Words: Florence Robson
Despite a current shortage of up to 500,000 digital workers, in Europe women only make up 12% of talent in the field of AI, while only 25% of women are in STEM careers. It’s a gender gap that we urgently need to close – and Dee Saigal, founder of Conduit Connect company Erase All Kittens, is trying to do just that. Erase All Kittens is an online game that teaches children to code and empowers them to design and build their own creations on the web. We asked Dee to share what inspired her to develop the game and why she wishes she’d learned to code as a kid.
How did you first become interested in coding?
When I was younger, I wanted to be a games designer. I loved art, creative writing and coming up with ideas for games, but coding had always seemed like an impossible task. We weren’t taught coding at school, and I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me making games, so I assumed that I wouldn’t be smart enough. After my degree in graphic design at Central Saint Martins, I ended up working as a creative copywriter in advertising for seven years, before deciding to try something I was more passionate about.
I left Paris where I was working at TBWA, a big ad agency, and came back to London, where I attended lots of meetups in gaming and education. I met my co-founders, and after teaming up in a Global Game Jam, we started working on Erase All Kittens in the evenings and weekends – our mission being to come up with the most fun and engaging way to teach kids professional digital skills. A decade ago, I could never have imagined that I’d end up as the founder of a company. Perhaps if I had learnt to code as a child, it would have given me the confidence to follow my dreams sooner.
How did you come up with the concept for the game? Why kittens?!
Many young children, especially girls, are reluctant when it comes to learning to code. It’s unfamiliar, and there are usually a lot of instructions to follow in a linear way, in order to make something happen. When Tim Berners-Lee was asked for an example of a popular use of the internet that he would never have predicted, he answered ‘Kittens’. We thought that this would be a perfect place to start – an epic kitten-based storyline to encourage even the most technophobic child to want to learn to code.
After carrying out extensive research with students, we combined different factors – kitten gifs, quirky characters, a fun storyline, interactive dialogue and an ‘instant results’ mechanic where players can change the game’s source code, to build and fix levels – in order to inspire all children to love learning digital skills. The R&D we carried out was invaluable in understanding how young children (especially girls) learn best – and helped us to inspire over 150,000 children to code without paid-for ads or marketing.
What are your tips for getting kids interested in STEM subjects?
I would recommend coding clubs and camps such as CoderDojo, Cypher Coders and Mama Codes. There are also more robots and toys available, where young children can learn coding concepts to build objects they can play with. We created EAK to bridge the gap between learning basic concepts and learning transferable skills which can be used to create on the web, as there are currently few tools designed to address this.
Google’s Made With Code is a fantastic resource for teenage girls, and also includes stories of female role-models in STEM. Our aim is to inspire girls early on whilst equipping them with digital skills, to spark a lifelong interest in coding and technology.
How can parents use Erase All Kittens with their kids at home?
Since EAK is web-based, it’s very easy to play. You can sign up at eraseallkittens.com to play the first hour of the game for free.
Why do you think it’s so important that girls learn to code?
Since our world is becoming increasingly digital, girls who learn digital skills are ahead of the curve. Programming is now being used in every profession; girls who learn to code will have far more opportunities, higher wages and flexibility in their career than young women without these skills.
Knowing how to code helps enormously with critical thinking and logical reasoning. It encourages children to deal with large problems by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable ones. Through doing this, it’s possible to come up with innovative solutions to otherwise complex problems – and young women growing up with this way of thinking will always have confidence in their own ability and potential.
Right now, the vast majority of the products and services we use have been made by men; coding games for kids are a perfect example of this! Most have been designed to appeal more to boys, such as CodeCombat (fighting battles) and Hakitzu (fighting robots). Unless more girls and women start using technology to shape the world we live in, the gender gap will keep on growing. We’re building Erase All Kittens to address this problem, on a global scale.