Renee Nejo

Welcome to She Builds Games! Renee Nejo is an independent video game developer. Since 2010, she has worked on Ever, JaneGravity Ghost, and her most recent passion project: Blood Quantum. Renee spoke at GDC 2016 on “Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame and Vulnerability” about empathy and the Native American narrative.
(Interview edited for brevity.)

Game Artist and Designer  
3 Turn Productions 
Art Institute of Phoenix - Bachelor's Degree in Game Art and Design 
Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy IX, Mario Kart  

1. What was it like growing up with video games for you?

I grew up on games in a time when they weren’t connected to the internet, so it was always a solitary experience. I can still get a little nervous about playing games around people. As I got older, I was a closet geek trying so desperately to be cool – I failed miserably! But I tried really hard to be a cool, pretty, popular girl, but I am just geeky through and through. So yeah, games for me have mostly been a solitary thing, like reading a book. If you say, ‘Let’s play a game together!’ it feels like you’re asking me to read out loud. Like, I’ll do it, but it feels awkward.

Now, I like playing games with my husband a lot! But it still feels like kind of an intimate experience. We’ll play almost any RPG together by taking turns. Anything by Naughty Dog is fun to play with somebody, because those games are entertaining to watch, even when you’re not the one playing them.

2. On your website, it says, “Game Artist and Designer.” Do you feel like you’re more one than the other?

I’ve had more training as an artist, but “design,” for me, has always been kind of this nebulous, magic concept that only magical creatures like Brenda Romero and Erin Robinson do. But the truth is that you shouldn’t wrap your identity around your job. Jobs will come and go. People change their careers all the time, and it shouldn’t be an identity crisis to do that. So when I say, ‘Am I a designer?’ that’s hard to say out loud, because I don’t feel like a very successful designer. BUT I’m designing stuff! So that makes me a designer! You must tell yourself that.

3. Can you tell us about the Blood Quantum game you’re working on?

Excerpt taken from Nejo’s blog post:

“‘Blood quantum’ is the amount of Indian blood you possess as determined by the number of generations of Native people you descend from, and it’s the process that the federal government uses to say whether they consider you a Native American or not. […] Its origin was basically to bring about the extinction of the Native American people.”

Blood Quantum is a top-down, 3/4 Perspective Godlike, with a few tower-defense elements, developed in Unity. The player interacts with little ‘Drawplets’ to further their growth in their villages. At first, the gameplay involves leveling up the player’s Drawplets by hunting, farming, and building. By giving Drawplets ‘purpose,’ or a job for their class, the ‘Spirit’ of the village goes up. With the ‘Spirit’ high, new baby Drawplets appear. It takes time to grow the village. Unlike a real-time strategy game, the loss of a single Drawplet is a great one, and death in battle is permanent.”

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Blood Quantum, the game, is my love letter to my identity and family. Being half-breed is a special kind struggle. The point of my game is to tell those stories in this small way that might show what it feels like to see the segregation happen. The human element has been the hardest part to try to convey in this game.

It starts off from an “Us vs. Them” perspective, but I’m telling it through a Native and Indigenous protagonist. I’ve taken all of the Native American imagery out of it, because I want a player who’s non-Native to go into this little world and be able feel that it is a story about them. Really, we’re all humans. It’s finding those similarities that we have to focus on, if we’re ever going to bridge that gap.

4. Where did you get the courage, or the inspiration, to turn a deep conversation into a game and follow through with it?

I still don’t have the courage – but I’m doing it anyway! I think it was being around game designers. When I would tell this story, they would be like, “Blood Quantum? That’s a cool name for a game!” […] I have a network of wonderful friends, and they’re very supportive, and I think they planted a seed in me. “You should make a game about that. Just get it out.” And I went, “I SHOULD! I should do that!”

Outwardly, it sounded like a great idea. Internally, it was like, “Oh God. Look at this white girl trying to tell a Native story!” Like, that was the dialogue going on in my head! I’m a Native American and that’s what I was telling myself! But I do think that there can be a correlation of “how scary something is” to “how important something is to people.”

5. What advice can you give about networking?

“People change their careers all the time, and it shouldn’t be an identity crisis to do that.”

I must stress that networking is vital in this industry. If skill is King, networking is Queen. There’s a science to it, sure! The more people you know, the more likely you are to be in contact with someone who can maybe get you a job.

I have participated in the Conference Associate (CA) program [at GDC], the International Game Developer Association (IGDA), and Women in Games (WiG) networks. People who knew me well would say, “I know an artist that’s looking for work right now! I’ll put you in touch with her! You might be a good fit.”

If you go into it with an attitude of “I’m only here to get what I can get from people,” then that’s going to come off as slimy. I think it’s common with students who are used to their teachers always being available for them. They’re going to professionals in their school, and their professors might say, “Yes, I will stop everything I’m doing to help you get better at your skill, because that’s my job as your instructor.” When students expect that behavior from other developers, like at GDC or other conferences, they don’t realize that they’re coming off as off-putting.

Renee Nejo's talk at GDC

Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame and Vulnerability

6. What do you want women considering a career in tech to know?

This is a hard one, because I don’t necessarily want women to know anything different than what anybody else wants to know. But, I think that a woman’s scenario is going to have a little more adversity than if she were a guy.

I would be lying if I said I haven’t felt burnt out sometimes. There are problems with this industry in how we treat our employees as an expendable resource. Replaceable. We can wreck them because we can hire new and enthusiastic young people who would kill to have that job. And that is a dark truth, but I don’t think that you have to lose your love of games. I had a teacher tell me that “Working in video games is going to ruin them for you.” I think that all he was saying, was that working in video games had ruined them for him. Because they haven’t ruined them for me.

People have different backgrounds. You can’t just tell ALL young people, “Just change your career.” I mean, I have students trying to get off of Indian reservations to go to school, and they can’t just change their minds and go into aerospace. They can’t just say, “Well, I put in $30,000 into my education, I’m going to go live with Mom and Dad and figure myself out.” That was not an option. Maybe it is a privilege to grow up in a fluid situation where you can change your mind, and that is a wonderful thing, but not everybody has that.

7. Going back to what you mentioned earlier about internal struggles with identity, how do you reconcile what you are with who you are?

I don’t feel like I have a cool Native American backstory. I feel kind of unworthy of what I actually am. “Identity” is a discovery of what you already are. You don’t get a say. You can’t be somebody else. Them’s the rules. So, identity is discovering yourself – finding what you are and embracing ALL of it, not just the cool parts.

“I have students trying to get off of Indian reservations to go to school…”

When you’re a kid, you usually adopt the beliefs of the people raising you.
When you’re a teenager, you start trying out different identities; you’re trying on hats. And pretty much all you have to work with was cultural identity: Hip Hop, Punk Rock, whatever.
In your 20s and 30s, you realize that you’re going to like what you like, and dislike what you dislike, and you are who you are. It just gets a little more interesting when you go digging into your heritage.

Embrace how you think, how you feel, how you process your stuff. Talk to your family. If you have that chance, if you have the means, talk to your grandmother! If it’s healthy for you. We all have different scenarios. Sometimes when you’re adopted it’s harder to find out where you came from. I just think that these are important aspects of your identity, and getting to know yourself without applying meaning that isn’t there.

8. What is your idea of success?

“Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small.”

People define success differently. You might think that you just need to ship a game, and that’s going to be success. Or you might think that you just need to make more money, and that will be success. Or, I need to be able to fund my own game, start my own studio, and that will be success. Well, success kind of seems to be a carrot on a stick that always moves a little further away.

Remember that you are doing this because you love it, and you want to. Don’t belittle your actual achievements. I know that if I could speak to 22-year-old me about all the things that I’ve done, young me would be doing backflips. I’d be like, “HOLY CRUD! WOW! You talked at GDC! WHAAAT! I can’t believe that’s my future! So cool!!!” But, here, right now, I’m like, “Oh my God. I haven’t done anything cool at all. I submitted a talk and got lucky. I managed to make a few games.” You know? It just doesn’t feel like I’ve achieved these things.

Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small. Remember that success is a nebulous concept, and to not wrap your identity and your career up in reaching that goal, because I really think that when you realize you’re still you, and you’ll always be you, you have to be okay with who you are, at any point.

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Catt Small

Catt is a product designer, game maker, and front-end web developer. She has done design work for companies of all sizes including SoundCloud, Bedrocket, and Nasdaq. She started coding at the age of 10, designing at the age of 15, graduated from the School of Visual Arts (SVA) with a BFA in Graphic Design in 2011, and graduated from NYU with an MS in Integrated Digital Media in 2016. Catt also makes video games with Brooklyn Gamery; teaches game development with The Code Liberation Foundation; and draws comics.
(Interview edited for brevity. Catt’s full recording with the Voxelles will be uploaded soon.)

Video Game Developer
Code Liberation Foundation
School of Visual Arts  - BFA Graphic Design
New York University - MS Integrated Digital Media

She Builds Games partnered up with Voxelles: Chicago’s Women in Game Development to bring you a few excerpts from this interview with Catt Small.

What made you want to start developing video games? 

“It took a lot of observation of other people, asking questions, and eventually feeling comfortable enough to volunteer to be the developer at a game jam instead of being the artist.”

Basically, I found RPG Maker when I was 10, and I was kinda like, “What the heck is this? How does it work?” And I couldn’t figure it out. At the time, there wasn’t really a lot of documentation about any of that stuff. So I was just like, “Guess I can’t make games!” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But I could write ideas for them down. Then when I was about 19 or so, I ended up hanging out with some friends at a polytechnic school. We got along really well because we all liked games, and we all wanted to make them.
We started going to game jams together, and I would do art for a while; I was just the artist until I figured out how they actually worked. Once I figured out what a game loop was, and how game systems worked, and how you could make mechanics, and stuff like that, from there, it was easy to start making my own stuff.

It took a lot of observation of other people, asking questions, and eventually feeling comfortable enough to volunteer to be the developer at a game jam instead of being the artist.

Do you have any advice on how to attract more women to video game meetups, and let them feel more welcome and want to come back?

There are so many women who, if you just gave them a year, they could be making games.

Totally. Outside of Code Liberation Foundation, I do stuff with Brooklyn Gamery, and our events are open to basically everyone, although we also do have some co-ed stuff with Code Lib as well. And here are some of the things I’ve done to make sure it’s inclusive:

  • I always make sure that we have a Code of Conduct, because that alone is really helpful, I find. Like, I think a lot of people feel like if there is no Code of Conduct, then anything is allowed, and that might make some people feel really unsafe.
  • If someone is making someone feel uncomfortable, then we will ask them to leave, or report them to the authorities, depending on the scale of whatever the infraction is. 
  • Sometimes we like to explicitly encourage marginalized people to show up at our events, and we really say upfront, like, “This is a safe space where people can express themselves.”
  • We also generally like to encourage people to, when they’re writing down their names, put on their pronouns, so that people don’t feel like they’re being mislabeled, or misrepresented.
  • If we were ever doing a drinking type of event — which we don’t do very much — we would also provide alternatives like water or juice or things like that.
  • IGDA NYC has been doing a really good job of, instead of having “drink” nights, they’ll have “ice cream & coffee” nights.
  • Encouraging positive discussion — or not “positive,” per se, but if people are gonna talk about any kinds of topics, then encouraging them to be open-minded and respectful to each other.
  • One of the last events I ran with a couple of friends, we had these “social rules“… “Hey. it’s okay to disagree with someone, but make sure that you say that you respectfully disagree, and don’t turn it into a huge thing if you don’t have the same opinion about something.”
  • I think that some people are just taught to bulldoze their opinion on other people. Like, if they don’t agree with you, then, you keep saying it until they feel like they’re wrong. …So, it’s really important to keep encouraging positive discourse. And that’s really respectful.

You could also actually reach out to your community, and ask, “Hey, are there reasons that you aren’t coming to this?” and see if those reasons can help you to figure out how to make the space more inclusive. Because sometimes it’s all hypothetical and you don’t really know what the exact thing is. IGDA did a really good job of asking around and saying, “How can we make this better?”  With Code Liberation we also try to do the same thing. And it’s just a continuous cycle of asking people, “Hey, how can we improve this space more?” So the little things like Code of Conduct can help, but even more, just reaching out to people and seeing directly from the source what you can do is also a really good idea.

We changed our mission statement because we want to be more inclusive to other people who are also feeling similarly left out or marginalized, within the sphere of programming and gaming. 

How do you physically do these things? Do you print out your Code of Conduct and post it on a wall? Is it on your website? Where is it visible?  

Yeah! Good point. In terms of Code of Conduct stuff, we state it at the beginning of every event; so we actually have a portion of the introduction keynote where we’ll just read most of it, and then we’ll provide a link, for example, so we’re explicitly putting it up front. We might also print it out, but… we’ll say, “Here it is; you can read the rest online. Here’s the basic statement.” We also put it on the event invitation itself, whether it’s on Facebook or Eventbrite, we make sure that it’s included within that event information so people can easily find it.

We even have the “Hello my name is…” name-tag stickers at every meeting we host, and then we just encourage people during the keynote to write their pronouns in. We also usually try to have a label card that says the same thing, like, near the table with the sharpies and the stickers.

What was Code Liberation’s old mission statement, and what changes did the group make to it?

The old mission statement was, “Code Liberation is a group that teaches women* to program video games.” And there was like a little star that said, “If you identify as a woman, you’re in,” because there were a lot of arguments about that. “Are trans-women women?” “Can non-binary people also come?” Enough people asked that, that we were like, “We should expand the mission statement to be more inclusive of people who don’t fit in to the gender binary who also feel discriminated against, and we want more of them in gaming, too.” Because OF COURSE we want every woman to come to these events! We would love to have you!

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So the biggest change that we made was really just expanding it to include non-binary; we also have femme, and a couple of other gender descriptors that we put in there so that it feels more inclusive. The largest change was just making sure that more people felt like they could come without having to ask upfront.

How is Code Lib’s structure organized?

We’ve brought on more people — initially they were regular contributors — and we “leveled them up” a little bit, depending on how much they wanted to be involved. We’re learning a lot about how this whole thing works as we go through it. None of us had really built an organization in this specific way before.

We basically started to form a structure where people are asked how much they wanna be involved, upfront, so that we can correctly assign them duties and stuff like that. And we ask them questions like,

“What are your interests?”    “How long have you been working on games?”
“What do you want to learn?”    “Do you want a mentor?”

We ask questions like that so that we can figure out how we help them grow, and how we most appropriately utilize their skills for the purpose of this organization.

We do have a Slack channel. And we are actually in the process of structuring that, so we can have students from our classes who just want to be a part of a community join in.

Can you share with us more details about how you structure your organization?

Basically, what we decided upon, through a bunch of experimentation, is that we have several levels of being involved in Code Liberation.

  • From the bottom, there’s Student level. You come to our stuff, you engage in our community, you’re a generic level member.
  • Above Student is a Volunteer, who is like no-strings-attached, just shows up and does some teaching, or volunteers for an event, and that is all they wanna do. They don’t have the time or the desire to contribute more than that.
  • Above the Volunteer level is our Contributor level, which is basically someone who wants to be involved with Code Liberation as an organization, and maybe do some administrative stuff, help organize events, help organize classes. They can also teach, like a Volunteer can teach, but they really wanna be involved in shaping the future of Code Liberation somehow.
  • Above the Contributor is a Director. This person is actually running things a little bit more, they’re probably mentoring some people, they’re probably going to do speaking engagements and public appearance type things. They can also still do teaching and stuff like that, but they’re probably going to be running projects, and mentoring Contributors who might wanna also eventually do Director-level stuff.

So it’s this structure where you’ve got people managing other people, so that you can hopefully get more things done. And there are several different types of directors: there’s an Educational Director, there’s a Programs Director who cares about events, and then there’s the Executive Director, who cares more about the organizational structure and making sure that the people we bring in are clear on what they want to do, and are doing things that align with the mission statement.

And then we have a Board, because we are actually now a 501(c)(3), so you need a Board in addition to that — and so that board kind of makes sure that the entire organization is consistent according to the mission statement, and then the Directors execute based on that mission statement.

So, the hope is that by having this structure, we’ll make sure that Code Liberation is always doing things that are appropriate for the group, and what the original mission was, and also that people feel like they know what their jobs are, or what they’re supposed to be doing within the group.

Which means you can accomplish BUSINESS.

You said in your TEDX talk that Code Lib tried to do too much in too many places, and your community suffered for it. Do you have any examples of lessons that you’ve learned the hard way?

[Laugh] Yes! Definitely! All the time! I think everyone’s learned the value of time management. For a while, I was like, “Yeah! I’m gonna do a ton of speaking stuff, and have a full time job, and I’m gonna go to school at the same time, and still run Code Liberation!” And we all kind of realized, like… you CAN’T do that. You gotta slow down, or you’re gonna burn out. So that was like, Lesson Number One.

Lesson Number Two was making sure to define intentions upfront. For a while, we just pulled people in who were really excited about Code Liberation without asking them what they wanted to do, or giving them explicit roles… and so people just kind of sat there for like, a year, and just didn’t know exactly how to contribute.

We’ve always been really ambitious about Code Liberation’s projects. Like the video lessons, for example. We’re actually now JUST being able to figure out what is the right method for doing those. Because, for a long time we were like, “Yeah! We really wanna do them,” we bought the video equipment… “Crap. How do you, like, form a video lesson curriculum? Like, we’re pretty good at teaching, in person, but like, how do videos work? How are they structured? Who’s gonna edit them? There’s so many questions that we didn’t answer! And so we had to take time to actually answer all of those questions.

We realized we just need to sit down and plan things out more. We also need to build a “road map” so that we can say, “This is what we’re doing RIGHT NOW. This is when we want to do this other thing.” And planning things 6 months to a year in advance rather than like, 2 months, or even less than 2 months, is REALLY important. So, we’re learning a lot more about structure and timing.

How did you arrive at the three methods of teaching that you mentioned in your TEDX talk?

When we initially started the classes and the group, Phoenix was very adamant about making sure that the classes were like very hands on. I’ve taken programming classes where it was just like: you walk into the room, and someone lectures you for three hours, and you never actually do anything. We made sure that every time we teach something, we should practice it in the class, like immediately, as we’re talking about it. Then people can actually understand the reasoning behind that kind of stuff, and so by actually practicing it right after talking about it, it’s really helpful for them. ps-teaching

Phoenix Perry originally had the idea for the Code Liberation Foundation.  She was doing a lot of adjunct teaching at NYU, so she had a lot of teaching experience, in terms of “How do people learn best?” Especially when it comes to programming. And so she used that experience as a mold, of sorts, for what Code Liberation became, and how we started teaching.

Can you elaborate on the importance of acknowledging mistakes?

Totally! I think people really relate when you’re open and honest about your experiences with programming. When you say things like, “Hey, this didn’t click for me immediately, and I had to practice it like, 10 million times,  then they understand, like, “Oh, it’s not that easy to do… Everyone has this frustrating experience.” 

Sometimes we’ll be typing something on the screen in class, and someone will say, like, “Hey! That’s not the right sign to use there.” Or you might have misspelled something. And we’re just like, “Oh yeah! Great! That’s a really good catch!” and … we hope by doing that, that it decreases the stigma of making mistakes. Especially when it comes to programming. And that it makes people feel more like making a mistake is a natural thing, that people do all of the time… and that it’s okay. And that’s really important in terms of stereotypes.

You mentioned “stereotype threat” in your talk. Can you tell us about that?

“Stereotype threat,” specifically, is a thing that happens to marginalized individuals who are often expected to represent an entire group of people. Even though we’re all individuals, they kind of get placed as that ONE.  THEY represent every single person that is like them. And so it’s really important to have spaces where they can be amongst other people who have whatever that similar quality is.
It’s really important to feel like when you’re making mistakes, that you’re NOT representing that whole group! Because when you feel like you are, then you tend to make more mistakes. And it’s a really scary feeling. Because you think if you make one mistake, or you mess up once, then it’s like, “Ah! ALL women just can’t program!” or like, “ALL women are bad at math!” or whatever one of a million stereotypes could be applied at any time.
By having this group of people who’re marginalized together, the hope is that, by saying, “Oh yeah, I made a mistake!” and that it’s okay to ask stupid questions… people will just feel comfortable being themselves, and being honest with other people, and making mistakes.

You say you share resources and slides through an easy-to-use GitHub website. What’s been your experience organizing that?

Screenshot of Code Liberation's page

Screenshot of Code Liberation’s page

It’s been really successful, I think. Basically we have a public-facing GitHub page, and those files are updated on the administrative side of GitHub, where you upload your files, and you do the version control stuff. So, if you’re more on the technical side, and you want to clone that repository, you totally can. But if you aren’t so good with technology, or if you’re not really that great with Git yet, and you may not know how that works, we also have the public-facing version, where you can just download whatever zip files you want. We make sure to keep that updated as we create new classes and content.

It’s pretty easy, especially now that a lot of the classes we’ve done are kind of set in stone. I’ll help someone, for example, and I’ll just grab the files from whoever was teaching the class, and just drop it in a folder… upload it to GitHub, and then just make sure to write up a small description. It’s really really simple.

What can bigger companies do to bring more women into gaming?

Funding training classes for adult women so that you can immediately funnel them into the industry; I think that’s really important.

I like what Intel’s been doing. The scholarships that they did to actually bring people to game development conferences was really cool. Funding training classes for adult women so that you can immediately funnel them into the industry; I think that’s really important.

There are so many women who, if you gave them a year, they could be making games. They just need some time and investment.

Creating more spaces and opportunities for women in games. I remember when I was first starting out, it was like, “How do I get into this? Oh, I guess I need six years of experience already? Well, crap! Can’t do that!”  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ So, creating that space for women to actually learn, and do internships, go to conferences, things like that, I think that’s quite important. If more companies did what Intel is doing NOW, I think that’d be really great.

What do you want women considering a career in tech to know? 

It takes generations for change to happen.

That’s a good question. I would say… that what I want them to know is that… it’s gonna be kind of a tough ride. I think things are definitely improving. It’s always a really slow course, I think. … When I got into tech, and as I’m in gaming, I’m always like of like, “Oh! It’s 2016! How is this still happening?”It takes generations for change to happen.

 How do you find the time to do all the things you do, without burning out? 

Yeah. That is a GREAT question. I think what I usually do is — I “chunk out” my time. For example, right now, I’m not doing as much speaking, including classroom appearances and stuff like that, and I’m really trying to focus on creating stuff a little bit more. So I’m not  teaching with Code Liberation as much, although I am helping to organize and manage other people so that they can teach.

And then there are other times where I’m like, “Okay, for the next couple of months, I’m going to do more teaching stuff, more speaking stuff. I’m gonna be more heavily involved.”  I find that  taking those breaks sometimes to do certain things, and then switch into other things, can be really helpful for recharging if you ever feel like you’re burning the candle at both ends.

Do you have a favorite game engine that you recommend to use?

I think it really depends on the purpose of what you’re trying to do, and who you’re trying to reach, where you’re trying to reach people. For example, I would use something like Construct 2 or Unity if I wanted to go across multiple platforms. I really like Phaser, but, if you’re using a JavaScript game engine, it’s like, do you wanna package it for the PC, and the web, and maybe on a phone? It’s easier to do things like exporting for consoles in Unity. So, it really depends on the purpose.

Can you tell us about your mobile game, Prism Shell?

It was definitely a really small project, in terms of the size. It was mobile-focused, which is why we wanted to keep it a little smaller. We were using Construct 2, because of its ease of use, and the number of platforms it could export to. We made it at a game jam, so it was super easy to kinda work on, and prototype some stuff, and then turn it into a live product.

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It’s a semi-short game, where it’s really just like, do these objectives, then go to the next level; there’s almost 100 levels. It increases in difficulty every time. We kept discussing, “Do we go back to this game and build in more stuff?”  We’re really not sure.

Thank you for all your advice on organizing diverse and inclusive meetups!

Prism Shell is currently available on AndroidiTunes & Apple App, and the Amazon App Store. If you would like to reach out to Catt, She Builds Games, or the Code Liberation Foundation, shoot us a tweet:
 @SheBuildsGames | @CattSmall | Code Liberation Foundation: @CodeLiberation 

This audio interview will be uploaded on YouTube. Stay tuned for access to the full-length content. Thanks for reading!

Heather M Decker

Heather Decker is currently the Chair of the Chicago chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), after helping reboot the chapter in 2011. She is also an IGDA Foundation Women in Games Ambassador Program Volunteer, following three years of service on the IGDA Scholars Committee.

Lead Technical Artist
Zynga Chicago
Savannah College of Art and Design
MFA Interactive Design and Game Development
The Art Institute of Pittsburgh
BS Game Art and Design
Clinton Community College
AAS Graphic Arts Technology

When did you first start playing games?

I’ve been playing games for pretty much as long as I can remember. It’s a bit hazy now, but when I was a little girl, my dad had a Commodore 64 and he taught me the commands to load up games from floppy disk. After that, I was blowing into NES cartridges and wielding light guns. I wanted to try all of the games I could get my hands on and magically, every era of my life has been an opportunity to explore something new: Gameboy, SNES, shareware, arcade cabinets, Sega Channel, N64, Saturn, dial-up MMORPGs, Dreamcast, Playstation, Xbox, and all incarnations thereof.

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What are your all-time favorite games?

I’m quite relieved that you’re asking in a plural sense, as I could never pick one!
Final Fantasy VI and Phantasy Star IV have a special place in my heart as being the first big JRPGs I was obsessed with as a teen. The characters and storytelling pulled me in, the 16-bit art was confined to a colorful pixel grid, and the soundtracks were on the internet in MIDI form. Overall, these games resulted in fan art, creative writing, participation in game communities, and dabbling in game development.

These days I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with World of Warcraft, which I don’t actually have time to be serious about. Thankfully, it’s now possible to sporadically, casually play, thanks to newer features like Dungeon Finder layering onto the multitude of interwoven systems that form the sheer depth of this game. It’s a highly polished, enjoyable experience with captivating environments and far too much lore for me to keep up with. I could explore, progress in, and discover content in tiny bite-sized pieces up until this game ceases to exist.

What made you want to start making games?

Up until I was in college, I hadn’t really identified games as a viable career path. All I knew was that games offered me a great deal of enjoyable experiences and I became interested in making my own creations. It all began with crayons, but eventually I started pushing pixels on early IBM machines alongside flipping notebook paper to animate, and building scenes in Mario Paint. When I was thirteen, I started experimenting with developing my own stories within the Phantasy Star universe using a free RPG engine called VERGE. This involved deconstructing and recreating existing map tile sets, laying out levels, developing character sprite sheets, writing and scripting events in C++, and plenty of problem-solving.

Looking back on those tools is nostalgic, but it also fills me with hope for everyone who is currently interested in making games or interactive art. We’ve made great leaps and bounds in the availability of free authoring software. Something that was previously a solitary exercise in troubleshooting is now a much more sophisticated crafting experience complete with getting started guides, tutorials, sample projects, and communities of creators. I encourage anyone with even the slightest bit of curiosity to embrace these digital resources and make something! Or start out with some analog basics like index cards, scissors, markers, and dice.

It’s not really a spoiler warning, but I’m going to discuss how interactions work in Undertale so if you haven’t played it yet and wouldn’t want to hear anything about it, don’t read this, and avoid most of the internet.

“It’s not really a spoiler warning, but I’m going to discuss how interactions work in Undertale, so if you haven’t played it yet and wouldn’t want to hear anything about it, don’t read this, and avoid most of the internet.” — Decker on Undertale

What’s a game you recently played that inspired you in some way?

After hearing so much about it, I finally played through Undertale, which is a humble JRPG-inspired title on Steam that boasts very simplistic graphics and a quirky narrative.

Defeating monsters and gaining experience are a staple of the genre, but Undertale is strikingly different in that it offers players an opportunity to complete the game without violence. Casting aside everything I had known about RPGs, I learned a new play style and observed that non-violent outcomes were often more challenging to see through. It’s not always clear what needs to happen to resolve a situation without just mashing FIGHT. The player must take the higher road, explore different options, and survive a test of endurance.

Actions taken in Undertale impact the overall experience. You can’t help but feel the weight of your choices, for better or worse. To me, the concept of the player being able to tune the emotional tone of a game through their actions is highly intriguing. This game inspires me and makes me want more from games.

Do you feel that you identify with a Ludology-first or the Narratology-first design process?

I don’t strongly champion one or the other, as I firmly believe the ideal design process depends entirely on the desired outcome.

What if my intent isn’t anything in the realm of storytelling? For example, I wouldn’t start out designing a puzzle game by thinking about stories when what I really want is a mechanic that is intellectually satisfying to solve.

In contrast, maybe I just want someone to feel something, so I start with a snippet of a story, a single feeling, and figure out what sort of game mechanic embodies that. For example, a stronger RPG character who protects, heals, and levels up a weaker character is an effective arrangement of mechanics to symbolize the experience of raising a child in this crazy world.

Some of the monsters in Quest are things that a mother and a daughter might have to overcome together, like “Ravenous Bills” and “Heartless Bullies” (above).

Some of the monsters in Decker’s Game Jam game The Quest of Motherhood are things that a mother and a daughter might have to overcome together, like “Heartless Bullies.”

Are there any development roadblocks you’ve run into more than once, or for an extended period of time?

Yes. In the fairly complicated creative medium that is game development, there is always a chaos factor. Weird technological things happen. Decisions may not actually work out. Having to back up and re-approach a problem is always a setback, but it pushes you to learn new tricks.

I’m a big fan of grayboxing or rapid prototypes… for making broad strokes passes before deeply investing in decisions. Test your functionality with the simplest placeholder art to gauge scale and the feel of interaction. Plan extra time for testing and revisions. Be constantly aware that you’re marching towards something that is not clearly defined by black and white solutions, and if your role is organizing a game development effort, your title is more equivalent to “Orchestrator of Raw Chaos” than anything else.

Don’t let me scare you. It’s amazingly entertaining to constantly approach new and fascinating challenges!

"If I were grayboxing a platformer idea, I'd be more concerned about the velocity of my jumps, the force of gravity, and the distance between platforms than art, which can easily be swapped out later when I know the interactions feel right." -- Decker on grayboxing

“If I were grayboxing a platformer idea, I’d be more concerned about the velocity of my jumps, the force of gravity, and the distance between platforms than art, which can easily be swapped out later when I know the interactions feel right.” — Decker on grayboxing

How did you deal with the roadblock and keep progressing with your game?

Identifying the problem is first and foremost. X isn’t working. The next step is to stop, think, and form a plan. Even if there is an aspect you are held up on, typically there are other details you can pick up and progress with until you are able to clear the specific roadblock.

What is something you wish you had done on all your games?

On past projects, I wish I had journaled more and logged more process stuff. Now I just take constant notes.

It was fun keeping a process blog for my thesis project and I’d highly recommend development diary blogs with sketches, photos/screens, and your ongoing commentary throughout development. Doing this in a live sense, such as a WordPress site, allows you to share your development state and get feedback.

Do you have a process in place for play-testing?

Yes. Playtesting is the process of charting all possible things that can be done and attempting to do them under all possible circumstances. The first half is forming a list, chart, or database that maps out the plan for testing and the second half is systematically executing that plan.

Could you talk about the work flow you use when designing a game? (For example, milestones you have to hit in order to build a successful game.)

  • Basic concept doc
    • Includes your heartbeat statement, which is a concise mission statement that embodies the essence of your game
    • Use broad strokes and only cover the first bit of the experience
  • Identify the core mechanic and rapidly prototype it with basic forms, focusing primarily on the interaction. Ask the question: is this evoking the reaction I was after?
    • If no, explore why. Iterate.
    • If yes, expand the demo and gut check it again. The end goal for prototyping is to have a tiny, working slice of each system that makes up the game (movement, character interactions, etc.) so you can see how the different aspects interact together.
  • Pre-production: plan out development from start to end. Use your demo insights for time estimates. Don’t assume that any of this will actually go according to plan, but it’s far better to have a clear path than to meander around.

Additional milestones may be set on a per-project basis, but typically you’re looking for first playable, alpha, beta, and release as the big ones.


How do you stay organized while working with other people?

  • Taking and sharing notes (Evernote, Google docs, wiki pages)
  • Google Drive for living documentation
  • Email
  • Quick, regular meetings with defined goals.
    • (Even with a game jam, you have to, at minimum, have a “start up” meeting and a, “OMG how do we plan our last four hours!” kind of meeting.)
  • Task-tracking software (Jira, Trello, Mantis, Asana, etc.)
  • IM for the moment to moment questions and collaboration points (Skype, Slack)

The bottom line is that you need to communicate thoroughly when working on a team. Over-communicating is actually great because it means everyone has all of the information they need to make effective decisions.


Is there any game you’ve worked on recently that you’d be excited to talk about?

It was super fun to introduce my daughter Demi and my friend Melissa to making games at the Voxelles Mother of a Game Jam, where we made The Quest of Motherhood using RPG Maker. Later on in the year, my daughter and I enjoyed the Passing Notes Workshop with Anna Anthropy, where we used craft supplies to make a tile-based narrative-building prototype within a few hours, which we had a lot of fun testing with the group.

I truly adore small, exploratory projects in which games are a unique art form for raw creative expression and I believe this is the realm we will ultimately see the most innovation from.

What sort of games do you think there are not enough of? (What direction do you want to see the industry take?)

I want to see more games that ask me to look at something a bit differently or that explore new possibilities for interaction. I want to see more collaboration than conquest. I want to see the full range of stories and expressions from all types of voices. I want to see the power of games used for social good.

What can big companies like Microsoft do to bring more women into gaming?

Microsoft can continue to pave the way by being a great place for women to be employed. It’s up to the largest companies with the greatest influence to really set that standard as progressive places to work. The more strong women we have out there, being awesome for aspiring young people to see in action, the more likely it is that budding game developers will be able to identify with a professional in the field and feel more confident that making games is something they are welcome to participate in.

What can I do locally to bring more women into gaming?

I would love to see Microsoft funding more local game jams and workshops designed to welcome more voices into game-making. I love that there are programs for school-age youth cropping up lately because it’s important to start as early as possible.


How would you involve women with the gaming community, who otherwise might not become involved on their own?

I think it’s important to have welcoming and safe spaces. In my realm, I like to host casual gaming nights and have successfully convinced friends who “don’t play games” to come over, have fun, and even unabashedly flail in front of the Kinect. It’s up to each of us to reassure each other that we can all enjoy games together.

How do you think people with diverse backgrounds impact the development community?

People with diverse backgrounds are highly important to the game development community because an art form this powerful should be shared and expanded upon by all walks of life to truly become a fully articulated cultural expression.

It feels like we’ve only so far scratched the surface. Diverse backgrounds translate into diverse perspectives which forge experiences that give you a vantage into a world beyond your own personal viewpoint.

What do you want women considering a career in tech to know?

Follow your passion. There are going to be challenges, but you are not alone. Reach out to people around you and get the support you need, be this through joining local groups, finding a mentor, or being a part of a community online. You are not the first, or last, and we can all bring things full circle and support each other.

Recently, Heather and her daughter, Demi, created rapid tempura paintings on a window and the street during a local art festival.

Recently, Heather and her daughter, Demi, created rapid tempura paintings on a window and the street during a local art festival.

Thank you so much, Heather! Your technical paragraphs on playtesting and the work flow of designing a game are amazingly informative! 

If you would like to reach out to Heather, She Builds Games, or the International Game Developers Association, shoot us a tweet:

She Builds Games @SheBuildsGames
Heather M Decker @heathermdecker
IGDA Chicago @IGDAChicago

Nina Freeman

Nina Freeman is a game developer currently working at Fullbright as a level designer on the upcoming game Tacoma. She also works actively on personal vignette games, available on She is best known for working on games how do you Do It? and Freshman Year, which express her exploration of gender, sexuality, and narrative in games. She is the designer on a team called Star Maid Games, which launched Cibele in November 2015, a game that illustrates her experience falling in love with someone she met through an online game.

Video Game Developer
Pace University - BA English
NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering – MS Integrated Digital Media

What was the online game you played that inspired Cibele?

I played Final Fantasy XI for four years when I was in high school and through early college. Cibele is based on experiences from that time.

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When did you first start playing video games?

I was 11 years old when I rushed to Suncoast Video to use up all of my allowance renting Final Fantasy X. I played a ton of Neopets and dabbled in Gaia Online. I think Neopets encapsulated both roleplay games and Tamagotchi for me as a kid. I also taught myself how to design HTML websites using their guild system!

How did you first start making games?

When I was an English major, I mostly studied poetry. After I graduated, I met all these game designers & developers in New York, like Emmett Butler and Diego Garcia, and I saw them making games. I’d just started grad school for “Technology and Science in Literature,” and I was writing a lot about online video games. I watched them make this iOS game called Heads Up! Hot Dogs, and I was like, “WHOA! I didn’t know people could make video games!” I’d never even thought about making video games. It reminded me of poetry and storytelling, so when I saw them doing it, I was like, “I can do that, too.”

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Was there a steep learning curve to start making video games? How did you get past that?

Emmett, who I mentioned, helped me a lot in getting started. I had programmed when I was a kid; I had an idea of the basic concepts. I just started hacking on stuff, and I had Emmett as a resource when I had questions. Having a community and people to ask questions to was really helpful.

Why did you throw yourself into game development so fervently?

I had just recently gotten diagnosed with this illness, eosinophilic esophagitis. I really needed the challenge to… not be super depressed. I felt like I wanted a challenge, because being sick was really scary, and it felt like a good thing to sink all my time into. So I decided to go down this new path.

Can you tell me more about the women’s group called Code Liberation Foundation?

I met Phoenix Perry [Code Liberation Founder] at GDC in 2013 before I’d really done anything in games yet. We bonded over the fact that we felt alone because there weren’t any women speaking at the Tech Talks. I told her I was learning how to program, and she was already a professional programmer and a game designer. She lived in New York, so she said we should totally hang out.

We met up again about a month or two later, and she invited a bunch of other New York-based women game programmers. There was me, Catt Small [creator of Prism Shell], Jane Friedhoff [creator of Slam City Oracles], and a few others. The group of us basically met up that night, had pizza, and started talking. “We can all code, but… we don’t have many other women friends in the game scene who are doing programming.”

Phoenix pitched to us her idea of just going and teaching more women, as lady programmers, and that would be how we could get more women into games. We were all interested in doing that. We just started teaching free classes that were women-exclusive out of NYU right away.

It was just us trying to get more women involved in the scene. We figured that the best way for us to do that was through teaching code. And that’s still going strong. I’m pretty proud of that group.

How are you involving women with the gaming community, who otherwise might not become involved on their own?

Phoenix was teaching at NYU at the time, so she talked to them and got us a free space. We just started teaching classes for free to women who wanted to learn how to program. And that actually made me a much better programmer! Having to teach programming is a huge challenge and will make you a better programmer.

We just relied on our social media outlets and word-of-mouth to get people to come to our first class, which was “Intro to C++ Game Programming.” Somewhere around 60 women showed up for the first class! The Code Lib classes are notoriously well-attended now.

Ultimately, people talk about trying to get women into Computer Science all the time, but they don’t do anything about it. They just talk about it. So we were like, “We don’t just want to just talk about it.” It’s easy: you just directly reach out to women, and tell them, “Here’s a free thing. We’re gonna help you learn how to code. All you have to do is show up.” And then people show up, and they do it. That’s it.

I’m not actively involved in Code Liberation anymore, as I have moved to Portland, Oregon to work at Fullbright. The ladies in NYC are still working on it and hosting events! They’re doing very well.


Nina taught high school girls through The Code Liberation Foundation from 2013-2014.

Can you describe your own education?

I lived in New York City in Brooklyn for six years, but I grew up in Massachusetts, in Ipswich, near Boston. I went straight from high school to Pace University for English starting in 2008. I mentioned earlier that I started in that “Technology and Science in Literature” program, but I quickly realized I didn’t want to get a masters in poetry. I left literature and started grad school in Computer Science at Pace University, but that’s when I got sick. About a semester later, I was healthy enough to start grad school anew, and at that point, I’d really gotten into making games. I started at NYU, where I got a masters “Integrated Digital Media” degree.

How do you compare poetry and building a game?

With games, you think about the rhythm and pace, just like with poetry. I think the process is largely the same, except for games have the overhead of writing the code to implement the design you come up with, so there’s sort of a second layer. With poems, you can write it on a notebook, but you have to get it published if you want lots of people to read it. There are lots of layers to each process.

What’s the story behind the making of how do you Do It?

How do you Do It? was a Game Jam game made in three days by me and my friends: Emmett Butler, Decky Coss, and Joni Kittaka. We just decided to go to Global Game Jam 2014.

The night before, Emmett and I were at a bar, and we were telling funny childhood stories to each other. One I always have in my back pocket is about how I used to play “sex” with my dolls.
The summer after I graduated, I wrote this really long poem and put it on GitHub when I was learning to code. That was how I taught myself version control – writing that poem. That little vignette is from that larger poem, and so Emmett and I were talking about how funny it was.

That whole scene was a very physical memory. Playing with dolls itself is a game, so it made a lot of sense that one could make a game around that idea. The next day we found out that the Game Jam theme was, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” And I was like “Oh! That’s like exactly what I was doing as a kid; I was projecting myself onto these dolls.” So we decided to do it at the Game Jam.

Decky was there in New York with us, so she came on right away, and Joni was someone we knew through a friend, so she joined us as well, so that’s how it came about.


Play the role of an inquisitive 11-year-old girl whose mother has just stepped out for an errand.

[how do you Do It? gained massive popularity, going on to be an Indie Cade 2014 Finalist as well as an Independent Games Festival Finalist at GDC 2015. Programming and design by Nina Freeman & Emmett Butler. Graphics by Joni Kittaka. Music & sound effects by Decky Coss. It is available on Steam as well as Nina’s website, This game was made using Flixel. You can view the Github repository. The music can be found here. It has been mentioned in other press such as the Kotaku watchlist, and Indiestatik.]

Your two best-known games, how do you Do It? and Freshman Year, tackle formative experiences you’ve had with sexuality and femininity. What’s your stance on sex in games?

I’ve spoken quite a bit about sex in games over the past year. Cara Ellison interviewed me and we talked a bunch about sex in my work. interviewed me more directly about sex in games here.
I did a podcast with Tiny Missile, too. Sex is something I think about all the time, so I guess that’s why it comes out of almost everything I do.


Nina Freeman speaks on a panel called “What’s Sex Got to Do with It?” at NYU.

When how do you Do It? first got lots of press coverage, right after we released it for Global Game Jam, I was immediately struck by how shocked everyone was by the game. Reactions were like “Whoa, I can’t believe it’s a little girl thinking about sex! Oh my God!” Some people were scandalized. I want to make games that are personal and honest, but a lot of people aren’t ready for that yet.

Releasing it on Steam just further emphasized that reality. There were Steam reviews that were like, “Ugh, this is so messed up!” or people saying that it’s pornographic (which is ridiculous, because the game is about simple plastic dolls). Some people thought the game was perverse, but most thought it was hilarious.

Talking about sex is generally taboo in America, so I think that that taboo causes a lot of anxiety around when people share personal stories about sex. They’re not used to things that feel really honest and true, like a real human experience, rather than the Hollywood image of what sex is. I think that that is why there is some anxiety around how do you Do It? from people who have experienced this taboo of what happens when you grow up in America.

That’s exactly what this game shows – me only doing this doll-play thing while my mom is out running an errand! And if she comes home and catches you, she freaks out like, “Oh my God! No!” It’s interesting to see the game evoke that anxiety in-game, and also evoke that anxiety outside of it in some players.

I tell honest and raw stories in my games because I came from poetry, and personal vignette poetry is a big thing. That’s what I studied in school! So, it’s there, but it’s just not being done very often in games. It certainly has been done, it’s just not as widely known or accepted yet.

What is something you wish you had done on all your games?

I always wish that I could have had infinite amounts of time to work on each game. There’s always so much I want to do that’s entirely out of the scope of my expertise and time constraints. It’s fine though, because nothing’s ever going to be perfect. I always enjoy moving onto new projects.

How did you get hired at Fullbright?

I had met Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja, the Fullbright people, at GDC a couple years ago. We kind of connected about games and discovered we were interested in a lot of similar things, such as more narrative-focused games. So I think it was a pretty natural move for me to try and join them. It’s pretty rare – there aren’t very many studios that I know of that are doing more narrative stuff, so I was super interested in joining them. We talked at GDC, and then they were like, “Okay, when you graduate, let’s try this thing.”

Gone Home had already been released when I first met them. I was showing how do you Do It? and Ladylike at this little party thing at GDC, and Steve was really interested in them. I said “I really love Gone Home!” And at the time, I was starting to work on my current project, Cibele, which has some Gone Home inspirations. We were chatting about that, and I said, “I’d love to tell you more about this game I’m working on and get your opinion,” so we kept in touch through that.

Tell us more about Cibele in your own words.

Cibele was my master’s thesis game. “Star Maid Games” is a team made up of me, Emmett Butler, Decky Coss, Rebekka Dunlap, and Samantha Corey. I started it myself as just a prototype in Bennett Foddy’s prototyping class at NYU. I reached out to a lot of the people that I’d worked with before, and “Star Maid Games” is sort of like our team name for the project. It started out as this solo prototype. But I’m not one to make games alone; I like making them on teams, so I went out of my way to try and find a really good team.

Cibele is about a girl who is in a relationship with a guy in an online game. The game is about how they become close and try to meet up and have sex in real life. And it’s all an autobiographical vignette of this experience that I had when I was around 18 or 19. So yeah, it’s all about online games, and relationships, and sex, and the internet, and stuff like that. [laugh] The game is meant for mature audiences. It’s got picture of folks in their underwear and some swear words, and a focus on sex (but, of course, no actual sex is shown).

Thank you so much for your time, Nina! I hope you continue to inspire more women in game development.

Cibele was released November 2, 2015, and is currently available on Steam for Mac and PC. If you would like to reach out to Nina, She Builds Games, or the Code Liberation Foundation, shoot us a tweet:

She Builds Games @SheBuildsGames | Nina Freeman @hentaiphd |  Fullbright’s Tacoma Game @TacomaGame | Fullbright Company @fullbright | Code Liberation Foundation @CodeLiberation 

Adriel Wallick

Adriel Wallick is an independent game developer most recently based out of The Netherlands. Originally a programmer on the next generation of weather satellites, she decided to explore gaming as a developer, instead of just as an avid gamer. She is best known for having made a game a week for an entire year, as well as organizing the annual Train Jam game jam from Chicago to San Francisco.

Game Developer

Boston University - BS Electrical Engineering


Chrono Cross
Final Fantasy IX
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

She Builds Games partnered up with Voxelles: Chicago’s Women in Game Development to bring you a few excerpts from this exclusive interview with Adriel Wallick.

How did you think that video games were more complicated than electrical engineering and software engineering? Why did you think that you could do one, but you couldn’t do the other? 

[laughs] I’m not really sure! Now this is the first time anybody’s ever asked me that, and I’ve never really looked at it from that perspective before. But, in my head, video games were just this nebulous… thing… that existed that people made. Whereas, at least with electronics, I understand like, “Oh, here’s a capacitor, here’s a resistor, here’s the logic. Okay, now we have something that does something.” You know? And for some reason that made more sense in my head than video games being easy. Because there was this level of abstraction. You have to be able to do super low-level optimization for everything, and you just have to be a super-genius. Maybe it was because games are such a new medium that I thought you had to be a super-genius to be able to do it.

What skills have been a professional asset to you?

This is the advice I like to give a lot of people when they say they don’t have the skill-set for something: Learn how to learn. Become easily adaptable to new technology. Figure out what your learning style is. I think that’s one of the most underrated and important skills: “Knowing how to Google really well.” And then retaining that knowledge. That’s actually one of the marks of a good programmer, I think. All the best programmers I know are the best Googlers.

Adriel Wallick at GDC Europe delivering her session "Game a Week: How to Succeed, Fail and Learn"

Adriel Wallick at GDC Europe delivering her session “Game a Week: How to Succeed, Fail and Learn”

“I am sure most of you out there, at some point, have thought, ‘Wow, I’m never going to be as good at making games as So-and-So. They are awesome, and so smart, and they always know what they’re doing. And I am so stupid and so lost, and also I’m terrible.‘ And you think these things to yourself, and you keep them in, because you don’t want other people to know that you’re thinking these, because they’ll think that you’re WEAK and you’re WEIRD, and that would be TERRIBLE. And so you just sort of keep thinking these things, and it turns into this belief in your head that you ARE not good at things, because, you know, obviously people just don’t realize how bad you are at things. And that’s not a good feeling. So by doing something like [making a Game A Week], and sort of making yourself vulnerable, and putting your work that is not up to any standards out there, and talking about it, and talking about what you’re feeling and everything, helps you learn that you’re not alone. EVERYBODY thinks those things. And that’s okay.”

 Excerpt from “Game a Week: How to Succeed, Fail and Learn” Session at GDC Europe, August 11-13, 2014

What’s one of your favorite aspects of Train Jam?

Amtrak has no WiFi on the long train rides. They have them on the shorter trains, but not the ones that we’re on. For the last two years we’ve had sponsorship from Karma WiFi, with their little WiFi hot-spots, but they connect to 4G only. So, like, the connection that we get throughout the United States is basically like… Chicago… and then Denver… and then San Francisco! Y’know, that’s the only time that we have any connectivity. But they actually just released new devices that are 3G-capable as well, so we’re going to have a lot more coverage through the United States… But it would still be just about as spotty as what you would have on a cell phone going through there. So there are still large, large swaths of Train Jam that have no internet connection whatsoever.

Which is super great, to be totally honest. I make it a point to remind everybody about a thousand times that they’re not going to have internet before they come on the jam, so they have their tools downloaded, and they have their documentation downloaded… I also usually will have USB devices with offline documentation for Unity or GameMaker and whatever. And I find that a lot of people — if they’re prepared for it — can work just fine without internet. It was something interesting that I saw this year on Train Jam where, by the last night, people go to bed at 11:00 p.m. because they were done! And they were done because they didn’t have the internet to distract them! You know, like, people always think that they work slower without the internet, but it turns out that, Nope! You know, you are constantly distracted by Facebook, I promise.

So it creates this really interesting, relaxed jam, where people are just like “Oh, we’re just working, whatever… I’m a little frustrated that I can’t figure this out, but I’ll just do it some other way that I know how to do. Okay, and now we’re done! And we’re done kind of early, so that’s nice.” It also encourages a lot of communication between teams. That’s something I really like about Train Jam. It’s not, ‘you form a team and then you go off into your corner,’ it’s ‘you form a team and you’re still stuck on this train with them.’ So a lot of teams will talk to each other, and share advice, and share different ways to do things. If somebody has a programming problem, they’re actually forced to, like, ask their neighbor if they know the answer to it, as opposed to just going to Google and not bothering somebody. So it ended up causing a lot of inter-team communication and back-and-forth, which is just — I love it. It’s super great. We just have so many different teams just pushing things into other games and it’s really really nice.

Do you have any advice on prototyping? After a Game a Week for a whole year, you must be pretty good at it by now.

I have two pieces of big advice for prototyping. The first one is: Whatever idea you have, hone it down to one mechanic. Like, don’t look at an idea and pretend that it’s one mechanic. Actually get it down to one mechanic. If you have an idea about, like, “I’m gonna make a magnets game, and the magnets are gonna repel and attract, and it’s gonna be great, and then there’s gonna be all these things–” That’s too much. Your mechanic is repelling and attraction. Get it down to that. Build the prototype around that one main mechanic. And if you can’t get it down to one main mechanic, then your idea’s too big already.

The second piece of advice is: Don’t worry about the little things. Like the fluff and the polish. I would always get really antsy about getting something that actually looked correct in there, which is why I would always go to and get some crafty tile sheet. And then all of a sudden, I’d be messing around with tile sheets for an hour instead of actually prototyping the main mechanic of the game, when I could have just put, like, a blue square in its place. And it’s really easy to get hung up on those details, because it sounds easy! Like, “Oh yeah, I’ll just go put some grass in here because its supposed to be grass,” and then, four hours later you might have grass, but that could have been four hours that you were actually prototyping out the idea with a green block that can do procedurally-generated grass.

It’s a lot of scoping things down and being mindful of your time management. Hone things down a lot, don’t worry about the details, and just make it work no matter how ugly it is, or how poor the code is. Also, don’t worry about nice-looking code; all of the code that you write during the prototyping phase is going to get thrown out. Just make it so that so you can test it out and see what works and make little adjustments to numbers until you get something that feels like what you’re looking for.

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Heidi McDonald

Heidi McDonald is a game designer at Schell Games in Pennsylvania. She is experienced in writing narratives, game systems, features, and quest design and implementation in games. At the time of this writing, she has six shipped titles — two of which are award-winning — including serious/educational games and entertainment products. She is the winner of the 2012 Women in Gaming Rising Star Award.

Game Designer (Narrative, Systems, Quests)
Schell Games LLC
Chatham University - Double BA
Communications, Film & Digital Media

When did you first start playing games?

Late 1970s: Pac-Man was the first video game I ever played!

What made you want to start making games?

I went to college at age 39. When I was a student, my Media Literacy professor invited our class to a Creative Careers Seminar at Carnegie Mellon. It was there that I heard a lady named Sabrina Haskell (from Schell Games!) speak at a panel about her work in video games. That talk was a life-changing moment for me. Just having a woman sitting behind the table, saying, “This is available to you,” completely changed everything. I just needed to be shown!

What do you want women considering a career in tech to know?

Some information I didn’t have before joining the industry is that it’s certainly not for everyone. The horror stories about working as a woman in games, unfortunately, are true (and while I’ve been incredibly lucky at Schell Games to be treated well, this is not true for the majority of my industry friends). You need to prepare yourself for that and decide now how and whether you’re going to respond to that. The good news is, though, that things are improving, and also that here is a very strong support network among professional women in the industry.

Also: this industry is not stable. You need both a backup plan and to be careful with your money. It’s not uncommon to be repeatedly laid off or fired through no fault of your own, or to have to move, often. The hours and working conditions can be murder, so do a lot of investigating before you accept an offer from a company. Learn about how their employees are treated, how women are treated, how many women are in their upper management.


“Work with the local chapter of Women in Gaming to have networking events and programmatic content that’s helpful. If there isn’t a local chapter of Women in Gaming, SPONSOR ONE.” — McDonald

What can I do locally to bring more women into gaming?

  • Perhaps a scholarship program with a local university that’s just for women.
  • Work with the local chapter of Women in Gaming to have networking events and programmatic content that’s helpful.
  • If there isn’t a local chapter of Women in Gaming, SPONSOR ONE.

What sort of games do you think there are not enough of? (What direction to you want to see the industry take?)

Outside of work, I do independent research about romance in single-player RPG’s, and have written and lectured a lot about that. I’m the co-chair of the IGDA’s new Romance and Sexuality in Games SIG. So it should surprise nobody when I say that I would love to see there be more games that are 1) driven by emotion rather than violence (romance being my special interest), and 2) inclusive of the interests of people on the entire continuum of gender and sexuality. BioWare does such a great job with that stuff, but I’d love there to be RPG’s where romance drives the entire larger story, as opposed to romance just being side content.

One of my favorite quotes of the past few years comes from George Lucas:

“The big game of the next five years will be a game where you empathize very strongly with the characters and it’s aimed at women and girls. They like empathetic games. That will be a huge hit, and as a result, that will be the Titanic of the game industry, where suddenly you’ve done an actual love story or something and everybody will be like ‘where did that come from?’ Because you’ve got actual relationships instead of shooting people.”

— George Lucas

I agree a lot with the concept behind this quote, as in, people are longing for games that reach them on an emotional level and not just a mental or physical one. The part I disagree with is that the game he’s talking about will be for women and girls. The dream blockbuster romance game will be a game for everyone, because games are and should be for everyone. And whatever game that ends up being, I hope I’m part of it.

What’s a game that you recently played that inspired you in some way?


Inkle Studios, 80 Days

I really like the text hybrids that Inkle has out right now (80 Days and Down Among the Dead Men are my favorites). It’s a fun way to do interactive narrative, and since I care A LOT about story, I’ve started messing around with Inklewriter and have a few ideas about how I’d like to use it. Hopefully I’ll be in a position to release something on their server before too long.

Down Among the Dead Men, Inkle Studios, and Heidi McDonald on a pirate adventure

I am also really digging on TellTale’s Game of Thrones episodic series; in their case, they’ve combined fans’ pre-expectations of “nothing good ever happening to anyone, ever” in Westeros, with their established thing about making impactful choices. That ups the ante from their prior series because you know that no matter what you do, someone’s gonna die. I mean, I’ve been on the edge of my seat the entire time, playing those.

Is there any game you’ve worked on recently that you’d be excited to talk about?

We recently shipped the second year of The World of Lexica, a 3D adventure tablet game for 6-8th graders (available to schools only), that promotes literacy. A magical library is in peril, and you have to team up with characters from classical literature and go on adventures with them, in order to save the library. There are skill challenges, in the form of language arts mini-games, that help you along the way. It exposes you to hundreds of books from classic literature and incorporates them in different ways, and endears you to book characters such as the Cheshire Cat, Tom Sawyer, and even Frankenstein’s monster. I’m really proud of what we’ve produced with Lexica. The best part about that project for me is that I got to write the dialogue for all the characters.

At the time of this writing, you have six shipped titles, correct?

I have six, and my seventh and eighth are both announced but not released yet! Happy Atoms and Orion Trail are up next.

I researched all the “fun facts” about the molecular content for Happy Atoms. 

Orion Trail is a single player choose-your-own-space-adventure where you must rely upon your wits, your officers, and your ship to cross the deadly Orion Trail.

Orion Trail is a single player choose-your-own-space-adventure where you must rely upon your wits, your officers, and your ship to cross the deadly Orion Trail.

I am writing missions for Orion Trail. We’re going into full release with it soon! Orion Trail is in early access on Steam right now. Check it out!

Other games Heidi McDonald has worked on:

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What is the one most important aspect of a game that you feel elevates the good games above the rest?

Having the pieces be well-integrated and anchored to each other. The tendency is to want to do All The Things, but you never can, because of scope. So you have to pay special attention to addition by subtraction, and pick only what works well and then make those elements work together the best you possibly can in a way that’s not too much or too little.

Could you talk about the work flow you use when designing a game? (Milestones you have to hit in order to build a successful game.)

I pretty much leave this to the producers. The directors decide on a timeline, the producers and I have conversations about what tasks in my realm need to take place during that timeline, then they schedule the tasks in Hansoft.

Do you have a process in place for playtesting?

Playtesting is incredibly important and should happen early in the process, to make sure that before you’re too far into the game to change anything, you know what feels good to your players, rather than guessing what they’ll like.

It depends on the project, but it comes down to having a specific set of questions in mind, things you want to prove or disprove. The questions should always be open-ended because that’s how  you get the best, most actionable information. Sometimes we’ll observe and take notes, other times we’ll record the play and watch from the other room. And of course, there are analytics we can grab off the tablets after the playtests, and interesting things can always be seen when checking those out.

We always try to playtest with diverse groups, and that has involved outreach to girls’ schools, rural schools and inner city schools. We learned pretty quickly that when you ask playtesters to self-identify, it usually ends up being a bunch of white teenage boys. Those guys are important, but so are other players, so we’ve built some great playtesting relationships with schools and other groups.

How do you stay organized while working with other people?

We use source control software (like Perforce and SVN), and production software such as Hansoft and production systems like Agile. We have specific goals on a specific timeline. On our 50-person team, we have sub-teams, and each of those teams has its own scrum; then we have one large scrum that incorporates one representative from each of the smaller scrums. The notes from the large scrum are distributed immediately, so you can always get a detailed sense of what’s going on, on any given day. We’re really fortunate to have great producers!

How would you involve women with the gaming community, who otherwise might not become involved on their own?

What I do is speak at schools. Be that person who shows young women, “This is available to you.” Having someone like that made all the difference to me, so if I can provide that to someone else as a possibility, I’m happy to do it. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career, and I feel it’s very important to pay that good fortune forward. I mentor anyone who asks.

What can big companies like Microsoft do to bring more women into gaming?

  • Pay special attention to the wording of your job listings. Make sure that you are using language that appeals to women as well as men. There was a study done a couple years ago by the American Psychological Association which showed that gendered wording in job advertisements and job descriptions exists and sustains gender inequality.
  • Put language in your job postings that talk about the fact that diversity is important to your company. I know women who won’t apply for a job at a company that doesn’t mention diversity in the ad or job description.
  • Enforce your company rules in terms of sexual harassment and other bad behavior of that nature, and enforce them in such a way where the person who did the bad behavior is the one punished, not the person who reported it (which unfortunately happens a lot in this industry).
    Word of mouth travels fast — if you don’t enforce your rules, or if life for people who speak up is made more difficult — women will avoid working for you no matter how well respected you are and no matter how awesome your products are.
  • Once women are hired into your company, don’t stop there. Put measures in place to make sure they have the ability to succeed in your culture and on the job. This includes sensitivity training for your staff, paying attention to practices that might disadvantage, imperil or otherwise be upsetting to women (ie., not having outings that involve alcohol, nixing the use of booth babes at your shows, vetting the content of your product advertisements, etc.), and offering benefits that women (who have more preventative healthcare issues than men do and who are often the default parent when there are children) will appreciate, like flex time or the ability to work remotely if they have a sick child or something.
  • Promote qualified women from within, whenever you can.
  • Never, EVER use “You don’t fit the culture” as the excuse when turning a person (regardless of gender, but this hits women harder) down for a job. That’s a cop-out which says, “we’re elitist and are judging you by subjective factors other than your skills and experience.”

How do you think people with diverse backgrounds add to the field of game industry?

Many studies have shown that companies with diverse leadership, and products where the development teams were diverse, outperform less diverse counterparts. Your audience for games is diverse, and getting moreso every year. Therefore, teams also need to be diverse, in terms of race, gender, age, and sexual orientation. 19% of gamers are over 50, for instance, but only 1% of developers are in that age group (David Mullich, Gamasutra). It’s nuts.

Can you tell me more about your 2012 Women in Gaming Rising Star Award?

It was one of the more surreal moments of my career, honestly. I was nominated against some really talented women, so I wasn’t expecting at all to win. I figured I’d have a nice lunch, hang out with other industry women, and maybe meet Felicia Day, who was emcee’ing.
When they began the announcement with, “The winner of this award went to college at the age of 39…” I knew I’d won it, and I got extremely emotional because three years earlier I was a stay-at-home mom, watching Backyardigans all day, and then there I was, standing on a stage between Brenda Romero and Jane McGonigal, getting hugged by Felicia Day and handed an industry award. It was surreal and very emotional for me.
"In order to be the change you want to see in the world, you have to make the change you need to see in your own life." -- Heidi McDonald

“In order to be the change you want to see in the world, you have to make the change you need to see in your own life.” — Heidi McDonald

They asked me to say a few words, so I dedicated the award to all the women who had helped me get there, and to all the “women of a certain age” who are unhappy with their lives, so they can see it’s possible to choose again.

I’d only had people tell me it was possible. I hadn’t even considered it to be impossible. When people ask me how I got into the industry, I explain that I’m what the QA people refer to as “an edge case.” And I’ve decided that I really like being that edge case.

I probably also should mention that I was the bride at the GDC wedding in 2014.

Heidi McDonald and Alex McPhearson

Heidi McDonald and Alex McPhearson

Thank you so much, Heidi, for sharing your amazing story! Follow Heidi on Twitter @Death_Bow and She Builds Games @SheBuildsGames

Blair Kuhlman

Blair Kuhlman works as a User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) designer at Synapse Games in Chicago, Illinois. She also works as a game designer, scripter, and 2D artist & animator on her own independent projects. Her experience with Art Works for Change, a nonprofit corporation that uses art to address social & environmental issues, has bolstered her fascination with educational, socially aware, and experimental games. Blair strives to continue to produce this type of work, and explore what the video game medium has to offer.

UI and UX Designer, Game Designer 

Synapse Games

Columbia College Chicago - BA Game Development 


When did you first start playing games?

I have been playing games since I was a kid. As the youngest in my family, I was lucky that my brothers had built up a game collection by the time I was old enough to hold a controller. Hours spent trying to beat Double Dragon with them is what first got me into games. The more they improved graphically, the more interest I took. Ocarina of Time and Half-Life were the first games to really sweep me off my feet. The attention paid to the feel of the environment and story felt so novel at the time. It had a huge impact on my engagement with those games. For the first time, I genuinely felt excited to explore the world. Knowing I was about to approach a boss actually made my palms sweat. As a kid, defeating the blind pit worms in Half-Life was such a defining moment for my interest in games. All that nervousness and excitement sealed my addiction to the hobby and I have been playing ever since.

What made you want to start making games?

As an artist, I was always intrigued by the interactive nature of games. I loved the idea of co-authoring your work with the audience as they interact with the space you’ve created. For me, the main functions of art are expression and discourse. Video games as a medium are very intriguing in that sense; they allow for a tremendous amount of audience participation in the meaning of the piece. I love the challenge of not only expressing your own ideas, but also giving the audience the flexibility to react to them. As a designer, I find this very inspiring, and try to embrace it in my work.


“Lullaby,” created in Photoshop by Blair Kuhlman

As games were a big hobby for me growing up, it was always a tempting industry to explore. The technical skill required to make games was an intimidating barrier at first. I always imagined programming as a complex and tedious task, but I was only half wrong! Though the learning curve for game development is high, the learning process is enjoyable and challenging. Plus there are tons of tutorials available and an active community to help you along the way.

“I loved the idea of co-authoring work with the audience as they explore and interact with the space you’ve created.”

What’s a game you recently played that inspired you in some way?

I am late to the scene, but I picked up FTL recently and was blown away by it! The design of a lot of its “push your luck” mechanics have actually had a big influence in my current project. I loved how the game always gives the feeling that you’re just barely surviving (and often times not). It works so well with the ambiguity of the risk and reward system they use while exploring. As I make my way through my indie career, games like FTL really keep me grounded. They are a great reminder that strong mechanics and simple execution can take you a long way.


Faster Than Light (FTL), created by indie developer Subset Games

“For me, the main functions of art are expression and discourse. Video games as a medium… allow for a tremendous amount of audience participation in the meaning of the piece.”

What is the one most important aspect of a game that you feel elevates the good games above the rest?

Personally, I love games that are very expressive with their mechanics.

Journey is a great example of this. Its gameplay is boiled down to three mechanics: moving, jumping, and sending a signal to your partner. These mechanics interweave throughout the game, creating engaging yet simple gameplay that encourages the player to form a unique story with their partner.

“Creating such an elegant yet expressive set of mechanics is a challenge, but when you nail it, it makes for an incredibly captivating experience.”

Journey, created by Thatgamecompany

Journey, created by Thatgamecompany

Many of the scenarios presented in Journey encourage specific dilemmas to occur between partners. For example, (SPOILERS) there is a point in Journey where you reach a dark cave filled with giant creatures that are hunting you. They can fly, burrow underground, and easily out-maneuver the player. If you happen to get caught by one of these beasts, they send you hurling across the map. There is no health in Journey, so the player does not take injury, but this can still create a serious dilemma. Since players can easily beat the game by themselves, it creates a great sense of separation anxiety between partners. One player is left with the question “Should I go back and find my partner, or do I continue without them?” while the other is left with the tension of being separated and wondering if their partner is looking for them. This has potential to create a very genuine sense of joy when you see that your partner has been looking for you. They could have easily abandoned you, but they chose to continue the Journey together. (/SPOILERS) Creating such an elegant yet expressive set of mechanics is a challenge, but when you nail it is makes for an incredibly captivating experience.

 Do you feel that you identify with a Ludology-first or the Narratology-first design process?

Clarification: There are two processes that most game designers use. Narratology-first: Some people start with the outside-in, where they find the artistic expression that they want to convey, and they then try to find the mechanics to do that. Ludology-first: Others start from the inside-out, where they have the mechanic, then are trying to have the feeling that also compliments it. Do you feel that you identify with one of those other the other?

Usually I am drawn towards a mechanic that has a lot of potential for expression. I enjoy making games that focus on drawing the narrative from the gameplay itself. A lot of the debate I have seen about these terms implies that Narratology embraces using tropes from older media. Though this perspective has its merits, I think it’s more fun to think of new approaches to narrative given the unique tools that video games offer. If I do start off a game idea with a stronger narrative gimmick over a mechanic one, I try to keep the details of the story as vague as possible until much later in the design process. It’s important to boil down your narrative to the basics. This gives you a lot more flexibility while figuring out how to express these ideas through gameplay.

Are there any development roadblocks you’ve run into more than once, or for an extended period of time?

A few games I have worked on in the past have involved new technologies such as camera sensors. There were many times during the development process that this technology placed a great amount of restriction on the gameplay and design. Unfortunately, new technology rarely comes with detailed documentation, so any big problem I ran into had a serious impact on the development process.

Blair Kuhlman

Here is A Fitting on display in the Project Room at Columbia College Chicago. Promotional materials were being filmed in preparation for the game’s Kickstarter.

How did you deal with the roadblock and keep progressing with your game?

Knowing your limitations with any 3rd party software/hardware is important before starting your design process. Especially if this technology is used in the core of your gameplay. I worked on a project called A Fitting that used an Xbox Kinect Sensor as its controller. The game was about challenging the player to perform awkward and sometimes sexual poses. I knew going in that my ability to work with the Kinect would have serious limitations on what kinds of poses I would be able to track accurately. Many of the poses were designed to work with the limitations of the technology.

“The technical skill required to make games was an intimidating barrier at first.”

What is something you wish you had done on all your games?

I wish I had used the Agile process of development for every game I have worked on. For me, it has proven to be the best method to explore the potentials of a game while also keeping your mechanics as lean as possible. I also wish I had integrated the playtesting process much earlier in many of the games I have made. It’s a crucial part of the development process for executing finely-tuned gameplay and clean UI.

Do you have a process in place for play-testing?

Generally when I first start a project, I try to start playtesting as soon as possible. In the infancy stages of a project, playtesting is usually limited to other designers and myself. Once the gameplay has been refined, and I can set someone down in front of the game without telling them how to play, I start looking for any and every playtester I can find. Limiting how much your playtesters know about your game is a key step. It’s very tempting to provide hints during a play through, but restrain yourself! Players who know nothing are your most valuable asset for finding the weak points in the design.

Could you talk about the work flow you use when designing a game?

“I wish I had used the Agile process of development for every game I have worked on.”

I prefer to use an Agile workflow when working on a project. I have found that my best work process involves establishing an idea or feeling I want to explore, finding a mechanic that best expresses that idea, researching similar work, then building out the core loop of the gameplay and prototyping it as soon as possible. Once you have a prototype, you can start determining where the weak points are in your design, and find what is actually fun about your game organically. Once you have an idea of why your game is enjoyable, it is easier to iterate on the design to focus and and experiment with those mechanics. Agile is a quick and dirty work process. Whitebox as fast as you can, and don’t be afraid to let your work change.

How do you stay organized while working with other people?

Some type of task-tracking software is always useful when working in groups. Doesn’t have to be fancy, as long as you can prioritize and easily view tasks. Asana is my go-to program there. Proper version control can save you a lot of headaches, even on a small team. TortoiseSVN and the Unity Cloud Build services are what I have the most experience with. They are pretty easy to use!

Is there a game you’ve worked on recently that you’d be excited to talk about?

Yes! I actually just started a new independent project this year. As a designer and a psychology buff, I’m interested in what we can learn from psychological systems and how they can be applied to game design. In many ways I think these mechanics have great potential in creating interesting dynamics between players. I am also interested in how they can influence the way a player expresses themselves within a gameworld. This project is my first step in playing with this concept. It’s still very young, so I can’t spoil too much, but its roots lie in the psychology behind our personalities and how these principles effect how the player sees and interacts with the world.

What sort of games do you think there are not enough of? What direction do you want to see the industry take?

I would personally love to see more expressive and experimental games on the market place. There is so much potential for video games to innovate on the way we tell and understand stories. It’s exciting to see all the clever mechanics people are using to express their ideas. Luckily, now that making games is more accessible than ever, I think we’ll continue to see a growing presence of these types of games on the indie market.

“I enjoy making games that focus on drawing the narrative from the gameplay itself.”

 What can big companies like Microsoft do to bring more women into gaming?

Helping to bring female success stories to light will be important for gender diversity in the next generation of game developers. An increase of female role models for young women will help them dismiss any stigmas that may steer them away from the industry.

What can I do locally to bring more women into gaming?

Events that show the accessibility of the medium may be of help. For example, holding workshops that de-mystify some of the skills involved in game development (programming, using game engines, game design) may provide the encouragement some women need to explore the medium further.

“An increase of female role models for young women will help them dismiss any stigmas that may steer them away from the industry.”

How do you think people with diverse backgrounds impact the development community?

Diversity is one of the most important aspects for any artistic medium to grow. The more perspectives a medium represents, the more mindful our language becomes when describing it. Diversity also helps to push the industry forward, often making games more desirable to new markets.

What do you want women considering a career in tech to know?

Do it! With so much powerful and free software available, many aspects of the tech community are wide open for anyone to learn. We are living in a golden age of plentiful documentation and active communities available to help you through the rough spots. There is no reason not to explore the industry if it’s truly something that interests you.

Thank you, Blair, for your thorough and educational answers!