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Girls Make Games: Educating the developers of tomorrow

How Laila Shabir and LearnDistrict are getting a headstart on diversity in the industry

It's not standard practice for me to feel jealous of ten year olds, but hearing about Girls Make Games over the summer certainly made me feel something close to it. The scheme gives girls who love games the chance to actually make them, as well as meeting developers and like-minded peers.

It may not sound groundbreaking at first, but when you learn that many of the girls aren't even aware that game development is a potential career, you might realize why we might have a problem with gender diversity in the industry.

"The girls that come to us they know all the games. They know indie games, we have so many Fez fans, Towerfall fans, so they're very educated in that respect," says Laila Shabir, co-founder and CEO at LearnDistrict and the woman behind Girls Make Games.

"But if you ask them what do you want to do when you grow up they'll say 'I want to be a software engineer or I want to go and work at Facebook.' But if you take them on a field trip to Popcap, then they change their minds. They're like 'this is so cool, I want to work here.' They've never seen a games studio before, they've never been on a field trip there before."

"We're educating parents that games can be an end product, that the games industry is a good place"

Shabir believes that the key to changing our industry, making it more diverse, starts way before the job interviews and the glass ceilings. It starts with young girls who aren't even aware that games development is a possible career for them, young girls who think they need permission to work in video games - as if it's seedy or somehow bad.

"One question that comes up a lot when they meet other female game developers is 'how did you convince your parents to let you do this?' I think it's so funny because you never seen an 11 year old boy asking that question. He's not concerned about what his parents think.

"Girls are very socially aware, they care about what their parents think, they want to do things that are socially acceptable. And at that age no one is talking about these things as a possible career so when we have female guest speakers come in these questions pop up all the time."

It was only meant to be one workshop in the Bay Area, near where Shabir and her team were based. And it was only meant to be 15 girls. That number quickly grew to 45, then Double Fine got involved and suddenly one of the teams from that first workshop had their game funded on Kickstarter. Shabir waved goodbye to life as she knew it.

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" I don't know how it got really big. I have a feeling it was demo day that really did it, which was supposed to be the final competition because we had about five teams compete for a grand prize where we had Tim Schafer, Kellee Santiago and a whole bunch of great people come in and judge their games. After that, I think on social media and everywhere else word just got out and people kept writing to us saying that the Bay Area gets everything, what about us? We're in Austin, we have a lot of girls, we have a lot of little girls who love videogames, you have to come here."

So now the team have been to LA, Austin, Seattle, San Diego and Boston. The website is also promising upcoming workshops in Washington, London, Warsaw and even Australia.

"It's definitely taken on a life of its own, it wasn't something we planned. We were working on our first game which still hasn't come out, frustratingly enough. The company is slowly starting to become two departments, so one department manages the Girls Make Games department and the other one does our games."

When Shabir starts telling stories from the camps they've had so far it's easy to understand why she's focused on Girls Make Games so entirely for the next couple of years. These are girls who are shy, girls who don't have any peers that understand the way they feel about games, girls who literally change in front of the organisers as they build their games.

"She comes in, she's super shy, she's looking at the ground the whole time, does not make eye contact with anyone...By week three she was raising her hand to answer and when she got the answer right she would do a little dance"

One girl was a Minecraft player and PlayStation fan who played games with boys but had no female peers to talk games with. Returning from camp she begged her mother to let her attend again, declaring "these are my people!" Shabir tells me about another girl, a reluctant soccer player at a super sporty school.

"She comes in, she's super shy, she's looking at the ground the whole time, does not make eye contact with anyone, not even her teammates. Over the course of three weeks, by week two, she had started talking. By week three she was raising her hand to answer and when she got the answer right she would do a little dance," says Shabir, her voice light with pride.

"Her mom still emails us and she brings her to every event that we have here because it's impacted her personality so heavily. She's gotten better at soccer because she got better at making games. "

As well as an education on the process of making again the workshop provides a safe space, a place where the weird girl who likes games when all her friends like ponies might be accepted. Shabir and her counselors also find themselves educating the parents on the possibilities in the games industry. That part has gotten a little harder thanks to the behavior conducted under the #gamergate banner, but Shabir says that just makes Girls Make Games even more important.

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"We're educating them on the aspect that games can be an end product, the games industry is a good place. It's been harder this summer to do that, especially this summer for girls, because a lot of parents do know about what's going on and they'll ask questions like 'why are you promoting this? It seems like such a toxic industry.'

"That's funny because it's toxic because there are so few women to begin with. We are trying to solve the problem, imagine if we actually did have 30, 40, 50 per cent women, we wouldn't be having these problems. It's actually tackling the issue from the ground up."

The industry itself has been supportive of the scheme, with Riot Games in LA, Bioware in Austin, Popcap in Seattle, and Double Fine all opening their doors so the girls can take field trips to real studios. Shabir would also like to see companies follow models set out by the tech industry and incentivize their staff for volunteering.

"Once you're in [the industry] your job shouldn't stop there, you should hold the door open for more people"

"So aside from just generally supporting and opening doors I think in the tech industry there are some really great models where people have paid volunteer time. They have their employees go out and support causes, where they take a week or two off and they can go and teach at a camp or at a workshop. But it's paid volunteer time because the company is paying for it," she explains.

"Once you're in [the industry] your job shouldn't stop there, you should hold the door open for more people."

Shabir has her own games to make with LearnDistrict, but she's committed to Girls Make Games for the next couple of years to make sure it stays on track as it expands.

"I'm going to stay very involved and make it an impactful organisation. So we're just not doing the talk, we're actually walking the walk. It would be really great to see some of our girls actually graduate and go to game school and enter the industry."

For more on how you can help Girls Make Games, or to find out more about upcoming workshops, visit the official site.

Latest comments (25)

Craig Burkey Software Engineer 2 years ago
There needs to be more schemes like this, great idea
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How sad to see that women in 2014 are self confining with the "diversity" label... I really don't get it... they are girls... so? What's different about a woman-coder compared to a man-coder??? Are you for real???
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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 2 years ago
Reading this article actually made me misty-eyed. Really is a heart-warming story of how this initiative can touch people's lives.
How sad to see that women in 2014 are self confining with the "diversity" label... I really don't get it... they are girls... so? What's different about a woman-coder compared to a man-coder??? Are you for real???
The point is to promote diversity in the industry. Did you even read the article? You would really prefer that the girls that have taken part in the programme were never given the opportunity because of... it's unfair that girls are given this opportunity? I cannot even begin to understand the reasons behind your post.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 2 years ago
it's unfair that girls are given this opportunity?
Please list similar opportunities that are available for boys too.
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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship2 years ago
"More pressing questions "before college did your parents ever try to force you into careers that make more money?" "

That tweet really resonates with me, gender issues aside. Before I switched to CS I was a medical student. I vividly remember my mum sitting on the couch sobbing as I told her I didn't want to be a doctor, and wanted to make games instead. I wasn't exactly pressured into medicine, more drifted into it because I had the grades and I didn't really have a strong drive for any particular thing at that point, but leaving it was really, really difficult, almost entirely because of the social expectations involved. You don't turn down the chance at being a doctor for computer games!

We laugh about it now, as it's all worked out ok, and software engineering has proved a fairly awesome career, but it has made me very mindful of a scenario where my son / daughter has aspirations that don't match mine.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Nick McCrea on 26th November 2014 11:11am

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@Tom
Since you're apparently too lazy to Google it for yourself, here's five minute's worth: a long list of games development-focused summer camps for children and teenagers in the USA courtesy of the ESA Summer Camps Focusing on Video Game Design and Development.
The majority of those are open to boys as well as girls, and from the photos it certainly looks like none of them have any difficulty attracting boys to their programmes.

I'm so glad to see the concept of safe spaces for women and girls in the games industry is still such a controversial subject for some guys. After all, I can't imagine why we'd want them.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jessica Hyland on 26th November 2014 11:46am

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Craig Burkey Software Engineer 2 years ago
My opinion is that since more hard/core gamers are boys there will be more boys wanting to become game creators, to that end schemes like these are needed to boost female participation, if they can create more girl gamers then maybe more of them will move into development and the whole thing will snowball
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Keldon Alleyne Developer, leader, writer, Avasopht Ltd2 years ago
I really can't see why people have a problem with reaching out to a group that is under represented. It's not like it's forcing girls to become games developers, it's simply games development introducing itself to girls and saying "hi!"

I do think Craig hit the hammer on the nail. Girls have in general been less interested in video games, often calling them childish or a waste of time. And I would imagine the social stigma associated with geeks all but ruled out Computer Science. Or maybe there was another force at work, but there's been a drastic drop from the near equal interest from men and women in Computer Science since the 80's. I haven't looked at the figures for skills required for other roles such as art and 3d modelling.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios2 years ago
Craig and Keldon; you're both making the mistake of assuming that the historical perception of games/computers as a "boy's hobby" is true. There IS that perception in society, but it isn't accurate.

48% of gamers are female. (http://www.theesa.com/facts/gameplayer.asp)
14% of game developers are female (http://ukie.org.uk/sites/default/files/cms/UK%20Games%20Industry%20Fact%20Sheet%2029%20October.pdf)

So why is the gender balance WITHIN the industry so skewed? It's not games - it's something about the industry itself.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 2 years ago
So why is the gender balance WITHIN the industry so skewed? It's not games - it's something about the industry itself
http://www.theguardian.com/education/datablog/2013/jan/29/how-many-men-and-women-are-studying-at-my-university
The sheer number of female students means that they outnumber boys on the majority of courses, but those most dominated by women include veterinary science and subjects allied to medicine and education. Men outnumber women on computer science and engineering and technology, according the number of students graduating last year.
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Paolo Giunti Narrative Designer 2 years ago
The sheer number of female students means that they outnumber boys on the majority of courses, but those most dominated by women include veterinary science and subjects allied to medicine and education. Men outnumber women on computer science and engineering and technology, according the number of students graduating last year.
I'm sure that these statistics are real, but i'm also sure that they're just the result of parents' (and, more indirectly, society's) influence on the kids. So, to me, this reads as girls having been subtly encouraged to take a certain career path in the 5 years prior to joining college.

Do not underestimate the pressure of parental expectations. They may always say that you get to chose what you want in the end, but they'll still try to direct you towards what they think will be best for your future. Unfortunately, that's by far not the same as helping you shape your future as you actually want.
Nick's post above is an excellent example of what i mean.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paolo Giunti on 26th November 2014 8:11pm

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I'm sure that these statistics are real, but i'm also sure that they're just the result of parents' (and, more indirectly, society's) influence on the kids.
I think this is a very important point. It's not like women are genetically disinterested in computers - back in the 60s and beyond, computer programming a popular career choice for women. It was even claimed at the time that women were naturally adapted to it, an inversion of claims made by some today that it's something men are 'just better suited to'. Over time and by many means, as the article I linked observes, that changed fairly dramatically and it's now commonly believed in the mainstream opinion that programming, and by extension computer games, is a pursuit and a hobby suited to and therefore marketed to men.

It's easy to downplay the impact that social conditioning via our peers, our media and crucially our parents, has on our behaviour - nobody likes to believe that the way they behave is anything less than the purest expression of their individuality, after all - but I think it plays a huge part in the gender imbalances in many different industries. Our conceptions of gender roles - which have changed in many ways over time, as we have seen - can deeply influence the hobbies and career paths pursued by young people. Initiatives like Girls Make Games are incredibly valuable in demonstrating to young women who are already expressing an interest in the games industry that they are not alone, that they're not strange or aberrant in the intersection of their interests and their gender. I think that's important.
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Craig Burkey Software Engineer 2 years ago
@Chris I was referring more to Core and Hardcore gamers
This great article from venturebeat has quite a few stats
Nielsen refers to gamers on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as the “HD console audience.” They are an average age of 28 and are 69 percent male, according to Nielsen’s data
Also it says:
The HD shooter audience is 78 percent male.
The HD action game audience is 80 percent male.
The HD sports game audience is 85 percent male.
The Hardcore gamer audience is 82 percent male.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Craig Burkey on 27th November 2014 9:03am

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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 2 years ago
It does I suppose depend on what games you play.

For example I used to play a lot of Day of Defeat and Enemy Territory - both non-commercial mods - and FPS engines have been around for a while being modded, altered and such. Many MMOs also with addons that change UI and such give an in-road into putting coding knowledge into practical use (and even income with reward schemes on Curse and such).

Other games that come in a box that you can't open and tinker with perhaps don't show the inner working of the game which provides less encouragement to move from consumer to creator, or at least leaves it as a huge jump, instead of smaller steps.
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Keldon Alleyne Developer, leader, writer, Avasopht Ltd2 years ago
@Chris: what Craig said

Also I'd add that the amount of time spent playing might reveal a great deal more. When I was at school girls most certainly were not interested in playing Goldeneye half as much as the guys. And of the few that did play they wouldn't exactly be the most dedicated gamers spending hours mastering all the combos. It would almost be like saying me reading for a few hours per month makes me an equivalent reader to someone who reads for a few hours each day.

tl;dr - it would be interesting to see a comparison of the time spent gaming by males and females over the years and then seeing how that relates to admissions to interest in a career in games development.

It might also just be interesting to know and understand the different attitudes towards careers.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 2 years ago
It was even claimed at the time that women were naturally adapted to it, an inversion of claims made by some today that it's something men are 'just better suited to'.
It was a very different work back then. In the 60/70s, computers were seen as an administrative profession, and quite significant part of was shuffling and sorting punch cards. Since early-mid 80s, when the PC era began in earnest it became a very different environment.
None of the people who started the current big software companies (Microsoft, Apple, Oracle) had university degrees.

http://brucefwebster.com/2008/04/26/the-wetware-crisis-the-expert-pool/
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Programming was seen as administrative busy-work, but it turned out to involve just as much problem-solving skill and analytical thinking then as it does today And yet, women were really good at it! How strange. From the article I linked(emphases mine):
In the early 1940s, the University of Pennsylvania hired six women to work on its ENIAC machine, which was one of the world’s first electronic computers. These six women, known by contemporaries as the “ENIAC girls,” were charged with “setting up” the ENIAC to perform computation tasks. They are widely celebrated as the world’s first computer programmers.

However, says Ensmenger, the presence of these women did not indicate that managers of the ENIAC project had modern attitudes toward women in the workforce. Rather, managers hired women because they expected programming to be a low-skill clerical function, akin to filing, typing, or telephone switching. Assuming that the real “brain work” in electronic computing would be limited to the hardware side, managers reserved these tasks for male engineers.

The idea that the development of software was less important (and less masculine), than the development of hardware persisted for many years and women continued to work as computer programmers. Employers, says Ensmenger, were in for a surprise when they discovered a truth that we now take for granted: “Programming,” he says with a smile, “is hard.” The women involved in the ENIAC project distinguished themselves by engaging in complex problem-solving tasks and by advising their male colleagues on hardware improvements. For example, Betty Holbertson convinced skeptical engineers to include a “stop instruction” in order to guard against human error.
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My wife's mom was an early Cobol programmer back in the "olden days". :-)

However music was her passion. I don't think a sample of one or even 6 proves or disproves anything. Or does statistical data about a group prove what any individual is going to be like.

I think there is a gender barrier although personally I think it's more genetics than cultural. Other professions like law and medicine have had no problem attracting women to them and now women make up over 50% of recent graduates. It's not that those professions where any more or less a boy's club or that they tried harder. There's something different about engineering.

But as I said everyone is different and there will be girls who want to become engineers and something like this makes them think it's possible. But don't use the 50 : 50 employment ratio as a measure of anything. The goal should be that girls have the opportunity and there's no discrimination.

Edited 5 times. Last edit by John Owens on 27th November 2014 2:25pm

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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 2 years ago
@John Owens

I have to ask: which Y-chromosome gene do you think controls interest in video games and programming?

Edit: sorry, just realized that could sound sarcastic - it's actually a sincere question. I'm actually asking if by genetic you mean testosterone/aggression-related or something else, and if the latter, what?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bonnie Patterson on 28th November 2014 3:03am

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@ Bonnie

Genetic as in you are born predisposed to something as opposed to nurture. I'm giving you my hypothesis not an actual scientific theory which is why I can't nor have I tried to answer the how's and why's.

But that that hypothesis fits more with the available statistical and observable data than the hypothesis that we are all the same even if it's not a politically correct thing to say.

I'll turn it around. I answered your question so perhaps you would like to answer mine. Why do you think medicine and law have been able to attract women into their professions to the point where the recent graduate ratio is actually higher for women while engineering hasn't. An hypothesis is fine but do you have any scientific or statistical evidence for your position?

Surely if anything if you want to correct the problem if one exists it's only common sense to ask that and perhaps engineering can learn from it.

I'm open to question my views.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by John Owens on 2nd December 2014 11:51am

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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd2 years ago
I think it's rather odd to jump to a genetic explanation when a cultural one seems more plausible. Law and medicine were boy's clubs until the preconceptions were systemically challenged by (Western) society and found to be weak. I think engineering is just lagging behind, and speculate that this might be in part because it's seen as being more closely tied to commercial outcomes. Private enterprise tends to be more conservative (most clearly illustrated by the scarcity of women CEOs) so there hasn't been a concerted effort to encourage more women into the field.
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@ Robin

But private enterprises are more concerned with getting the right person for the job rather than being conservative.

Ultimately they're driven by profit and the ones that engage in this type of bad behaviour go out of business due to a lack of being able to get the best staff.

I think the reason there are less women CEOs is because women generally aren't willing to take as many risks as men. While that results in a lot of men at the top it also means a lot of men fail and are at the bottom. That and many women take time out to focus on their families.

Social professions tend to lend themselves more to clichés and networks as evidence of that you can't even get your full qualifications in law without being sponsored in the UK. Most people have family members or friends that get them in. I know a few solicitors, one I know this definitely to be the case and many people who did law at University who got higher grades than the ones who went on.

If you are talking that as an industry as whole rather than individual businesses engineering hasn't tried hard enough then I agree which is why I'm all for these kinds of things but there's no reason to expect 50/50 or I suppose no reason not to. Ultimately you could only realistically expect a 50/50 split once there's a 50/50 split of graduates because I think we now both agree the problem is at the educational level.

Edited 6 times. Last edit by John Owens on 2nd December 2014 1:53pm

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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship2 years ago
@Robin

"I think engineering is just lagging behind, and speculate that this might be in part because it's seen as being more closely tied to commercial outcomes"

I suspect Medicine and Law were simply more desirable career destinations, and thus approach gender parity much more quickly as the best and brightest of both genders flock to them. In other words, for women of the 60s and 70s there were obvious, sizeable personal gains to be made if you were bright enough and could handle the boys club environment. Even with professions such as Law declining in relative affluence, the gender link is broken.

I think technology is going to have a much more difficult time, reaching gender parity, because the material or social status incentives are not sufficient to drive otherwise disinterested women into the profession, thus putting it squarely in the realm of ensuring that young girls and women are attracted to the career in the same way that men are, i.e. purely through interest and whatever cultural affiliations drive geeky men into technology.

That, to me, is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. What *might* solve it, though, is the growing awareness of and desire to be part of the 'hacker zeitgeist' exemplified by films like the Social Network. Geeks are becoming a bit cool. If that could attract sufficient numbers in, then the indelible link between gender and technology, at least, could be broken.
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@ Eric

When I said that men took risks and as a result more became CEOs I was merely stating what I believe to be the reason. I didn't try to say it was a positive or a negative characteristics which is why I mentioned plenty of men fail when taking those risks. A "Steady Eddy" approach in life might not get you to the top but it may be better in the long run for you as a person. Likewise the same can be said for the company that you run. The thing is to get to that position you generally have to be assertive and take risks. You should watch an episode of Star Trek : The Next Generation called "Tapestry" which illustrates this brilliantly. At least read the episode synopsis.

To elevate women who haven't taken those risks at the expense of men who do and if you like have earned the right is both not fair and creates a negative incentive. Ultimately it will lead to a society that might allow women and less risky males to get ahead but will also be one that doesn't reward risky behaviour which has huge implications for everything from technological advancement to economics.

Either way - It's got nothing to do with what's fair but rather the social engineering of society.

As for your suggestion that people should interview candidates from minorities. It's pointless and will only result in tokenism at best and resentment at worse. The only solution is to get more people from minorities to apply for the jobs in the first place. As I illustrated with other professions it's not sexism at that level that's the problem but education. If they're strong enough they will be hired.

I do agree with you on one thing. For those women that wish to be career women perhaps they should be marrying the less risky men to have children with and leave him with the kids.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by John Owens on 2nd December 2014 3:40pm

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My point is that now more and more women want to take on the challenge (to be CEO's as well as to be programmers, engineers or leaders) and they shouldn't have to fight twice harder as men because they are women (instead as CEO's they should fight twice harder as other CEO's to be the best CEO. Indeed they should not have to work twice as less either based on their gender. Simple as that.).
I agree that they shouldn't have to fight or work twice as hard but they should have to fight or work as hard. I thought I had established that the problem is not sexism at an employment level but rather that women generally aren't risk takers. Women who take the same risks as the men do just as well or badly for that matter.
Though I think - pure assumption from my side - we are more likely to see an Homosexual President being elected than we are likely to see Single Heterosexual President being elected on day, if you get what I mean here.
You shouldn't make those assumptions. Chris Rock made a joke bit about how he would never see a black president. Well that proved to be a load of bull in less than a decade.
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