Ottawa non-profit gives girls skills to join gaming industry

Girl force mentors
From left: Jillian Mood, Lindsay Blenkhorn and Jason Nuyens. (Photo by Haley Ritchie / Metro)

A group of insiders in the Ottawa gaming industry is setting out to fix a glaring glitch in the local sector: A worrying scarcity of women working in games.

It was roughly two years ago that Jason Nuyens, founder of indie gaming studio Breakfall, approached Jillian Mood, who runs an HR & branding firm for gaming companies, about a common problem: Despite wanting to increase the representation of women in the field, it was difficult to find female candidates.

“I notice, as an HR person, that it’s really hard to find females to hire into studios,” Mood says.

Nuyens and Mood found other women in the local industry who shared their concerns, and Girl Force, a non-profit that provides introductory classes in coding and game design, was born.

The organization just finished its third set of classes, having taught nearly 60 girls in the basics of game development. Classes are free and available to all women and non-binary individuals aged 15 and older, with high school girls making up the majority of participants.

Mood says the goal of Girl Force is to offer a safe space for girls who haven’t had the chance or haven’t felt comfortable pursuing computer science on their own.

“It really stems from education. When girls are in junior high, high school, a lot of them really don’t feel comfortable going into the tech route or joining groups. They’re not choosing the classes that are tech focused or learning how to code,” she says.

By the time girls decide on a post-secondary path, the decision has already been made away from gaming. Mood says Girl Force hopes to make a change earlier in the process, and inspire more women to think about a career in gaming.

It’s an approach that has been expanded to other sectors of technology and business. Ladies Learning Code, which also has an Ottawa chapter, aims to increase the number of female technology builders. Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke has expressed his own desires to incorporate coding earlier into school curricula, and the e-commerce firm recently signed onto a new initiative to increase diversity and representation in entrepreneurship.

“(Women) have the desire to learn tech and go through it, they just need the right space and environment and support to do it,” Mood says.

Data from the International Game Developers Association shows that individuals working in gaming today are still predominantly male. According to the most recent version of IGDA’s annual survey of developers and academics in the industry, 72 per cent of respondents identified as male, though that number has decreased from 76 per cent in 2014. Additionally, 78 per cent of those surveyed indicated that they believed diversity in gaming to be important.

“With initiatives like this, we’re going to see very quick changes in the industry and the makeup of demographics,” says Mood.

Girl Force has been operated nearly entirely out-of-pocket by the organizers to date, holding classes in spaces offered by local companies. Mood says support and contributions from the community have been overwhelming, and key to their success.

With a mind to move Girl Force to the next level, the organization is holding a fundraiser this weekend at Atari. The daytime event will include students that have been through the program showing off their games, as well as welcoming prospective students. Local tech companies such as You.i TV and Microsoft will be on hand, and local artists have donated pieces for auction. All money raised from the sale go towards Girl Force.

The fresh injection of funds could mean training for mentors, covering bigger venue costs and providing equipment such as laptops for girls who can’t bring their own. Mood also says there could be a “level two” program coming to teach girls who have been through the program more advanced skills.

Girl Force’s fourth round of classes will begin this fall.