Feature Article

How a Summer Camp Made Middle- and High-School Girls Game Developers

From cheesecake to breaking down social barriers.

When the Girls Make Games camp began in mid June, none of the girls knew that they might end up on Kickstarter. None of them had any idea that they'd have the chance to be covered online and that their project might be released to the public. All they knew was that they wanted to learn how to make games. They went in with a love for video games and came out with knowledge of the creative development process.

The Hole Story concept art of the main character, Wendy.
The Hole Story concept art of the main character, Wendy.

Several teams built games and presented them to a panel of judges. One team came out on top and was given the opportunity to fully develop and release its game. The Negatives, composed of eight girls, made The Hole Story and were rewarded with a Kickstarter campaign for their game.

I had a chance to talk with the Negatives and uncover a little more of what makes Girls Make Games unique, and how exactly The Hole Story came about. Wendy, Karen, Ivy, Serena, Cassia, Samantha H, and Samantha L gave me a glimpse of the future of video game development, describing to me the results of their imagination. (The eighth girl, Avery, wasn't available on the day of the interview.)

The Camp

Girls Make Games is a three-week camp which teaches its participants several different elements of game design. It's meant to help change the discrepancy between the number of female gamers and the number of women in the games industry. According to reports, almost half of all gamers are female--but women only make up about 10 percent of the industry.

So indie studio LearnDistrict teamed up with Double Fine Studios, MIT, Stanford, and other organizations to help expose younger girls to game development. Girls who attend learn about the three pillars of game creation: design, art, and programming. The kids go through an introduction to games first, where they are exposed to video games and design software and attempt to make their own games. Then, they break off into teams and have about ten days to brainstorm and create a game to present to a panel of judges.

Individual Projects

During the first week, the campers are given time to research video games--which simply means to play them and talk a little about what makes games good and engaging. Then, they are sent off to work on individual projects. Using the Stencyl toolset, the girls created anything that came to mind.

This time they had to work individually resulted in the most wild, unusual games I've ever heard of.

I asked the Negatives about what they attempted during development of their individual projects, and I got a glimpse of unrestricted imagination at work. This time they had to work individually resulted in the most wild, unusual games I've ever heard of. Notably, none of them took the same path. They were all wildly different.

For example, Serena created a game that was "basically full of references," to hear her describe it. It featured the head of Martin Freeman (of The Hobbit fame) as the player's goal, and one of the enemies was pulled directly from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Other girls decided to try and mess with their counselors by making nearly impossible games. Cassia made a platformer in which the player was a dinosaur, and in the process of jumping through the level enemies would fly by that were shaped like mustaches. The most interesting part? "I made a secret place, a cheat path," she told me. "You go to the bottom and then it locks you in there so you can’t get out. If you choose the cheat corridor, then you go to the bottom and you can’t really do anything."

Samantha L took it one step farther and actually made a game that couldn't be completed. Playing through a level gives nothing but a false reward--in fact, she revealed to me that she "put the goal and the enemy on top of each other."

Original concept art from the game.
Original concept art from the game.

The Team Projects and the Creation of The Hole Story

Those first few days gave the girls the chance to explore games and express themselves. But then, they came together in groups, some becoming programmers, others designers, allowing them to make fully fledged games that express the creativity of the team.

The first step for these new developers during the camp is to brainstorm. They're given time to conceptualize their projects and come up with ideas that might become games. When I asked how, exactly, the team came up with the premise for The Hole Story, many of the girls laughed and mentioned "cheesecake." After questioning further, I discovered that, for the Negatives, their greatest source of inspiration and most productive time was lunch. That was when they stumbled upon the concepts for The Hole Story, and came up with some other wild ideas that didn't make the cut.

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As Serena explained, "The first week, we sat down at lunch and that was when we started brainstorming. We came up with three games. The first was the princess one. The second one was digging to China—literally. You’re too poor to get a plane so you dig your way to China. The third one was eating your way out of a cheesecake maze. We started out with those, and we thought, OK, we can’t decide, so we might as well combine them. So we added digging to the princess one." Unfortunately for cheesecake fans, they were not able to make the dessert compatible with a digging princess.

Eventually, after extensive discussion, they decided upon a premise and began to work. Some of the girls specialized and took over certain roles; Karen, for example, became the main programmer, while Serena and Samantha L focused on the narrative. For the most part, however, the girls each contributed in almost all of the aspects of the game's development.

And it came together over the course of the ten days. They told me that some of the nights were long as they neared the end of the competition. Wendy, the team's self-described "facilitator," was vital to keeping the girls rested, focused, and calm. As Serena described, Wendy "was always working. [She] made Karen sleep, made sure she ate food."

When it was time to reveal their work to the judges, the girls had put a game together. They call it The Hole Story, and it's an impressive feat for only ten days of work. As Serena describes it, "It’s a top-down RPG, and [it features] a girl named Wendy [who] gets sent back into the past. The only way for her to get back to her present time is to rescue a missing princess. To do this, she meets unicorns, solves riddles, and digs holes."

To hear the girls describe it, this game is a love letter to some of the classic top-down RPGs of the last fifteen years. It's inspired by the games these girls grew up with, especially Pokemon and The Legend of Zelda. The Hole Story also draws on some of the mechanics and design of Ys, the popular series of JRPGs.

"When I was a kid I loved going out into the yard and digging holes. Then we thought, what if you got older and still wanted to get dirty and dig holes?"

But The Hole Story genuinely is a product of the girls' own life experiences. For some of these kids, the camp was their first intense exposure to video games. Although all of them played and loved games such as Minecraft and Pocket God, several of the girls hadn't played complex RPGs. While designing the game, then, they drew upon what they did know well: what they love to do, and what it means to be young and to grow up.

And so they ended up with a game based on digging. It's not a traditional game mechanic; in fact, the girls changed the character's tool from a sword to a shovel. The weapon didn't bring about any passion or inspiration, though, so instead girls turned to their own lives. Wendy explains, "When I was a kid I loved going out into the yard and digging holes. Then we thought, what if you got older and still wanted to get dirty and dig holes?"

The End of the Camp

The end of the competition arrived and The Hole Story went before the panel of judges. Looked at by representatives from Google Play, Double Fine Studios, and the University of Southern California, the game had to prove itself as a potential title. But it was contested by several projects from the other teams, all of which were just as creative and original as The Hole Story.

Among the other games pitched to the judges was Edible Warfare, which was described to me as Mario, "except the characters are food." You play as a slice of whole-wheat bread who has to fight against sugary foods and an evil sugar lord. Another game, Identity, focused on a girl who suffers from Amnesia and has to complete levels to find scraps of information that jog her memory. Nico, a turn-based fighting game, featured combat that required you to input patterns correctly to land an attack. The patterns grew more complicated as the strength of the moves increased.

The Negatives at their award ceremony.
The Negatives at their award ceremony.

Ultimately, however, The Hole Story emerged victorious. It was chosen as the winner of the competition, to be given a full development cycle and eventual release to the public. After the camp's conclusion, the administrators and judges helped launch a campaign to raise money for the game on Kickstarter. Game media websites around the world started to report on the team of girls that made a game in ten days and began a Kickstarter for it.

It was a whirlwind of attention and exposure, one that the girls were not expecting. The camp kept the crowdfunding campaign and potential public release a secret before they won, so the girls were completely surprised. As Serena describes, the feeling is almost overwhelming. "It feels great, it’s insane," she said. "I didn’t expect anything. Then I got a few messages from people who said they donated [to the Kickstarter]. I even got a message from a guy in Italy!"

So far, the Kickstarter has been a success. With 13 days to go, it has already passed its goal of $10,000 and sits right around $13,000 at the time of this writing. When the campaign completes, the money will be used to make the girls' project a reality.

From my short time speaking with the girls, I came away encouraged that the future of video games is bright and imaginative.

In an effort to help get the game polished and completed, the LearnDistrict team will help develop it and hire contractors to complete the music and art. The girls will continue to assist in production, as well. The game is due out in October.

Girls Make Games has worked hard to encourage more young girls to experiment with game development, and it seems to be working. The Negatives and The Hole Story have gotten significant media exposure, and the upcoming release of the game is sure to give the camp an even greater boost in reputation. But this is only the first of such camps--LearnDistrict has several more planned in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Australia.

Girls Make Games is a great step toward breaking down some of the obstacles preventing aspiring designers to get into video games. It demonstrates what can happen when you give people without prior programming knowledge the tools to make a game. These camps are a further sign that it's becoming even easier to participate and learn game design. And from my short time speaking with the girls, I came away encouraged that the future of video games is bright.

The products discussed here were independently chosen by our editors. GameSpot may get a share of the revenue if you buy anything featured on our site.

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Alex Newhouse

Alex Newhouse is a news writer who's also a three-time GameSpot intern. In addition to writing about video games, he runs a research center on terrorism- and extremism-related subjects. He's put far too much time into Steep and Destiny.

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