Girls Make Games started in San Jose, California and quickly expanded into a series of international summer camps, workshops and game jams designed to encourage girls to explore the world of video games. Why is there a need for special camps just for girls, though? Why can't they just go to the same ones as the boys? CEO and Founder of Learn District and Girls Make Games, Laila Shabir shed some light at the Sydney camp earlier this month.
Ranging from three days to three weeks, the Girls Make Games workshops offer an introduction to game design, 2D art, animation, programming and pitching game concepts. There are career opportunity discussions with game industry professionals and a visit to a local game development company. The girls end the camp by QA testing and playing each other's games. One of these games, The Hole Story, has gone on to launch a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising $31,136 to allow the girls to published a polished, market-ready version of their game by hiring professional artists, musicians and programmers. All profits go back to the girls themselves.
Previous co-ed camps highlighted the vast energy differences in the boys and girls, particularly in the 8-11 year age range. "Imagine having two consoles and two TVs" says Shabir, "it will be boys on both. Not because the girls don't want it, but because they'll wait their turn. Ask any 4th, 5th or 6th grade teacher and they'll tell you the same thing.
"They don't want to be rude, so they say they'll wait their turn -- but that turn may never come. We want to make sure we give these girls a chance at the console and to get their hand at it."
After observing this behaviour time and time again, Shabir gave separate girls-only camps a go. There's also a sense of belonging with having other girls in the group that makes them more likely to sign up. "One Mum told me her daughter was upset when she enrolled her, thinking she'd be the only girl. Imagine the girls that are turning away from camps because they think they'll be the only one?"
There's an obvious positive approach taken to the workshops. There isn't anything in the agenda that says gaming or making games is harder for girls. "It's we like games, you like games, let's make some games -- in a safe space".
The need for a safe space is definitely real, says Shabir. "With girls, there is mostly silence when you ask for questions. You have to prod them on, at least at the beginning, before they get comfortable. At one co-ed camp a girl raised her hand and asked a question, and a boy teasingly mimicked her. All the boys sniggered and then all the girls became quiet. It takes a very small trigger, and we don't want that to happen. It's a barrier to overcome."
Working with the girls can be both rewarding and challenging. "It's all about feelings and farts at this age." laughs volunteer counsellor Sarah Lamotte. "When deciding on a theme, the eight and nine year olds [in my group] chanted 'farting! farting!' -- I encouraged it as long as they came up with a set of strong mechanics. They brainstormed a few options. Three farts is worth a poop, for example, or a 'Guess who farted?' scenario."
One girl pitched a concept to Lamotte for a game she, and others, could use as a virtual environment to "self soothe after a bad day at school". Lamotte asked her to imagine places that make her calm, and what she can do there. She created three different levels -- the garden where she can punch a tree to relieve stress, and her bedroom where she can listen to loud music are the basic levels. Then there is the office of the school counsellor, who asks how she is feeling today. Once a mood is selected, several options appear with tips on how to combat it. "I don't think I expected as much depth and insight as I've seen."
Discussions about characters -- heroes, villains, anti-heroes and their different motivations are a highlight for the girls. As are discussions about the importance of rules. "You can make something funny" says Bianca, 10, "But you have to have rules. Otherwise it's not a game, it's a gag."
In the world of education, there is currently a strong focus for getting more girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. According to Shabir games is the toughest nut to crack. Letting girls know that it's possible to have a career in games at a young age is crucial, and changing the way parents think about games is an important focus area. Having the camps at venues that offer tertiary study options in development and having guest speakers who have gone on to careers within games shows them it's a viable career option." They love games now, but I know that by high school, it's already too late. They are teenagers and they have very hard opinions."
But there are women studying software development, why aren't more graduates moving into games? There are a number of reasons, but the most glaring one for Shabir is that games aren't doing career outreach. "My own sister is graduating and I'd love to hire her, but she's looking at Microsoft and Google and all the big tech giants" explains Shabir "They go to campus and bring the girls out and show them what's possible. The games studios and industry need to open their doors."
So to parents, the industry, and the girls themselves: "It's important to switch the 'can not' to 'can do'." says Shabir "That's what the girls make games camps are all about."