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Schell Games' Heidi McDonald Honored at GDC

on Mon, 04/01/2013 - 09:40

Every March, the video game community gathers in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the largest such gathering in the United States. The “Women in Games” segment of the International Game Developers Association has a large and significant presence at the event, featuring its own set of discussions on topics of importance to women in the industry as well as annual awards honoring female game developers. GDC 2013 was no different, with panel discussions on sexism in gaming and how women can have a positive presence within the industry. Among the small handful of awards presented, meanwhile, was one for “Rising Star”—a honor bestowed upon local Pittsburgh resident and Schell Games developer Heidi McDonald.

McDonald had a varied and diverse career—including musician, journalist and Edgewood Council member—before joining Schell Games on the South Side, first as an intern and then full-fledged video game designer. “I tend to want to design games that my kids would like,” she explained to the Forest Hills-Regent Square Patch in October 2012. “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. 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.”

Heidi McDonald first hit the national stage at the GDC’s Online Narrative Summit in Austin, Texas, in early October 2012, with a presentation entitled “Writing the Romance-able NPC: ICING the Content Cake.” McDonald surveyed over 500 gamers and not only researched gaming tendencies but romance novels and psychology in order to design a new model for incorporating relationships into the single-player role playing game. “One of the things I learned in my research was that women are more affected by words, and men are more affected by visuals,” she told the Forest Hills-Regent Square Patch. “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.”

As part of GDC 2013, actress and webseries pioneer Felicia Day chaired a panel discussion on gender imbalances within the video game industry that included Anna Kipniss of Double Fine, former Thatgamecompany executive Robin Hunicke, Kiki Wolfkill of 343 Industries, academic Jane McGonigal and educator Colleen Macklin. While the group spoke of many sex-based inequalities within the industry, Anna Kipniss commented that independent video design companies appear to be the exception. “The indie community is very welcoming,” she said. “We need to pretend that there is no stereotype—pretend it isn’t an issue.”

Schell Games, meanwhile, isn’t just “pretending” but embracing woman in games instead. “Our design department is headed by a woman and contains about a dozen designers, half of whom are female,” Heidi McDonald explained to the Forest Hills-Regent Square Patch. “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.” In this sense, Schell Games is a perfect example of how the video game industry can reduce gender bias and become a truly all-encompassing entertainment medium—as well as the perfect home for “Rising Stars” like Heidi McDonald.

Anthony Letizia (April 1, 2013)

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