Video games are no longer child’s play. At one point, video games were seen as an acceptable, if juvenile, diversion for young people. However, over the last decade, video games have not only gained credibility as a medium, but also evolved into arguably the most progressive art form in the modern world.
In addition to the incorporation of virtual reality, a revolutionary novelty in and of itself, video games as an art form benefitted from the rise of websites like Twitch and YouTube. Many successful YouTubers have entire channels dedicated to video game reviews, walkthroughs and Let’s Plays.
Between these YouTube channels and the increasing popularity of eSports, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people in the world who make a living by playing video games.
Furthermore, from an artistic standpoint, the advancements within the video game field far surpass the century-old tricks of cinema and television. The internet permits users to release homegrown creations and mainstream products to occupy a shared haven filled with endless subgenres.
With this new breeding ground of ideas, the old archetypes of film and TV grow less relevant with each passing year. However, as old tropes and conventions die out, burgeoning creative voices begin to rise to the surface. MIT’s Jenny Xu is one such voice.
Start New Game: Who is Jenny Xu?
Jenny Xu describes her childhood landscape in the Bay Area of Northern California as a “bubble.” Growing up, she was surrounded by peers who shared her interest in technology.
“People see it as a tech-hub, and growing up, it felt like one,” she says. “It seemed like all my friends were somewhat interested in the field of computer science, and I think that partly affected why I chose to do that.”
The aspiring developer originally planned to become an artist once she reached adulthood. The earliest versions of her resume consisted of home-drawn Pokémon and Neopets designs that she posted on DeviantArt, an online community dedicated to showcasing user-submitted artwork. Eventually, Xu’s interests expanded to include animation.
After deciding to create a start-stop button for one of her animations, she began to learn basic lines of code. From there, she started to create games centered around Pokémon and Neopets.
Today, Xu has created and published several games, many of which are readily available on your mobile device’s app store. If you play any of these games, you might notice two distinct traits: a distinctive visual style and a playful, slightly sinister narrative.
“I really, really liked making [games] that were kinda horror, but also comedic since I like to crack jokes and I don’t take myself super seriously, and that translated to me making a lot of these horror-comedy games,” Xu says of her signature style. “I realized that it was a niche I liked to play myself and was also one I enjoyed making.”
However, the process of translating an idea into an interactive product is far from simple. As the sole force behind her creative catalogue, Xu begins by brainstorming. Her brainstorming process involves putting pen to paper, drafting a storyline and sketching characters.
Then she transfers this foundation into Adobe Flash, the program she uses to create all of her games. While programming is an enjoyable “means to an end,” Xu’s favorite part of the process is a two-way tie between sound design and drawing.
Then Xu creates a rough cut to beta testers, which involves fixing any bugs the users discover and improving gameplay. Finally, after adding mobile support, Xu releases the finished work for public consumption.
The making of a video game often takes several weeks of 10- to 14-hour work days, but Xu enjoys every minute of it. “I do everything myself,” she says “because I can’t make up my mind about which part I like the most.”
Press to Continue: Breaking into the Industry
Earning a spot on the respected Forbes 30 Under 30 list is no small feat by any means. However, for Xu, landing as the youngest member in the gaming category — which describes the listed individuals as “leading a technological and artistic revolution — turned out to be surprisingly simple.
After a Forbes journalist reached out to her, Xu submitted an application. But after months passed without any word from the publication, her life continued as usual. More than half a year later, the computer science major was attending a lecture when she received an email.
“I got an email that basically said, ‘Guess what? The list has been released and you’re on it.’” she says. “And, I was like, ‘Umm. Okay.’ I didn’t think it was a big deal, other than ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool.’ Plus, I was still in lecture, so I realized after reading the email, I was behind. So, I caught up on the material and thought ‘I gotta pay more attention in class.’”
The college student views the experience as “honoring.” She describes it as a boost to her confidence, signaling that she’s taking steps in the right direction.
At 20 years old, Xu has interned with EA (Electronic Arts) and Sony PlayStation. These experiences have given her the opportunity to network with lead game designers; one of these designers even offered advice that directly impacted Xu’s work. She also learned to write the code used for the PlayStation 4, as well as gaining insight into the inner workings of the industry.
Of course, success never arrives without its fair set of trials. On a personal level, Xu recognizes the difficulties of standing out from the countless games coming out every month. In addition, she notes the lack of diversity and gender equality in the video game industry.
“When I go to conferences, maybe I’m the only female engineer in the room. At my internships, people would ask ‘Are you a designer?’ and I’d be like, ‘No, I’m one of the software engineers.’”
Nevertheless, while she’s encountered both personal and external difficulties, Xu isn’t spiteful. She faces the challenges of working in a male-dominated field with optimism, saying “There aren’t as many female game developers in the industry, which has always been a thing, but it’s definitely getting better.”
In fact, Xu spoke in front of over 400 women at the Xbox Women in Gaming Luncheon, an event she describes as inspiring.
Taking Things to the Next Level
Over the course of the half-hour I spoke with Xu, the thing which stood out the most was her demeanor. The ambitious young woman exudes an unusual passion and maturity, while also remaining remarkably humble.
“I don’t think I’ve technically made it yet, it’s just one step along the way. I still have a long way to go,” she says, referring to the Forbes list. “Before this I didn’t really tell anyone I worked on games,” Xu continues. “If I told people, they’d say ‘You’ll grow out of it.’ But, I think now people take me and what I make a bit more seriously.”
For the future of the gaming industry, Xu envisions an increase of story-driven games and games discussing social issues. Xu’s ideal vision of the game industry in coming years features an increase of story-driven games discussing social issues. One of her own projects fits into this vision.
This game, according to Xu, will center around mental health, and hopefully will balance entertaining game-mechanics with effective, personal commentary.
For other aspiring developers, Xu offers a simple piece of advice: Get something out there. Start small and don’t be afraid to fail.
Innovation doesn’t depend on age, and Xu’s work exemplifies this idea. With some luck and lots of effort, she might someday make her way to the top of the gaming industry.
Xu’s schedule is booked solid for the foreseeable future. The student is currently creating the third installment in her Zodiac-themed “Can You Escape” series. When she isn’t working on her games, she is attending junior-year courses at MIT and sneaking quick sessions of MouseHunt on Facebook in her free time.