BRENDA LAUREL WAS SOMETHING OF A novelty when she began work in the computer industry. "When I went to my first computer electronics show in 1978," she says, "I was given a turquoise lab coat to wear, and people came from all over the floor to see the girl computer programmer."
Laurel, 47, is again the center of attention in Silicon Valley. In 1996 she completed an extensive, four-year study into girls' attitudes toward computer games. "We listened, and we learned what girls wanted," says Laurel, who then founded Purple Moon, a Mountain View, Calif., girls'-software company, last year. Her conclusions: Girls are bored by shoot-'em-up games and want characters they can relate to.
Purple Moon's CD-ROMs, among top sellers at Christmas, take a definite sugar-and-spice tack. In Rockett's New School, an eighth-grader struggles to fit in. In Secret Paths in the Forest, girls explore their feelings about friendship. The discs have their critics—a recent Ms. article argued that steering girls away from competitive games would "perpetuate the sexist status quo." But Laurel, the mother of two daughters and a stepdaughter, demurs. "These games," she says, "are about fun."