In the second entry in BGN’s Women in Gaming series, I had the opportunity to chat with Lisette Titre, currently an Art Lead with Ubisoft – a major developer whose recent releases include Assassin’s Creed Unity, Assassin’s Creed Rogue and Watch Dogs.
With over thirteen years experience, her specialties include special effects, character modeling, and texture painting. She has managed teams in China, Australia, and India while contributing to some of the industry’s highest profile games, including Tiger Woods Golf, The Simpsons, Dante’s Inferno, and Dance Central 3 and SIMS 4. Her most recent project is Transformers Age of Extinction (on Android and iOS) released by DeNa Mobile.
An advocate for introducing underserved youth to STEM careers, she’s spoken about how game based curriculums are paramount engaging today’s youth in STEM education topics. Past engagements include a keynote speech at N.A.S.A., Intel, the San Francisco Environmental Protection Agency, and being a featured guest on National Public Radio’s show ‘Tell Me More’ with Michelle Martin.
Lauren: First things first, what lead to you pursuing a career in video games?
Lisette: My original goal was to be an artist at Pixar. I studied computer animation with a focus on character modeling (developing the characters for a film). Not too long after graduation, I got my first my first internship working on 3Dchat room game app that never went anywhere. I soon realized that in order to really excel in this field and have a career, I needed to relocate. I packed up and moved from Florida to San Francisco with 2 suitcases and my computer. Within a month I found my first job working for a small studio as a 3rd party developer on PS2 and Xbox games. That’s how I got my start. I’m very lucky because it’s a lot harder these days. Schools are pumping out graduates left and right and they’re not necessarily training them well.
Lauren: …And there are probably not enough jobs to support the volume of graduates coming out of schools right now, right?
Lisette: Yeah, that’s definitely a challenge as well. In addition, outsourcing creates problems because a lot of those jobs are now going overseas to China, India – wherever we can find quality, low cost labor.
Lauren: You’ve been in the industry over a decade. Are there some accomplishments you’d like to brag about?
Lisette: Well, anytime you go through the process of making a game, it feels like an accomplishment. It’s a long process, it’s always unknown and you never really know how the product will turn out in the end. Just getting the financial backing for and shipping a title is amazing. I’ve been fortunate that most of the projects that I’ve worked on have come out. But there are definitely some games that I haven’t seen hit the market – and that’s always sad.
As far as my accomplishments go I would say being able to lead a team that worked with Harmonix and Dance Central 3 was a great experience. It was my first time going from being a production artist to actually being a lead artist and running a team, working with internal artists and our outsourcing partners in India and all of the components and challenges that came with working on a gesture-based game that is completely different than what you normally play.
I would also say press that I got for the Black Enterprise magazine cover was actually really great because it tapped into a network of young African-American women and men who didn’t know or didn’t see people represented in gaming. I got hundreds of letters from around the country, from people saying “my child is really interested in the industry” or “I’m really interested in learning more about how to get where you are and what you do in the industry.”
It opened my eyes to the fact that there’s a huge lack of awareness about the game industry, how it works and that there are even African-Americans in it. I would say that put me on a path to doing a lot of volunteer work and mentoring others. It’s sort of changed how I approached working outside of the industry and how to create awareness.
Lauren: Looking back on your experience, do you have any “favorite” mistakes that have actually provided valuable lessons in your career?
Lisette: (Laughs) Well I wouldn’t say they were my “favorite” mistakes. But they were valuable lessons. The most valuable being when I was working on a project for EA right around the time when outsourcing really picked up. On my first project, we were a team of ten people; on the last project, a team of two. So as you can imagine, my workload and responsibilities ballooned, but my title stayed the same.
The politics at the time were crazy, so instead of diving in and confronting it headfirst, I let my lead deal with the politics. Although I was doing most of the heavy lifting and handling twice as much work, my lead was actually driving things. Soon after the project was over, my lead decided to leave the studio. Before they left, they told me I was told I wasn’t ready for a promotion because I didn’t step up before during that critical time. So that was an awakening for me. I allowed someone to speak for me, when I should have fought for myself.
It didn’t matter now much work I was taking on, I needed to be at the table: speaking, taking the reigns and running things the way I felt they needed to be run. At the time I thought, “if I keep my head down and work really hard, they’ll acknowledge my accomplishments.” But that wasn’t the case. As a woman in this industry and a person of color – you really have to be out front.
Lauren: Isn’t that what we’re taught in school? Do your work, keep your head down, don’t cause a fuss, do what the teacher says and you’ll be rewarded.
Lisette: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s not how that works! They lied! It’s important to be a worker bee AND also be a very good leader. So my most valuable lesson learned – you CANNOT let anyone else speak for you. You have to fight for yourself.
Lauren: I’m curious if you’ve ever encountered any obstacles that you feel were directly related to you being a woman or person of color – did that happen often?
Lisette: I can’t say that I feel there was any sort of resistance to me because I’m a person of color. I would say the more awkward moments happened because I’m a woman in a male-dominated field. Most of the tension happens when you’re in a meeting or discussing something that tends to be a little controversial. When you’re working in games, some of that controversy can be a bit much and as the woman in the room you feel like you should say something. Then at the same time you just want to feel like you’re a part of the team. So there’s always that tension when you’re deciding if you should as a woman and become the feminist in the room or just play along and let people express themselves the way they want. There’s always that tension depending on the content being discussed. I supposed it’s something that comes with working in a male-dominated field. There’s a certain way to talk and a certain way to express yourself and sometimes it’s contrary to what you feel is appropriate.
Lauren: What do you think are the reasons why there’s such a shortage of women -especially Black women – in technology/STEM fields?
Lisette: I would say the first hurdle is a lack of awareness. If you see someone who looks like you doing something you want to do, it feels more possible. The second hurdle would be access. In more affluent areas, there are after school tech clubs. There are Boys and Girls Clubs with tech programs – better yet – schools have the funding for tech programs so you naturally have more exposure.
Devastating budget cuts at schools and the fact that the government considers it a low priority to fund such programs in our communities contribute to that access being stripped away. So now, what are our kids exposed to besides television and the limited education they get in school? There’s no lack of talent. It’s just that the talent is not being harnessed.
Lauren: Would you say there are challenges associated with mentoring youth?
Lisette: I think the work that organizations like Black Girls Code is doing is amazing. Having a network where professionals who have made it can tap into volunteer opportunities. Unfortunately, there are a number of African-American professionals who would love to reach back, but they don’t have the time or the energy to create those networks, so they’re just sort of waiting for an opportunity even – if it’s just for a few hours on a Saturday – to help others. But those networks aren’t really there and that’s also a reason why there’s a gap.
I think that’s one of the challenges of current times. If you grew up in the hood, as soon as you get a chance to get out, you’re out. Nobody goes back to pick someone up. So the rift between the “haves and the have not’s” is just getting larger and larger.
Lauren: The irony being that technology is improving but not to the point where it makes reaching back easier to pull someone up.
Lisette: Exactly, that’s why organizations like Black Girls Code, Boys and Girls Club, The Girl Scouts and all of these organizations are important and we just need more of them focused on incorporating STEM topics in their extracurricular activities.
Lauren: Is the Blacks In Gaming organization (originally founded by Nichol Bradford) more geared toward working professionals or is there a youth outreach component as well?
Lisette: At the core, it’s a networking group for African-Americans in the industry or those trying to create a network of people they can tap into when they graduate. But we also access our members if we are asked to participate in mentoring opportunities. For example, I often get asked to do Career Days, but I’m not always available, so I’ll reach out to the network to ask if anyone can fill in. I wish we had more of a network that we could tap in to. Game development is time consuming, so to ask someone to donate additional time at the end of a long workweek, is hard. We’re hoping to partner with more grass roots and neighborhood organizations in the future.
Lauren: What type events have you hosted as a group either in the spirit of mentorship or networking?
Lisette: We do have the annual GDC (Game Developers Conference) party – our largest event of the year. We typically have about 700 people come which is great. It’s how we keep the network up-to-date and the events going. We’ve also worked locally in Oakland for the Video Game STEM day – in conjunction with the Smithsonian and National STEM Video Game Challenge. We look for opportunities to help when we can. I’m also working with United Roots – a non-profit group in Oakland- working with youth high school to help them find opportunities and create a space for them to be creative. We’re a Bay Area based group, but we have people all over the country with the largest concentrations in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. Essentially where there are game industry centers, we’re looking to expand.
Lauren: Do you know if companies have recruiting initiatives to increase diversity their work force or is it still a networking bonanza of “who you know” to get your foot in the door?
Lisette: We’re seeing an increased interest in our group because of the large conversation about diversity happening in Silicon Valley right now. I know that there’s a concerted effort to start recruiting at HBCU’s. There’s also a diversity initiative at Ubisoft. I think that companies understand that this is an issue – but it’s such a big issue that many don’t know where to start. So that is one of the challenges of solving it. They want diversity, but don’t know where to go to find it. But starting at HBCU’s is a great step and reaching out to African-Americans already working is great as well. It’s a very small industry and African-Americans are 2% of it. So you’re talking about a small subset of a very small subset.
Fortunately, the numbers of women in general have been growing exponentially – I think that can be attributed to the mobile industry. 22% of the industry now is women – up from 10%, which is great. The African-American numbers are stagnant compared to that; but it’s looking up. I see more and more people at our GDC party every year which is great but it’s not growing to the extent that we feel there’s a real representation of us in the industry where we are starting to drive content.
Lauren: That’s something on my personal wish list – to change gaming content so that it’s more familiar, more relatable.
Lisette: Yeah, and that’s only going to happen if more people go into the industry. Otherwise, you’re going to see a lot of the same games coming out year after year.
Lauren: Do you have any events/panels/workshops coming up?
Lisette: Not at the moment as these things tend to pop up last minute. I try to tweet out my notice when I’m going to be speaking. I was very fortunate last year in that I flew to New York for Soledad O’Brien’s Starfish Foundation. She invites young women from all over the country to a workshop where they speak with a mentor and they learn about careers. I was on the STEM panel, which was really awesome. I was a great outreach opportunity.
Lauren: Since this is for Black Girl Nerds, I need to ask – do you consider yourself a nerd/blerd? Also, what’s your pleasure?
Lisette: (Laughs) Oh yeah, I’m definitely a blerd! I definitely enjoy my graphic novels. I am an artist at heart so anything that is techy, nerdy and artsy I’m definitely into. I also watch a lot of Sci-Fi. I just binge watched the entire Black Mirror series which I thought was amazing. That’s the type of content I like – social commentary mixed with artistic and high tech themes. That’s what drives me and keeps me going.
Lauren: Are you currently playing any video games – retro or next gen?
Lisette: I don’t have a lot of time for next gen games unfortunately. I’m working through a list right now. I tend to go for more adventure games. I’m not really big on first-person shooters or punch you in the face type of games. I prefer more adventure and exploration/fantasy, using my mind and getting escapism that way. I think we have an amazing medium, it’s genuinely interactive and I think we could be doing more interesting things with that other than just shooting people in the face. (Laughs) We get plenty of that on the news.
Lauren: Would you say you have an all-time favorite video game?
Lisette: I would say I lost a few years of my life to Mario games – especially since I grew up on NES. I would say those are still my favorites today!
For more information about Lisette and her accomplishments, visit www.lisettetitre.com.
For more about the Blacks in Gaming organization, visit www.blacksingaming.org.