Celebrating Women in VR: Q&A with Jenny Huang

Oculus Blog
Posted by Ruth Bram, Oculus Studios Game Producer
March 23, 2020

As we continue to celebrate Women's History Month, I’d like to highlight another industry leader who makes it a priority to ensure that diverse characters, diverse players, and their play styles are thoroughly and accurately represented in VR.

Meet Jenny Huang, Head of Production at Sanzaru Games. She’s been working with Oculus Studios for as long as I can remember. In collaboration with Oculus Studios Executive Producer Mike Doran, Jenny has been pivotal to the success behind four unique VR titles including VR Sports Challenge, which provided players one of the best immersive sporting experiences with football, basketball, and hockey; Ripcoil, our first multiplayer disc-throwing duel game utilizing a unique form of player movement; MARVEL Powers United VR, which featured one of the largest ‘epic’ roster of characters you can choose to play as; and Asgard’s Wrath, where you play a fledgling demi-god and inhabit other characters in order to play at human scale to encounter the most satisfying combat experience you can have in VR.

Jenny and her team at Sanzaru have been excellent partners over the years, but don’t just take it from us. Jenny has a resonating story to share and offers some excellent advice and words of wisdom for those interested. Enjoy the read!

How did you get your start in the tech industry?

Jenny Huang: Growing up, I’ve always been interested in the creative arts, especially with music and art. I also have a strong passion for sports, which led to most of my childhood being surrounded by boys and competing against them. Innately, I’ve always been very logical and rational in my thinking. I enjoyed problem solving and discovering the root of a problem to address the issue. However, figuring out how to put all that together into a college major that led to a career was challenging. I spent the first two years of college floating around, experimenting with various career options. Ultimately, I kept finding myself in math and science because I gravitated to the challenges and opportunities they presented. It did not feel unusual that the majority of my classmates were male since I was already accustomed to being in the minority when competing against the boys in sports while growing up. As a result, I ended up graduating from Berkeley with a degree in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. It provided the problem-solving challenges I enjoy, but I was still missing the visual arts. When I discovered video game development as a career, I realized it was the perfect combination of tech and art that I was looking for.

Tell us about your current role.

JH: While I first entered the gaming industry as a gameplay programmer, I knew I eventually wanted to be involved with every aspect of making a game. I transitioned into production where I was exposed to the needs of every department, not just engineering. The problem-solving challenges are equally present in production, but just take the form of other humans rather than a machine. Having the background in programming and the experience of building systems gave me the ability to quickly understand the interdependency between the departments. I now coordinate the communication within the team to ensure everybody is working toward the same milestone goals. I develop workflows for each department to ensure everyone is tasked sufficiently and that work gets passed through the pipeline. I schedule the project and track the health of the milestones. I manage the budget with external contractors to fill any resource gaps we have from being a small studio. Some examples include script writing, sound design, music composition, voice recording, testing, localization, IGCs, concept art, and marketing. Lastly, I work with publishers to ensure expectations about our deliverables are met.

Who’s your favorite figure from women’s history?

JH: There have been so many inspirational women and women’s groups who have graced us with their passion and talents It’s hard to pick just one as I believe it’s a collaborative effort of everyone to make the women’s movement a reality. Some names that come to mind are Ellen DeGeneres, Serena Williams, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Notorious RGB!). They have found ways to navigate their way through their male-dominant fields and had their voices heard. They strive for equality in human rights, animal rights, LGBTQ rights, and women’s rights. They have shown bravery, determination, and strength to be unapologetically themselves. I also want to recognize organizations that have empowered women and given us a community to relate to each other. Such organizations include everything from well-known associations like the WNBA, which is front-and-center fighting for women equality, to small unknown businesses like Surf With Amigas, which is providing positivity and making a difference, one woman at a time.

How do you see yourself making history?

JH: By participating in Women’s History Month and speaking with both men and women about the struggles women face, I hope to do my small part in contributing to Women’s History. But it’s not always about fighting on the frontline or being a spokesperson for a movement. We all contribute in our own ways, even as a supporter for someone else’s struggle. By offering my time to listen to other people’s stories and participating in events that empower and inspire women, I hope to always walk along the path with other female giants who have paved the way for me.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young girl considering a career in tech or the arts, what would it be and why?

JH: Do it! It doesn’t matter if it’s the tech or the arts. There are no guidelines for what’s better to consider. Pursue what your heart desires and don’t let the world limit you with boundaries you might not feel or agree with. Recognize the nagging inner voice that might cause you doubt in your decisions and then challenge it. Trust that you are your best advocate and that you know what brings a smile to your face every day. Be bold and daring, knowing that it won’t be easy, but also knowing that you won’t be alone. And rest assured that you are not locked into any choice you make today or tomorrow. We are constantly growing and evolving since life is a journey. Don’t be afraid to make a decision today for fear of changing it tomorrow.

How do you see women pushing the state of the art forward in the fields of augmented and virtual reality?

JH: We’ve been seeing growth in the AR/VR market, and a large part of that is due to the gaming industry. However, that industry is also well-known to be very male-dominant. We need to find ways to close the gender gap when it comes to video game development. Statistics have shown that over the past decade, women are starting to represent nearly half of all gamers. However, when it comes to game development, women only account for less than 25% of that work force. When you look deeper into the gender distribution amongst the roles within a development team, you’ll find an even heavier skew toward the male population for roles specific to content creation. Most of the female roles are in Ops, HR, PR, Writing, and Production. This great imbalance means the experience gamers get is still heavily male-influenced and lacking in diversity. Female gamers are having to compromise their definition of entertainment or recalibrate their expectations to follow the market. Female developers still struggle to find their voice and sense of belonging amongst their male-dominant coworkers. With AR/VR, we have an opportunity to define a new experience in a new medium. We are still discovering the possibilities of what this technology can bring us. We have the chance to break the mold of past gaming consoles and define our vision for the future of gaming. Now is our moment to integrate more diversity from women and underrepresented groups to include their vision into that future.

Where have you encountered support and advocacy for women and other underrepresented groups in the VR industry?

JH: Facebook has always been a great advocate for diversity awareness. It’s been a privilege to have the opportunities to share my stories in the form of panel discussions and blogs over the past few years. Furthermore, being a Cal Alumni, I have also had the opportunity to participate in a Cal Career Connections event that focused on the gaming industry. The event provided an opportunity to speak with Cal students interested in my field and share with them the work I do and the journey to get here. The majority of the students I spoke with have majors relating to math and science. While most are male, there are a few female students whom I’ve been able to connect with and hopefully piqued their interest in a gaming career. Many of the questions I received from the male students were either about game design, their passion for games, or ways to promote their game ideas. They already know they have an interest and just want to get their foot in the door. In contrast, many of the female students I spoke with asked questions about possibilities. They are unclear if their background provides a path for them in gaming, and if so, what that path would look like. They don’t realize the variety of roles within the industry outside of testing, programming, or game design. I think we can do a better job at educating people about the process of game development and providing more avenues for people to enter the field.

What concrete steps can people take to help make the tech industry a more inclusive and welcoming space?

JH: First, we should encourage more diversity in recruiting, ensuring the final candidates are always diverse, but that the best candidate will win. When a candidate considers a position and sees an entire group of potential coworkers that are visibly very different from them, questions about acceptance will inevitably creep into their decision-making process. Second, companies should offer training programs to further develop and enrich the skill sets of all the workers. While new hires might enter their jobs at different skill levels, the industry advances so quickly that everyone can potentially develop the advanced skill sets if given the right opportunity to learn. Knowledge and education inspire confidence, which is needed in an industry that moves so quickly and faces such complicated problems. Lastly, we need to provide more ways for people to join the industry. We need to question the popular belief that math and science is your only path to technology. I often find that people are misinformed about their opportunities and therefore close the door on their own potential.

How do you go about designing games for a diverse audience and ensuring representation of strong women characters in your own work?

JH: I keep an open mind and heart throughout the game development process. I listen and process people’s opinions, but do not shy away from voicing my own as well. I make sure to contribute as an active participant and not as a passive listener. While I may not always have the right answer or best ideas, I bring to the table a different perspective that can hopefully trigger discussions to discover better ideas. I challenge the homogenous way of thinking by adding my own touch of diversity. I try to participate in every facet of game making, from story development to character and game design. I keep an eye out for stereotypical pitfalls regarding women’s role in gaming and try to advocate for a stronger representation of women characters. I work with other female coworkers to encourage getting more women representation in our games. I may not always be the best supporter or advocate since I am still growing from this experience, but my participation in Women’s History Month is a nice reminder to keep trying.

What’s your favorite piece of AR/VR content and why?

JH: I might be biased in saying Asgard’s Wrath, but I truly believe we have pushed the boundaries of VR technology and expectations with that game. We challenged the rules of what VR content could be by blurring the lines of motion comfort. We implemented full-motion, full-body IK because we felt that would give the player the ultimate immersive experience. We questioned warnings on how long players typically stay in the VR headset and delivered an experience so compelling that they end up losing track of time. We played with scale, a mechanic so simple yet extremely powerful that could only be fully visualized in VR. Lastly, we delivered on a visceral experience with combat that goes beyond just a tech demo, but into a fully flushed out core game mechanic.

Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?

JH: Hopefully inspiring the next generation of tech enthusiasts and game changers. I hope to be part of the team that delivers the platform-defining experience to VR/AR. I hope to see an explosion in the VR/AR market and be able to say I contributed to it. I hope to meet a user years from now who tells me they got into VR because of something I helped create. I hope to develop that nostalgic experience that kids grow up with, just like I grew up with Mario and Zelda. Lastly, I hope to find growth in myself as I learn more about how I can continue to support and advocate for women and minorities.