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People are usually surprised to learn I enjoy video games. While it may seem odd to see a grown-ass woman playing Legend of Zelda, it turns out roughly half of all gamers are female, and a recent study suggests that nowadays, more women than teenage boys are playing. In spite of this, the industry itself remains male-dominated—only about 12 percent of game developers are women, and they fall into the unequal pay gap.
Some women have publicly criticized this maddening disparity, only to be subjected to an onslaught of online harassment—including rape and death threats—along with having their home addresses posted online. Threats like these are rarely investigated by authorities or those in charge of social media platforms—though recently Twitter CEO Dick Costolo at least acknowledged the problem exists.
When I was a kid, my heroes were Ms. Pac-Man and Samus from Metroid, or genderless characters like Q*bert. Thirty years later, most female characters are still written for horny teenage boys (with grossly ineffective bikini armor and “breast physics”). Strong female characters are few and far between.
One of these strong characters is featured in the critically acclaimed Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery. The protagonist is the Scythian—a badass-yet-gentle heroine who fights monsters and teleports through dreams and moon doors. Her gender isn’t apparent during the game, and it doesn’t even matter. Courageous characters like the Scythian are who we want to play, and who we want our daughters to play.
So what will it take to make female-friendly games the norm? For starters, more women need to make games, and thank goodness, one educational group is already on it. Girls Make Games is an international, girls-only summer camp for young women who want to learn how to write, design, and program their own video games. The group’s founder, Laila Shabir, started the project after realizing there weren’t enough women to hire while developing a game of her own.
“When we ask girls who they think makes video games, they say ‘Apple’ or some other company,” Shabir says. “They don’t realize it’s people who make the games.” She feels confident girls can direct and lead the industry if they’d just get in.
Shabir is also quick to point out that the “hostility” in the industry comes from a lack of women in this particular workplace.
“People feel more comfortable when they’re around other people like them,” she explains. “The more we can get girls interested in making games, the less hostile [the industry will feel to them].”
Shabir also says what I’ve suspected all along: that girls like playing—and creating—characters who are empowered and fearless, but also nurturing. She’s found the campers really light up during the “Creating Your Design Document” portion of the camp.
“Girls really enjoy the creative aspects [of the process], like writing and drawing,” says Shabir. “They want to bring their stories to life.”
Besides enrolling them in focused camps like Girls Make Games, Shabir says families can support their daughters’ interest in computers and game development simply by saying “yes.” Even if parents aren’t gamers themselves, they can stay informed about games—but more importantly, they should keep an open mind about a woman’s place in technology. And that, according to Shabir, is everywhere.
With Shabir’s bright, new army of female developers, the world of gaming will surely become a more balanced place.
Girls Make Games offers summer programs in 23 cities across the United States, including here in Portland. Go to girlsmakegames.com or email email@example.com for more information.