The Unicorn Princess Royally Reviews ‘Girls Make Games’!

- Posted July 15th, 2015 by

This month’s review is a little different than the past reviews that I’ve done – instead of it being about an album, it’s about a really unique experience I had where I shared the art of game audio, including the history of chiptune, with a fairly new camp called Girls Make Games. The camp was created by Laila Shabir, a graduate of MIT and CEO of LearnDistrict, an educational game company. The objective of the camp is to put an end to the gender gap in the gaming industry by recruiting young females with prior interest in gaming to show them how to create their own video games and the process required to do so.

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I heard about the camp via Kickstarter, where a team from last year’s curriculum created a game called  The Hole Story. Originally, I reached out to Laila and her team, inquiring if they needed an audio artist. To my surprise, they wrote back to me, asking if I would be interested in creating an interactive sound design lecture, along with being lead coordinator for the MIT campus and working remotely with the Durham, North Carolina campus to fulfill their audio needs. I accepted, and got ready for one of the most interesting experiences of my career thus far.

Girls Make Games has camps occurring simultaneously around the country, from west to east coast, and within these locations, girls were split into groups and there were then 34 teams throughout the States. At the end of the camp, the girls’ games are entered into a contest to see which five have the most potential, so learning about coding, art, and audio in such a short amount of time brought on the necessity to stay focused and communicate well. Each camp has coordinators (myself, with the help of amazing and organized assistants Emily Joseph and Renzo Heredia, both graduates of Berklee College of Music who focus on scoring and audio), two counselors experienced in art, coding, and creating board games named Katie Khau and Jessica Chu, and assistant counselor currently attending Brown University for computer science named Hilery Chao. Together, we were all able to add our specific skills to demonstrate how possible it is to create a game in a short period of time, and how important teamwork plays in doing so.

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Development instruction begins!

So, there I was, surrounded by artists and coders and being able to observe lectures myself, thinking of what sound design and composition advice I could offer to the girls based on my experience working in the gaming and music technology industry thus far. Though the girls had so much freakin’ spirit and energy (which was really enlightening and motivating), I did notice, at first, that they were insecure about reaching a final product. I emphasized to them that, yes, coming up with a game after just a week of lecturing would be tricky, though people who frequent game jams create games (everything from the storyline to the art to the programming to the music) in 48 hours or less. This seemed to work as a motivator, and I emphasized to the girls that even if their projects don’t make it to the final running, the fact that they are between 3rd to 8th grade and are already programming is not only amazing, but it makes them all winners (and is enough to terrify the crap out of people my age or older… some of these girls are in 3rd grade and already know how to program [side note: the girls ensured me that while I’m ‘definitely old’, I’m ‘still cool, so it’s ok’. Phew. Little do they know I was creating a tower of Oreos five minutes before accepting my position]). Suddenly, the girls went from being insecure to saying how they want to be a programmer when they’re older, and how they want to make art and write, and how sound design is awesome because ‘Jamie showed us how to record voices and make our voices sound like dragon growls’. I felt like it was all starting to fall into place and everything we were doing was really… working.

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Crunch time.

So much about the camp was validating, and my favorite part was, of course, my sound design and composition lecture. I started off ensuring the girls that there was a point in my career where everything was overwhelming and I didn’t know where to start, except how I just knew I loved music and wanted to learn how to make sound. I went through my timeline of my childhood playing flute in orchestras to my teen years playing guitar in death metal bands to my acceptance into Berklee to my freelance working in games, to working at AKAI, to my job working as staff in the Electronic Production & Design department, to working with them. I emphasized it hasn’t all been easy — I’ve bussed tables, I did the barista thing for a while, I worked in retail and sales, I have struggled and not gotten specific gigs, I have felt like a failure just like everyone does at times but I’ve used that to push myself to keep going. Since doing so, I’ve had the chance to send demos over to Arrowhead Studios and how I made an album and I’m working on another and how I’ve worked on PC and iOS games, along with shipped software and hardware. I showed them my final products of sound design reels and the tedious work of syncing sound effects to visuals, how game music should really emulate what the player is seeing and how everything they are experiencing needs to tell a story. Finally, I went through the history of game audio throughout the years.

 

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Software and hardware used to create music and sound for the girls’ team (pictured: Arp2600, Buchla, Logic 9, & Novation 25 SL Mk II).

During my lecture, I asked the girls how many of them were familiar with 8bit, or chiptune music. The few that raised their hands said that their parents like the soundtrack to the first Zelda game. I asked if they (the students) had ever played an NES or the first ever Gameboy, and they starred at me blankly and asked if the ‘3DS counts’ . Excited for this response, I grabbed modded Gameboy, complete with the Little Sound Dj software, and I began to explain how notetrackers work and the four channels of beautifully bitcrushed audio that emulates a chip within the system to create awesome soundtracks and sounds that stayed with us for decades (also known as… ‘major nerd alert’). It was mind-blowing to know that some of these girls were eight years old and could code, but missed the era I grew up in with NES and SNES and Sega and so forth (and how the Gamecube is considered ancient to them, heh). Some of the girls had never even SEEN a Gameboy Color, let alone a DMG.

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My circuit bent/modded DMG (left) and my Gameboy Color used to create sound effects and music.

Seeing their excited response to my circuit bent DMG, I showed the girls the ChipWIN blog, and they went crazy. One of the girls approached me after, puzzled that she had never heard of it. “You’re telling me that there is a collective of thousands of people who make 8bit music… And nobody told me!?” I later got emails from ecstatic parents, saying how they can’t believe they didn’t hear of the blog prior and how happy they have so many albums to listen to now on their drive to work. It was nothing short of heartwarming to know that the team involved in the community is making a huge difference to people — it was like the parents found hidden treasure and they had yet another reason to feel that they did the right thing by sending their kids to this camp. So, for that, I thank all of you guys.

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Me and two of the campers, Nelly and Solana, amped on progress so far. Note: They should probably go into voice acting. I recorded them growling into my mic and pitch shifted the crap out of their vocals to create dragon growls.

The camp wasn’t just limited to lectures — the girls had the chance to talk to special guests who were able to share their knowledge about their work in the gaming and technology industry: we had two women named Melissa and Kayla from Dyn, located in Manchester, NH, speak to us about security against hackers. To give the girls insight on development of an AAA game, Jeremy Carson, a technical animator from Irrational Games, talked to the girls about the process of Bioshock Infinite. We received Skype calls from artists Tess Young, who has done animations for Geek Remix, and Heather O’Neal, who has done art for IGN, and the two helped assist with the girls’ art needs for their games. CEO of LittleWorlds Interactive, Jenna Hoffstein, visited to show the girls her process of creating. Alongside all of this, the girls trekked over to the MIT Game Lab, where they had the opportunity to test games with the theme of ‘Home’, created by a team flown in from Israel (special thanks to Rik Eberhardt for the having us visit).

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Girls Make Games 2015.

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Jenna Hoffstein and the team after her LittleWorlds Interactive lecture.

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Jeremy Carson visits the Boston team at MIT!

The Boston team included campers: Adele Raymond, Aeryn Player, Bernadette McKenney, Charlotte Verity, Jocelyn Morning, Jordan Levine, Yona Levine, Merrick Newkirk, Nelly Perlera, Sabrina Teng, Solana Vanegas, Beatrix Metral, and Zoe Vale.

Being a part of the camp was a rewarding experience for a myriad of different reasons: I got to teach and show an aspect to the gaming industry that wasn’t familiar to them, and we all got to learn from each other. One of the teams within our camp (entitled as ‘The Flying Guinea Pigs’) actually made it into the top five finalists with their game called ‘Dino Wars’, and will be competing in the finals in California this coming weekend. I’m so proud of them and the other two teams (‘Future Magicians’ and ‘Team BABA’), and I will not be the least bit surprised to see all their names in gaming credits in the future.  Needless to say, I think it speaks for itself that girls do, indeed, make games and, just like anyone else, we are pretty damn good at it.

If you know anyone interested in learning with the camp, let me know! It was an awesome experience to be a part of and a great way for girls to learn new skills that will help them long term in their career.

Girls Make Games
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Till next time,

Jamie Billings, AKA The Unicorn Princess

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