Dear Little Star

An open letter to a young women who loves unicorns and struggles with computer programming.
August 26, 2013

Dr. Carla Fisher is a game designer and digital strategist with fingerprints on more than 300 games for kids and families. She continues her musings outside this blog via a free weekly newsletter (sign up here) that curates articles, videos, and games that catch her eye. She can be reached at or @NoCrusts.

Dear Little Star,

We’ve never met, but your uncle is a colleague and told me about you, your love of unicorns, and your struggles with programming. I hope you’ll forgive me for posting my note publicly, but I’ve heard so many stories like yours that end in young women “hating” computer programming, technology, and the sciences in general. I’m lucky enough to have a public forum through this blog, and so I’m sharing this note for you and all the girls like you.

I’m a game designer and I love every crazy minute. I have my own company. I travel internationally to talk about making games for kids. I’ve worked with Elmo and a host of other famous characters. I made a cooperative game that’s all about putting mustaches on cats and no one can spell the title because Williamspurrrrg has four Rs. It’s all pretty absurd when I think about it too much, but I’m happy.

What’s funny is that I never said I wanted to be a game designer when I grew up.

I didn’t know that I could be a game designer. When I was 10 or so, I learned to program in BASIC. (I really liked making fortune-telling games.) But girls weren’t really encouraged to do things like code back then. I found my way into music, which led to college studies were in bassoon performance and, when that was not the right fit for me, eventually I graduated with a degree in political science and went into journalism.

I only found my way to games because I was working at Highlights for Children magazine after college. When it became clear that The Internet was around to stay, I was offered the opportunity to work with the Highlights Web team, and I fell in love with games.

I like to know how things work, so I learned to code over the years. I get frustrated really quickly, though. In fact, I’m on the record as saying programming makes me cry. It’s maddening that a stupid forgotten semi-colon can cause so many problems. Sometimes I wonder if some sadistic English teacher with a grammar hang-up invented the syntax!

Eventually, I stopped banging my head against the keyboard and came to peace with coding. I prototype ideas and noodle around as a hobby, just as playing bassoon is now a hobby. I don’t code anything for professional release because that raises my blood pressure uncomfortably. I rely on programmers to execute our projects, leaving me plenty of other things to do, from game design to marketing to business development.

In his note about you, your uncle said, “Now that she’s figuring out what she wants to do and where she wants to go to college, I’m hoping she ‘rules things in rather than rules things out.’ ”

I can’t agree with him more. I’m actually not writing this to tell you to hang in there with those programming classes.

It’s totally OK to decide that coding is not your thing.

But don’t hate it or dismiss it entirely either.

Keep your eyes open and you may find an aspect of programming that suits you just fine. Or you may find something completely different to own.

If you take away anything from my note, it’s this: Explore every option. (Who knew that BASIC, bassoon, political science, and children’s publishing would lead me here?) Steep learning curves will meet you every step of the way, leading to tough decisions of whether to persevere or move on to something else. No matter what, it’ll be a good time and an unpredictable journey.

Happy 16th birthday, Little Star! I look forward to hearing about all of your adventures.

Blue skies,


Photo © Rob Boudon

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