Ashley Zeldin honoured at Women in Gaming Awards

11 April 2013

Ashley Zeldin travelled to Sydney from the United States to complete a Masters in Media Practice in 2010. Last month she was named a finalist in the Rising Star category of  the Women in Gaming Awards at the 2013  Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. We asked Ashley about her time at the University, the role of women in gaming and her early addiction to Sonic the Hedgehog.

How did your time at the University of Sydney prepare you for your career as a games developer? 

Although my Master of Media Practice course was structured, I still had the freedom to investigate topics that interested me, like western media portrayals of the African continent and acceptance of the transgender in sports and sports journalism.

Similarly, making games allows for exploration and expression, and having exposure to such disparate fields allows me to draw upon many influences in my game design. I developed a heightened cultural sensitivity, which is necessary to create experiences that engage players worldwide. I learnt how to critically examine contemporary controversies, and I apply this even-handed approach when I speak out about issues, like sexism in the games industry.

What did you love about your time at the University of Sydney?

I loved every aspect of attending the University Sydney. The novelty of seeing cockatoos in the trees while walking through Victoria Park on my way to classes never wore off. Graduating in Great Hall, with the sun shining through the stained glass, was the perfect capstone of my University of Sydney degree.

What's been a highlight of your career in the gaming industry?

I feel like my career in the games industry has only just begun! Being recognised alongside so many of my friends, some of the most brilliant women in games [at the 2013 Women In Gaming Awards], is a huge honour.

Last September, I participated on a panel at [series of gaming festivals] PAX about "Breaking Into the Games Industry" (video). I was the only woman on the panel, the only independent developer on the panel, and the only developer on the panel who hadn't done a degree in game development. I was afraid that the conference attendees wouldn't take me seriously, but the reaction was quite the opposite: so many people came up to me after the panel to chat, there was a line!

How has the role of women in gaming grown over the years?

The role of women in the games industry is still evolving. In 1989, women comprised less than 3 percent of game developers; nowadays it's more like 11 percent. I'm proud to be a part of the growth, and hope to effect more positive change.

Though I'm relatively new to the games industry, I'm trying to leverage my successes to help others break into the games industry, promote diversity in game development to foster greater inclusion of marginalised voices and explore the spectrum of work-life balance.

I speak to students from year 6 through university-level to inspire them to enter STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Last year I was included in an Australian initiative to encourage girls to consider careers in STEM. As female game developers attain more visibility, hopefully more girls will aim to emulate them ... I know I want to play games as a character that looks and acts like me. That's why I encourage diverse game creators to make the games they want to play, as well as challenge developers to look outside themselves when designing games to be more inclusive.

Were you a big gamer when you were growing up?

I've literally grown up with games. My grandma got me an NES when I was two, and the first game I ever played was Bubble Bobble. I still have the cartridge. I played Sonic and Pac-Man 'til I had 'game thumb' - or the battery gave out. Around that time my family got a computer, and I remember insisting to my parents that I needed the Microsoft Entertainment Pack. That was a decision they immediately regretted when I played Pipe Dream, Jezzball and Chip's Challenge instead of doing my homework.

What really opened my eyes - and ears - was seeing the 2009 Independent Games Festival exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne … I'm really inspired by indie developers. I love where games are going in terms of evoking emotions from and eliciting interactions amongst players. I remember the first time a game made me cry. Playing Journey was another formative experience for me. The connections forged between wanderers in the desert are real and powerful. It's a visually stunning game that transcends communication. 

How was life in Australia compared to back in the States?

I'm originally from Los Angeles, and moving halfway around the world to earn my Master's at the University of Sydney was the first time I'd been entirely on my own.

Of course I made friends at the University of Sydney, but I was fortunate to fall in with a group of locals even before Orientation. I quite literally lived that Douglas Adams quote, "It is very likely that, on arriving, some cheerful Australians will 'adopt' you on your first night, and take you to a pub where Australian Beer is served. Despite the obvious danger, do not refuse. It is a form of initiation rite." By the end of my first week, I made friends who I count among my closest to this day. Though I was a stranger, everyone I met embraced me.