Laurel, Brenda

Laurel in 2000
Brenda Laurel on the Nielsen Tour in London, England on March 3, 2000.

Brenda Laurel is a pioneer in the development of virtual reality and one of the earliest advocates in the development of video games for girls. Her unique background in theater gave Laurel fresh perspective on the world of computers and enabled her to show designers and engineers how to consider the people using their products while developing new projects. She began her career at Atari in 1979, first as a software strategist, then as a member of the research staff at the Atari Systems Research Laboratory, where she developed a theory of first-person presence in interactive environments and worked with Artificial Intelligence to improve the quality of interactive games.

In 1988, she worked with Apple on projects including Vivarium and Guides, a prototype encyclopedia with a storytelling interface. In 1990, she co-founded Telepresence Research, Inc., focusing on virtual reality and remote presence. She co-designed and directed the innovative Placeholder virtual reality project at the Banff Centre for the Arts in 1993.

Laurel at CHI 1990
Abbe Don and Brenda Laurel at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Seattle, WA, April 1-5, 1990.

In 1997, Laurel launched Purple Moon, a software company dedicated to creating games and online communities to engage girls. Purple Moon tailored its game development to the wants and interests of girls. The Starfire Soccer Challenge game, for example, responded to girls’ excitement as American women came close to winning the World Cup. Although Purple Moon was acquired by Mattel in 1999 and eventually dissolved, Laurel’s work proved to the gaming industry that its audience could be far broader and set the stage for more gender-neutral games, such as the Wii.

Her career-defining book Computers as Theatre (1991, expanded edition in 2014) has influenced many in the User Interface field.  She teaches courses in Design Research, Critique, Methods for Innovation and Creativity, and Interaction in the Polis.  Laurel received the IndieCade Trailblazer Award in 2015 and the Virtual World Society Nextant Prize in 2017.  She was elected to the IxDA Global Board of Directors in 2018 and serves on the Board of the Virtual World Society.

“Brenda Laurel came from a Ph.D. in theater and infused user interface design with fresh thinking that opened up new possibilities, such as performance-based scenarios to guide user experience design.  Her own theatricality makes her a compelling public speaker with important messages about how human interaction with and through computers should be designed.  Brenda gets credit from me for her admirable advocacy for the needs of young women.” – Ben Shneiderman


  • Ph.D. in the Department of Theatre, The Ohio State University (1986)
  • M.F.A. in the Department of Theatre, Ohio State University (1975)
  • B.A. in Speech and Theatre, DePauw University (1972)


  • Adjunct Professor, University of California at Santa Cruz (July 2013  2015)
  • Graduate Program in Design, California College of the Arts (2006  2012)
  • Sun Microsystems Laboratories (2005  2006)
  • Graduate Media Design Program, Art Center College of Design (1999  2006)
  • Principal designer of a curriculum for the New Media Program (1999  2002)
  • Purple Moon (1996  1999)
  • Interval Research Corporation (1992 1997)
  • Script consultant for Oliver Stone’s ABC Miniseries, Wild Palms (1992 1993)
  • Telepresence Research, Inc. (1990  1991)
  • Consultant in Interaction design (1987  1992)
  • Activision, Inc. (1985 1987)
  • Member, Research Staff, Atari Sunnyvale Research Lab (1982  1984)
  • Atari, Inc. (1980  1984)
  • Manager, Software Strategy and Marketing, Home Computer Division (1980  1982)
  • Manager, Educational Product Design (1978  1980)
  • CyberVision, Inc. (1977  1980)
  • Teacher, Ohio State, Otterbein College and University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point (1972 – 1979)


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