Transcription Lisa Wick Interview
Interviewer Jenna Gretsch
July 2009
 PDF Version

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the interviewee and interviewer and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of any employers.

Lisa Wick has been making games professionally since 1993. She began her career at Humongous Entertainment working in a variety of roles: game programmer, game designer, and project manager. While there, she was part of the team that created PC titles that include SPY Fox in Dry Cereal, Pajama Sam in No Need to Hide When It's Dark Outside, and the PS2 titles Backyard Baseball 2005 and Backyard Football 2006. Lisa joined the founders of Humongous at their startup, Hulabee Entertainment, in 2000. At Hulabee, she worked as both lead programmer and lead game designer for downloadable PC games. Highlights include the titles Monster's Inc., Mike's Monstrous Adventure, and Moop and Dreadly in the Treasure of Bing Bong Island. Lisa joined GameHouse in 2004 as a lead programmer for the mobile games team and is currently a lead programmer for GameHouse's downloadable games team.

JG:  Hello Lisa Wick why don't we start with you talking about what you do currently for work.

LW:  I'm a game programmer at a place called Game House. We make games for PC download - that includes Mac. They're casual games so that includes seek and find games like Little Shop of Treasures, card games, mahjon, and puzzle arcade games like Super Collapse.

JG:  Do you want to talk more about exactly what that entails?

LW:  The target audience is 35-50 year old women in general. It turns out that about 50% women and 50% men actually play the games but mostly the women buy the games. The games are able to be played in small pieces so that somebody who is busy or wants to play the games in 15 minute increments can just sit down and play. They're really easy to pick-up. Generally they're the kinds of games that don't need instructions, or need very little instructions to play; like card games, things like that.

JG:  How long have you done this kind of work?

LW:  I've actually been in the business since 1993. I started out at a place called Humongous Entertainment. There we made games for kids. The target age range was typically 3-8 years old. But it was exactly the same idea as what I do now, in that the games require very little instructions and are easy to pickup and play. These were hand drawn games where we worked with alot of animators, very rich animation. There weren't alot of kids games out that took that kind of care at the time. Since then, I've worked with PC, console, and mobile games.

JG:  So how did you get started in technology or computers?

LW:  I've always been interested in games. I grew up with a father who had an Atari and who would always keep up on each new Atari model. My sister and I would play Atari games with him. From there it made me kind of want to do that. Not to be an artist in the field, but more of a search for "just how does this work" kind of a thing. I was always interested in what was inside of something, how did something work. And so I got a Commodore VIC-20 when I was a kid. I kind of learned how to program on that. There used to be these magazines, I don't know what they were called, but I would just go to Fred Meyer's and pick one up. These magazines contained code I would exactly type in that would do something like make a ball bounce across a screen. And it just got bigger from there. I eventually went to school to learn how to program. And then I got very lucky. I got lucky on two accounts, first because I knew what I wanted to do before I went into college and second because I also got a job right away.

JG:  So then most of your classes were in technology?

LW:  I would say half of them were. I also took natural history classes and business management classes. I'm glad I took all of them.

JG:  When you first started out did you have a particular operating system that you gravitated towards?

LW:  A lot of our school work was done in Unix, then moving onto DOS and eventually Windows. It's always been windows for me. I'm not very good with Macs - or every place I've worked I've worked on PCs with the exception console and mobile phone games.

JG:  So you knew you wanted to study it, you knew when entering college that that was definitely your career path... what made you want to continue, what was the drive? Was it getting that first job? What kept you on the path until now?

LW:  It was definitely getting that first job, getting a foot in the door for working but I think overall it was the excitement of working in a creative team. For one programmer there's a handful of artists and a designer, and just that sort of everyday grouping with those kinds of creative people. And even in terms of what I'm programming, it's visually responsive. Everytime I make a change, I can see it right away.

JG:  So is that what keeps you in it now, the creative draw?

LW:  For me that's what it is and currently I'm working with alot of people that I've been working with since 1993. It's just kind of like a little family actually. And also I like the technical part of what I do. I like being absorbed in it day to day. It's like fitting a puzzle together, fitting the pieces together, tackling a problem and feeling that success.

JG:  So that's gratifying?

LW:  Yes.

JG:  I know the game industry is known to be especially demanding in terms of time commitment and constraints, how do you balance family and workload? Or is that even possible to do in the industry?

LW:  I think when I first started out I definitely didn't have a handle on that. I also think that in the game industry there's alot of peer pressure to succeed and so young people starting out are willing to give personal time and commitments. As you get older you're sort of working along side these younger people. And for me what's happened is this whole casual games erupted and there's alot of people my age now working in casual games. I'm now mostly working 8 hours schedules, and I'm lucky. That's not to say that there aren't long hours but overall in what I do now it's not the same as it would be working on a triple A title.

JG:  What does that mean, a triple A title?

LW:  A triple A title would be more along the lines of blockbuster console game. Something that's going to sell, sell, sell and have a full production team and huge marketing behind it.

JG:  Do you have children?

LW:  I don't.

JG:  So the balance you're able to attain is with your personal life not necessarily with the aspiration of one day having kids.

LW:  Right. I do have coworkers that have kids. And from watching them it's definitely not the easiest thing. Especially location wise, depending on where you live. The commute and all of that, and if you're asked to stay late.

JG:  Does your company provide any on-site amenities for childcare?

LW:  No, although we can work from home when needed. But it's not -- it's not necessarily frowned upon....

JG:  It's not encouraged....

LW:  Yeah, exactly.

JG:  How do you think money has affected your career choices, do you think it has affected your career choices?

LW:  It hasn't for me. In terms of programmers, or software engineers in general, game programmers overall make lower than other industries. For example, if I wanted to work at Boeing, I could potentially make more money, but that's not the only reason I'm doing this. I actually have gone up and down in my salaries based on what I wanted to do just because I'm there for the job and not necessarily the money.

JG:  You said earlier that you work in a kind of team-oriented atmosphere and you have a group of artists, the designer, the manufacturing and all of those aspects coming together for whatever constitutes a team. Have you been able to see a game from start to finish? To design a game from start to finish?

LW:  Yes I have. At Humungous Entertainment and a place called Hulabee I was the -- it would be a position where the designers would be the lead programmer and the lead artist and we were given time to design a game, several months. And then both of us would lead the teams. So I would lead the programming team and the artist would lead the art team. So we would see the whole project through so it would be almost an entire year of working on the same game, from start to finish. So starting out with nothing and then ending up with a great game at the end of the year was just another great thing that kept, keeps me going.

JG:  Right, right the satisfaction of full completion cycles. So do you get to choose what games you work on?

LW:  Yes and no. It just depends on the timing of things and what the company wants and needs and when I fall off of a project. I've been in a few projects where yes there are things to choose from, but mostly it's driven by availability and just being there at the right time.

JG:  It's driven by availability of?

LW:  Like where people are falling off projects, what projects are coming up, what things are needed.

JG:  Is that the case for everyone or are more junior roles allocated to a certain position and seniors to another role where they can choose more?

LW:  Yes usually. Not where I am now because there's typically only one programmer on a game. But in the past when I was leading teams it would be me and other lead developers kind of picking the people we'd like to work with on our teams.

JG:  So in these teams, I'm sure you consider your audience right? So have you ever noticed that there's a particular gendered-tendency? In that the assumption is that the audience is male? Or do you picture the audience in gendered ways, does that discussion come up?

LW:  It does come up. Mostly in this company we're going under the assumption that they're women because they are the ones actually paying for the games overall.

JG:  But what about other companies that you've worked for?

LW:  Yeah because at the other companies they were actually for children, 3-8 year olds, 5-10 year olds, so it was pretty much the same consideration. Not going too boy-heavy, not going too girl-heavy if I can use those terms. The first character that Humungous did was named Freddi Fish. Freddi Fish is a girl but it seems like they were actually too afraid to name her more of a girl's name. Most people who play the game don't realize that it's a girl fish.

JG:  So it's not apparent to the children that it's a girl?

LW:  No, I don't think so.

JG:  But that was your design to make it be a girl fish?

LW:  Yes, Humongous's idea.

JG:  In the field that I'm in which is IT, often when the end user is considered it's in the disparaging way, poor aunt betty who can't find her way to the start key, that type of stereotype. Have you come across anything like that?

LW:  Oh absolutely.

JG:  I'm an avid chess player and one of the things that's always difficult to stomach for new chess players is that it's a very unforgiving game in that you can make one tiny error after hours and hours of toiling and be dead. And this seems to be the 'punishment for error' model for games. Do you deal with these types of models and if so, do you think that one particular model attracts a particular type of gender or not?

LW:  I don't think there's a gender-thing going on there, I really don't. Personally I don't like to die after toiling away either, but it depends on the game. That's the type of thing that makes a game like Pac-Man fun I think.

JG:  So as designers do you consider that though? It's not talked about, the punishment or reward?

LW:  No we talk about that, absolutely.

JG:  But it's just not in terms of what the audiences' gender might be?

LW:  Right. It's just a fun-factor; an overall fun factor.

JG:  Do you actively put women characters in positions of power or make them aggressive, or is that something you're aware or have desire to do?

LW:  I would have to say yes. Definitely when we were marketing for children in particular. You have to keep in mind these were for kids though, so we're never going to have the stereotypical floozy-type women. Or anything that would make her weaker than anyone else. And if there were too many men -- I mean when we were designing the game it just seemed like for alot of people the obvious thing to write down to fit a character description would be a man, or a guy, or a boy -- We'd end up with this list of characters and there would be ten characters and two of them were girls and then I'd have be the one sometimes to point that out. Often it was me or another woman that would point that out because I don't think overall people think about that.

JG:  Did you find that that got to be exhausting or do you rally for that or?

LW:  No, I mean definitely now it's not something I've seen in a long time at least where I work.

JG:  What do you think is the biggest impediment for women getting in to game programming?

LW:  For anyone, not just women, I'll get to that in a second, but for anyone game programming is interesting because first off most people look for programmers that play games and then people who already have experience programming in games. So from women, if they're not those things, which I don't know how to phrase this but -- If there's not as many women doing that, they're going to have less of a chance. I don't know if that makes sense....

JG:  So then the barrier to entry would be just getting one's foot in the door?

LW:  Yeah exactly. Even for women who go to school for programming you're often dealing with assignments where you're blowing things up, possibly. I think the game industry is a great place for women but the path to get there isn't as easy for young girls. I think there's a lack of mentor support for one thing but there's also an intimidation factor when there's only a handful of girls in these classes. They're not seeing other girls in these classes.

JG:  Right so it's that burden of being different, an anomaly. So that's always going to be an extra challenge.

LW:  Yes, exactly. I do see a trend though... more women playing games and more women being interested in game programming.

JG:  Where or how are you seeing that?

LW:  People I know and then just over the years seeing more women applying for jobs. Where I work I'm often on the interview loop and there's alot more women applying than in the past. And I have friends that are becoming game programmers.

JG:  That's interesting and good to know because all of the National Science Foundation numbers show the trend going downwards since 2004 for women entering into computer related fields. So it's good to hear that from someone in the industry.

For all of the teamwork you've done do you think you've been able to participate equally in the decision making process? Maybe not in something where you're obviously the lead, but perhaps in the incipient parts of your career?

LW:  I think, yes, yes I do. For where I was at in terms of skill, yes, definitely yes.

JG:  Have you ever had disagreements within your team during the design phase that were due to gender differences?

LW:  No, I haven't.

JG:  So never in the design part where you're advocating for X and others want Y and it has to do with your perception of gender?

LW:  I feel like I have had that conversation but I can't think of anything specifically. Other than, you know, let's bump up the women character count here or lower the men, or something.

JG:  How many women do you currently work with?

LW:  I work with, well there's six programmers, two of them are women including myself. I don't know how many artists there are but there's probably sixty people in the company and fifteen of them are women.

JG:  So there are only two women in all of the programmers?

LW:  Yes, two women in all of the game programmers, there's six total.

JG:  Have you ever had a woman technical manager?

LW:  No I haven't, actually. There was a time when I had a woman manager and she was in charge of the technical people but she did not have a technical background.

JG:  So from your male managers, has there been any tendency that you can perceive to be more or less technical?

LW:  Yes.

JG:  Do you want to expand on that?

LW:  No, other than to say it's not where I work now.

JG:  Ok. Has this changed as you've advanced so that you are getting more technical feedback as you're advancing in technical skill?

LW:  Yes.

JG:  So as they perceive you to be more confident, you would say that it's accurate to say that they reflect more technical feedback to you?

LW:  Yes.

JG:  Have you had experiences where you've been relegated to the mediator role?

LW:  What do you mean?

JG:  There tends to be the stereotype of the woman as being a good mediator, the woman as the diplomat, the woman who is good at taking notes, all of those kinds of things, even if you're in a technical team. I'm just wondering if you've ever experienced that, where they assigned you to be a sort of mediator.

LW:  Well, not within the team, but I have - and I don't know what this is but - I've had people from other teams talk to me about their difficulty with their lead. And I didn't see them doing that with other leads. I don't know whether that was just because they liked me or, I don't know...

JG:  Are you the only lead that is female?

LW:  No.

JG:  Have you ever been able to perceive discriminatory behavior towards women directly? Or have you experienced it?

LW:  I haven't really seen it, not really... not because they were women.

JG:  There tends to be a pervasive belief, at least among the women that I've spoken with, in autonomy and freewill, so independent volition in terms of making choices in their career path. So the idea that I can do anything I want, it doesn't matter that I'm a woman. But what I see as part of the problem with this line of thinking is that it tends to create a sort of dismissal of the social context of gender and sometimes even a denial that gender discrepancies exist. Do you think there is equal opportunity for participation in programming?

LW:  I do, I do think there is equal opportunity but I think the paths to getting there are ..... I think once you're in there it's fine, but I think getting there is the hard part for the reasons I said earlier. Just the desire to make games, when the games are being made with men in mind is a roadblock there, right there, from the beginning. The lack of mentors for young girls is a roadblock. But for me, once I was in the field I was fine. I have several women friends who are programmers who are also in the games field and they seem fine too.

JG:  Have you ever had the awareness of being junior and needing to ask for help and having the senior be male?

LW:  Yes, oh absolutely.

JG:  So how do you think that affects, not only the woman or in this case yourself, but the males? Because there is of course the tendency, historically, for males to provide "advice" or " the answer" for women?

LW:  I'll have to say that I've had great -- when I came from a place called Hullabee working on PC games back to Humungous where they were making play-station games, I didn't know the first thing about making a play-station game other than how to program. I didn't know anything about the sports games. I had alot of questions to ask and these guys, there's four in particular were just unbelievably helpful. I mean they went above and beyond I don't think it was because I was a woman I just think they knew that I was there to work, I was there to succeed and they wanted to share what they knew with me and it felt really good. I'm still friends with these guys even though we're all over different places in the country now.

JG:  So what do you think the industry could do to attract more women?

LW:  I'm not exactly sure. I think they're already attracting women in the casual game industry - the casual game industry in general is to me what is bringing more women to games. That and social games like world of warcraft, stuff like that.

JG:  So that's from the user side, what about from the programming side?

LW:  Are you asking what could bring more women into being developers?

JG:  Yes.

LW:  We could probably be sponsoring some mentor programs or something overall for girls. And just break that barrier somehow. You know just that it's ok to go to these classes. I mean that's always the first thing, it's always intimidating to go into a class. I was one of three women in my classes in college. And I'm going to say that is intimidating. Luckily though, looking at the ratio of that same class that I took at school there's alot more women in it now. So I can see that those numbers are going up but I think it needs to start alot earlier, elementary school, that kind of a thing.

JG:  Do you think girl gamer groups like Frag Dolls or Girls of Destruction changed the way men think about gender and gaming?

LW:  I've actually never really looked at those groups but I would imagine yes.

JG:  Do you blog your experiences?

LW:  No. Do you?

JG:  Is that because you don't want to or it's a time constraint?

LW:  I just don't want to. I might of when I was younger but I don't want to anymore.

JG:  No I don't blog my experiences either. Who would you say are your mentors? Or were your mentors?

LW:  Those four guys I was talking about before absolutely and also my roommate is also a game programmer and she's somebody that I bounce ideas off. She programs in Flash but overall the basic game concepts are the same and we bounce things off of each other all the time. She doesn't work with me but I definitely think she is.

JG:  So Lisa Wick, what might be next for you?

LW:  I'm not sure, I kind of want to stick doing this for as long as possible, (laughs), I love it.

Return to top