This is a #careerstory from a female game designer named Jenn. Jenn creates games that delicately tread the line between digital and real life, between code and community. Yes, Jenn Sandercock is a gaming genius.
This isn’t however, a story about gender diversity (you can draw those assumptions if you like) despite the fact that women are severely under-represented in the games industry and in fields like computer science and engineering, but more of that later.
Creativity, critical thinking and learning skills have always been ingrained in Jenn’s intellectual capacity. Growing up in Melbourne, Jenn fondly remembers playing games over sports, and watching her mum and sister bake in the family kitchen. Despite a career trajectory that has seen Jenn study at two separate Universities, work for the Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), and as an educational gamer, it is those early memories that Jenn has coded together in her current career of a Games Designer.
Please meet the super smart and equally talented Jenn…
Hi there Jenn, can you tell us a bit where you grew up and how your experience shaped the person you are, and the career that you are in today?
I grew up in suburban Melbourne. My family was always more interested in playing games in the house together rather than outdoor sports. So I was definitely given an early love for in-person games with other people. I love how multicultural Melbourne is. I think that helped me see that there are so many different viewpoints and ways of doing things. It made me feel that it was always important to think about other perspectives and the other side of the story. In terms of my career these days, I try to make games that everyone can enjoy.
I also grew up watching my mum and sister bake and being a helper. I always felt like food was a great way to show your love of others, so I continued baking. Now I’ve combined my passions of baking and making games into a new passion: edible games!
Love this so much, edible games… genius! So, where did you go to High School and how was that experience for you?
I went to an all-girls school, Presbyterian Ladies’ College, from Prep to Year 12. I loved school, since studying was a lot of fun and if I worked hard I was good at it. I liked that I didn’t have boys in class to distract me, since I got plenty of distraction from boys outside school.
Did your high school play an important role in helping you choose your further education and future career?
Yes, it definitely did. At my school, the teachers taught that the valid career paths were very traditional. For example, we were encouraged to think about law, medicine, and economics. I loved maths and science, so my older brother told me that I’d like the same degree he was doing: a combined Engineering and Science degree. I did the degree and really enjoyed it, but I always knew I wanted more than just a pure technical job. I wanted something with creativity.
Because of the emphasis from school I didn’t even consider games as a valid career option for a very long time. So in some respects, my high school hindered me in finding my preferred career path. That is, for a long time I felt that creative careers or doing something like baking wasn’t a good use of all that education they’d given me.
I find that it’s always an interesting observation when you compare academic success to creativity and creative careers. Thanks for explaining in detail Jenn. Did you complete any internships or work experience placements in high school?
I did one or two work experience placements, but I don’t feel like they impacted me that much. I worked with my dad (a patent attorney) for one of the placements and while it was fun, I don’t feel like I got an accurate impression of what being an actual patent attorney was like.
Did you go to College, University, Tafe or another equivalent? Take us through the courses that you studied and why you chose them?
I went to Melbourne University for my undergraduate degree and ended up getting a Bachelors of Engineering (Mechanical) (Hons)/Bachelors of Science (Applied Mathematics and Computer Science). As I said earlier, my brother was a big influence on me taking that degree. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I worked for 3 years and then returned to RMIT University to do a master’s thesis in Artificial Intelligence. I actually started as a PhD candidate, but I realised that I wasn’t passionate about programming and was starting to realise I was a game designer. So I converted to a master’s and wrote up my findings.
I wanted to do a PhD because at the time I thought it was the only way to prove to myself that I was “smart”. It took me a long time to realise that a piece of paper doesn’t define how smart I am at all. In terms of the topic I chose, it was related to games, which I had an inkling I wanted to do more of.
Tell us about your career journey so far. Who you have worked for, and explain any highlights.
In between my undergraduate degree and my postgraduate degree I worked for the Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO). I was in the Air Operations Division and we did research and simulations on how we could best use the Air Force’s fighter jets. After I finished my postgraduate degree, I started working on games on my own and then got a job as a Junior Game Designer at a AAA studio working on LA Noire.
After that I worked on educational games for a while before moving to the US in 2012. At the time, I felt like I wanted to be part of a bigger studio and there were a lot more opportunities for game design in the US at that time.
The Melbourne games industry has since flourished and so I’m looking forward to returning some day. After working at a larger company, I realised that I had lots of ideas for my own games. So I founded my own game development studio and worked on a mobile game that encouraged people to look up from their phones and explore their neighbourhood. All that time, I’ve been working on side projects, one of which was edible games — games with pieces you eat while you’re playing, as part of the game’s objective.
For about 8 months I’ve been working full time to create a cookbook of a dozen edible games that I hope to fund through a Kickstarter campaign.
How did you get into the job that you are in now?
Since I’m independent, I created the job I’m doing right now. I was working at other companies, but I had an idea to work on a different mobile game. I couldn’t do that within the company I was at, so I left and started working on my own. I like to find unique games to work on that other people are not doing. Edible games is definitely something pretty new and exciting – I don’t know anyone creating anything like my Edible Games Cookbook.
What is the hardest part of your current job as a gamer?
Not having a team to work with.
I love working with other people, but since my company doesn’t have much money I can’t afford to pay other people. So I find it hard not having people to bounce ideas around with and not having a physical office to go into.
What does a day a typical business day look like for you in your current job?
I don’t know if I have a “typical” day. It depends on what stage of the game development cycle I’m in. If I’m coming up with a new game, I spend a lot of time brainstorming, writing in a notebook, creating paper prototypes and using spreadsheets to explore different concepts or implementations.
While the game is under development, I tend to spend a lot of time baking, coding, creating art in Photoshop or on Skype calls with contractors or other members of the team.
When I’m about to launch a game, I spend a lot of time on working out how to create a social media buzz for the game. So that involves working with marketing specialists and creating a lot of art assets that will get people excited.
Who has been your hero, or greatest inspiration growing up and why?
I don’t know if I ever had a specific hero. I loved playing adventure games when I was younger and when I realised that I could make them myself, that I was a big inspiration for me to become a game designer as well.
What advice would you give girls who are interested in your career?
Getting into games and staying in games is quite difficult. It’s a creative career, so there are a lot of people who want to get into the industry.
Once you’re in, there’s a lot of pressure to work long hours and there is a lot of job insecurity since people are often let go when a game ships. However, if you love games and want to bring games to others, there isn’t really a choice. So I’d say go for it, but make sure you look after yourself and your health.
When someone asks you to work long hours, think about whether that sacrifice is right for you. To help get into the industry, getting good grades is useful, but you should really just start making games. The first ones you make will be terrible, but you’ll eventually work out your own style and what works for you.
What are your most valuable resources that you turn to for inspiration?
- Favourite Websites: Gamasultra. A range of local and international news websites, like BBC, The Age, Seattle Times and Y Combinator’s Hacker News, and The Onion to help me laugh about all the terrible things in the world.
- Name an Instagram Account that you can’t go a day without checking: I mostly just follow friends on Instagram, but I love sugarhighscore’s posts. She makes cakes that are themed based on games.
- Favourite Podcast: I prefer reading articles to listening to podcasts.
- Favourite Netflix Series: Master of None, Zumbo’s Just Desserts, Star Trek: The Next Generation
- Favourite all time book/s: All of Sara Douglass’s books, but particularly the Troy Game series
- People: Leigh Alexander, Daniel Cook, Richard Lemarchand, Ron Gilbert.