London, April 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Alexa was eight when she discovered video games, from racing, solving puzzles and playing out fantasies in virtual worlds.

But as a girl gamer, she was sometimes the odd one out among her peers.

"In my class, no girls really play games. It's just the boys. I think more games are aimed towards boys than girls," said the London student, now 10 years old.

But Alexa hopes to change that after spending a day at a workshop by Girls Make Games, a U.S.-based training organisation that works to inspire more girls to consider a career in the male-dominated video games industry.

"I didn't really think I could be a video game developer but this has made me think about that because before, I generally thought it was just men," said Alexa at the London offices of gaming giant Sony PlayStation, where the event was held.

"I would want to see more gender-neutral things - not stuff that's stereotyped to be for girls, like pink or rainbows. And not the boy stereotypes, like fighting and racing (games)."

Through workshops and summer camps in over 50 cities globally, Girls Make Games has taught over 6,000 girls how to programme and design basic video games to get them interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

In the United States, nearly 60 percent of girls play video games, compared to 84 percent of boys, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report.

But if you include gamers of all ages, women make up nearly half the players in the United States, said the Entertainment Software Association, which represents the U.S. computer and video game industry.

The global video games industry - including mobile games and consoles - was worth some $135 billion in 2018, and is projected to jump to $174 billion by 2021, data from gaming analytics company Newzoo showed.

Missing voice

Despite the huge appetite for video games from both men and women, only 22 percent of game developers are female, according to figures by the U.S.-based International Game Developers Association, the largest global network for people who create video games.

It's not just about making games, though.

The industry was embroiled in a movement known as "Gamergate", in which video game fans, mostly men, lashed back aggressively online at criticism about sexism in gaming culture. The movement came into general public view in 2014.

"It's important to teach girls to make video games. That voice is missing in the industry and you can see it in the marketplace in the kind of games that exist," said Laila Shabir, who founded Girls Make Games in 2014.

In 2018, for example, the top-selling games in the U.S. were shooting, sport and racing titles, including "Red Dead Redemption 2", "NBA 2K19" and "Mario Kart 8", according to NPD, an analytics firm.

"When young boys grow up and become game developers, they make certain kinds of games that are more appealing to boys and I think the cycle just continues," Shabir told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We're trying to break that cycle so we can create more access and a greater variety and diversity in voice that exists out there," Shabir said.

Level up

Even though the number of women in STEM has increased in recent years, they still only account for about 30 percent of the world's researchers, said the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO.

But getting teenage girls to play more video games could help to boost those statistics, a 2018 study by the University of Surrey in Britain showed.

The paper, published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, found that 13- to 14-year-old girls who played video games for over nine hours a week were three times more likely to study a STEM degree at university, compared to non-gamers.

Anesa Hosein, who conducted the research, said it was crucial for educators to encourage girls who express an interest in video games or computers to consider a career in STEM.

Hosein said the industry needed to "break the vicious cycle", where a lack of female role models has been leading to fewer girls wanting to pursue jobs in STEM which, in turn, has led to fewer role models.

"It is important for girls to go into STEM in order to create science, innovations or video games that suits their interests and that are relevant to them, rather than being given something and told this is what is appropriate for them."

For 11-year-old Ariana, another student at the workshop, being able to programme and design her own video game for others to enjoy would be a dream.

"I want to see how it would be to make the games," she said.

"You might get other people to play the games and they might like it and they might feel proud of the game, too, because you coded it from scratch."

(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)