counterparts, Clair Chelsea and Lauren, think their way out of problems rather than shoot their way out.

The company is the brainchild of Elizabeth Stott and Lucy Ewell, who surveyed the video game market and decided the industry wasn’t paying enough attention to girls.

″The problem seemed obvious to us,″ Ms. Stott said. ″The programs were steered to boys and men, mainly because that’s who were designing them.″

Playing Jenny of the Prairie, Cave Girl Clair, Chelsea of the South Sea Islands and Lauren of the 25th Century requires drama rather than action, rationale rather than reflexes.

Jenny of the Prairie follows the travails of a girl separated from her parents’ wagon train as it travels west in 1842. Until the next wagon train, she must use her intelligence and ingenuity to build shelter, gather food and fend off coyotes and snakes.

Clair is set in the New Stone Age, Chelsea takes place in the 1840s, and Lauren is set in a futuristic northwest African desert.

The programs themselves may be fun and games, but Ms. Stott and Ms. Ewell design them for a serious purpose: making computers accessible to girls.

Sexual stereotypes and societal pressures discourage girls from embracing the computer revolution even though they have the same aptitudes for computers, Ms. Stott said. ″We believe girls ought to have an equal crack at careers. We didn’t want them to get tuned out before they were 10 years old.″

Ms. Stott, a counseling psychologist, and Ms. Ewell, a systems designer, began Rhiannon in 1982. They have since struggled against established notions and industry traditions, pushing an idea they think is ahead of its time.

Actually, Ms. Stott conceded, the idea’s time may never come.

″It’s a struggle business-wise,″ she said. ″The games are so different from the Space Invaders prototype. ... There’s been a lot of resistance with the established system.″

When the women looked for money to start the business, banks agreed to lend it only if their husbands co-signed the loan. When they borrowed again to expand, Ms. Stott had to turn to her father as a guarantor.

″They would loan it to the men, although they had nothing to do with the company,″ she said. ″We figured if that’s what we had to do, that’s what we had to do.″

Although a venture capitalist made them a preliminary offer of $1 million, Ms. Stott said, they decided that starting too big would only lead to a bigger fall. They began with $30,000 and expanded with another $50,000.

″We had what we needed, and we broke even the first year,″ she said. ″It’s small compared to other companies, but it’s a rate of growth we are comfortable with.″

Marketing remains a problem, despite an advertising push by publisher Addison-Wesley and a recent nationwide tour by Ms. Stott and Ms. Ewell.

″We’ve gotten a tremendous kind of personal response from people who have tried the games,″ Ms. Stott said.

But not many people are trying the games, she said. One reason might be that people are turned off by the perceived feminist slant of the games.

″We’re clearly feminist,″ Ms. Stott said. ″It’s just that people misinterpret what that means. There’s this remedial effort needed. We’re going for the girls.″

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