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Changing The Game In Video Gaming


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, if your seven-year-old was topping out the weight charts for her age, what do you think you'd do? Sign her up for dance class, cut out dessert, wait and see what happens? We'll hear about the steps one mom took when she realized her daughter was losing the battle of the bulge and the incredible blowback she got from friends and family. She'll tell us about it all in just a few minutes.

But, first, we are going to continue our series celebrating Black History Month. All this month, we've been speaking with African-Americans on the cutting edge in the so-called stem fields, science, technology, engineering and math.

Today, we'll hear from a real player in the field. Lisette Titre turned her love of video games into a career in the multibillion dollar gaming industry. She got her first job in that industry at EA, the company behind blockbuster games like "Madden NFL." While there, she worked on everything from zombie-slaying adventures to digital dance battles like "Dance Central 3."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One man will rise up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Dance Central wil soon have a new leader...

MARTIN: Lisette Titre, who's now working as a freelance video game designer, says that her work is more than fun and games. It takes a lot of math and science skills to create the lifelike graphics that make these games so popular and Lisette Titre is with us now.

Thanks so much for joining us.

LISETTE TITRE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So how did this get started? Were you a kid who always loved video games?

TITRE: Yeah. I've been playing games all my life. I've been drawing since I can remember. I think it started when I saw "Toy Story." It sort of clicked for me that I could be an artist and also use my left and my right brain and do very technical work, in addition to creating beautiful art. So it was really "Toy Story" that sort of drove me to go to school for computer animation.

MARTIN: Talk to me, if you would, about - you said that one of the things that's great about your work is that it combines both your right brain and left brain. Talk a little bit about both the art, as well as the math and the science. Could you talk a little bit about that?

TITRE: Sure. The art is - you know, pretty obvious. When you play a game, you see the art, which you're physically interacting with, or the props, or the environment or the characters. But what's really driving a lot of the art is actually math, science and technology. So you know, things like explosions - those are driven by physics. You know, when a character is running forward, backward and side-to-side, that's all basic trigonometry functions that are happening.

So, for me, as an artist creating art for a game, you know, there's a lot of coding and scripting that needs to be sort of manipulated to get things to work properly. So in addition to being creative and creating beautiful visuals, I also have to interact with this technology to get it to function properly.

MARTIN: What does it take to be excellent in your field?

TITRE: First of all, it takes a thick skin. You have to be OK with failing and failing several times until you get it right. It's a lot of problem-solving and self-motivation. Nobody's going to stand over your shoulder and tell you what to do. You kind of have to keep beating your head against the wall until you get it right.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, you are a double minority in your field. It's not just about race. It's also about gender. I think the numbers indicate that only about 10 percent of people involved in the industry are women, of any race or ethnicity, and I don't think that it's a secret that the field is predominantly white male - and Asian male, as well.

Do you feel you have anything in particular to navigate because of that?

TITRE: I do find that it is actually an advantage in some way, because I can bring a different perspective than other people can in the room; so I try to make sure I share my opinions, especially if I feel like the content is a little off. People need that sort of insight, you know, in the industry right now, because there is a lack of diversity and that lack of diversity leads to a lack of ideas; and that lack of ideas is also translating to poor sales in some areas.

MARTIN: Every now and again when the subject comes up, people also talk about - it's not just what the character looks like, it's what the character does and what circumstances the character is placed in, and what choices he or she is called upon to make. It's no secret that, a lot of times, people have a lot of problems with the way women are positioned in these games. And I just wonder, do you feel like you have a voice in that, in that aspect of the story?

TITRE: You know, if I feel something is a little risqué or in poor taste, I try to point it out and be like, this isn't cool. But I will...

MARTIN: Well, but to that point, though, can you do it if you're not in the room?

TITRE: ...enlighten it to them.

MARTIN: I mean, if you're not in the room - right - then you can't speak up...


MARTIN: ...if you're not there to speak up. Right?

TITRE: You have to be present. You know, I think there would be different decisions made if there were different people in the room.

MARTIN: What goes into developing characters? And do you have a favorite?

TITRE: Usually, it comes down to what the game designer decides the character's role is in the game, and then the artists take it from there. They, sort of, start doing concept sketches or just drawings of what the character looks like and then, you know, someone like me would come on and take that sketch and develop it into a full 3-D character.

As far as my favorite character, I would have to say Glitch from "Dance Central 3" was probably one of my favorite characters. He's just a quirky, innocent cool kid who loves to dance, and his positivity and innocence is very refreshing.

MARTIN: I love his hair.

TITRE: Yes. His hair is pretty cool.

MARTIN: Can you describe it for people who haven't seen it? Kind of a widow's peak kind of thing. I don't know. What would you...

TITRE: Yeah. There's a lot of product involved in his hair.

MARTIN: That's fierce.

TITRE: It's very sculpted and stylized with streaks of color. It's a lot of fun. He was lot of fun to work on.

MARTIN: And he has some good moves.

TITRE: Yes, he does.

MARTIN: You kind of can see him kind of busting loose in the supermarket, or something, just to make everybody happy. I don't know. He's what my little girl would call - he's a nice boy.

TITRE: He is a nice boy.

MARTIN: He's a nice boy.

TITRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about Blacks In Gaming. Just to describe it for folks who haven't heard, but it's a nonprofit trying to create networking and collaboration opportunities and also - what - outreach and education so that more people think of the opportunity to work in gaming. But - I'm sorry. Lisette, I'm sorry. What you do is so cool. Do you ever stop to say that? Do you ever look at yourself in the mirror, like, in the ladies' room, and say, it's so cool, what I do?

TITRE: I definitely have moments. I think the most pleasure I get out of talking about what I do is the outreach that I do through Blacks In Gaming. You know, we have a speakers' group where we go out to elementary schools or middle schools and disadvantaged areas, and we talk to kids about tech and, you know, what it means to be in the game industry. I'm trying to change the way minorities think about technology and being proud of being intelligent, being proud of being a blerd(ph), you know.

MARTIN: Tell me, what's a blerd? What's a blerd? A blerd is a...

TITRE: A black nerd.

MARTIN: Did you come up with that?

TITRE: I think it's a cultural term, at this point, but it's something I identify with. I didn't have a hip word for it before, but I've always been a blerd.

MARTIN: Do you mind, though, if I ask, though, when you first started out and you walked into a room, were people surprised to see you there?

TITRE: Of course. They always are.

MARTIN: They still are?

TITRE: They still are. I've been around for a while and, you know, people know me wherever I go at this point. It's a very small industry, like, two degrees of separation. So you know, people who know me aren't surprised, but you know, you get the people who see my name and it's not exactly African-American by description. You know, Lisette's very French, so they expect a little French woman to walk in - and it's me.

But, you know, it doesn't take long for me to do. And I am who I am, and then they sort of understand that I know what I'm talking about.

MARTIN: And what does it mean when you walk into those schools and kids see you for the first time and realize that it's you who's designing some of these games who is a player in designing some of these games? What is that like?

TITRE: I think it means a lot. I don't think a lot of kids - they don't think about what it takes to make a game and they don't - may not even think about who is making the games, but when they see someone who looks like them in front of them, talking about something that they enjoy on a daily basis, explaining to them in, you know, basic technical terms what's happening on the screen, something clicks. You know, you see it click, especially with little black women who come in and see me speak, you know, their eyes light up and you can see a light going off, which is great.

MARTIN: Lisette Titre is a freelance video game artist and she joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Lisette Titre, thank you so much for joining us.

TITRE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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