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Event Wrap Up: Women in Games International

Microsoft's Red West campus in Redmond, Washington hosted the first in a series of upcoming Women in Games International Conferences. Entitled “Advancing Your Career in Game Development: The Women's Perspective,” the conference featured ten panels with a total of sixteen speakers and drew four hundred registered attendees.


A panel discussion at Women in Games International.

Introduction

Microsoft's Red West campus in Redmond, Washington hosted the first in a series of upcoming Women in Games International Conferences. “Advancing Your Career in Game Development: The Women's Perspective” (September 10, 2005) featured ten panels with a total of sixteen speakers followed by a networking party sponsored by Microsoft Game Studios and drew four hundred registered attendees. After a successful event, committee members are enthusiastic about the conferences scheduled in San Francisco and Dallas.

Keynote—“Supporting an Inclusive Work Culture”

Shannon Loftis, Group Program Manager at Microsoft Game Studios, shared her experience as a woman in the game industry for the past twelve years and discussed ways of establishing and supporting an inclusive work culture. “Inclusion is a subset of diversity and necessary to the success of a productive game design team,” she said. “By creating a safe environment for the entire team, creative risks are more likely to occur, leading to better gaming concepts and long lasting productivity.”

In order to achieve an inclusive work culture, a team member must first evaluate his/her own core values and integrate them into the team without forcing ways of thinking on other members. As a recruiter, Loftis listens during the interview process for unique and possibly shocking responses to application questions. She encourages recruiters to approach interviews in the mindset of looking for difference. Unusual approaches to game design strategies lead to well-rounded teams.

A culture of respect is vital to maintaining an inclusive team, according to Loftis. It is essential to account for all input. Since game development is often more complicated than traditional work, members need to be willing to cross-over content and provide valuable feedback if they expect to capitalize on the value of each team member's role in the process.

In Loftis' experience at Microsoft, the informal mentoring and sponsoring system has been helpful, particularly for women in the company. A mentor is typically older or at least more experienced in the company and serves as an advice giver to new employees. A sponsor is a direct contact for participating in new projects. Both roles are integral to an inclusive team nature among members.

Sometimes work environments are non-inclusive. Loftis recommends building a network to ensure change. Asking for advice and seeking assistance is important, but at the same time you have to remain true to your core values. If change and acceptance seem unlikely, it is time to evaluate your quality of life. Even if it is a difficult decision, quality of life is more important than keeping the job you are unhappy at. As the game industry expands and continues on an upswing with multiple new platforms, options become available. There are more opportunities for working in companies that value diversity. Attendees cheered Loftis' passion for inclusive environments, so there's hope for continuing change and increased diversity in the game industry.

Panel—“Breaking In: How to Acquire the Skills and Get that First Job”

Jen Sward, Instructor at DigiPen, discusses strategies for breaking into the industry with students. She stresses the importance of attitude, education, networking, and the application process. Her fellow panelists agree and provide experiential insight.

Attitude ranks at the top of getting into the industry. Ellen Beeman, Program Manager at Microsoft Corporation, looks for people who are open to learning new technologies. Amy Bendotti, Recruiter at Monolith Productions, looks for enthusiasm, focus, and specific attention when recruiting quality assurance testers. Sward tells artists to leave behind egos and develop communication skills. Admittedly, a few jabs were made at the reclusive nature of many programmers. Increasingly, the ability to be outspoken and express opinions is vital to team development, and programmers need to work on those personality traits.

Education and learning skills are important to getting the first job. College experience is best used by taking opportunities in classes to work on projects that can later be used in a portfolio. Internships are also a helpful way to gain experience in the industry and network, but are sometimes limited and difficult to acquire. Suzanne Kaufman, 3D Animation and Environment Lead at Sucker Punch, recommends DigiPen, the Vancouver Film School , and the Art Institute as colleges with game relevant education. Education does not stop with a degree; it is a fact in the game industry.

Networking, networking, networking. Find references by attending industry nights, making IGDA connections, and joining online communities. Kaufman recommends a sneaky tactic—inquiring about a tour of the company and meeting employees through the tour. At the same time, she warns against direct cold calls. Sward advises students to ask for informational interviews from recruiters. This strategy, she says, creates a relationship for asking about job openings in the future. Currently, the game industry is bright for women applicants. Diversity is increasingly important to game companies and women are sought out.

Think about the application process. Bendotti looks for cover letters that match qualifications to the advertisement, and Sward evaluates résumés in the same manner. Cover letters are essential to getting a job. Résumés in the game industry tend to be one to three pages and should address skills relevant to the job. Beeman recommends creating a website portfolio and providing easy access to application materials without downloads. Sward adds that websites should be constantly updated. She also prefers to see video captures of the game first. Kaufman stresses giving credit to teamwork in any projects used in the portfolio or referenced in the résumé. All panelists advise against sending game ideas due to copyright issues. Portfolios should contain completed projects. Bendotti reminds applicants, “It's really nice when the applicant actually knows the company and its games.”

Panel—“An Array of Career Options”

The game industry has a variety of career paths. Dana Hanna, freelance producer, sees the producer position as a subset to game development and responsible for overall visions, budgets, meeting milestones, managing teams, and identifying what the game is, why it needs to be made, and who it is for. Sandra Rumsey, QA Manager at Mobliss, values the quality assurance position because it tests both bugs and concepts and documents information to find solutions. Kiki Wolfkill, Art Director at Microsoft Game Studios, steers the design from vision to art team through management and communication. Maureen Farley, Senior PR Manager at Real Networks, says marketing can only occur if the company embraces tools such as active listening, writing, and creative approaches. Rick Lambright, Director of Online Technology at Sony Online Entertainment, expects programmers and engineers to be enthusiastic self-starters with technological skills and the ability to learn as new technologies form.

Exceptional skills are necessary in these career paths. For assistant producers, Hanna sees organization, coordination, and the ability to recognize systems of organization as essentials. For associate producers, the essentials shift to flexibility, the ability to adapt, organizational skills in streams of communication, and having a vision not only for the product but also for the team. Rumsey hopes for QA testers that can deal with defensive designers and enthusiastically dive into new projects. Wolfkill looks for good judgment and creative leadership in artists. Maureen looks for curious and detail-oriented people, since PR positions require someone who can be both an individual contributor and a collaborator. Rick Lambright wants programmers and engineers who are motivated natural leaders and problem solvers who also possess efficient coding skills.

Career growth is expected in all paths at the three-year mark. Producers should be able to communicate with people and resolve conflict, and will likely be in a position to switch companies. QA testers should have organizational skills and effective test methods, which should lead to a position in team management. Artists will acquire lead roles or decide to change areas, depending on self-direction and their comfort with software. Programmers and engineers share similar expectations and should either take on a lead role or change areas. In all career paths, anyone in the game industry should be able to recognize the importance of each career and understand the integration of teamwork and communication.

Panel—“The Ultimate Challenge: Balancing Work and Personal Life”

Sward, Loftis, Beeman, and Sheri Graner Ray, Sr. Game Designer at Sony Online Entertainment, are concerned about how women can tackle quality of life issues. The infamous “crunch mode” is inevitable in game development and causes strain in personal life. Ray notes that women have three hours less time a day than men, which greatly impacts women who are expected to put in more hours during a rush to complete a project. In past industry experience, they worked eighty to one hundred hours a week and gave up too much in their lives because of time restrictions.

Fortunately, there are methods to create a balance between work and life. Ray advises setting out time for yourself and recognizing the value of your personal life. Loftis values the help provided by a network within the work environment and recommends giving yourself a structured reason to leave work. Sward uses outside activities for breaks, such as taking classes that are not related to work. She also advises learning about time management and looking for projects that are manageable.

Beeman comments that the game industry is unfortunately hit driven and oftentimes the additional work hours are self-inflicted. What can companies do? Ray creates appropriate schedules and works to understand the limitations of employees. At times, she has to force them to go home. Make them eat, take a shower, sleep, and come back the next day refreshed. Beeman agrees enthusiastically: “Yes, make them take showers!”

Ray also seeks out education about management for employees. Loftis focuses on rewarding everyone for sustained efforts, not just those who work overtime. Sward hopes to see more companies take employees out for social or physical events to unwind. Beeman sees development management and focusing on the essential needs of projects as helpful to avoiding “crunch mode.”

Overall, despite the publicity of issues concerning quality of life, experts envision women driving these issues to the forefront. The future is optimistic for the game industry. As it continues to adapt to traditional software company methods, it matures beyond constantly re-inventing the wheel.



The audience sitting in attention at Women in Games International.

Panel—“The Executive Perspective”

Executives Sheri Hargus, CTO at Her Interactive, Samantha Ryan, CEO at Monolith Productions, Stuart Moulder, Vice President at Wild Tangent, Gano Haine, VP Product Development at LimeLife share similar hopes and concerns about the growing game industry. Hargus envisions games increasingly integrated into the living room experience and stresses balancing the threats of outsourcing game development with a focus on the unique qualities of storytelling elements in games. Ryan sees a growth in the artist input in the industry and an opportunity to shift dynamics in game development, but is weary of threats of game companies outsourcing programming. Moulder anticipates the improved connections among programmers and designers. He worries about the continuing trend of escalating game development costs, but hopes for an increase in online driven revenue. Haine is optimistic about the development in local programs and minimalist games, most of which are made with Flash.

Drawing from Shannon Loftis' Keynote, the executives are enthusiastic about inclusive work environments and improving diversity. Hargus sets an example for young girls through the company Her Interactive and encourages diverse stories and characters to mentor women. Ryan regards solving the quality of life issues as a vital part to drawing in diversity. Haine has worked in the industry throughout the uphill battle against the restraints of money in the industry, but sees a developing change in recognition of the importance behind diversity. Moulder encourages three thoughtful steps to improving diversity—game developers need to create more diverse game content, larger companies need to pay for scholarships at universities, and recruiters need to focus on finding more creative talent and new places to get candidates.

But how do you reach an executive position to make changes? Hargus started by obtaining a degree in electrical engineering and went on to a graduate degree in computer science in an attempt to escape monotony. As she switched her focus, she started contract work and landed in the game industry. Ryan sent out two hundred resumes and ultimately landed in the game industry by moving to a remote area to work at a small company. Her strategy of taking risks with small companies paid off over time. Moulder took a large pay cut and moved to the middle of nowhere to become a producer in the industry, but his passion led him to acquire executive roles later in his career. Haine found that her most difficult moment was not breaking into the industry, but dealing with losing her first game industry job. She was forced to take the producer path to keep a job, but she returned to design later on. In all instances, panelists managed to stay in the industry and reach the executive position by using their passion and taking risks.

Conclusion

Bright, passionate women provided guidance to others who are interested in the variety of career options in the game industry. Ten years ago, such an event was thought impossible. Future generations of women are encouraged to take risks and tackle the game industry with their own passion.

For more about Women in Games International and announcements about upcoming conferences, visit http://www.womeningamesinternational.org/.

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