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Teaching girls to write the rules at video game coding camp

September 15, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Video games are still largely aimed at a male audiences, which is no surprise since women make up a small portion of game designers and programmers. But that doesn't mean that girls aren't interested in playing and creating. Girls-only computer camps aim to balance the gender gap in the next generation of coders. Special correspondent Sandra Hughes reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Now: giving girls access to a more level playing field in an area formerly dominated by boys, making video games.

Special correspondent Sandra Hughes has the story.

SANDRA HUGHES: It’s no secret that video gaming is aimed at a male audience. From creation to design to playing the games, the mostly violent first-person shooter games target boys, not girls.

No wonder. In 2013, women accounted for just 11 percent of computer game designers and only 3 percent of programmers. Ten-year old Scarlett Thompson isn’t too young to understand there’s a gender gap.

SCARLETT THOMPSON, Alexa Cafe Participant: I love video games.

SANDRA HUGHES: Do you really?

SCARLETT THOMPSON: Yes. So, I mean, there’s really…

SANDRA HUGHES: So, what’s it like — what’s it like for a girl who likes video games? Is it a tough world to be in?

SCARLETT THOMPSON:
Kind of, because then, like, you have to compete with people, and it’s just — sometimes it’s really hard, like, online. It’s not as fair and, like, I — like, oh, no I have a girl on my team. What am I going to do?

SANDRA HUGHES: These girls want to be more than just on the team. They want to create the game. They spent their summer break, along with thousands of others, at girls-only computer coding camps like the Alexa Cafe and Code Like a Girl.

These camps aim to balance the gender gap in the next generation of coders by supporting an early interest in technology from girls.

CLAUDIA ORTIZ, Code Like a Girl Instructor: We’re trying to create that environment, say, hey, you could be the world’s best coder. It doesn’t have to be your brother or it doesn’t have to be, like, a male. It can be you.

TE STEVENS, Code Like a Girl Participant: It’s called Code Like a Girl because we want to be treated equal, but that doesn’t mean that I totally say, oh, boys stink, because that would be kind of not really — that would kind of hypocritical, I guess.

OLIVIA FISHMAN, Code Like a Girl Participant: It’s awesome because we all are here to learn more. We all have great intellectual minds. And we’re all very curious. And we all have great ideas. And we all — we feed off of each other with our great ideas.

SANDRA HUGHES: These young coders say that learning in an all-girl environment has allowed them to focus more on cooperation and less on the competition they feel in school when working with boys.

KENDALL MCDERMOTT, Participant, Code Like a Girl: At school, there’s always been a little bit of an issue when we do robotics unit. They think they are the only ones capable of coding and doing the work. So, often, it becomes a lot harder to do any of the work, or when you bounce an idea off someone, they’re more like, no, my idea is right.

But, here, it’s a lot of, you to ask someone for an idea and they are very, oh, here, let me help you. And it’s a lot less of, no, you are wrong. And so it’s just really nice to be in a really collaborative environment.

SANDRA HUGHES: Eleven-year old Kendall McDermott hasn’t found boys collaborative or even friendly when she plays online video games. To avoid harassment, she plays online as a he.

KENDALL MCDERMOTT: So, usually, I avoid mentioning gender, which makes it a lot more enjoyable. But it’s kind of sad to think that if you, say — if you check the — because when they say, are you male or female, if you check female, sometimes, you get a lot of hackers and spammers and people saying rude things, even though they know nothing about you and don’t have a photo of you or anything.

SANDRA HUGHES: The camp instructors see differences in how girls and boys create their games.

TE STEVENS: She’s Supergirl, right, so she has to save somebody.

SANDRA HUGHES: Girls games focus more on a narrative than competition.

Is there a difference between sort of the boys and the girls do online and in camps?

SCARLETT THOMPSON: I don’t think there’s a difference. But I think that girls will make it more friendly and more, like, visual and happy, instead of, like, just gun games and dark and gloomy and scary.

SANDRA HUGHES: At Alexa Cafe, the girls design games aimed at having a positive social impact, like Scarlett’s plan to save sea turtles.

SCARLETT THOMPSON:
I made a game, and it was, you clean up all the trash before the turtles get them, and you have like three seconds to do it. It’s actually pretty hard.

SANDRA HUGHES: Why do you think, Scarlett, it’s important for girls to get to understand technology and get involved with coding and gaming and all of this? Why do girls need to get involved more?

SCARLETT THOMPSON: When girls start to run, like, these video games, then it will just help a lot, because then girls will allow girls to come on that video game.

SANDRA HUGHES: And get more and more girls, right?

SCARLETT THOMPSON: Yes.

SANDRA HUGHES: And then it’ll be fair and it’ll be even.

SCARLETT THOMPSON:
Yes.

SANDRA HUGHES:
Right now, it’s not so fair and even?

SCARLETT THOMPSON:
Mm-mmm.

KENDALL MCDERMOTT:
If you only have one type of person thinking about something, and they can’t find a solution to a problem, that might be because the way they are coming — they are coming to it. I think, sometimes, girls might have a different interpretation of the problem, and that way, it means they might come up with a different solution.

SANDRA HUGHES: A solution that includes both boys and girls coding together and creating games they both will enjoy.

For the PBS NewsHour, this is Sandra Hughes in Los Angeles.

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