Syed Saad Ahmed
Bengaluru-based Poornima Seetharaman, 36, is the first Indian to be inducted in the Women in Games (WIGJ) Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame by WIGJ, a leading global force on gender equality in the gaming business, is considered the ultimate recognition for women in the industry. An engineer by training, Poornima joined the gaming industry in 2006 and has since worked on BioShock, FarmVille and How to Train Your Dragon franchises, among other games. Presently, she is the lead game designer at Zynga, a developer of social games played by millions around the world. Usually reluctant to put herself out there, Poornima nevertheless filed nomination for the award, and was selected from 61 top entries. Her accomplishment will put the spotlight on the fast-growing Indian gaming industry. In an interview, she shares her journey, the joys of her job and the challenges she faced. Excerpts:
What are your earliest memories of video games?
My earliest memories are of Nintendo and Game Boy clones, playing Mario, Duck Hunt, Tetris, etc. My interest in games developed when my parents bought me a PC for academic purpose, and my friends introduced me to Age of Empires II (AoE) and Warcraft III.
When did you realise you wanted to make a career in gaming?
In college, I used to design AoE campaigns (game scenarios). I enjoyed doing that, but didn’t realise that was a part of game design. I played Zeus, a city-building game that piqued my interest in Greek mythology. It helped me realise that games are not just a pastime — these can teach you a lot and make you think. I started working as a programmer in a gaming company by chance and they had a game design opening. On recommendation of a college mate who was working there, I was given a month’s time to make a game design document (GDD) for a game similar to Neverwinter Nights but for mobile. They gave me the Dungeons & Dragons manual. I fell in love with the game design. It took me back to the kind of fun I had designing campaigns for AoE. That’s how I realised game design and development are my passion.
How is working in the industry different from when you started?
There are more resources to learn things today — you can pick up any skill through a YouTube tutorial. Back then, we only had a couple of books and articles. It was largely trial and error. Help was limited to your team or company. Today, you can reach out to people across the country as well as internationally. It took me 14 years to get where I am, but today, someone good can progress that much in five to six years.
Gamergate highlighted misogyny in the gaming industry at a global level. Has there been similar harassment of female professionals in India?
I have faced harassment, although it wasn’t that extreme. That is also because I had amazing colleagues who helped me. But I have heard many horror stories. I have also experienced interview bias. A friend and I interviewed for the same position and the questions we were asked were different. Leadership roles usually go to men. I remember once when a new management role had opened up, a guy was selected. When I approached the top brass, they said, “We didn’t know you were interested in that role.” Even though you may be capable and deliver results, it is taken for granted that as a woman, you won’t aspire for a leadership role.
How is diversity in teams helpful?
While I could quote many examples, I refrain from answering this question because it implies that women and marginalised groups need to offer something extra to be considered for a job. Why should we bring anything extra as long as we have the same skill set as others? Nobody asks what benefits men bring to the table. Attributes like gender shouldn’t matter as long as someone has the requisite skills.
Where do you find inspiration for game designs?
I find inspiration from a lot of things, but primarily from other games I play. I teach at NID and sometimes even the games my students make inspire me. Besides, movies, mythology and music too give me ideas.
What do you like most about your job?
I enjoy bringing joy to people with my games. Games are more than just fun. They can be a medium to bond with your family, learn new things, trigger thoughts, share meaningful messages or make a socio-cultural impact.