Girls Make Games encourages young gamemakers to follow their dreams

Mehrish Khan, 13, of Santa Clara, gets help from counselor Cecil Kong as she works on her game art the Girls Make Games video game-making camp at Crystal Dynamics in San Mateo, California.
Mehrish Khan, 13, of Santa Clara, gets help from counselor Cecil Kong as she works on her game art the Girls Make Games video game-making camp at Crystal Dynamics in San Mateo, California. (Marlena Sloss/For The Washington Post)

SAN MATEO, Calif. — When Girls Make Games CEO Laila Shabir was growing up in the United Arab Emirates, she was constantly told what she could and could not do. Once, when she was younger, Shabir cut her hair to look like a boy so she could play soccer. She imagined her hobbies wouldn’t be so strictly defined by gender roles when she moved to the United States. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

“It’s not something someone obviously or openly tells you,” Shabir said to The Washington Post. “It’s just something you kind of hear and internalize over time.”

These subtle reinforcements of gender roles and restrictions around who exactly is allowed to enjoy particular hobbies inspired Shabir to start Girls Make Games, a summer camp where girls and nonbinary children learn all the basics of game development from coding to concept art illustration. The camp is hosted by LearnDistrict, an educational media company founded by Shabir and Ish Syed. During the camp’s three week curriculum, they work together in groups with the goal of producing their own video games for publishing.

This year, GMG offered three on-site camp venues in San Mateo, Seattle and Bellevue, Washington. Every year, GMG selects the best student project to get crowdfunded, developed and published. Shabir said GMG has published 11 student games so far, some of which are showcased on GMG’s website.

The camp was born out of Shabir’s own experience in game development. Before Shabir co-founded LearnDistrict with the intention of making educational video games, she worked in finance, another famously male-dominated field. After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Shabir interned at Merrill Lynch before moving on to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and BlackRock.

But Shabir said none of those spaces came close to the gender disparity she saw in the video game industry. When she put out hiring notices for her small indie game studio, the applicants were overwhelmingly men.

“When I put up the job apps, it was like 90 percent men and boys applying, saying this is my dream job to do this,” Shabir said. “But I never had women applying, saying I’ve been dying to make an educational game.”

LearnDistrict eventually grew to eight employees but Shabir was the only woman. When Shabir tried to headhunt qualified women, she encountered resistance from both men and women. People told her there just aren’t enough women working in games and games aren’t something that women are typically interested in. It took her five years to convince her own sister Isra Shabir, a fellow M.I.T graduate with a degree in computer science, to join LearnDistrict.

Shabir attributed this difficulty to a confluence of factors, but one of the biggest was the cultural assumption that video games are a male pastime with content aimed at a masculine audience. If girls don’t play games, then Shabir questioned why she was making educational games that would only be played by boys. So she started Girls Make Games in 2014 as a research project: what if she asked a bunch of gamer girls what kind of games they enjoy and games they want to see?

“I wanted to get to know them,” Shabir said. “And that was it. Honestly, a social experiment.”

That social experiment has mentored over 22,000 children and partnered with industry giants such as Nintendo, PlayStation and Ubisoft, according to GMG’s 2021 report. Many of the campers are now veterans who have been attending for years, citing it as a great way to build up experience and strengthen their college applications. But also, it’s a summer camp. That means friendship and fun.

“The community is honestly one of the best parts,” said Vanessa Meza, a 15-year-old camper who has been attending GMG for five years. “Everyone is very nice. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you like to do. It’s just a good, safe space for everyone to just come in and chill out and make games together.”

This year, some GMG students attended camp at the Crystal Dynamics offices in San Mateo. Crystal Dynamics is the current developer of the Tomb Raider franchise, which stars globe-trotting archaeologist Lara Croft, one of gaming’s most prominent heroines. Crystal Dynamics studio head Scot Amos described the developer’s partnership with GMG as an extension of the company’s core values, pointing out that two of Crystal Dynamics’ co-founders, Judy Lang and Madeline Canepa, were women. Amos praised GMG as a launchpad for helping budding game creators, especially for those who love games but have no idea how to start making their own.

“If you didn’t have Girls Make Games, would they even have someplace to know how to get a game engine and start making something?” asked Amos. “Sure, you could go on to YouTube if you knew what to search for. And then you’d say, is it a good one? Is it a bad one? Do I know what I’m looking for?”

Meet the women who brought Lara Croft to life

GMG students are encouraged to create whatever they want. Shabir says that messaging is an important part of the curriculum. Instead of pointing out the dearth of women in the industry, Shabir focuses on the value they bring. If girls get told subconsciously that they should be joining game development to even out the ranks, then they may just feel like numbers on a company diversity report.

“Continuously reminding them that there aren’t many women in the industry can go the other way,” Shabir said. “No, it’s more like, you know what, women make awesome games. So we want your game. That gets them excited.”

It’s been an inspiring tenet to campers such as 9-year-old Rena Foulds. Foulds is currently enjoying the hit platformer “Stray” and the samurai action adventure “Ghost of Tsushima” (in the Japanese dub, no less) but she got to make her own game at this year’s GMG. Her project, “The Amazing World of Cake,” is about three animals trying to gather the ingredients to bake a cake while dealing with thieves and mischievous birds. When asked how she came up with the idea, her response was exactly in line with GMG’s teaching philosophy: make the game that you want.

“Me and my friends like cake,” Foulds said. “And we just made it up along the way. And for the characters we used a cheetah, dog and a tiger ’cause those are our favorite animals.”

Shabir believes video games have the ability to create a profound, lifelong impacts. As a medium, video games can uniquely be enjoyed as a pastime, an ice breaker for parties, a competition or an art piece. In an episode of VH1’s “I Love the ‘90s,” John Mayer discussed how video game music deeply inspired his own music and scatted tracks from “Super Mario Bros.” note by note. Shabir likened video games to books, in the sense that games had the power to influence her way of thinking and her perspective.

And that is a power that should be shared with everyone, she said.

“It makes sense that kids are attracted to video games because everything that games represent, kids are into,” Shabir said. “If we want to reach people, if we want to make a difference, I think video games have a massive societal influence and we should be tapping into that collectively. Not just on an individual level but as a society and as an employer.”

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