By Alisha Haridasani
Around four years ago, Leila Shabir had an epiphany. She was working with her husband at the time, setting up an educational games studio in California.
“I always wanted to become a professor or start a school, and games were such a great way to reach young kids,” said Shabir in an interview with Cheddar Thursday.
“I was looking for women to join my game studio, and I couldn’t find many.”
Shabir grew up in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, two conservative Muslim countries where women playing video games, let alone developing them, was an absurd, far-fetched concept.
“Going to the arcade or to the mall by yourself was not a thing for young girls,” said Shabir.
But that didn’t stop her. She started coding at the age of 11. When her family moved to the UAE, she and her sister would sneak out every afternoon to the nearest arcade to play video games. Her favorite game was Street Fighter. Her favorite character was Chun Li.
Fast forward a couple decades, and Shabirーin the midst of trying to start her own studioーagain comes face-to-face with circumstances that hindered her ambitions of bringing more women into the gaming industry.
Yet again, she refused to bow out. Instead, she founded an all-girls, gaming-focused event, a “social experiment,” as she calls it, to understand young female gamers.
“I just wanted to see what the girls were doing,” said Shabir. “At the end of the first camp, it was just such an emotional moment for all of us. Some of the girls were crying and they were like, ‘Is this going to exist next year?’”
That’s when Shabir realized there was a need for a safe, encouraging space for young female game developers. The urgency for the camp is compounded by the fact that the gaming industry overall is skewed towards men.
Women make up about half of the gamers in the U.S., yet they account for just about a quarter of the industry's employees.
So Shabir started Girls Make Games, a three-week summer camp for girls aged between 8 and 17.
“There’s a lot of coding camps and a lot of gaming camps but if they end up being co-ed, the environment is very different.”
Girls in co-ed camps are usually in the minority, which both discourages them and reinforces the misconception that gaming is for boys.
“They just assume they’re the weird ones or the outsiders,” she said. “We’ve had so many shy, wallflowers bloom into budding, passionate, and excited game devs by the end of the third week.”
Not only are there such slim pickings for girls eager to learn, there are very few games in the market that cater to a diverse female audience. Most of the ones that do, said Shabir, are pink and full of princesses.
The games that GMG participants create are radically different. “Most of our games have a very strong, passionate female protagonist,” Shabir said.
“Some of the topics that they tackle end up going beyond what you would think kids are thinking about.”
Themes include everything from politics to mental health to personal identity.
“The stories that these girls are writing are very deep."
Since Shabir started GMG, it has expanded into nine cities in the U.S. and 44 cities around the world, including ones in her childhood homes of Pakistan and the UAE.
The camp also partners with the biggest brands in the gaming industry, such as PlayStation and xBox, and culminates in pitch sessions where winners get a chance to have their games published.
“Being represented in a medium like games...is extremely important, and we hardly have enough.”
For the full interview, click here.