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How a summer camp is bringing young women into the game industry

Girls Make Games alumni are gaining places at college and pursuing careers in game development

Girls Make Games in San Mateo, 2019
Girls Make Games in San Mateo, 2019
Girls Make Games

In a room full of light and laughter, 20 girls work together to make video games. They are aged between nine and 16 and organized into teams of four. Their games span genres like platformers, top-down RPGs, and narrative adventures, exploring a range of themes including global warming, empathy, and friendship.

This is Girls Make Games, a summer camp in which children work with mentors to create their own video games. Celebrating its fifth year, the program is an attempt to convince and reassure girls that game design is a potential career.

Each of the teams in camp has its own name and its own counselor. Often, the counselors are young women who were once enrolled as campers in Girls Make Games, or who have ambitions to work in games. Most are taking some kind of game-adjacent course at college, such as computer science or game design.

This summer, 10 camps were organized around the United States. The camp I visit takes place in a room inside Sony’s PlayStation offices in San Mateo, California. Sony is one of the program’s sponsors, alongside Humble, Microsoft, Nintendo, Zynga, and others. Off-shoot workshops take place all over the world, thanks to a free, online itinerary and workbook. Since its launch in 2014, more than 6,000 girls have attended a Girls Make Games camp, or one of its offshoot workshops.

One of the campers tells me that she’s made a bunch of friends, as well as creating a game that makes her proud. “We all have ideas and we work together and we vote on the best idea,” she says.

Another girl quips, “But I have the final veto!” The girls all laugh. I ask how they like taking a course that’s 100 percent girls and women. The youngest girl on the team answers that she has more fun, because there are no boys. “Boys are annoying,” she says. “They’re always doing the Fortnite dance.” An older girl says: “When boys are around, they try to take over and push the girls out.”

Siobhan Reddy is co-founder and studio director at Media Molecule, a Sony-owned studio best known for LittleBigPlanet and the forthcoming Dreams. She’s a supporter of Girls Make Games and a judge of the program’s annual end of summer contest for best game project.

“What I love about this program is that it provides a place for young girls to learn more about their interest,” Reddy says. “Possibly more importantly, it helps adults understand that their child’s hobby is actually very normal, and with their support can become something extraordinary.”

A budding game developer works on her character
Girls Make Games

The Founding

When Laila Shabir founded Girls Make Games, she’d recently launched a San Diego-based educational games company called LearnDistrict. She wanted to create a studio that was fully representative, in which men and women could make games together, for both boys and girls.

Educated at MIT, Shabir had come from a successful career in policy research. The shortage of women in the games industry came as a surprise to her. According to the International Game Developers Association, only around one in five game development professionals are women. Yet, research repeatedly demonstrates that around half of all game players are girls and women.

“I was having a hard time recruiting women, even though I’m a woman myself,” Shabir recalled. “I went to PAX, I went to GDC, I went to a whole bunch of different places to find potential recruits. The feedback was always, ‘There’s just not very many women.’”

“I was personally going around knocking on doors and saying, ‘Hey, it’s a woman-founded studio. Come work with me,’” Shabir said. “So you can imagine how much harder it is for bigger companies that may seem like just another corporation.”

So she set up the first Girls Make Games summer camp. “Video games are everywhere and yet they’re not seen as accessible career paths for girls,” she said. “These kids already want to make games. They just don’t know that this is something they could do for a living. We’ve had girls come in and ask questions like, ‘how did you get your parents to allow you to become a game developer?’ And I’m like, that’s a legitimate question that a child would ask.”

Shabir says there’s a common pattern among girls who love video games. “An eight-year-old girl says playing and making video games is her favorite thing in the world,” she explained. “But if you catch her five, six years later, she’s no longer thinking of that as a career path.”

As girls progress through middle school, they notice that it’s mainly boys who talk about becoming game designers. “She’s found herself alone,” says Shabir. “She doesn’t have a lot of female peers who want the same thing. She doesn’t have mentors showing her what is possible. Companies don’t recruit at middle school career fairs, right? They go to college and by the time a student makes a decision to go to college to study something that would be relevant for video game development, it’s a pretty small number by then.”

Girls Make Games is trying to break this cycle. “It’s about accepting yourself and finding your community, making friends and believing that this is something that exists and that you can pursue for life,” Shabir said. “It’s about feeling accepted and validated and knowing that what you’re doing is important, knowing that what you’re doing is relevant and that you can be good at it. This is the path that you can take. And there are others taking it with you. It’s a very powerful feeling at that age.”

“The challenge that we have seen, is making sure that women, specifically young women, are made aware of the opportunities that are available for them within the gaming industry at an early age,” said Connie Booth, VP of product development at PlayStation. “Laila and her team are providing curriculum, tools, and opportunities that introduce young women to gaming and where the campers could potentially see themselves landing, career wise, in the future.”

Playing and Creating

Each day during a three-week camp, the girls play games together. They work together talking about their ideas. They learn how to implement their ideas using programs like Photoshop and Unity. The course itself offers prizes, based on a coin-collection system. Plushies and other goodies donated by game companies are earned by high achievers.

GMG says that around 60 percent of the games created by campers have a female protagonist, with a further 25 percent being animals. Fewer than 10 percent feature male protagonists.

Girls Make Games founder Laila Shabir

Shabir has been involved in some co-ed game design camps. She said there’s no doubt that games made by girls have a different feel than those made by boys.

“With the boys, there’s a lot of action-driven focus on the mechanics of the game,” she said. “Boys are interested in the abilities of the protagonist, whether that’s shooting or flying or whatever’s happening on screen. But with the girls, it always starts with the story. It’ll often be a wholesome, positive protagonist trying to do something to save the world, or to help others.”

“Perhaps the thing I find most interesting is how joyful their games are, even when they’re exploring serious themes,” Reddy said. “I love that they use the medium just how they want to, whilst remaining tethered to the ground. I love that they make funny games. We could all do with a laugh and I love the joy that they infuse their projects with.”

Reddy adds that the course offers a lot more than reassurance and confidence. It’s also about learning practical skills.

“The games education programs that work the best, in my opinion, are the ones where people have to learn to work together on ideas,” Reddy said. “There aren’t many jobs in the industry where it’s just a single person, and learning to collaborate is a life skill all on its own.

“Making an idea real is also a big lesson. All of the games during the Demo Day had a clear and delightful vision. In their presentations the girls discussed the choices that they had made, and moments where they had to prioritize, and it felt like they were learning that other really important skill of keeping their vision safe by prioritizing what you can actually achieve. That balance between commercial and creative is something we all have to balance, and it’s amazing to be learning that so young.”

Women and girls from the Girls Make Games program stand in front of PlayStation’s offices
Campers and counselors at the 2019 San Mateo summer camp
Girls Make Games

Help and Support

The Girls Make Games course is not cheap. Fees cost between $1,200 and $1,700, depending on location. But Shabir says as many as 60 percent of attendees gain at least some financial support from scholarships funded by donors, such as Twitch streamers who raise money.

She says that no one gets turned away, and that she’s working on finding more locations closer to geographic areas that are less privileged than those where game company offices are usually located. In the past, GMG has funded Ubers to drive students to camp, though she says that this is not a longterm solution.

Part of the challenge for Girls Make Games is educating parents and schoolteachers about the game industry’s potential as a place for women to enjoy successful, rewarding careers.

“This is not something that high school counselors know about,” Shabir said. “This is not something that a lot of parents are talking to their kids about. The child has to push to enter the games industry. To have to push that hard at such a young age can be exhausting and a lot of kids give up. We’ve even had talks about starting up a mini boot camp for parents and teachers to help them see that games are something their child can create, that they can be a very positive influence in their child’s life.”

Return rates to the camp run as high as 70 percent, with many graduating to counselor status. Lauren Choi was a team leader and counselor at this year’s San Mateo camp. She’s currently studying computer science with a view toward entering the game industry.

“Game development is all about community, and this is a really big inspiration,” Choi said. “I talk with a lot of the other counselors about our journeys and experiences, and it’s really nice to have that community.” Counselors also gain passes to GDC, another useful route into finding opportunities in gaming.

“We are seeing direct results from programs like Girls Make Games,” said Booth. “We’re seeing some of these exceptional women grow from campers into GMG camp counselors and now head off to college. Again, it’s programs like Girls Make Games, and similar programs, that make young women aware of all the opportunities that are available for them within gaming — not just programming — art, design, production, music, sound, writing, and so on.”

She adds that just having the girls around the offices for a few weeks is a boon to employees. “Their engagement and passion to learn is so moving and exciting that it makes us feel confident that the future of the gaming industry is going to include some amazing women,” Booth said.

It’s early days, but Girls Make Games is building a path from its program to real career opportunities. “We’re talking to games companies about internships for the fellows [counselors],” said Shabir. “We get their resumes together and companies will occasionally ask us for recommendations.”

But perhaps the most important innovation is an online package, in which anyone can set up a Girls Make Games program, or tailor then program for co-ed camps. “Our curriculum is available for free online,” said Shabir. “It includes teacher training and modules for the kids. If you’re an educator or grassroots organizer, you can take it, fund-raise a little bit and go run a workshop in your community.”

Girls Make Games began as a side-project at a games company, but is fast growing into something far more powerful. Shabir is proud of her creation.

“There’s a lot of magic goes into making a game,” she said. “To see kids doing it, it’s a really great reminder of that magic, and very uplifting for everyone.”

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