Brenda Laurel

Brenda Laurel is the co-founder of Purple Moon, has a PhD in Drama theory focusing on Virtual reality, and worked as a game producer at Atari between 1980-83.

I think the thing I’m most proud of while at Atari was that day I went in and told the president that we were making a mistake. And I got them to pay attention to the fact that to differentiate the home computer from the game console, the software offering needed to be diversified past just games to other kinds of utilities – word processors were a new idea then. And we actually got Atari to do a word processor, so I’m proud of that.”

Brenda Laurel
Brenda Laurel

Brenda Laurel has a graduate degree in Theatre and a PhD in Drama Theory and Criticism that focused on what would come to be known as Virtual Reality. She is co-founder of the game developing company Purple Moon – and she worked as a producer for Atari between 1980-83. Brenda Laurel began her carrier in gaming in 1976 at Cybervision, but was recruited by Atari and moved to California. Shortly after Warner Brothers bought Atari, and the new management though that personal computers were a spur of the moment trend like jogging which would go away. Brenda Laurel disagreed with their strategies. To Brenda Laurel personal computers were the future. She quickly was recognized by management as someone with ideas and was promoted from a producer of educational games to head of software strategy for home computers. She remembers the meeting she had when she was promoted: “I went into the head of the home computer division and said Look, we are focusing on game console and game port, that can’t be all that we do. You know there’s personal finance, there’s selfcare, there’s education, there’s all these other applications that would differentiate the personal computer from the game machine. I was so frustrated, and I was drawing all over his whiteboard and he said, Okay, your salary is doubled and you report to me”.

Brenda Laurel remembers when she first was hired at Atari. At that time she was the only woman on the floor and she arrived to an empty cubicle with a telephone but without a chair. She remembers: “I had to kick the boys out of the women’s restroom because they were all in there smoking marijuana. I said ‘there’s a woman in the house now that actually has to go to the bathroom so get out of here’. It was crazy.” Brenda Laurel was originally hired to work on educational software, however due to her ideas and strategic talent she was promoted as head of the group of producers at Atari. Diverse team produces better results, so her team had a good gender balance – moreover she was the co-founder of the Atari Gay Association.

Brenda Laurel have a long carrier within gaming and after leaving Atari she first served as director of production development at Activision continuing working on Atari games, and then she decided to create her own company Telepresence Research focusing on Virtual Reality. Later in 1996-1999 she co-founded Purple Moon, which was a successful game company focusing on games for girls. What was special with Purple Moon was that it was build and designed based upon research.

At Purple Moon the focus was to create games for tween girls, and they interviewed thousands of girls all over the USA to gain insights into the lives of tween girls. Purple Moon wanted to challenge the misconceptions about how girls are not good with technology, by building games that would get girls to put their hands on a keyboard, to engage with aspects of their needs and their desires. The research they did in Purple Moon demonstrated how girls in the US had very different self-conceptions from the Barbie Mattel idea of femininity that ruled in those days. Mattel was not mirroring the actual experiences of the young girls. Purple Moon made games with characters that reflected the lives of real kids and gave them experiences that made sense to them. There was no way to win these games; they were not win-or-lose experiences. Instead it was a way for girls to experience personal agency in their social and personal lives. The Purple Moon games were a cultural (if not financial) success, and Brenda Laurel still receive emails, at least once a week, from somebody who played the games and how these games changed their lives.

Purple Moon demonstrated how to make games which are popular dedicated to girls. When reflecting upon why many game companies in the 80-ties decided not to focus on girls, Brenda Laurel reflects: “Due to companies like Mattel, who controls so much shelf space in toy stores it is difficult to compete as a small vendor. There were a few games directed at girls in the early days, but they were fundamentally lame, they had bad game mechanics, and where written under the assumption that girls didn’t play games, and that it was a done deal. What they didn’t realize is ‘where’ they were selling these games. While some of them were designed badly, all of them were sold in ‘male spaces’. In those days they were being sold in places like tech shops, which at that time were not places where girls and their mothers would just walking in and look through the aisles to even know about the existence of those games. So it became general wisdom in the game industry that girls didn’t play games.

Not seeing the marked for girls in gaming was a self-fulfilling prophecy, where game companies would assume that their customers were only boys and men, and that good game developers need to be a man to design for men. The belief was; that women didn’t have the mental predisposition to understand why shooting games was a trend, and therefore they wouldn’t be good at creating games. Back in the 70-ties and 80-ties, Brenda Laurel explains, there were more women in manufacturing, and they would do chip manufacturing, which was an extension of women working at factories being considered as an accessible thing. However when the jobs were about the content, strategy, or production of the game content, the play centers, and the game mechanics, there were very few women. Women were seen to be unqualified to address the audience of the games, which was assumed to be young men.

Brenda Laurel have made many important contribution to gaming, in particular Purple Moon as well as her work and research on virtual reality. She worked as a professor for 15 years and wrote several books. Brenda Laurel is currently retired, but still serves on several non-profit boards and does consulting work, writing, and public speaking.