Girls learn game design at summer camp

Noah Thornburgh

Eight girls, ages 10 to 14, couldn’t decide on the best video game they played this week. Some said Giraffe Volleyball, a volleyball simulation that puts you in control of a giraffe and its absurdly stretchy neck. Others said Dante’s Infernya, where you play as a cat knocking over household objects while the owner is away.

The girls, focused intently on their computers in the Digital Convergence Lab, Founder’s Memorial Library Room 338, attended the Just for Girls! Video Game Design summer camp. One of nine different camps the lab is putting on this summer, Just for Girls! teaches campers how to design and code a game from scratch.

At two round tables in the middle of the lab, the girls each sat with a laptop, working on their own projects. Instructor Rebecca Griffith moved around the room, giving coding tips and instruction when needed. Camp counselor Jen Justice and programmer Ros Adulseranee were on hand to help as the camp went on.

“It’s nice that we have three teachers,” said Camryn Hilliard, 11, receiving a collective “aww” from the staff.

Griffith has been working at the Digital Convergence Lab for around seven years. With a degree in art education and an M.F.A., both from NIU, she said she had to teach herself game design and code for the job — but art continues to play a role in her instruction. Wednesday morning began with a discussion of graphics and aesthetics.

Griffith said the camp develops more than just programming.

“[The camp] really helps get in that mindset of a programmer, as well as an artist [and] a video game designer,” she said. “[It’s] creating a whole package.”

No experience is required, Griffith said.

Lauren Tibbets, 14, said she “knew nothing about [coding]” at the start of the week. “Now I know,” she said. Hilliard said she started fresh, but “it gets easier and easier every day.”

Amelia Weingarz, 10, was amazed by the effort that goes into game creation.

“So much goes into any single game, so you have so much to be proud of,” she said.


The camp was started in 2011 by Lab Director Aline Click, who wrote her dissertation in 2014 on the experiences of the girls in her camp. Click argued the “topic is important to explore because the number of women in technology-related careers has been declining over the last 25 years.”

A 2014 study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission showed 36% of the broadly-defined high-tech industry is female, compared to 48% in private industry overall.

Justice said society has a difficult time engaging young girls in video gaming.

“We have such a bad time with not letting girls realize they can do this stuff,” she said, gesturing at the girls coding, designing and playing in the lab.

Just for Girls! was one of the first all-female video game design camps. Since then, similar camps have sprouted, like Girls Make Games and Made By Girls.

What’s next

Griffith said the lab introduced Sphero this year. Sphero is a ball-shaped robot that can programmed with different tools that match a person’s coding skill.

She said the girls will be using “block coding” — which is a simplified coding method used for teaching — to get the Sphero through a maze.

Also new in the lab is the HTC Vive virtual reality headset. In the corner of the room, two motion sensors mounted on ceiling-height stands let users physically interact with the game displayed in the headset.

When Griffith started, the lab had the one of the first models of the Oculus Rift, one of the first popular VR devices. New technology means the camps can start moving towards 3D game design, she said.

During the camp session, the girls constantly interacted. They showed their projects off and helped each other beat tough levels.

“What’s cool about our camps is it’s kind of a LAN party, right?” Griffith said. “So even when we’re in Minecraft, they can still talk to each other face to face. It’s all these levels of communicating. I think it teaches how to be a good gamer.”

The Digital Convergence Lab has eight more camps throughout the summer. Click here to view the schedule and register.