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These girls are ready to shape the future of game development Exclusive

These girls are ready to shape the future of game development
July 29, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

It began with one Tweet -- and then just six weeks later, the first day of LearnDistrict's Girls Make Games camp began, the first of many programs aimed at giving young girls the opportunity to learn how to make video games.

The campers' final presentations were judged by the likes of Tim Schafer, Kellee Santiago and Tracy Fullerton, a promising start for the ambitious series of educational camps and game jams aimed at welcoming more young girls into game-making.

Laila Shabir co-founded San Jose, CA-based educational studio LearnDistrict with her husband, Ish. While both of them had aimed to work in the education sector itself, the pair decided they would impact the most students through technology and video games, using games as tools to make learning accessible through play. The new Girls Make Games program is funded by camp tuition, individual donors, and corporate sponsorship from Google Play, the Computer History Museum and others, plus the time and effort of volunteers.

An idea becomes reality

Shabir was frustrated that there were few women applying to join her four-person development team, where she was the only woman. "I sort of threw this idea of a summer camp/workshop out there. The response really caught me by surprise!" she tells Gamasutra. "It got hundreds of RTs, and before I knew it, we were talking to folks at Double Fine about field trips, and the Computer History Museum about renting space and signing up students! We were very fortunate that instead of us reaching out an connecting with parents and students, they found us. My phone and email were off the hook."

Girls Make Games' three-week curriculum is designed to provide a diversity of skills and experience to girls ages nine through 16. A total of 41 girls joined the inaugural program, and 26 girls were able to stay all three weeks, learning game design, programming, art and writing, as well as sound design and business and presentation elements. Each topic was covered across a lecture and several activities, from creating design documents to completing programming challenges.

"We started out with a two-day intensive workshop introducing the girls to Stencyl, and working through tutorials to get them comfortable," Shabir explains. "On day three, they were split up into five teams, including an advanced programming team that would now work in Unity and Spine (these are 12-13 year old girls we're talking about!)."

"Week 2 covered topics like scope, and keeping track of assets and timelines," she continues. "Student teams met with and pitched to artists and music composers, who were then assigned to work with each team to produce the assets requested. This worked out really well, because with each pitch or conversation, the girls understood their own game better and dug deeper into player experience. Finally, we had the girls work on completing and polishing their prototypes as well as making presentations for Demo Day in week three."

Grand Prize Winner The Hole Story

Changing stereotypes

Many of the girls joined the camp already having received negative messages about their potential in the field -- one major goal of the camp was to challenge the feelings like "I don't think I can make a game" or "I can't learn to program, I'm going to suck at this camp." Those "thought bubbles," as Shabir calls them, seemed to dissipate in the first few days as girls familiarized themselves with Stencyl and bonded with counselors and teammates.

"It created a safe environment where they could ask any and every question without worrying about grades or being judged," Shabir says. "This problem extends outside of the camp. For the most part, girls this age think about video games as something that's in the boys department. They don't see role models they can point to and aspire to be like. That's why the field trips to meet the cool women at Double Fine, Google and Microsoft were so important - to show them, hey, this could be you!"

"For the most part, girls this age think about video games as something that's in the boys department. They don't see role models they can point to and aspire to be like."

"It was an honor to witness what I expect will be the first of many events encouraging girls to bend and manipulate the technology they use on a daily basis, the way game makers embrace," says Kellee Santiago, who worked at Thatgamecompany before becoming Ouya's developer relations head. "I was amazed to hear from them how their experiences in developing these games over the three weeks mirrored many of the experiences myself and many developers have when making any of our own games. They had to navigate conversations around creative differences, technological limitations, and all resulted in really good games they could be proud of."

Santiago, along with Double Fine's Tim Schafer and USC's Tracy Fullerton, helped judge the campers' final presentations on its demo day. "I'm so proud of how everything turned out," Shabir says, describing how proud she felt to see the girls pitching their games and handling judges' questions with confidence.

"It was a great honor to be part of this," Schafer, the parent of a young daughter, tells us. "It felt like I was present at the start of something big. I was really impressed with the confident, professional, and creative presentations from all the girls. Very inspiring!"

Demo Day's grand prize winner, The Hole Story by team The Negatives, went to Kickstarter and quickly achieved its funding goal.

A promising future

Shabir says the camps will continue -- week-long camps begin Monday, July 28th in Los Angeles, and will run in Austin (Aug 18-22) and Seattle (Aug 25-29)[*].

"September will be a big month: we'll officially create a separate Girls Make Games entity, because it's growing really quickly and I'm looking to create a team of superheroes to help us scale," she adds. "We'll also be launching a handful after-school clubs after popular demand from our Bay Area campers! And finally, we'll head over to Europe late September-early October and run a series of workshops and mini camps in several cities, followed by the Middle East, especially Dubai (where I grew up) and Australia (where we are very popular and have over 80 girls registered already in Melbourne and Sydney!)"

"As the camps have grown in number, so has our ambition at GMG," she adds. "Our mission now is to teach 1 million girls how to make video games by the year 2020."

UPDATE: This article previously said Girls Make Games would run a camp in Boston August 4-8. These dates have been cancelled due to a sick instructor, and will be rescheduled for September 13-14.

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