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Women in games: How colleges can help diversify the industry

College and university game art programs can help diversify the game industry; young women who have graduated from a college game art program to begin a career in games exemplify how.

Presented by Ringling College of Art and Design

By the time college plans are being discussed, many teenage girls have written off the idea of becoming game developers or, even worse, don't realize it's a career option for them. Stereotypes and cultural attitudes have steered many girls away from making games, just as they have fallen out of thinking about science and technology-based careers like becoming an architect or an engineer, which according to the American Association of University Women, are two of the least likely STEM occupations that women pursue.

Still, there are young women who, against these odds, find their way into a college Game Art program to prepare for a career in games. What can be learned by their example?

In the previous five years, Ringling College of Art and Design's Game Art department has maintained, on average, an equal number of males and females studying in the major. Some of these students apply specifically to study Game Art, but some decide to switch majors after arriving on campus.

One of those students was Erisa Liu (Game Art, '19). Erisa is the co-founder and lead artist at Bluecurse Studios. The studio's inaugural game, Snacko, is forthcoming in 2022 to Switch and PC. The game, a 3D farming sim, all started with her obsession with cats.

Originally, Erisa devised a gaming project in her junior year at Ringling to build upon her experience while she was a student. She came up with the idea of making the art for a hypothetical game based on three components: nostalgia for the game experience of her childhood, her enjoyment of sims, and her love of cats.

Erisa grew up on Nintendo games, and the low-pixel style of these older games that she played as a kid—noticeably different from the industry standard— is what she gravitated towards when she started making art for the project. Once she showed off some of her work on Twitter, the cute cat-inhabited towns and farms prompted queries about when the game would be released.

It got Erisa thinking. "What if we could actually make this?"

The "we" in question were Erisa and her husband, who is a programmer. They decided to give it a shot, moving back to Vancouver, Canada. Her husband quit his job to work full-time on the project, and another Ringling College alumni eventually joined the team as well.

A screenshot of farming game Snacko showing cute animals performing farm chores in a bright 3D world.
Still from Snacko, a 3D farming sim created by Ringling College alumna Erisa Liu (Game Art, '19) of Bluecurse Studios and forthcoming in 2022.

Erisa says her courses at Ringling prepared her for the challenges of being an indie developer. Faculty always pushed her to go back and re-do work and make it better, which she explains makes a developer "good at the process of distancing yourself from your bias." The repeated revisions not only helped her work but helped her become "desensitized to stress."

Renee Bates, a visual development artist and professor in Ringling College's Game Art department, commented on the importance of artists developing the ability to remove personal bias and handle stress, along with technical skills, in college. "These experiences can be part of mastering your craft. You have to learn to create balance for yourself."

Making Snacko posed no small amount of risk for a new graduate. The year Erisa and the team gave themselves to make the game a reality stretched into three before they finally found a publisher, Armor Games Studios.

Erisa considers Bluecurse and other indie studios important to the industry mix. Indie developers can take more risks, she said, which helps the industry by infusing creativity and variety into the pipeline.

Maximizing creativity is regarded as a significant benefit of increasing diversity and inclusion in the industry. Based on her industry experiences, Professor Bates adds, "A dynamic studio culture can challenge creativity to produce something magical." The capability for a team to produce "magic" can be taught and nurtured, starting in the classroom.

Bates encourages her students to remember what sparked their initial excitement to make games in the first place. Simply liking to play games won't sustain them in their journey. "Find your why," she advises, because the challenges of learning can be intense and, no matter how skilled a student is, sometimes failure is inevitable. "That original spark of inspiration is the feeling that helps pull you through the hard times and gives you a reason why you are exactly where you should be, somewhere along your journey."

Other female Game Art students take a more straightforward path of working for a studio after graduation. Katelyn Johnson (Game Art, '19) is an environment texture artist at Naughty Dog.

Katelyn, who grew up in the Midwest making art and playing sports, was accepted into the Illustration program at Ringling but quickly changed her major to Game Art after seeing student portfolios from the major at her part-time campus job in Career Services.

Once in the Game Art major, she said she had "an abrupt awakening." It seemed like more students had prior experience with software and concepts, and she struggled initially. Katelyn soon found a solution that worked for her was to simply put in more hours.

A picture showing two people, one pointing at something on a digital screen while the other looks on to offer advice.
Ringling College alumna Katelyn Johnson (Game Art, '19), on left, works with Ringling Game Art students on campus.

She enjoyed crafting spaces and the collaboration she found among peers in her major. But it took her a long time to achieve at the same level, having to put in double the hours or even restart several times.

Katelyn said "a switch was flipped" for her when she took a course in making materials. In that class, her interest in Unreal Engine and Substance Designer clicked, and she felt that she was making fundamental stepping stones to her future in the field. Notably, she felt encouraged by her professors to keep at it and try harder.

Several weeks before graduation in her senior year, Naughty Dog contacted her about a texture position she had applied for. She had to take an art test—which she says she enjoyed—and that was it. She got the job.

Since then, she completed a contract with Santa Monica Studio before returning to Naughty Dog earlier this fall. Along the way, she has found mentors in other women developers who have helped her grow in confidence, especially when she is the only woman in the conference room. "We're not really taught to stick up for ourselves, but these women have helped me overcome those obstacles," she explained about the value of these relationships. She actively seeks opportunities to explore and grow—in communication, artistic ability, and being a bridge between departments. She hopes to one day be a mentor and leader herself.

To achieve all that she sets out to do takes discipline. "I live on routine," she explained, and hasn't lost the competitive edge that sports taught her, though mostly the competition is only a factor when she's trying to improve herself; she gets more out of collaboration with the team.

"You have to be ambitious in game development. There's art, and then there's development, which is a whole different set of skills." She's observed that there aren't a lot of female leads (yet), especially in environment art, and is prepared to take the time she needs to get there. She feels the pressure to keep on her toes, doing personal artwork and professional development after hours. She plans to get as much information and growth from learning from others in the industry, "not to avoid the hard stuff but to hopefully handle it differently."

Game Art students need to learn skills to get them jobs, but Game Art programs also need to encourage and support students to foster their personal development along with their professional skills. Morgan Woolverton, interim department head of Game Art and Virtual Reality Development at Ringling College, explains, "Helping all students feel comfortable in discovering and expressing their unique creativity will have the greatest value and influence in the industry."

Yet another way that colleges can increase diversity in games is through their esports programs. Women who play games have much stake in creating positive changes in the industry. Esports is rapidly growing, estimated to reach $2.5 billion by 2024, with popularity on college campuses rising, too.

E Ramey, recreation and wellness coordinator at Ringling, recognizes that esports can be a "male-dominated world," a trend reflected in the esports rosters at other traditional colleges and universities.

A photograph of two people playing Super Smash Bros.
Ringling College's Smash varsity esports team practices on campus, photo taken by Andrea Saravia Pérez (Creative Writing, '22).

With leadership from students like Andrea Saravia Pérez, a senior in Creative Writing at Ringling, the college launched its esports program over a year ago, in March 2020. Pérez plays on the Varsity Overwatch team, the Ringling Rollers. They are quick to point out how the College's esports culture is supportive and reflects the diversity of the campus as a whole. Not only are there students from almost all of the College's 13 majors involved in intramural games, but the players include women, gender-nonconforming individuals, people of color, and minorities.

There's been an emphasis from the start on building a positive culture—a community based on improving skills and making friends. "While still being competitive," Andrea explained, "the program has a casual atmosphere and is primarily organized to bring students together in a coordinated way through teams and coaching."

In addition to the Varsity Overwatch team, which is a member of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), the Ringling Rollers are also composed of a Super Smash Bros. team. Unlike some collegiate esports programs, which according to Ramey are commonly designed by administrators, Ringling has prioritized listening to what the students want and letting that guide the program. Based on student interest, there are plans to add two more varsity teams for Rocket League and League of Legends, and continued growth through recruitment and scholarships.

Andrea's vision is for diversity to be a defining component of the program, to reflect an inclusive environment where any prospective student could "see the top players and think, ‘I can do that, too.'"

- - -

Ringling College of Art and Design is a private, not-for-profit, fully accredited college that offers the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in eleven disciplines and the Bachelor of Arts in two. The College's rigorous curriculum employs the studio teaching model and immediately engages students through a comprehensive program that is both specific to the major of study and focused on the liberal arts. The Ringling College teaching model ultimately shapes students into highly employable and globally aware artists and designers.

Laura Shoemaker is a writer and teacher with a background in nonprofit community engagement. She now resides with her partner and their two kids in Sarasota, FL, where she teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at Ringling College of Art and Design. You can check out more about Laura's teaching and involvement in raising support for the arts and global health on LinkedIn.

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