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What it's like to attend Girls Make Games, the all-girls game dev summer camp

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Yesterday we met Laila Shabir, the founder of Girls Make Games, the girls-only game development summer camp. It's a three week experience that, since its April inception, has taken off with 14 international locations from Los Angeles to Dubai.

Today we'll talk with one of the members of The Negatives, the first GMG team to have their game funded through Kickstarter.

"On the first day of camp," says Serena Rusboldt, "we couldn't decide on a team name. At all. And everybody kept choosing what [one of the camp counselors] said were terrible names.

"So we decided that we would be called The Negatives." Rusboldt says that the team of eight girls, ranging from 10 to 16 years old, bonded after that. Over their first lunch together they turned their pessimism around for the better. It all began to make sense to them.

"We have an even number of people on our team. So, two Negatives makes a positive.

"So, technically," she says with a grin, "we're positive."

Rusboldt heard about GMG through her school's art teacher. Even though it was an hour away from her home it was important to her. She loves games, and wanted to learn more about what it takes to make them. So she and her parents made the commute, every day for three weeks, back and forth to Mountain View, California.

"I would have driven two hours," she says.

The Negatives with their counselors. In blue, from left to right: Huaning "Wendy" Wang, 16; Karen Xu, 16; Ivy Wooldridge, 16; Samantha Ho, 10; Cassia Haralson, 12; Avery Johnson, 12; Serena Rusboldt, 15.

Rusboldt has been a technical person for years, having spent time on her school's Lego robotics team. But when she went to competitions it always bothered her that there weren't more girls there. Oftentimes, she'd be one of only a few girls among hundreds of boys.

"Boys are nice," says Rusboldt. "I love them like brothers." The 15 year-old is fiddling with her ponytail. With a tug, a giant tuft of blue hair falls out over one ear.

"But guys are disgusting. A lot of times. Especially in 6th, 7th and 8th grade? I mean, I guess as they get older they get better."

What the GMG camp provided her was a set of peers that operated on the same wavelength. Even she was surprised at how peaceful the entire camp felt.

"Guys are disgusting. Especially in 6th, 7th and 8th grade."

"On our team, and on most of the other teams as well," she says "we had our disagreements, but there wasn't arguing. It was kind of strange. But nobody really got mad."

The Negatives settled on a top down, puzzle adventure game called The Hole Story. Their main character, Wendy, is a clever girl who wants to grow up to be an archeologist. She and her shovel will have to explore a strange world, digging holes and solving riddles to find their way back home. And thanks to the GMG camp and the five-to-one student-to-teacher ratio, the eight girls were able to make it happen.

In three short weeks The Hole Story was conceptualized, created, polished and then presented to a panel of experts including Tim Schafer and Kellee Santiago. The Negatives won that competition, and now have the experienced game designers at indie educational game company Learn District supporting them to make the game a reality.

The Negatives make their final presentation to GMG's panel of experts.

The entire experience opened Rusboldt to the possibilities of a future in game design, a future where she is in control of the game experiences she gets to create. She dreams now of making games that are more mature, more advanced than the current slate of games being marketed toward young women.

"This is what people think we like. We don't, and it's a little sad. Disheartening. I want to make games that girls would actually enjoy that are more long-term."

What surprises Rusboldt now, after she's out of the camp, is how she's perceiving the roadblocks that are placed in front of her, in her everyday life, just because she's a girl.

"People say things. You stop noticing that it's derogatory. And I think this camp brought back the awareness of that."

"For me I don't think my perception has changed," she says. "I have a pretty open mind about most things, and I tend to try and hear both sides of the story. But in school I get to hear the news about whatever is going on [in the world of] women's rights and men's rights and stuff like that, so it's fresh in my head. But when I go into the summer I kind of forget."

She pauses. "People say things. You kind of stop noticing that it's derogatory, even if they don't mean it to be. And I think this camp brought back the awareness of that.

"Yesterday when my brother said [something mean about me being a girl], I wouldn't have thought anything of it. But now I've been to the camp. I think there's so many people who write girls off."

It's just a side effect of getting so many young women in one space to work together, says Laila Shabir, GMG's founder.

"It's interesting that this even came up," Shabir says. "Even during the three weeks, we didn't have a workshop. ‘You're all girls. You're all making games. Don't worry about it. Don't let anyone tell you what do do.' We never had a pep talk like that at all.

"We were very focused on just learning how to make games. But I think when these girls go home they notice the difference in the environment."

The benefits to the girls' self esteem, Shabir says, is paying dividends for each of them in their personal life. But she says it was immediately visible even during the camp itself.

"We had a girl that came in and she wasn't even talking the first week. She was just looking at the ground when you would talk to her. By the end of week one we had a programming challenge that she was able to solve. She didn't expect to be able to solve it, and in week two she started talking a little bit more. And by week three ... she'd be dancing in front of the camera."

The Kickstarter for The Hole Story had a $10,000 goal and, as of late last week, met it. Now the entire team if refreshing the page, from their separate homes in California, waiting to see if in the next few weeks they'll make their stretch goal. If they can hit $15,000 it will allow them enough time to tweak their design slightly, enough to make their game more open ended.

GMG's next camp is going on right now. You can follow the current team of girls, in Los Angeles, through the @GirlsMakeGames Twitter account.

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