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/ Source: TODAY
By Marguerite Ward

Imagine dreaming up an idea for a video game, creating it from scratch and pitching it to industry professionals … all at 12 years old. Oh, and then receiving more than $30,000 to have professionals help you fine-tune and publish it.

For four middle schoolers, that’s what happened, thanks to Girls Make Games, a summer camp and workshop series designed to inspire the next generation of women in the gaming industry. The organization was started by Laila Shabir and Ish Syed, founders of LearnDistrict, a company that creates educational video games, and has helped a number of young women and nonbinary young people publish real games.

"The video games industry is one of the biggest content creators that influences society, and especially our youth (nine out 10 US kids play games). When women don't make games, their perspective and contribution is left out of this incredible vehicle for social change," Shabir and Ish Syed write on their website.

For Crystal Nelson, Gracie Clauson, Isadora Tiffe and Keira Munko — collectively known as Team Sarcastic Shark — the summer program opened up their eyes to possibilities of careers in a largely male-dominated industry. The group is being honored as Groundbreakers as part of TODAY's celebration for International Day of the Girl.

In 2018, the group got together to create a game called “Shredded Secrets.” It follows a student being bullied as well the bully himself (who’s secretly struggling with his sexual identity) and a teacher dealing with personal issues of her own.

“It’s about more than what’s wrong with bullying. There’s two aspects of bullying,” Clauson told TODAY. “The first character you unlock is your main character, Isabella, she’s the one who’s being bullied. Once you get through the levels, you unlock the character of the bully.”

Their game shows a sensitivity and social awareness typical of their generation defined by increased activism around a range of social issues like climate change and gun violence.

“Don’t let other people get you down. If there’s something you’re really passionate about, you should keep going and be persistent until you do it,” Munko told TODAY. Girls Make Games

“We felt that bullying is a problem to address because there’s so many people affected by bullying and we want people to realize how much it hurts people, and also there can be multiple sides to the story,” Munko said.

Their hard work and design got them in front of the summer camp’s panel of judges, which included executives from Microsoft and PlayStation. They presented their vision for the game and Team Sarcastic Shark was named the winner. The game is now available now on Mac and PC to download for free,

“I thought it was cool to send our gaming concepts to people, because you wouldn’t think that such a little game made by (then) 12-year-olds would actually be seen by people who actually work in the industry,” Nelson said.

The team’s crowdfunding campaign money will be used for professionals to continue developing and eventually publishing the game on Steam, a video game digital distribution platform, in the spring of 2020.

The now 13-year-olds had succinct yet powerful advice for other young people.

“Be an activist for your own beliefs and be true to yourself,” Tiffe said.

When asked as a group who their biggest role model is, Team Sarcastic Shark quickly agreed on Grace Hopper, pioneering computer programmer who helped create the first commercial electronic computer and was the one to coin the phrase computer or software "bug." The team members agreed Hopper captures the trailblazing spirit they want to cultivate in themselves.

“Keep on trying and never give up,” Nelson said.