Game Changer: Q&A with Swissvale Video Game Designer Heidi McDonald

Local video game designer brings a woman’s touch to a male-dominated industry.

Heidi McDonald has worn a lot of hats over the years. A longtime Edgewood resident who recently moved to Swissvale, McDonald has been a musician, event planner, freelance journalist and, most recently, a video game designer. Readers of this website might recognize her name; she formerly contributed tales of motherhood for our “Mom’s Corner” column.

Her life also includes a six-year stint on Edgewood Council between November 2003 and December 2009, during which time she helped usher in the Junior Council Person program. She’s a mother of three, who graduated from Chatham University this past May with a dual-degree in film and digital technology and professional writing, her first bachelor’s degree.

McDonald made a presentation at a national conference: the Game Developers Conference Online’s Narrative Summit, which was be held in Austin, TX from Oct. 9-12. The presentation, based on research that includes a survey of more than 500 gamers, touched on romance narratives, gender politics and role-playing in video games.

McDonald landed a job with Schell Games, based on Pittsburgh’s South Side, after completing an internship there. As a game designer with a background in writing, much of her work consists of writing dialogue and auditioning, casting and coaching voice actors.

Patch caught up with McDonald earlier this month to talk about her new career.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

My kids see me differently, for one. Before, when I was a public official, they were disinterested, and now they actually ask me about my work and want to be involved. Working in an environment that actually rewards individuality and creativity is awesome. You can let your geek flag fly as high as you like, and it’s welcomed. I don’t have to hide my obsession with Pirates of the Caribbean; it’s not thought of as “weird,” but in fact, they let me decorate my desk like a pirate ship because it adds to the fun and the culture. Finally, I like being involved in creating an experience that can give people a moment of happiness or teach them something.

My understanding is that the game design field is largely male-dominated. Is that fair to say?

That is definitely a fair assessment. In fact, IGDA (International Game Developers’ Association, the main professional organization for game developers) has a special interest group for Women in Games which examines issues related to this.
How many other female game designers work at Schell?

Our design department is headed by a woman and contains about a dozen designers, half of whom are female. We also have a female audio designer, a female producer, a female in charge of the art department and other female artists, and a couple of female programmers.

Being a woman, do you think you bring a different perspective to game design than your male counterparts?

Our studio design lead, Sheri Graner Ray, wrote an important book about the key differences in the way males play and the way females play (Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market). Because of that, as well as my own research on differences in what appeals to male gamers and female gamers (and any gamer outside that typical binary), there are certain design elements women may try harder to include, to make sure the game is more accessible to everyone. For instance, males prefer direct, head-to-head combat, where women prefer indirect competition based on individual performance.

Men do it more for the game play. Women do it more for the emotional fulfillment.

One of the things I learned in my research (which supports Sheri’s prior research) was that women are more affected by words, and men are more affected by visuals ... I really do believe that there would be a market for a “Choose Your Own Adventure” type of multi-media, text-based game that would be primarily enjoyed by adult women. I think women could find interactive fiction really satisfying, and I’m independently working on a series of these, centered around strong female protagonists.

You talked about the popularity of romance novels among women being an indication that a market exists for this kind of interactive fiction. Is there anything you’d like to change about that culture?

I do read a lot of those books, and I get really frustrated. At the end, they always get married. They always have to get saved by the guys.

Has being a mother shaped your perspective on gaming?

I tend to want to design games that my kids would like. That’s my litmus test. Many designers want to only design games they themselves would like to play. I want to design games that I would enjoy, but also that my kids would enjoy, and that I would allow my kids to play. I feel really proud to work at a company that has so far specialized in creating family-friendly and educational experiences. When I told my Dad I’d gotten a job at a gaming company, he asked me “How can you sleep at night, making that Grand Theft Auto crap?”  It felt really good to explain that what our company does is a lot different, that I work at a place where family matters.

You probably played video games as a child; what was your favorite? What is your favorite now?

For Christmas of 1979, when literally every other child in my class had an Atari 2600 at home, my sister and I asked for one. My Dad, thinking he was being thrifty but cool, got us a PONG instead. I don’t think I ever really got over that. When I was a kid I’d spend my whole allowance playing Pac-Man, Galaga, Centipede, Frogger, Q-Bert, DigDug. I loved all of those, but will always have a special place in my heart for Pac-Man.

Working on multiple projects at Schell and having just moved, I haven’t had the chance to play games as often as I’d prefer. My list of “stuff to play” is embarrassingly long at the moment. I was in the beta for Guild Wars 2 and absolutely loved it, can’t wait to play again. I’m seriously looking forward to Assassin’s Creed 3 next month, because you can play as a pirate assassin. My favorite series of all time is BioWare’s Dragon Age, and I would love to write a mod or a story for that.

What about the conference?

Basically, I’m pretty floored that after only a year in this industry anyone believes I have valuable input to contribute. I feel incredibly honored to be included in GDC Online and do recognize how lucky I was to have my first foray into the industry include the list of mentors that it does, namely Jesse Schell and Sheri Ray. The stars just happened to align and I couldn’t be more thrilled or grateful. Because I’m a former public official and musical performer, I wasn't too worried about public speaking part. I’m was more worried about what I should wear, since it was recorded and stored on the Internet, about my laptop (since it had heat warp and was about to die), and about answering questions from a more experienced audience without looking like a total noob.


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