Aided by top industry players like Microsoft, Intel, Google Play, and Humble Bundle, a San Jose, California company is pushing gender boundaries in computer gaming to open the door for a future generation of women developers.
LearnDistrict, an educational company that started as a husband and wife team looking to use fun computer games to make education more accessible, quickly stumbled upon the uneven gender landscape of the gaming industry. The discovery soon transformed into Girls Make Games, a series of summer camps to get more girls interested in playing and creating games.
In an interview with TECHtonics, CEO and Founder, Laila Shabir, talked about LearnDistrict and Girls Make Games.
Q. What does Learn District typically do?
SHABIR: … My husband and I, we founded this company and we had a vision for making education more accessible. And we realized … as we … were growing more and more technology in the house; and everything is going digital – there’s a lot of kids playing games and is there a way to channel that obsession or that passion for playing into learning?
So that was really the founding mission of LearnDistrict. And so we started with launching a game of our own. It’s called Penguemic. And while we were growing our team to make more and more games, I kind of – because I was new to the game industry – it was really strange for me to watch the company grow from my husband and myself to seven boys and myself. That was sort of the tipping point for me where I said, ‘wait a minute, why are we not hiring more girls, or any girls? It turned out, not many girls applied to LearnDistrict or to work with us.
And so I started talking to people. And it turns out there’s a whole bias [that] girls don’t play games or something. So this is really where Girls Play Games came in … It’s supposed to be a test to figure out if girls do play games … So we wanted to do one summer camp and it sort of exploded … it’s almost a whole thing of its own … bigger than LearnDistrict now in a way.
Q. How does Girls Make Games work?
SHABIR: … The motivation was very personal to me. I mean, I don’t think when we started LearnDistrict this was on our mind at all. We just wanted to make learning fun because … studying is not fun, but playing games is fun. So we just wanted to combine that. And it’s the same philosophy that we carry in our camps also. So our summer camp is designed like a video game itself. While you are at camp, you earn points or gold. So there are little gold coins that you can go to a shop and you can buy items, you can upgrade yourself, you can do little things like that. So the whole experience is very gamified …
… Initially, when we first started, we thought the purpose was to teach girls how to make games – and that’s in the name – but honestly, there is a much broader problem that we’ve started seeing as we get more and more girls, and that is of confidence.
A lot of girls, when they come in, they don’t have the confidence because they think making games is so hard, or programming is so hard ‘I can never do this.’ And by the end when they have it, they are completely transformed. They go from ‘I don’t know’ to, at the end of the day, ‘hey, I made a game,’ they’re telling all their friends and family.
… I am just surprised at how much the girls take away from it. They’re not just learning to make games or a program, but they’re also learning to be friends and they’re learning to work in a team and most importantly, they’re learning that girls do play games because for a lot of them, when they go back to school – typically there are one or two girls in their class who also play games; most of their classmates don’t play games, so it’s mostly a boy thing … they’d say ‘oh, my brother has an Xbox, so sometimes I play the Xbox. So the girl doesn’t have an Xbox, but she passively learned because there was someone else who had it. So it’s interesting to see the types of girls that come to camp too.
… This has ignited a spark in my daughter. And you know, she was so shy talking about things. And now she can’t talk stop talking about the game that she made.
Q. Are these camps an annual event now?
SHABIR: Yeah, they’re annual and they also do smaller workshops. … Right now everyone’s just gone back to school. So sometime in October or November, we’ll do weekend workshops. And the summer camps are in January in Australia and then June, July and August in the U.S.
Q. Do you hold the workshops in countries other than the U.S. and Australia?
SHABIR: Oh, yeah. We just … got some funding from an organization called Humble Bundle; and they wanted us to expand internationally. So we actually had workshops in Bangladesh, Uruguay, Chile, Taiwan. We had a whole international weekend, which is amazing.
Q. How do girls join these camps?
SHABIR: … We open up registration sometime in December for the coming summer … If people go to our website girlsmakegames.com, they can sign up where we announce all of our events. And we go to different cities all the time. … Depending on a weekend or one week or a three-week camp, they can choose the date and the city.
Q. Are the camps affordable, given your presence in countries with lower per capita incomes?
SHABIR: … All of the workshops that we had – say in Uruguay, Chile, Bangladesh – they were completely free because they were fully sponsored … by Humble Bundle. … About 60-65 percent of our campers attend as some kind of financial aid. It comes from the industry. So … if you apply and if your family can’t afford it and – it’s an expensive camp, for sure – but if your family can’t afford it, a lot of kids attend for free.
Q. What do they learn at these camps?
SHABIR: Primarily game design, programming and then putting your whole game together [in a way] that works … So … in three weeks, they have a … game that they’ve made themselves and they pitch it to us. And then there’s a competition that they enter.
… This year, the top five came from around the country … And then the winner gets Kickstarted, which means they get to raise more money and then make their game and publish it.
Q. How does the competition work?
SHABIR: The competition … right now is only [in the] U.S. because only in the U.S. we have the three-week camp. Everywhere else they are shorter. They’re like two days or one week.
Q. But are you considering making the competition international?
SHABIR: Yes, absolutely. That would be amazing.
Q. How are the girls responding to all the programming focus?
SHABIR: … Girls love telling stories. They love having characters. So if you start them out with a stronger story or something that they can tie themselves onto, they will get through the programming. If you teach them programming first, then they get bored. … [Teach them], you know, ‘hey you need to know this so that you can make your character jump and shoot or … talk.’ … these games are very writing-heavy.
Q: But not violent?
SHABIR: No, I don’t think we’ve had any violent games. The game … last year – it’s about a little girl. Her best friend is a shovel. She carries her shovel with her everywhere she goes. And she likes to dig to find items and solve riddles. So there [are] puzzles, there’s digging and there’s talking. And she gets sent back in time, so there’s time travel.
Q. What was the game?
SHABIR: … It’s called The Hole Story … This was the winner in 2014.
… This year, the grand prize winner was very different from last year. This year it was a horror game … So there’s definitely creativity. It’s still a puzzle. And it’s still a mystery that you have to solve, but this time everybody’s dying around you. So that was interesting.
Q. This was the girls’ idea?
SHABIR: Yeah. And they programmed it too. So the … playable game that you see was programmed and, in fact, this year’s winner – they even did their own art. So [writing], programming, design, everything was done by them.