Sony Encouraging Female Game Developers Through Scholarship
by Jill Pantozzi, Newsarama Contributor
Date: 11 March 2011 Time: 04:05 PM ET
Women have always played video games, they just haven’t always been recognized for it. Sony Online Entertainment, the creators of the long-awaited but highly successful DC Universe Online, wants to change that.Together with Scholarship America, a non-profit educational support program, SOE is once again offering their Gamers In Real Life (G.I.R.L.) Scholarship. First rewarded in 2008, they hope to attract more females to the development side of the video game industry. “I think that it’s perspective and when you have more women working on a development team, they bring a unique female perspective about how they play the game, how they engage with them and what art is appealing to them,” said Laura Naviaux, SOE’S Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing. “What I think is unique about Sony Online Entertainment is that we also have such a broad player base, we have a lot of females that play our games so in turn, we need females on our development teams to be able to deliver content that they’re going to appreciate and want to play.”
ENCOURAGING FEMALE GAME DEVELOPERS The G.I.R.L. Game Design Scholarship is in its fourth year of existence and was spearheaded by Naviaux’s predecessor at SOE, Torrie Durrell. “[She] really had a passion for girls in gaming and she, just like me, had been in the industry a long time and seen the evolution in more women gaming and just the proliferation of it throughout mass market and thought that it would be a unique opportunity for us to make a difference,” said Naviaux. “And once it had even been mentioned, people got really enthusiastic and rallied around it and it wasn’t hard to get people to attend the early planning meetings. We took it and it came to be what it is today very easily.” What it is today is a $10,000 scholarship toward tuition and other educational expenses for the winner, plus a paid internship of up to ten weeks at one of SOE's development studios — either at the headquarters in San Diego, California, or at one of the studios in Austin, Seattle, or Denver. The scholarship is open to males but Naviaux said they don’t get many male applicants, “because I think the title is fairly self-explanatory.” Lots of girls play video games but only a small fraction develop them and that’s what SOE is trying to change. Vanessa Reynolds, a game design student at Full Sail University in Florida is applying for the G.I.R.L. Scholarship not only for herself but because she feels the amount of women employed in the industry is astonishingly low. “I have read countless articles attempting to explain the reasoning behind why the ratio of women to men is so low. Apparently, less women growing up playing video games is part of the problem,” she said. That wasn’t a problem for Reynolds, who’s been gaming her entire life. “I’m pretty sure that my umbilical cord had a controller attached to it,” she said. “Being asked when I started gaming is like being asked what my date of birth is. Video games are my life.” In fact, her love of games caused her to be isolated at times growing up by people who couldn’t comprehend a girl would play them. “I was that girl in school that no one talked to because I would take my Final Fantasy VII game manual to read during breaks from classes. It’s something I lived with throughout my entire grade school career.” Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal for the PlayStation 2 when I was about 15, and thinking to myself about how much I adored this game,” she said, “Then, it just hit me; I wanted to be apart of making something that people could enjoy as much as I was enjoying this game.” SOE’s Naviaux has a similar experience growing up. “I’ve been gaming probably since I was nine or ten years old when the first Nintendo came out and spent the entire Christmas break playing it to the point where my mom had to deliver food to my room because I wouldn’t leave,” she said. “So it was something that I was passionate about and it was just the right fit, the right time, but it took working really hard and saying that I would basically do anything to just be able to even have a shot at it.” BREAKING IN IS (STILL) HARD TO DO Women in the industry are still not as abundant as they should be according to some. It’s such a problem actually that two Canadian women, former game execs themselves, recently created their own development studio called Silicone Sisters Interactive, to fill the gap. The duo, Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch and Kirsten Forbes, are launching their first game in the spring but are certainly still in the minority.
Julia Brasil, the very first winner of the G.I.R.L. Game Design Scholarship back in 2008, was not only talented enough to win the contest but land a job at SOE after she graduated. “I was pretty thrilled,” said Brasil. “I remember there was some air high-fiving involved too, it was really exciting. I had just started school and I had no idea I was going to win. I was aware I was one of the finalists but I kind of shrugged it off. I think I was more excited about the internship part than even the money part.” Naviaux agrees that’s one of the best aspects of the whole program. “You know, I think the most exciting part about the experience is that they literally will be on a development team, working side by side with the other artists and contributing to a game that’s already out there and an active community so they can even see the reaction of the player base to their work,” she said, “Or in some cases, like with Julia, she went on to a new game that’s in development so she’s contributing to a brand new IP and something that, when it launches, she can say that she was an integral piece of that art team.” Brasil said she chose to fulfill her internship in Seattle specifically because she was interested in the game they were currently working on, The Agency. “I was interested in the whole spy, MMO subgenre, which was something I had never heard of before,” she said, “I got to work with some really exciting people while I was here and got to do some concept art even. I tried a little of everything at the time because I wasn’t quite sure what field my talents were best at. So it was a pretty exciting couple of months.” Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures and EverQuest, have seen the three past recipients of the scholarship go on to success. Joe Shoopack, SOE’s Director of Artistic Development, works very closely with the winners, helping the students turn their passion into a profession. “Julia worked with several mentors during her extended internship time and became deeply familiar with both the style and technical parameters necessary for production on The Agency,” said Shoopack. “Once she graduated both her artistic skills and project knowledge led us to bring her on as a full time employee.” PAST WINNERS KEEP WORKING the EverQuest franchise during her internship. “Her style sensibilities were especially valuable in generating ideas for depicting female avatars for the game,” said Shoopack of the student. “Coming to us as a 2D artist, one of our objectives was for her to learn 3D production with the programs Maya and Zbrush. We assigned her a mentor and we were impressed with the speed with which she transitioned to creating and texture mapping weapon assets. She created several from concept to finished work.” Last year’s scholarship recipient, Sylvia Liu, also worked on EverQuest. Shoopack said the team was very impressed with her creature designs. “EverQuest regularly adds creatures for players to ride as mounts. Sylvia created a backlog of interesting creature illustrations from which the team selected several to be created as in-game assets.” According to the application website, to be eligible for the scholarship, “Entrants must be currently enrolled in an undergraduate program related to video games, including video game art, design, animation, production, programming or visual effects, must not graduate before the end of the 2012 spring term and must comply with the program's official rules. Entrants are required to complete an online application along with two pieces of original concept art and one essay that will be reviewed by a panel of judges.” “The applications are due on or before April 6, and we’ll announce the winner about May 16,” said Naviaux. When she graduates, Reynolds, also known as gAMRgRL online, will have a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. “I hope to land an internship working for Insomniac Games before I actually graduate,” she said. “[That] company produced the video game that inspired me to become a game designer. Working for such an astounding company would be an ultimate dream come true. Even being considered to work on one of their projects would be a complete honor.” Reynolds also mentioned she’d love to see more female protagonists in games but doesn’t necessarily feel there is a lack of games geared toward women. Although, “I definitely feel that the ways that games are marketed gears them more towards the male crowd. If I don’t make it in the design world of video games, I really hope to market them.” Naviaux is very excited for the competition this year. “I think it speaks volumes that we’re in our fourth annual and it’s four years in a row,” she said, “We’re very much committed to encouraging women to pursue exciting careers in the industry. Like things through the ESA, through going to conferences, there’s plenty of opportunities out there and I would encourage women nationwide, if they’re interested, to pursue.” Reynolds is equally excited about the opportunity. “From a personal standpoint, the SOE G.I.R.L. Scholarship is an outstanding opportunity for women to show the gaming world that, not only do we exist, but we are more than determined to succeed in such a competitive industry,” she said. “I would love to see more female faces giving insightful speeches about their gaming career success, than to see them on a TV screen in a hit series that just talk about video games. We all know that women play video games, but how many women are behind the scenes making that game possible?” One of the women behind the scenes, Naviaux, echoes Reynolds’ statements. “Just as much as we have people that play our games that are females, we need people that are making the games to be female. And not just on the game development side but throughout the company, you know, we have avid female gamers in our legal department, in the software department, certainly here in marketing,” she said. “So I think G.I.R.L. initiative goes much further than just an annual internship application process and it’s something that we really believe wholeheartedly in at the company and we try to proliferate into everything that we do.” Brasil believes there is a lack of females in the industry but she believes the tendency is towards growth. “I’ve visited the art institute in this area and I’ve seen the classes and I’ve seen there are a lot more women then when I was graduating,” she said. And as for what advice she can give to other women looking to get into the video game world, Brasil says go for it. “If video games are something you are interested in and you think you spend enough time with them, it’s definitely worth considering, how could you make your own game and how could you make it better?” she said. “As more women start thinking that way and being exposed to more video games other than, you know, Facebook games, I think they have a better chance of getting into the industry.” Basil also feels the G.I.R.L. Scholarship is extremely important. “I follow it every year because I’m obviously biased since I won the first one back in 2008 but I’m always excited to see the winners and I think it is very important, at least to raise awareness that this is a job that women can do,” she said. “Women can make video games. And it’s a career. I don’t think a lot of girls especially in high school, or starting college even, are even aware of that.” Reynolds also says that although funding has been difficult so far for her college education, she’s looking forward to her future. “Having scholarship opportunities for women in the video game industry is a godsend. Even if I am not the winner, my opinion will still stand firm. Knowing that there is a woman out there receiving aid to pay for something that may help raise the awareness of women in general in the video game industry is awarding all on it’s own. RELATED STORIES