(TNS) — SANTA CRUZ — In “Gravity Ghost,” Erin Robinson Swink’s hit video game, the player controls the ghost of a young girl named Iona as she flies alone through the vast purgatory of our solar system.
Not a terrible metaphor for a successful female designer-developer in the male-dominated game industry.
“I definitely feel the pressure,” Swink said. “As one of the few women operating in this environment, it’s not enough to be merely good. I feel like I have to be outstanding.”
Fortunately, she is. Fast Company named Swink one of the most influential women in technology in 2011. Last week, UC Santa Cruz appointed her creative director of its master’s in games and playable media.
Swink began designing games a decade ago while a student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She enlisted the help of a musician and programmer she met online to create her first game, “Spooks.”
“No one told me I couldn’t design games. I suppose it was partly the arrogance of youth,” she said.
Swink taught herself how to program and eventually signed a publishing deal. She founded her own company, Ivy Games, in 2010. To date, she boasts credits on more than 10 independently developed games.
“To be an independent game designer and developer you have to be something of a jack of all trades,” she said. “You can’t just be an artist and storyteller, you also have to have a head for sound design, programming and marketing; you have to understand the gaming gestalt.”
According to Swink, the UCSC master’s program will address all aspects of game design from artistic direction to launching and selling a product. Of the 18 students in the program, only six have their games chosen by a jury for development. The remaining 12 are assigned to help one of the six teams.
“The process reflects the industry,” Swink said. “More often than not you are not the team lead working on your own design; you’re contributing to making someone’s else’s idea the best it can be.”
Swink said successful game design frequently hinges on simplicity. She described one of the games selected for development this year as a first-person shooter with snowballs.
“Constraints and limitations are beneficial. We focus on the unique nugget that makes your game different and special and expand on that,” she said.
In her new role, Swink will also act as something of an ambassador for the potential of games as a broad cultural practice. Michael John, program director of the games and playable media program, cited her commitment to the environment as a contributing factor to her hire.
Swink placed first in and founded the highly successful #beatthedev charity fundraiser, a three-day, streamed tournament on Twitch, which saw players try to beat developers at their own games.
©2015 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.