Welcome to Dames Who Make Games, Gamerwife’s interview series with the lovely ladies who make our video games. Whether you’re a QA tester or a company VP, we want to hear what you have to say. And remember to click “Continue reading” for the whole story.
For the first Dames Who Make Games interview of 2014, I am absolutely delighted to be able to share my first interview with a video game student! That’s right, Tina K. is in her first year as a Master’s student at the University of Utah’s Master in Entertainment Arts and Engineering (MEAE for short).
Tina originally got in touch with me after reading Sherida’s interview and the passion and enthusiasm she displayed made me instantly want to interview her. She also blogs about her experience as a grad student, providing some great insights into the unique structure of the MEAE program. Also, why not check out her first game as producer, Snow Place Like Home, for Windows 8.
Gamerwife: First things first, what was the first game you ever played?
Tina: The first game I ever played was Super Mario World on the SNES. I have an older brother and a younger brother, and my grandmother sent us the SNES (which came with the game) for Christmas when I was six or seven. We set it up right away and I watched my older brother slowly try to figure out the game, and it was just the most fascinating thing. Looking back, it was just a process of trial and error, but it for me it was the first time I remember being able to consciously figure out the rules of something as I interacted with it. Of course, we played the game so much that to this day I still have a sort of muscle memory when I play it.
Fun fact, we still have the SNES and it still works like a charm. My older brother is the current custodian.
GW: What made you decide to pursue video games as a possible career?
Tina: This one is hard to answer, because I still haven’t really figured it out myself. I’ve had such a strange relationship with video games, because I can never pinpoint when exactly I was really a “gamer”. This may be a reflection of the whole fake geek girl phenomenon, but it may be that they just weren’t blatantly important to me as I was growing up. I’ll try to outline my decision as best as I can.
As I mentioned, games have been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. Once the novelty of that first Mario game wore off, I simply accepted that games were just… there, and I enjoyed them.. I don’t remember actively seeking them out – I didn’t need to- because my brothers got plenty of games and I played those. It never occurred to me to ask for games of my own, since my interests didn’t deviate from theirs. The first game I played for myself was Planescape: Torment when I was in early high school. From that point on, I definitely had game interests of my own. I played games on my friends’ game systems just to try them out because we didn’t have them at home, and I was consciously picking and choosing games to play for just me.
As time passed I played more and more. It was kind of a hobby that only my friends knew about, you know? But I didn’t really get a chance to play with others, unless again you count my brothers. It never, ever occurred to me that I could do it for a living. I avoided games journalism websites and barely thought about the people that made games. I went to college to get a degree in Psychology because I wanted to work in the nonprofit field. I thought helping people was a pretty good thing to do with my life and I was “good with people”. It was not until way, way later that a thousand light bulbs went off above my head– and I probably blinded someone– when I had the realization: people make games. FOR MONEY. I don’t even know when that moment happened, I was just aware of it one day.
That still wasn’t when I decided to do it myself, though. That happened when I worked at my current university, not very long ago. The MEAE program was gaining more traction and I found out about it somehow– in an employee newsletter or something. I went home and said to my then-boyfriend (now husband), “THIS IS A THING THAT EXISTS.” Because, woah, you can learn how to make games. Apparently, that can be taught. I had not connected those dots. I worriedly glanced at the program’s tracks (Arts, Engineering, and Production), determined that I had skills that maybe sort of matched up with Production… And just like that, I was decided. I could maybe do that. I could try to work on games.
…Just kidding. I mean, that’s when I got the idea to maybe sort of think about applying and doing that with my life, but it took an insane amount of encouragement from friends and family to just go for it and apply. But that’s another story.
GW: Tell us about the MEAE program and why you chose the University of Utah?
Tina: MEAE stands for “Master in Entertainment Arts and Engineering”. It’s a fancy academic way to say a masters in video games. It’s a brand new degree, created just this year, though the program itself has actually been around for a number of years. Corrinne Lewis, the program manager, could tell you way more about the program than I could– she’s been a huge part of it since the beginning. She was one of the first people I spoke to when considering the program. All of the program’s recent national acclaim and rankings (#1 undergrad, #2 graduate in the country) didn’t happen until after I had applied and it wasn’t ever a factor. If I’m being perfectly honest, I didn’t even really grasp that there was more than one program out there I could look into. They exist, but I had tunnel vision.
I didn’t actively choose the University of Utah, to be fair. It was all a happy accident. My undergrad college was the University of Colorado at Boulder. I ended up in Utah because of my husband, whom I was dating long distance at the time. After a string of post-college jobs and something resembling a quarter-life-crisis, I lucked into a job at the University of Utah. That’s where I found out about the program. I sought out the undergraduate program advisors and made an appointment with them, thinking that I’d have to earn a 2nd bachelors in order to really be a strong candidate for graduate school. They referred me to Corrinne who was absolutely wonderful and assured me I was not crazy for wanting to apply to their program with a BA in Psych. In fact, my program actively encourages diverse backgrounds.
The program is essentially a two year long studio simulation. There are artists, engineers, and producers. We each have our separate, track-specific courses, but we have classes together, too. The production track actually focuses on learning some basic art and engineering skills. There are research projects with community businesses and the university hospital, competitions, game jams, etc. They bring industry experts in on a regular basis to teach us things like how to tailor your resume, how to interview, how to market a mobile game….it goes on and on and on.
My cohort is 50 people large, the biggest cohort yet, and we’re together in a giant lab with shiny new computers. They’re gaming rigs, screaming fast, and built that way on purpose. How could we learn about games unless we were able to play them? They just got an Xbox One and a PS4 for the north lab and they buy new games all the time that students can check out to play.
MEAE is a program that strives to teach you everything you need to know, and they encourage you every step of the way. They want you to live and breathe games, and we’re only happy to oblige.
GW: What are the best/worst things about going to school for video games?
Tina: We’ll start with worst, since I just mentioned a lot of the best.
I’m in the lab all the time. It is difficult work and I feel insecure, like I’m failing, because I have never done this before and I didn’t embrace being a gamer for so long. There is also the “video games aren’t a real, stable career” thing from some well-meaning family members and such, but so far I’ve encountered that very little. Sometimes having such a big cohort can get a little crazy, like when we have ten teams and we have to present our projects and it takes forever.
Seriously, though, that’s pretty much it for the bad stuff. I’m really in the lab all the time because I actually like it there. Spending 8-9 hours a day on campus either in class or in the lab is not a problem. Sometimes I’m in the lab just to play games. One of the more frequent questions my classmates ask each other is, “are you playing that for fun or for research?” It can be both! It’s hard because it’s supposed to be hard and It’s a completely novel experience. Many of us are new to this stuff. They throw us in the deep end. No one sinks because every chance for support is given. I am constantly amazed at how available the faculty members are. Sure, there’s a lot of doggy paddling for us students, but there is also an amazing measurable growth in the quality of our work. We learn by doing.
The camaraderie we have in my cohort is even more unbelievable! We see each other in school so much and STILL want to hang out on the weekends. Even the faculty arrange extra-curricular activities like Magic tournaments or a D&D night to expand our horizons. We all fit together, though. That’s probably one of my favorite things. It’s sappy, but the differences in our backgrounds brings a lot to the table, and adds even more to our projects.
Also, come on. I’m going to school for video games. It’s so rad.
GW: Have there been any projects you’ve particularly loved/hated? Why?
Tina: Oooooh boy. So, cards on the table – this is my first semester. Next semester will be something completely new. I bet I’ll have a very different answer for you in a few more months.
The first semester has three classes: Rapid Prototyping, Design I, and the track-specific class. We all have the first two together. In Rapid Prototyping, we’re split into teams with two producers, two engineers, and one artist. Then we’re given a couple of rules and four weeks to create a prototype of a game. (Ideally a playable prototype.)
I’ve loved all of the rapid prototypes we worked on, because they’ve each served a purpose and taught us a valuable lesson. The first prototype was “Make a mobile game using this undocumented system (MOAI) that appeals to this specific audience.” The second was “Take an arcade game and iterate on it each week until it’s your own game. Use Flash/HTMLl5.” The third prototype was “Make a game that has ‘Indie’ aesthetics that would appeal to an ‘Indie’ audience. Use an existing game engine like Unity.” The last one that we’re just finishing up? “Make a mobile game to release in the Windows Store.” Yeah, that’s right. Not one semester into grad school and I’ll be published. How about them apples!
Those assignments seem easy at first, but they’re actually pretty complicated. They leave a lot to be unpacked. What does the audience like? What are the limitations of the technology? What game do we want to make? How the heck do we make “Indie” when we’re ALREADY indie as students? That’s where the learning happens.
My most hated project so far is from Design class. We had to come up with 100 game ideas and write them on numbered postcards. We worked on them all semester. When they were due, we turned them in up front. Later, the professor pulled one at random and read it aloud, asking if anyone had the same idea or something similar. I think there were two ideas that were completely original, maybe? Anyway, so the professor tossed 80 of the 100 ideas right there. Just right into the recycling bin. It was almost funny to see my classmates react, but it was a great lesson. Ideas are a dime a dozen, and good/original ones are hard to come by. From the 20 that are left, we had to pick ten and write short pitches for them. From there, we had to create design docs.
I lied. I didn’t actually hate that assignment. It was a great assignment. I hated it because I was an idiot and didn’t save the ideas on a computer somewhere. Let that be a lesson to you! ALWAYS SAVE YOUR IDEAS. Even if they might be stupid.
The hardest assignment has been this last prototype cycle. Not only am I the lone producer, but I have to figure out how to navigate so many different systems. The Windows 8 store is crazy! I had to register a domain for the first time in my life the other day. It’s hard to hate assignments when I have to do so many interesting and useful things, but the time crunch of it being at the end of the semester on top of many other big assignments has left our cohort very stressed, and I don’t like it one bit.
GW: Have you ever had issues with harassment or discrimination as a woman in video games education?
Tina: I’ve had to think about this question a lot. In my outside life? Yes. All the time. Absolutely. I have many of your standard “are you a girl or a 12 year old boy” stories about voice chat and so forth. In graduate school? No.
I can be a really loud, insufferable know-it-all. My unofficial nickname is Hermione because of this. I am one of nine girls in the program (out of 50) and one of two female producers. We’re doing better than the industry average, but not by much. I’m never afraid to speak my mind, though, and most of the time I do so without even thinking of what I’m saying. Still, there has been no direct harassment. To my classmates’ credit, they’re all very great people and don’t make “girls in video games hurrr hurrr” comments/jokes.
At least, not on purpose. The worst part is seeing the attitudes that they’re NOT aware of.
Remember that first Rapid Prototyping assignment I described? The intended audience was two faculty members (women aged 30+). Half of the prototypes that were made involved animals or food in some way. It bothered me a lot, and I said something about it to some of the guys, but I didn’t get much of a reaction. It seemed silly to bring it up at the time, but looking back on it I could have made it a bigger deal.
I encounter that kind of situation way more often than I care to admit, but I view it more as an opportunity to speak up than a chance to chastise my classmates. I feel preachy sometimes, but I figure that just comes with the territory. There are plenty of little joking comments, of course, but on the whole there is a conscious effort made by the faculty, staff, and students to be inclusive. It’s not a perfect situation, but it is far better that I could have hoped for. Even if my classmates were somehow not as awesome as they are, I don’t think anyone would actually harass or discriminate against me openly, because I’d raise hell.
I won’t lie, I’m a little nervous about events and such. My classmates are one thing, but the industry and others out in the real world are quite another. It’s kind of funny, having to explain to my friends why I’d ask if anyone knew where the GDC harassment policy was and other little things, but it’s still a thing that I worry about.
GW: What advice do you have for other women who want to be involved in game development or would like to pursue academic careers related to video games?
I know this is going to sound really motivational-speaker-y, but: YOU CAN DO IT. Seriously. You can get into games. Academics and video games are becoming more and more involved with one another, and there’s room for everyone. Actual degree programs are becoming more and more widespread, too – forgive the pun, but make sure you do your homework. Find out what classes you take for the degree. Talk to the faculty, alumni, and current students. Ask them what their experience is and how their classes are taught and what sort of work you do. Ask any question you can think of, because it’s important to arm yourself with knowledge. The whole process of getting into school can be easy or it can be very difficult, because unfortunately not all opportunities are created equally– especially in the world of academics and higher education. If you’re anything like me, it might be your own self-doubt holding you back. My undergrad GPA wasn’t the best, and I thought that would keep me back. It didn’t. There are so many different programs and experiences out there for you to discover– just look around a little.
GW: What are your goals/dreams once you finish your education?
I want to make stuff! I want to give people some serious “WOAH!” moments when they play games. I don’t exactly know what that means in terms of goals, but I want to continue this trend of being surrounded by people just as cool and inspiring as my classmates and make games with them. One of the typical questions I’m asked is, “Where do you want to work?” I don’t actually know. From my point of view, some studios look more “fun” than others. Somewhere with a relaxed workplace where the bottom line isn’t “how fast can you work”, rather “how much do you care about what you’re doing?” I don’t really want to make sports games or the next CoD/Battlefield iteration, but they’re really popular so…I don’t want to limit my horizons. I don’t know if that means working in a major studio or a small one, because there are so many out there and they all have wildly varying reputations. I want to work somewhere outside of the US, if possible. I’ve shockingly never been out of the country, so that needs to change.
Oh, and I know this seems really egotistical, but I mean it in the best possible way: I want to become a highly visible lady making games so that I can inspire others to follow suit and get involved. Diversity is sorely needed in this field, and I want to be around to help it along somehow if I can. If nothing else, I want to be in a place where I have the ability to help others do what they love without fear of harassment or discrimination or ridicule, so, there’s that.
GW: What games are you playing right now?
Wellllllllll. Don’t tell my professors this [EDITOR’S NOTE: Too late.], because we have so many projects and deadlines looming, but I’ve been playing Chop Squares. And FTL. And Binding of Isaac. Anything I can play for a few minutes just to switch mental gears and take a break. I recently replayed Portal 2, too, just to see what it looked like now that I study games. (Still AWESOME.) Over winter break, I plan to finally sit down with Fez and dig in.
Thanks again to Tina for taking the time to write me that first email and for taking the time to answer all my questions. It’s being able to share your stories in your words that makes this feature such a joy to work on.