Laila Shabir wants to teach young girls how to make video games. The founder and CEO of Girls Make Games first started her career in gaming with LearnDistrict, an educational game studio she co-founded with her husband Ish Syed. For Shabir, a lifelong gamer, it was a natural next step to create a program that would enable young girls to pursue their own dreams of working in the video game industry — whether that involves coding, illustrating, mechanics, writing, or all of the above.
On the heels of Girls Make Games' fifth annual summer camp, SYFY FANGRRLS spoke with Shabir about her own history with playing video games, what led her to found GMG, the types of games young girls are most interested in creating, and what her hopes are for the program's future.
I'm curious about your backstory in gaming and what piqued your interest in it. What were you into as a player first before you realized you wanted to make games?
It wasn't a direct path from playing games to starting Girls Make Games. I grew up in the Middle East, and I was just like any other young girl interested in all kinds of things, including playing games, playing outside. One of my most memorable moments with video games was getting my own console, which was the Atari. I was just obsessed with it. The other [was] going to the arcade. It was such a big no-no because I was a girl, and girls were not allowed in the arcade or to go to the mall alone to go play games. My sister and I would sneak out and go play Tekken. We were really into fighter games. Street Fighter, Tekken, anything to get the frustration out. Because we were constantly told not to do things, this was a place where we could express ourselves.
That was way back through middle school, and then once I got to high school, I just wanted to focus on my education and wanted to go to college. Fast forward several years later, I wasn't even thinking about entering the gaming industry. That was not part of my plan. I was going to go get a Ph.D. and become a professor. I wanted to teach. And along that time, I met someone, a boy, who's now my husband. He had similar dreams. He wanted to get a Ph.D. and teach math, but he was obsessed with video games. To me, that was just so odd because I thought of games as something that kids play. I hadn't kept in touch with what games were like anymore. I had played them over a decade ago. He reintroduced the whole world to me. He was playing Halo, he was playing all these other games and talking about everything that games can do for you. The things you can learn, and how they can shape your perception and influence social change. He talked about games as a medium rather than something that you just consume. That was really fascinating. That really just opened up my eyes.
And we both had this, “Aha,” moment where we were like, “We want to teach. Why don't we teach through video games, because it's such an easy sell?” We put our dreams on hold and then we moved to California to start an educational game studio. That's where our journey in the games industry began. At this point, I knew nothing about the industry either. I didn't know that there weren't that many women. I saw it firsthand because I was building a studio trying to recruit woman, and it was just impossible. Every application, I want to say 99 out of 100 applications were all young boys in their 20s, talking about how this was their dream job. And I was just really taken by surprise. I figured girls would like games and when I talked to people they said, “Girls don't play that many games.” That just broke my heart, because here I was building an educational games company, and my product was not going to be used by girls.
That's where Girls Make Games came in. I wanted to experiment, meet the girls who were self-proclaimed gamers, young girls especially, and see what they were like. Did they really not like games? What was it about games that they liked or didn't like? Because I was building a product and I wanted to make sure it reached all kids. It was supposed to be a one-time summer camp, and the reaction to the camp, both from the girls, the families, [and] online, Twitter especially, it was just so strong. I was really taken aback.
There were people writing to us saying, “I wish this program existed when I was a young girl. I would be in a very different place right now.” That just broke my heart because I was like, “What do you mean? Something like this doesn't exist? Girls don't have a place to go learn how to code?” A coding camp that is co-ed, for boys and girls, is a very different place from Girls Make Games. And I didn't know that until I started Girls Make Games, because a lot of those girls have been the only one at their coding club, and it's a very alienating experience for them.
And it's a very different experience coming to camp and being [with] 30 other girls who are just as excited about pulling out their 3DS and playing together and collecting Pokemon plushies, or Pusheen plushies. They get to be young girls at camp. It's almost life-changing for some of them. It sounds really extreme because I wouldn't have thought of a summer camp changing someone's life. But I think it's that validation that they get at camp, and what we hear from parents.
And now it's been four, five years. We just wrapped up our fifth summer and there's no stopping. The program's just growing and growing, and especially this partnership with PlayStation really put us on the map.
With all the feedback that you get, what do you think is the biggest deterrent for young women who want to pursue careers in the video game industry?
I think there are two big obstacles that women have to overcome. I'm talking about girls in middle school. That's about the time they become self-aware and start to think about Who am I, what am I going to be like? What am I going to do with the rest of my life? It's either hearing at that time that they are supported, however they are, whatever their interests are, whether it's at home or at school, or through a peer group. I'll talk about my example, because when I was in middle school I wanted to reach for the moon, and I was in this really small town. No women in my family had gone to college and there was no expectation of me going to college, let alone college in the US, all the way across the world.
If I hadn't had books that showed me there was something called Harvard, or something called Oxford, and all these schools, and there's a way to get there and do great things after going to college. If my parents hadn't said, “Yes. Go for it. We're here for you 100%.” Because the things I was seeing were very strange for a 12-year-old Pakistani girl in the USA. It's the same thing here. If there's a girl living in the middle of nowhere, [and] she has no other female friends that play video games, but she loves games, and she talks about them non-stop, but she only sees boys playing games around her. She's going to question, "Is this something I'm supposed to like? Am I weird?" But if she gets that support at home, or through her friends, or anywhere where she feels, “No, you're not weird. It's great. What you do is great. Continue to be you. Don't change yourself. Don't conform. Don't give into society's expectations of what people think you should be.”
That's one big obstacle that they have to overcome, and I think that one's harder because there's so much that girls have to fight anyway, and I really don't know how to tackle that. I'm hoping that by having more and more workshops and places that girls can feel at home, we can combat that or change the perception in the media.
The second one is information. A lot of the girls, when they come to camp, they don't know that animation is a career that they can go into. Or illustration for games. It's not just coding. Making games is so much more. Game design, writing for games, producing. Working with teams. They see all these different aspects because that's basically the curriculum. We walk them through every part of game development. They start out with a concept, they have to write the narrative down, they have to design the characters, they get to create art. They get to animate. And then they program and put it together. They also do audio and music and things like that. They see every aspect and they're like, “I didn't know there was that much variety in game development. I actually like XYZ.”
That's something that we're actually working on. We're building something called a Girls Make Games portal. It's an online educational platform where girls, or anyone else with an Internet connection, can go on and learn all there is about entering the games industry. We'll have resources on scholarships, what colleges offer degrees, what jobs exist. And of course, we'll have tutorials on how to learn how to make your own game.
You just wrapped up one of your summer camps. What types of games have you noticed young girls are more interested in creating than boys? Is there a difference in game content or structure?
Actually, I have some experience teaching boys, because when we first started the educational company we were running co-ed workshops before Girls Make Games. Boys tend to focus on mechanics, which means, "I want my thing to explode or jump, or go fast." They focus on mechanics, which is basically gameplay. And the girls tend to focus on the why of the game, or the purpose of the game. We have girls making games that will help their family. We had a girl making a game to help her mom combat depression. She was 9, I think. You wouldn't expect a 9-year-old to be thinking about making something to help their parent. That's a recurring thing, where they're making a game with a purpose.
We have a lot of saving the environment games. We have a ton of saving the country games. We have some politics games. They make games about the world around them. It's very relevant. They're very perceptive. They're constantly watching and observing, and learning. And they want to be able to express, and they do that through their games.
The other recurring theme is their characters have these rich, deep stories. There's rarely ever a game that comes in and it's just a block that does something for no reason. I would say in terms of mechanics, they tend to be a little bit on the simpler side, but in terms of narrative and themes, they are fairly advanced.
They're thinking about problems that adults are tackling in the world. The other common thing that I think throws people off is there's a lot of horror. There's a ton of gore and blood. They love horror games, they love scary games and movies, and they want to make their games where we have to tame it at camp. Almost every year, there's one finalist that [has] a scary, almost psychological thriller, or a blood-and-gore type of games. It really surprises people because they're expecting an explosion of pink, and it's nothing like that.
How can people get involved with Girls Make Games and support the program as it continues to grow?
There are definitely several ways. We're still a very small organization. We're helping to get the word out, that's really the most important thing right now. We want as many girls who want to learn how to make games to become aware of the program. If anyone reading this wants to help organize a workshop, we actually have tons of resources. We train the people who run their workshops. The workshops are free, so you can actually bring the program to your own city, or your school, or your home. And the second thing is, if you're corporate, a company or an organization, we would love support for our online platform because that's a really big undertaking. We're hoping the Girls Make Games portal will be a place that anyone, anywhere, around the world, can access information on how to enter the games industry, because right now this information is out there, it's just not organized or structured. And that's what we're hoping to do with the portals, or any support for that would be great.
Do you have any other types of goals for the future of the program that you can share?
We're going to continue running our summer camps. This is basically our flagship program. We run eight to 10 summer camps around the country and we do a big national competition and then one game that comes out of it gets crowdfunded and published. That's something that we work on year round. I'm really excited to find out who wins this year so we can start working on the game. [Editor's note: The winning game has since been announced as Shredded Secrets by team Sarcastic Shark Clouds.] Other than that, I keep going back to the portal because that is the only way I can see the program truly scaling.
We've also never published through console, and I'm hoping that we can do that this year or next year. Especially if we published on PlayStation. That would be a huge dream come true. It is also another big undertaking, but something for me to look forward to.
Since we've been talking about games, what games are you really into right now? What games are you excited for that are coming out soon?
I have been obsessed with League of Legends for the last three years. It's basically how I start my day and how I end my day. I play it way too much. I will talk about it nonstop. A game I'm really excited about? Red Dead Redemption. I'm really looking forward to it. It's coming out in October. When I played the first one, it just blew my mind so I'm really excited for the second.
And the other game I'm excited about not just for myself, but also our campers, is a game called Ooblets. It's coming out next year. It's super cute. It's being published by Double Fine Productions. Basically, all the work in that game, from art to programming to animation, is being done by the developer Rebecca Cordingley. She's just insanely talented and such a great role model for our girls. I can't wait for that game to come out. Both to play, and to show the girls. And introduce them to Rebecca, which would be awesome.
This interview has been edited and condensed.