Cyberbabes kick ass into our lives

There is a new kind of woman and she's made by bytes, reports Clancy Gebler Davies

The invasion of the cyberbabes is well advanced. "Virtual" newsreaders Ananova and Vandrea are following the ass-kicking footsteps of the phenomenally successful computer game heroine Lara Croft of Tomb Raider and they are coming to a computer screen near you.

"Cyberbabes", as the female versions of these avatars or computer-generated characters are known, are big business. Lara Croft has been credited with making tens of millions of pounds for her creators, the software house Eidos, and £12m was invested in Digital Animation which devised Ananova when tech shares were crashing everywhere. The news that Ananova's "parent" company, the Press Association, is planning to sell their creation off will put a multimillion-pound price on her head.

We'd better get used to cyberbabes - you might not have had a meaningful conversation with one of them yet, but it doesn't look like they are going to go away. So what are they all about? Why have these superwomen been created and why have they been such a success?

Take Ananova. The camel has been described as "a horse designed by a committee", but Ananova is a far more sophisticated animal - a newsreader specifically designed to appeal to her public. She is supposedly based on a mixture of Kylie Minogue, Posh Spice and Carol Vorderman. The result is a pleasant-looking "28-year-old" with a friendly but intelligent manner and green hair who reads the news and weather in a mid-Atlantic accent on a dedicated website. She will soon be able to send you personalised bulletins. And she's female.

"She's not based on any one person," says Debbie Stephens, Ananova's press spokeswoman, "but we chose a woman because we wanted someone with worldwide appeal and people respond better to women." With the exception of the Taliban, of course.

"We wanted to create someone that people will have confidence in," explains Stephens, "It's important that they believe in what she is telling them.

"The green hair is because we didn't want to categorise her as blonde or brunette and all the baggage that comes with that. Newsreaders don't usually have green hair, so it helps place her in cyberworld. Also, from a design point of view, it matches her eyes."

Twelve months in the making, Ananova's looks and personality were developed from what the public said they wanted to see, ideas from the design team and input from the journalists and sub- editors who provide the news content. She likes Oasis and The Simpsons, we are told, and will learn as she goes along (just as well).

And as an indication of what a phenomenon she is to become, it is only a couple of weeks since Ananova was launched and already there are requests for personal appearances, proposals of marriage, a "well-known" fashion designer who wants to create her wardrobe, calls from a Hollywood agent who would like to represent her, inquiries from record companies wanting to know if she'd like to put out a track, two Ananova fan websites and - as I write this - Ananova is taking part in a conference with Bill Gates about the future of computer hardware.

Something stirring in your trouser pocket? That will be Ananova alerting you on vibrate-mode that you have a bulletin waiting on one of the new generation of mobile phones and gadgets that haven't even been invented yet.

But what is really interesting about these cyberbabes is that Magnum-wielding, karate-kicking Lara Croft rocketed to cyberstardom because she's got attitude as well as breasts. She's also the Oxford- educated daughter of Lord Henshingly and Lady Croft and a travel writer and archaeologist. Brawn, breasts and a brain.

There are cyberbabes who don't have quite such a pedigree. Take a walk on the seamier side of the net, and you can find computer games where you take the character of a man in a bar who "chats up" cyberbabe strippers and bar girls and buys them drinks. Press the right buttons - so to speak - and these cyberbabes will indulge you by performing all sorts of sexual acrobatics for your pleasure.

So should we be worried by this? New scientific evidence from the US indicates that violence in video games can inflict psychological damage and provide a "complete learning environment for aggression", according to Professor Karen Dill, a psychologist at Lenoir-Rhyne College, North Carolina. So are people similarly affected by the sexual content and portrayal of women in cyberland?

Probably. But porn has been around forever and there will always be a market for it - this is just new technology putting a spin on it, so it's rather simplistic to shoot the cybermessenger. Face it - it's not really surprising that when the Press Association wanted a virtual newsreader they didn't pick something that looked like Reginald Bosanquet, but in the end it all comes down to what will sell well, what we are told the public wants.

And cyberbabes are definitely in the frame. The first avatar pop star appeared in Japan a few years ago, and record companies over here are jumping on the bandwagon with virtual divas peddling Euro-cheese such as Stella and her chums Polybert and Pavlova.

The New York model agency Elite has even created a cyber-supermodel called Webbie Tookay. Elite's boss, John Casablancas, 47, boasts: "Webbie will never complain about long hours, she'll never add a pound or get some idiot boy- friend who will mess up her career. And she never talks back." Just wait till Lara Croft gets her hands on him.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone