SAAM Arcade: Focus on Women in the Video Games Industry

Five Questions with Renee Bates, visual development artist and professor at Ringling College of Art & Design

a black and white photo of Renee Bates

Renee Bates

SAAM Arcade is the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s annual celebration of the art of video games. Recently, we’ve worked with experts in the field of video games to broaden our own horizons and contribute to our understanding of video gaming as a medium for artists and developers. This year, SAAM Arcade is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment by celebrating women in video games, as both consumers and creators. Although they are often categorically underrepresented or stereotyped in the field of video games, many players, designers, developers, and scholars are women. We spoke with Renee Bates, visual development artist and professor at Ringling College of Art & Design, about her career, women’s roles in the video games industry, and games she feels have made an impact. 

How did you get into the field of video game design? 

I originally began my career in the animation industry as a concept artist designing characters and environments. At my first animation studio we had an offshoot interactive team that began development on a heavily Art Deco-inspired indie game. While we had lulls in production of feature and commercial projects, I began helping supply designs for the game. Ever since, I’ve continued freelancing to provide character and environment work for the game, animation, and toy industries.  

Women are often underrepresented in the games industry, both behind the scenes and as consumers. Could you talk about your work in the field and your experience as an educator, training the next generation of game developers and designers? 

In the field, it was not uncommon to be surrounded by a team of primarily male co-workers, but out of context that can be slightly misleading. Studios and their dynamics vary greatly depending primarily on the type of game they develop. As far as interviews conducted during my stay at multiple studios, I saw great efforts put forth towards an equal opportunity given to all genders although the outcome might not reflect what initially meets the eye. The biggest hiring priority at every studio I’ve worked for has been placed on personality and how one could contribute to a team coupled with design skills. It has been exciting to watch the number of women joining the industry rise in the past 7-10 years, as well as the new directions games are starting to take.  

Coming full circle and becoming a professor at Ringling College in August of 2019 has easily been one of the most rewarding transitions of my career. I love working with my students and primarily teach visual development courses focusing on how to tell story in games through color and design. At Ringling, arguably one of the biggest goals our department strives for is teaching our students how to think for themselves and how to move beyond the imagination into creating an indelible game product. My passion lies in helping inspire and guide my students to go beyond their initial thoughts and ideas to find the ultimate creative solution that is three parts novel, solid, and useful. Our students learn that a good idea can only be executed well once they learn to master the craft of art and design.  

The theme of the Arcade this year is “Game Changers.” Are there any video or tabletop games that you feel have significantly impacted how publishers, developers, and consumers view video games?  

The first game that comes to mind, and one I reference often to my students, is the indie adventure game Journey released in March 2012. There are several things that make this game stand out amongst the sea of its competitors, but the most important being the creators main intentions were to deviate from the standard defeat, kill, win focus and rather create a game based on emotional connection with the player and world. Journey’s beauty lies in its visual simplicity contrasted with its heavy yet delicately unfolding narrative revolving around the stages of life. It sets an inspiring tone for all those who play it evoking a deep connection beyond most gameplay. Journey was a “game changer” in the sense that it dared to take a risk in creating something deeper than the industry norm and at great stakes as the game studio was driven to bankruptcy by the end of the project. I highly respect and give credit to all the artists that stick to their vision and fight to see its completion.  

Video games are a particularly unique medium for artists to use for telling stories—what opportunities and challenges do you feel an immersive, interactive medium can provide for artists? 

One of the key differences between creating for the game experience vs. cinema is that the player controls where they go and what they see which is the opportunity and challenge all in one. The opportunity for an artist is providing a fully immersive experience full of detail; you aren’t creating just a taste of a world but instead building an entire world from the ground up! While it is amazingly exciting to research and study new ways to combine existing cultures, history, and locations, this creates an incredible challenge as the experience needs to be seamless in order to maintain credibility.  

Finally, if you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one video game, what would It be? 

This question is comparable to asking who your favorite child is! If I could only bring ONE game, I would have to choose Bioshock. I’m a huge fan of the retro time period with a good majority of my personal work taking place in this decade. Not only were the visuals stunning and the atmosphere haunting to initially draw players in, it’s the expert craftsmanship of the full experience that left an indelible impression and an immense amount of respect for the creators of the game.  

SAAM Arcade 2020 takes place Saturday, August 1 and Sunday, August 2. During the two-day virtual event, enjoy exclusive limited-time access to play games featured in our Indie Developer Showcase, register for special screenings of the feature-length documentaries Indie Game: The Movie and Not for Resale, and let your creativity shine with step-by-step instructions for video game–inspired crafting at home. 

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