As a GeekMom, I always love supporting other femme-presenting folks in our geekalicious pursuits which is why when Nintendo reached out and asked if I’d be interested in talking with the founder of Girls Make Games camps, I jumped at the opportunity. In March 2022, Nintendo released Shredded Secrets, a 2D platformer developed by a team of teens that follows four main characters who each struggle with their place in middle school life. Spending time chatting with Laila Shabir, founder of Girls Make Games, and connecting with the teen game developers was one of the most uplifting and hopeful experiences of my 2022, so far.
With the Summer 2022 camps just around the corner, I took some time to speak with Laila and the team that built Shredded Secrets.
What is Shredded Secrets?
Yes, Shredded Secrets is a short, 2D platformer, but it’s also one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time. One of the things I love most about gaming is that it gives us a way to have experiences, and Shredded Secrets gave me insights that help me better understand my own teen’s middle school life.
I played the game all the way to the end and really loved every minute – even the ones where my own teen was telling me everything I did wrong. (Insert a parent-level eyeroll here)
From the teen perspective, my kid loved the look of the characters and the gameplay, grabbing my Switch from me and taking over the game.
As a parent, I loved following the stories because while might have a vague recollection of my middle school years (none of them particularly pleasant), the game reminded me of what it’s like to really live that experience. When asked to describe middle school to a parent, the developers were pretty honest.
As a 10th grader, I’m able to look back on middle school and realize what an awkward and uncomfortable time it was. I remember feeling a little picked on and uncomfortable in my own skin. I was good in school but found that it was hard to focus with so much drama. There was a lot of bullying and when I talked about it with some of my friends I felt ignored. I remember at one point I wore mascara for the first time, and I was immediately mocked and insecure. It was just some mascara, but I ended up not wearing anymore makeup because of it.
Being a middle schooler is just full of chaos and cringe, but lots of fun.
Based on watching my kid enjoy the game and my own experiences, I’m going to describe these as both “accurate” and “guess not much really changes after…a very very long time.”
What is Girls Make Games?
Girls Make Games founded by Laila Shabir and Ish Syed founded to help give girls a feeling of belonging in the traditionally male-dominated gaming world.
While I was building out LearnDistrict, I put out the job ad for programmers and artists and producers and things like that and ended up with a studio that was basically 99% young men. They were very passionate about making games. They wanted to join the studio and join us on this adventure. I ended up giving up after a few months of looking for a diverse team.
A lot of times in discussions or design conversations, I would have a completely different perspective. I used to chalk it up to well, I’m not a game developer. But then again, there was something at the back of my mind saying what if it’s because I’m not like them? I’m a girl. You know, I care about different things. I started going to conferences, events where I could find more people and just see if I could maybe meet with someone face-to-face I could convince them to come join me. Time and again, I kept coming back with the not many women working in games.
I just wanted to create a place that we could advertise as a space where self-identifying girl gamers could get together, make their own projects, and learn something. I also wanted to teach all of us something about ourselves because I was very curious about who the kids were who identified as gamers and why they wouldn’t want to work for us.
We learned a lot from that first camp, but at the end of camp, it ended up being a very emotional experience for the kids. And parents would come in and say things like, my daughter has never felt this validated.
I was crying; the kids were crying. We’re all crying, and we’re just like, “Okay, we have to keep this going.” So I went back to my team, and I said, “Hey, guys, I think I want to do this for a little bit.” And that was eight years ago.
I’ve definitely seen a shift in how girls perceive themselves over the last eight years. I would say the first couple of years it was very, very novel. So it was very new to have an all-girls game space. But over time I mean, just because we also have so many repeats. I think kids are getting enough exposure just through general media like cartoons and TV, and overall we’re starting to do a better job as a society that we are crushing those gender norms. When kids come in, they’re like, “I know girls can do anything.” At the same time, we’ll do like this anonymous survey being like, “do you want to open up this camp to boys?” The answer is like 95% “no.”
How do the campers perceive the experience?
The Shredded Secrets team proves that Laila’s on the right track.
I’ve been going to Girls Make Games for 7 years. I remember feeling very nervous when I first went. Before GMG, I had gone to many coding camps afterschool, but I never felt I could really share my ideas. I really wanted to learn coding, but it was hard to understand and focus.
Originally, my mom had signed me up for GMG, but when I found out I was very excited. A lot of the times in co-ed classes I felt talked over. I was a shy kid at first and I was very nervous about making new friends.
With GMG I immediately felt welcomed in the environment. The camp was AWESOME and the counselors were so kind and always encouraged us to share our ideas, we had free range of any code we wanted to try! I never felt like I was being talked over. We learned to collaborate on original game ideas, while also learning how to make animations, art, and incorporate music! It was so fun, and I was genuinely so excited to go back the next year!
I heard of the camp from my friend Gracie. I mainly wanted to go to the camp because she went to it. However once I learned a bit more about the camp, I was really interested in it. I thought it sounded really interesting and fun.
It was really amazing to get such positive feedback from the judges when our game was chosen, as well as all the positive responses from people in general. I never imagined that our game could have such an impact.
I chose to go to the camp because I knew I would enjoy a coding-related camp much more than any other type of camp since it is something I am interested in.
I want to have a job in video games so when I saw this camp, I wanted to go.
What the three-week Girls Make Games experience looks like
We are very hands-on teacher-heavy camp. Thankfully, game engines have evolved enough in a way that you can kind of hack these games together. You’re not necessarily coding line by line. I mean, we’re not a coding camp so you’re not going to be scripting.
But, you do learn to use these really powerful tools that enable you to go from just a drawing on a piece of paper to an environment to actual interactability.
Having that four to one ratio, having a dedicated counselor that works with just your team makes it easier. For example, Team Sarcastic Shark Clouds, the team that developed Shredded Secrets, had a dedicated mentor that worked with them for the full three weeks, and the mentor’s entire job is to serve not only as a teacher, but also as a producer. On a day-to-day basis, they would come in and say alright, these are our milestones for the day, and this is how we’re going to accomplish them.
You do the big dreaming at the start of the camp and then you scope it down. The kids definitely get a very hard lesson in production and scoping things out. Those are very valuable lessons, scoping out your project and your dreams. That’s all part of the teacher training. That’s all part of our teacher training and the curriculum where we check in at the end of the day, every day, on each project.
We’re very involved to ensure that we’re setting the kids up for success at the end of camp because as you can imagine the last week, especially the last few days, are very stressful. They’re just like, “oh my gosh, you know, my game just looks so different from what I thought it would.” We have to be like, “This is what prototypes look like.” The kids might say, “you know, I thought you know, I come in and I play all these games on these consoles every day. And I thought my prototype would look like that.” And I’m like “that’s, you know, they spent years and millions and sometimes 1000s of dollars.”
Tell us a little more about the Girls Make Games curriculum? What are the three weeks of camp like?
The first week is essentially an introduction to everything. You’re getting introduced to the tools that you’re going to use, and that’s really exciting because for a lot of kids if they’re coming in from let’s say, a scratch background, seeing unity is a whole different thing. We’re just telling them that hey, this is a professional game engine. This is how it works. These are the features these you know, this is the layout and getting them comfortable with that so just making a tutorial a guided tutorial that everyone does together just so you can get comfortable with it.
The second part of week one is fleshing out your idea. A lot of times with the kids, especially at Girls Make Games, it’s very popular to have games that have you know rich stories and backgrounds, but not necessarily might be playable interactive experiences. We introduce them to the concept of mechanics and balancing your game. This way when they actually put together a game design document, it looks like a video being that has a rich story and characters and all that stuff there, but it’s a video game first.
By week two, they have familiarity with the engine, and their games are scoped and tightened into a design document. They start building on their project. That’s where I think a lot of the creativity and the freedom comes in, where they can say, “I want dialogue in my game.” Okay, we’ll teach you how to implement dialogue in unity, but how much dialogue you want to write it’s up to you. They will end up writing entire scripts. Then, they can say, “I want my character to be able to interact with with objects.” First, we have to define what kind of interactions the game will have, so breaking those things down and then helping them implement it.
Week three is really all about polishing and tying things up. This is one of the reasons why we didn’t want it to be a very long camp because it’s so easy to just have that middle part expand out to weeks and weeks and months, just keep working on your game and never tie it up. We wanted to just get them excited enough that after camp they would continue working on their projects or continue thinking about making more games or extending their games.
From an educational point of view, instead of any specific skills, it’s creating that spark for building something. A lot of the kids will come in, and they’re consumers of games they have been playing for a long time. Now they have become creators, and they’ve gotten a small window into what making game looks like.
Team Sarcastic Shark Clouds discusses their experience
I get to share the whole game to friends and family. I get a lot more publicity than I’ve ever had before. It has opened lots of opportunities for me in the future, like jobs or looking for further education.
It has opened me up to be more willing to collaborate with others, as I see D, Keira, and Gracie as friends now.
My best experiences since Shredded Secrets was chosen is hard to decide although I must admit I will always enjoy the eternal bragging rights myself.
Although putting my ego aside I also enjoyed being recognized for something I had a part in and the chance to travel and meet many of the people associated with things like Nintendo. The main change I have found in myself since the experience is my increase in knowledge about game production, which is a subject I am interested in. I would love to someday make a game a bit more my style.
I never imagined that our game could have such an impact.
Another very memorable experience was having opportunity to travel to New York to be on the Today Show.
I feel like I’ve gained more confidence from attending Girls Make Games, as well as the whole experience of creating and presenting our game.
I’ve had so many amazing experiences thanks to Girls Make Games and the journey my team and I have had with Shredded Secrets! My favorite and most proud moment was learning that our game would be published on Nintendo Switch! I’ve loved playing their games since I was a little girl and when I was young my dad and I would play The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, of course… I would take over! I genuinely can’t even put into words how happy and grateful I am! It’s such a surreal experience because I’ve been playing on Nintendo consoles my whole life.
I remember getting Disney stickers at the dentist’s office and my mind immediately went to decorating my Nintendo DS with them. I would fight with the boys in my class over what the better game was, Animal Crossing City Folk, or Madden Football. I was always outnumbered but I still made my case!
My second favorite experience was going on The Today Show for National Day of the Girl! Our entire team flew to New York in the fall of 2019. My team got to represent GMG and we met some of the cast of the Today Show!!! We met so many talented girls and it was overall a super fun (but also nerve-wracking) experience! Finally, I loved going on King 5 and being interviewed about our game! I remember being so excited to drive to the studio and meet all the local broadcasters!
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from this experience is empathy. I’ve seen people get emotional over the game and it really shows that you should pause and think about what others are going through. Their outside appearance doesn’t always reflect their emotions and feelings or what they may be going through. It’s incredibly important to put yourself in someone else’s shoes before saying something that could be hurtful or unkind.
How would you like Girls Make Games to leave a legacy beyond bringing more people in and shifting how people view gaming?
My vision is for girls make games to go extinct, to not be necessary anymore because the work is done. Thinking about how this camp has impacted kids, not necessarily kids who love games, but also kids who just wanted to explore video games or explore tech or explore a whole new medium, and what it meant to them and how they were able to express themselves in a very unique way.
The idea comes down to, you know, building confidence, you know, going in with just something that was in your mind and then walking away with something that is very tangible, something you can share with your family and friends, something you can be proud of. Team Sarcastic Shark Clouds, their game’s out on the Switch. This is something that nobody can take away from them for the rest of their life. You know, their, their schools proud of them.
Making the game was just one part of it. Having the game out there associated with themselves and what it’s going to do for the rest of their lives, that confidence that it’s going to give them, that they’re able to achieve things that they put their minds to? I think that would be the legacy.