New program aims to give girls lessons in social interaction

Personal Computers

October 13, 1997|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

A PHRASE such as "based on extensive research" tells you as much about the quality of a computer program as the phrase "years in the making" does about a movie.

"Ishtar," "Waterworld" and "Heaven's Gate" might have spent many moons in the ovens of production, but they still emerged half-baked. In the computer world, "research" has lately served as justification for mistakes such as the late Microsoft Bob.

Research is no substitute for things such as creativity and talent, but the research card is being played once more, this time as the rationale behind software for girls.

A new company called Purple Moon, whose majority owner is Interval Research Corp., financed by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, has announced its goal of developing what it calls a "transmedia" business "including two new CD-ROM series, a Web-based entertainment experience and related girls' merchandise."

The company's Web site (www.purple-moon.com) proclaims that the findings of an extensive study of girls at play "directly shaped character development, gameplay, artistic style, story lines and the branding of an entirely new breakthrough segment within the girls' entertainment category."

The research might well be some sort of breakthrough; the company's first two products are not, except maybe for all that branding. Each one comes with a Purple Moon backpack, a Jonathan Martin Girls T-shirt, a Bonne Bell Lip Smacker, fragrance samples and a discount coupon for other "fun & fruity bath & body products" in the Smackers line.

Rockett's New School (Windows or Macintosh, about $30) features a girl called Rockett Movado in a tale about starting eighth grade in a new school in a new town.

The premise has been worked over in countless children's stories; the gimmick here is that the story takes different paths depending on decisions you make for the lead character. That technique has been used in software for years and in books for even longer, but this program tries to use it to teach lessons in social interaction rather than to advance a plot. The only goal here is to survive the day with a minimum of social friction.

The decisions you make for Rockett affect the way other people treat her. Choose an "angry" or "timid" reaction for Rockett, and her schoolmates are likely to give her a bad time; pick the "self-assured" choice, and better things tend to happen.

But the program ducks the really interesting situations. When a girl suggests sneaking out of school for a smoke, Rockett refuses automatically. In a situation involving moral decisions and possible danger, not being able to control Rockett's response makes you feel cheated.

So does the way the program ends, with Rockett standing outside the girls' bathroom without so much as commenting on her day or looking forward to the next one. In a situation where a choice would normally be required, you have no options short of going back and trying other paths.

Some wrinkles work better. A diary Rockett keeps for her friend ** back in the old town offers her perspective on the day's events. A device called the "Girl Message Getter" lets characters comment on the action that has recently taken place, but at least one character referred to something that had not happened in the path I took.

If you are willing to commit a fictional invasion of privacy, you can look into the lockers of other characters (and occasionally even the faculty) to see what they are saying about Rockett and each other, but none of it gets as mean as real girls in real life can be.

Alas, the writing and art would not pass muster on the worst Saturday morning kids' show. Adults are generally buffoons. "You snooze, you lose" passes for humor. My path through Rockett's day in school included homeroom and lunch, but just a single class. Its "gorgeous" teacher, given to grandiose pronouncements about creativity, happens to have one deformed arm. Girls might learn a lesson about accepting deformities of the otherwise handsome.

The animation is so limited it verges on nonexistent. Since the whole thing plays as a slide show with incessant dialogue and characters rarely even move their mouths, it can be hard to tell who is supposed to be speaking. The art and editing seem not just deliberately naive but unintentionally amateurish. Girls today will demand better.

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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