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Participants at Girls Make Games camp gathered around a laptop

At Microsoft-hosted summer camp, girls make video games — and learn about a world of possibilities

Rebecca Raitt remembers clearly the response from a boy in her seventh-grade class two years ago when she told him she was into video games.

“The first thing he said was, ‘That’s not possible. You’re a female,’” the 14-year-old recalls.

Raitt bristled, and responded by coming to school in clothes featuring video games and superhero characters. But for three weeks in July, there was no need to prove that she belongs in the gaming world. Raitt was among 15 girls who attended the Girls Make Games summer camp on Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington campus. Sponsored by Xbox, the camp brought girls together to form teams, create their own video games and compete for a chance to get their game published.

Two girls at Girls Make Games camp present the video game they created
Rebecca Raitt, left, describes how she and her teammates came up with their game.

The girls also visited Microsoft’s Minecraft studio, met female mechanical and electrical engineers on the Surface hardware team, learned about usability in Xbox’s lab and heard from leading women at Microsoft who visited the camp to talk about their careers. This is the third year Microsoft has partnered with Girls Makes Games, and Katie Stone Perez, a principal manager lead for the Xbox platform team, said the initiative is an engaging way to get girls interested in science, technology, engineering, art and math, or STEAM.

“It’s an exposure to STEAM in general, and it’s helping these girls understand that they can be creators,” says Perez. “If they get inspired to make video games, great. But if they just start to identify themselves as creators as they go through the program, that’s a win.”

Girls Make Games also aims to combat gender disparity in gaming. While 41 percent of gamers are female, according to a report by the Entertainment Software Association, a 2015 survey by the International Game Developers Association found that women make up just 22 percent of the gaming industry.

“We are trying to figure out and help eliminate that gap,” says David McCarthy, head of Xbox operations. “Women should be equally represented in our industry. They should have access to all the same training and resources, and they should feel as welcome as anyone else. This is one of those efforts to knock down some of those barriers.”

Eliminating those obstacles is important for the game industry to continue expanding its reach, Perez says.

“At Xbox, we believe that gaming is for everyone, and one of the best ways to ensure that anyone coming onto our platforms can find meaningful content is by enabling an extremely broad set of developers who bring their unique ideas and narratives to life,” she says.

Female cartoon character created for a video game at Girls Make Games summer camp
Zhen Sterling, the lead character in a game created at the camp, about a girl who goes on a search for a magic pineapple.

“It’s not happenstance that the majority of games that come out of camp feature strong female characters, because that’s what these girls relate to.”

The camps are open to girls age 8 to 17 and focus on four main areas — research on game genres and platforms, programming basics, game design, and pitching and publishing. With guidance from camp counselors, the teams conceive and create their own video games, then develop pitches that are recorded and sent to a panel of judges who review entries from camps held across the U.S. Five teams are chosen to make a final pitch at “demo day” and the winning team gets its game published through a Kickstarter campaign.

Girls Make Games was started by Laila Shabir, the CEO and co-founder of LearnDistrict, an educational game studio in San Jose, California. Shabir was recruiting for a gaming project a few years ago and noticed that almost every applicant was male. Wondering if women just weren’t interested in the gaming industry, Shabir decided to launch a gaming camp for girls as an “experiment.”

It turned out girls were just as passionate about gaming as boys, Shabir says, but felt isolated by a male-dominated gaming culture. Hearing from girls that the camp was the first place they felt they belonged, the first place they’d found their people, was powerful, she says.

“By the end of the camp it was just so obvious that something like this was needed,” Shabir says. “It was evident we needed to keep it going.”

It’s about taking them from girls who maybe didn’t think they were capable of something to people who now think they’re capable of a lot. It’s a confidence-building exercise.

The first camp, held in April 2014 in California, was followed by three more that year. Interest from other cities poured in, and the program quickly grew to camps and workshops in 25 U.S. cities and 18 cities in other countries. Shabir says while the camps focus on video games, the broader goal is to help girls tap into their potential.

“It’s not about going to camp and suddenly games are your life,” she says. “It’s about taking them from girls who maybe didn’t think they were capable of something to people who now think they’re capable of a lot. It’s a confidence-building exercise.”

Shabir mentions one girl from Pakistan who attended the camps for two summers in the U.S., then returned this year to be a junior counselor at a California camp. Attending camp changed her career trajectory, Shabir says.

“She didn’t think she could ever code,” Shabir says. “She never imagined that this is something she could do or would do.”

Three participants at Girls Make Games camp presenting their game to an audience
Alyssa Black, right, with her team members as they present their game on the last day of camp.

For 16-year-old Alyssa Black, the Microsoft camp was a way to merge her interest in games, storytelling and digital art — girls at this year’s camp also learned to make and animate their own art. Black is considering a career in game design and was excited by the ability to learn the cross-platform game development platform Unity.

“I want to make really cool, narrative-driven story games,” she says. “Working in Unity has been really fun.”

The youngest of six children, Black grew up in a family of supportive gaming enthusiasts but says she’s often encountered bias about the types of games or characters girls are expected to play.

“There’s this idea that if you’re a girl gamer, you must be either really bad or you just play healers,” she says, referring to a type of support character that heals allies. “It’s annoying, because a lot of the time it isn’t true.”

Katie Stone Perez addresses the audience gathered to hear the girls present their games.

Raitt agrees. “A gamer girl can literally be any girl in the room,” she says. “She can be the girl wearing high heels. She can be the girl wearing raggedy old sneakers. Any video game is a game, and anyone who plays it is a gamer.”

Krishnan Iyer enrolled his 9-year-old daughter, Inika, in the camp after hearing about it from her teacher at a coding club. Inika likes singing and dancing, he says, and the camp offered a way to channel her creativity into technology.

“Both her mom and I want our daughter to be intellectually contributing to society and not fall into any gender stereotypes,” says Iyer, who previously worked for Microsoft. “She should be able to express herself, and we wanted to give her an outlet. I believe we need more girls in tech.”

This is the third year Microsoft has partnered with Girls Make Games to host summer camps and workshops.

On the last Friday in July, the girls presented their games as parents snapped photos and recorded videos. Their creations ranged from a quest for “the infinite chocolate bar” to a teenage girl’s search for her missing twin brother, a wolf who rescues other animals from an evil human-run facility and a girl who sets out to find a magic pineapple that will restore her family’s powers.

Darren Smith came with his wife to watch their 10-year-old daughter, Juliana, present her game. Smith recalled Juliana asking him about a year and a half ago why there weren’t more female protagonists in movies. He realized then the importance of Juliana seeing herself reflected in the world so she wouldn’t be limited in what she thought she could do.

“I think she has it in her mind that she’s not good at STEM subjects, even though she is,” says Smith, who’s an engineer.

“Up until now, she hasn’t really felt like it’s a world that she can thrive in or be that interested in. This prompted her to realize that maybe it is.”

Images by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures