“They love it up through middle school, but by high school nearly all girls lose interest in it,” explains Laila Shabir ’09. Shabir isn’t talking about the often cited STEM dropout rate for girls, she’s talking about video games.
A Course 14 alumna, Shabir never thought of working in the gaming industry until she met her now-husband, Ishtiaq Syed, a former professional video game player.
Shabir soon realized that gaming could have a positive impact and looked for an opportunity to leverage it. She says both she and her husband always had an interest in education, leading them to found their own educational gaming studio LearnDistrict.
But as soon as Shabir began working in the gaming world, she realized she was unusual.
“I thought ‘Oh my gosh! I am in this industry where I am always going to be surrounded by guys!’” she says. “I went into creative panic mode, wondering how we could get girls more interested,” she says.
Shabir came up with Girls Make Games, a series of weeklong summer camps around the country aimed at introducing girls to gaming in a friendly environment. While many gaming camps exist, girls suffer from the same feeling Shabir had—being the only one.
“I’ve had parents call me and say, ‘my daughter went to game camp but hated it because she was the only girl,’” she remembers.
At Girls Make Games, girls are organized into groups by skill level. The girls use free software programs Stencyl and Unity to create their games and publish them to the App Store or even directly to the PlayStation Store.
Camp starts each day with an hour of video game play and then it’s idea time. The girls aren’t limited in their ideas and Shabir says there are no bad ideas.
Many game ideas from girls at the camps would not likely come out of the male-dominated gaming industry—like a game whose main character is a princess and future oncologist on a quest to save a fellow princess.
“We are missing a huge creative voice right now. These girls have ideas and talent, but they aren’t coming to the gaming industry,” Shabir says.
Some parents are hesitant about their daughters going to a gaming camp, questioning—in the light of issues like Gamergate—if gaming is the right place for girls. Shabir disagrees.
“If girls don’t go into the gaming industry, it’s always going to remain the same,” she says.
Shabir’s goal is to reach one million girls and get them to make games through camps or online courses. Girls Make Games is hosting a weekend camp with the MIT Game Lab later this month.