Frank Lee has a vision: He pictures a girl looking up at a 29-story office tower in downtown Philadelphia, her face aglow as she watches LEDs across the building’s facade light up in clever patterns. He imagines the girl smiling proudly, because that facade is displaying a 29-story video game that she designed and programmed herself.
Lee, cofounder of the game design department at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, has devised a literal way for girls to see the big impact they can have in the game industry. At press time, Lee was planning a December 2015 launch of the “world’s largest video game” contest for teenage girls in Philadelphia. In partnership with local education group TechGirlz and chapters of the Girl Scouts, the contest will kick off with a series of workshops where students will learn how to code in Python. Then they’ll move on to designing games intended for the city’s 29-story Cira Centre building, games that will manipulate the office tower’s LEDs as if they were pixels on a display screen. Finally, this summer, members of the public will stand on the terrace of a nearby museum and use remote controllers to play the winning games.
The lack of women working in game design prompted this project: “I look at my industry and I’m embarrassed,” says Lee. A 2014 industry survey [pdf] found that women account for only 22 percent of game designers.
Intel has signed on as a sponsor, and the company wants to work with Lee to scale up the initiative. This year’s contest will draw its participants from Philadelphia; if the pilot goes well, a regional competition could come next, and then a national contest, says Lee Machen, Intel’s director of consumer software. “By that third round, we hope that tech schools for girls will make this part of their curriculum,” he says. “Who knows where this will go.”
The project fits squarely with Intel’s recent mission to increase diversity in the tech industry. At the January 2015 CES technology show, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced a US $300 million fund [pdf] to encourage diversity within the company and in the industry at large. The ambitious effort was a response, in part, to the company’s blunder during the 2014 Gamergate controversy, during which Intel initially seemed to side with online communities that were harassing women in the gaming industry.
Machen, whose job includes overseeing Intel’s relationships with game developers, says his team aims to make the game industry “a great place to work” for women and underrepresented minorities. While some of their efforts encourage diversity in hiring, Machen says other initiatives must start far earlier to ensure there are plenty of female job candidates. “If there’s a pipeline issue, it starts way before people are coming out of college, or even high school,” he says.
The contest also has the support of the real estate company that owns the Cira Centre, a glassy tower covered from top to bottom with a Philips LED display. The company is getting used to Lee’s outsize requests: In 2013 he borrowed the facade to play the classic video game Pong, and he followed up in 2014 with a mega version of Tetris. Lee hopes that the DIY nature of game creation will be more engaging for girls than traditional education efforts have been. Others see similar potential for engagement throughout the broader maker movement: In August last year, Intel’s corporate strategist Genevieve Bell told the crowd at a developer conference that the maker movement draws in people who otherwise might not get involved in technology. “It’s fun, with a little bit of art, a little bit of whimsy,” she said. Make that a big bit of whimsy for Philadelphia.
This article originally appeared in print as “Building 29-Story Video Games.”