REDMOND — Huddled in a circle, laptops at hand, the three girls grow excited Thursday as they discussed the story line for the video game “Puku and the Spooky Forest.”
“[Puku is] a pink kitty, and there are good ghosts and bad ghosts,” Armidah Syed, 9, explains. “The ghosts push you and there’s a bear named Loko.”
The game isn’t available in stores; at least, not yet. Rather, the three Seattle-area girls — Armidah and Olivia Wong, 9, and Yurika Chang, 10 — are preparing for Friday, when they’ll reveal Puku to family members and staff of video-game giant Nintendo. With the support of college-aged counselors, they’ve built the game from the ground up: coding the mechanics, drawing the characters and even recording Puku’s “meow” sound effects.
Along with 18 other campers, Friday will be their last day with “Girls Make Games,” a program that runs summer camps and workshops to introduce girls to video game development. For the past three weeks, in 10 cities across the country, Girls Make Games has sought to engage girls age 8 to 17 in a field that can sometimes seem inaccessible to them.
“The story of Girls Make Games stems from my own need for women developers for my game studio,” explained founder and CEO Laila Shabir. “When I started out [at LearnDistrict, an education-focused video game company], it was myself, my husband and six other young men. And I had a really hard time recruiting women, so I wanted to meet young girls and see what they were interested in and if they would consider a path in the industry. And it just kind of blew up from that.”
Women make up over 46% of video-game players but less than 22% of the industry, according to the Girls Make Games website. Increasing that representation, Shabir said, can be very empowering.
“Being in a place where you feel what you’re doing is something that other people are interested in — you’re not weird,” she explained. “You’re not the only girl who likes video games. There are lots of girls, and there is a path into the industry.”
The camp Armidah, Olivia and Yurika attend is based out of Nintendo of America’s Redmond headquarters, in a room decked out with life-size cutouts of video game characters and a row of Nintendo Switch consoles. Elsewhere in the country, industry partners like Xbox, PlayStation and Zynga have also “opened their doors” as hosts to Girls Make Games, Shabir said.
Anna Watson, a junior at University of Puget Sound and Redmond camp coordinator, said she wishes the program had existed when she was younger.
“I used to have these identity crises for liking games,” Watson explained, saying it would have been nice to have other girls to share her interests with. Nowadays, even as a computer science student passionate about game development, she’s hesitant to enter the industry due to intense crunch times and the same gender dynamics that motivated Shabir to found Girls Make Games in the first place.
“We always talk about a big gender gap in computer science, but it gets even more divided in video games,” Watson said.
As the campers wrapped up preparations for their Friday presentations — one group that made an endangered animals-themed game discussed which zoological puns to use, while another contemplated why their protagonist’s speech bubbles were too small — the tone in the room was bittersweet. There would likely be plenty of tears, the counselors predicted, as things came to a close.
“[I liked it] a lot,” Armidah said, “but I’m sad that tomorrow’s the last day.”