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A camper working on her game. (Girls Make Games Photo)

At the end of July, more than 50 Seattle-area girls accomplished something most kids don’t: they completed a working prototype of an original video game in three weeks. They did this as part of the Girls Make Games series of camps, which have reached 6,000 girls in 61 cities worldwide since 2014.

Girls Make Games was founded by the husband-wife duo of Ish Syed and Laila Shabir, a Pakistani native who came to the United States in 2005 to study at MIT. During her studies and after graduation, Shabir saw a disparity between the number of girls playing games and the number of girls making them. This gave her the inspiration to create camps specifically for girls where they could express their ideas without the judgment or gender stereotypes that can come from co-ed camps.

“I was kind of terrified at first,” said Katherine, a 15-year-old who attended this year’s camp in Seattle. “I actually learned more than I expected, and I think we accomplished a lot more than I thought we could’ve in the three weeks we had.”

Katherine and her team built a game called Splintered Memories, where Lilith, the player character, must enter other people’s dreams to collect pieces of her mentor’s soul. Katherine primarily did the coding for the project.

“I loved coding,” she said. “That was my favorite part, doing the coding and programming for our game.”

A screenshot from Splintered Memories.

The camp had a such a positive impact on Katherine that she’s now considering pursuing a career within the industry, which is ultimately the goal of Girls Make Games. Seattle-area schools including DigiPen and the Academy of Interactive Art are also working to get more women behind the scenes making games instead of just playing them. But there’s a long way to go.

Laila Shabir, co-founder of Girls Make Games.

According to the annual State of the Industry Report published by the Game Developers Conference and The Developer Satisfaction Survey conducted by the International Game Developers Association, the number of women working in the industry peaked at about 20 percent in 2016 and hasn’t moved since. That’s in sharp contrast to the percentage of women who play games: 46 percent, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

One of the reasons for the stagnant numbers of women developers can be due to a lack of education about the opportunities within the industry, according to Shabir.

“Education is the single most effective catalyst for social change, both at individual and community levels,” she said. “We empower young girls with the tools and knowledge to create their own games and show them that there’s more than one path to the industry.”

But recently high profile allegations of sexual harassment and assault throughout game development have put the industry in a negative spotlight. Just last month, for example, a number of women took to Twitter to share allegations of assault within the industry.

“This year has been a big one for the games industry showing its true colors, and it has left me greatly disappointed and pessimistic about my possible future in games,” said Kat Baird, a student at DigiPen.

Last year, an investigative journalist uncovered a litany of problems at Southern California-based Riot Games, which led to a closer look at how pervasive sexism is in the industry at large.

These events are starting to give pause to those who had been looking to enter the industry.

There’s also a growing backlash against women who speak out, similar to the Gamergate situation in 2014, which involved the large scale harassment — and in some cases death threats — to a variety of women in the gaming industry.

“One of the biggest challenges for women in the game industry is when they are faced with a hostile and sexist workplace that doesn’t recognize that it is (or doesn’t care.) For many reasons, it can be dangerous and unstable,” said Sarah Belhumeur, a local game artist and co-founder of The Diversity Collective within the Seattle Indies organization.

Sarah Belhumeur, co-founder of The Diversity Collective in Seattle Indies.

Belhumeur, however, remains optimistic.

“Change is happening,” she said. “I’ve witnessed large companies establish diversity initiatives for the first time. A lot of this change requires the existing systems to recognize that there’s a problem and start creating actionable plans to reverse biases, support the growth of diversity, and be more inclusive.”

Belhumeur also said support groups for minorities in the industry can be key to getting women to not only enter the industry, but stay once they get there.

“It’s challenging to feel like you don’t belong or like you need to change who you are to fit within a toxic culture,” she said. “The takeaway from this should be that you do belong, you are valid, and you have the support of every other woman in games cheering you on.”

Shabir agreed with Belhumeur.

“We elevate and celebrate role models. We bring these girls together, so they’re validated in who they are – girls who love playing and making games,” she said.

To learn more about Girls Make Games, check out this documentary about the program below.

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