Sandra Elsom

Sandra Elsom.JPG

  1. Could you tell us a bit about how you started out in the games industry?

I teach at a university that recently introduced a Bachelor of Serious Games. I was looking for something to study that would be completely new to me, so I decided to give game design a go. It quickly became apparent to me that there is a huge amount of potential to incorporate games into university learning. I want to give my students a positive, productive learning experience. It’s no secret that people learn best when they are engaged, so I decided to try using games and gamification to help my students to learn, and to enjoy their time at university. I’m focussing on alternate reality games because they require fewer IT skills than video games, they’re flexible, group-friendly, and fun.

  1. What inspired you to join the industry? Was there a particular game you were obsessed with as a kid?

I remember very fondly my 10th birthday party, in which my mother made a treasure hunt for my friends, and the invitations were in code. She was marvellously creative and all of my friends thought it was the best party ever.

I’ve also been influenced by my brother who is a very devoted gamer. He often gives me board games as gifts (I particularly like Ticket to Ride) and recently he got me into Ingress (an alternate reality walking game.)

So far as computer games go, I’ve never really got involved. When I was a teenager, it cost 20 cents to play Space Invaders at the local takeaway shop and I never had 20 cents to spare, so I feel like I sort of missed that boat. In order to study game design, I had to quickly become familiar with the video game concepts and jargon. My 15 year old son has been a great help in this regard, patiently explaining terms such as “first person shooter” and “side scroller”. I also didn’t know how to use a games console, but I’ve bought myself an X-Box now, and I’m very slowly learning how to use the controller. It’s been a great reminder for me, as a teacher, to be in the position of a learner who really knows nothing on the topic.

  1. What particular types of games or aspects of interactive storytelling interest you?

I like mysteries and puzzles. I get frustrated when I can’t get very far in a game because zombies eat me, or some military dude wants to shoot me, so I tend to avoid those types. My particular interest is in alternate reality games. I like the way that they get you off the couch, you can play co-operatively with friends, you can share tasks, and there can be a lot of variety in the requirements of the game.

  1. In what ways does a games academic interact with the games industry and developers?

I am learning from the games industry and game developers all the time. It’s very much a collaborative industry; it’s unlikely that one person has all of the skills needed to make a game. I like hearing about the process of creating a game, from coming up with the initial idea, to prototyping, development, playtesting and refinement. I like to find out why certain decisions were made regarding a game rule, or why something that looks like a flaw might have been deliberately left in a game. People with artistic IT skills (such as 3D modellers) inspire me. I’d like to learn to be able to do some of that myself.

  1. Do you think approaches to interactive storytelling differ along gender lines? If so, how?

I am inclined to criticise stereotypically female games here, like dress up fashion type games, but obviously there is a market for them so I’d be making that criticism based simply on the fact that I’m not interested in them. But I read a lot of talk online about games, and it seems to me that men are frustrated that game designers think they want to kill everything, and women are frustrated that game designers don’t give them opportunities to kill anything. I think that designers should stop worrying about “women want this” and “men want this” and just create a game where gender is irrelevant, then playtest it a wide audience of various ages, genders, sexualities and listen carefully to their feedback.

  1. What are some of your favourite games created by a woman or featuring a female main character?

One of the first video games I played was Dear Esther, described as an experimental game and created by The Chinese Room. The Chinese Room is a team of men and women who make atmospheric, mesmerising games. Although the game is named after Esther, she is never seen and the player is left to explore a seemingly deserted island while trying to work out just what happened there. It’s a fairly short, simple game, and it showed me that video games don’t just have to be about blowing stuff up.

I like the approach to gender taken by Skyrim and the Fallout series, where you create your character and the gender is whatever you choose. You need to dress them properly in armour as well – none of this exposed breast or thigh business. There are people are there who want to kill you with medieval weaponry, so you’d better be properly protected.

  1. What are your tips for anyone wanting to break into the games industry?

First of all, I’d say as a woman, don’t be discouraged by the lack of female representation in the industry. I was the only woman in one of my game design classes, but you don’t notice that after the first couple of weeks. Interestingly, now that I am researching the use of alternate reality games in higher education, it seems that most of the people involved in this aspect of the industry are actually women.

Personally, I couldn’t have done it without actually studying game design in a formal setting. There’s so much that goes on in creating a game that you don’t see as a player.

Collaborate. It’s not something that you can do on your own. I have an excellent creative relationship with an ex-classmate, Alan, and I hope we will make many more games together. I’m also working with an academic colleague who will look at my games from a dispassionate, academic viewpoint to ensure that they have educational value. She will work on her own projects that I will evaluate for her in return. Teamwork is vital. It’s easy to get precious about your game ideas and you need someone to pull you back down to earth.

  1. Are there any Twitter feeds, websites, Facebook pages, forums etc you could recommend for people who are interested in games and interactive storytelling?

Feminist Frequency on YouTube –

Reddit’s gaming sub –

Talk to your teenagers, if you are lucky enough to have some.