Celebrating Women in VR: Q&A with Maria Mishurenko

Oculus Blog
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March 30, 2020
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As our celebration of Women’s History Month continues, we sit down with Game Designer, Developer, and Synesthetic Echo Co-Founder Maria Mishurenko—the Oculus Launch Pad alum and scholarship recipient behind surreal post-apocalyptic title Bizarre Barber.

How did you get your start in the tech industry?

Maria Mishurenko: I have a background in filmmaking and VFX. After I moved to the US 5 and a half years ago, I decided to fully change my life and started to teach myself how to program. I made a few games and interactive installations and founded my own interactive arts studio, Synesthetic Echo. Together with my husband and other collaborators, we started working on client projects (mostly tech and entertainment industries) and our own projects. I also graduated from NYU’s Game Design master’s program last year.

There are times when I think I never have been and never will be fully in the tech industry. Many women already exist on the margins of this industry, and being an immigrant / having no CS background or well-established network doesn’t help much to be acknowledged as “part of the tribe.” I take it one day at a time.

Tell us about your current role.

MM: I spend around half of my day doing various operational duties: talking with the clients, working on marketing tasks, planning the workloads for the team. The other half is spent on development and design. My current role covers a lot of responsibilities, so I get to wear many hats, but my favorite hats are for game design and technical art.

I also teach game development at NYU Game Center, and I don’t see my teaching separate from my work; it’s necessary for me to solidify and test my skills, while helping students to achieve their goals.

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

MM: I’m a big fan of Brit Marling—as a producer, screenwriter, actor, and showrunner, she creates amazing, inspiring pieces of art and cares about inclusion and representation in her projects. Also, she created a TV show about an AR game 😊

How do you see yourself making history?

MM: I want women not only to survive, but thrive, and I’ll try to make everything I can for that.

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?

MM: No matter what people will tell you, your voice and your unique perspective matters!

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

MM: I participated in Oculus Launch Pad in both 2017 and 2018 (I also won the development support grant in 2018 to make my game Bizarre Barber). I am also a member of the Oculus Start program, and I can say that the women who oversee these programs are amazing, dedicated professionals and role models, who gave me hope, support, and lots of inspiration!

Apart from Oculus, folks at IGDA are very helpful and supportive towards all marginalized genders in the game industry.

Locally, in New York, Playcrafting, vrbar, and RLab are three great and supportive organizations tirelessly working to create more opportunities for women in XR and game development.

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

MM:

  • Create safe spaces for marginalized genders
  • Be fully transparent about money to prevent salary inequality
  • Implement blind resume and portfolio / code reviews
  • Implement and enforce codes of conduct
  • Implement and enforce zero-tolerance policies towards sexual harassment

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

MM: Strong women characters are not the only type of characters that deserve proper representation. I want to design for the representation of all kinds of women: weak, evil, feminine, beautiful, ugly, imperfect, etc. I just want women characters to be real, and those that are designed for the male gaze are unfortunately not real at all.

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

MM: It’s Luna by Funomena—one of the most touching and transformative experiences about grief, loss, and radical acceptance.

Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?

MM: Hopefully doing what I love most: creating bizarre worlds and sharing them with beautiful people.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

MM: My game Bizarre Barber is out and available on the Rift Platform. Please consider buying it if you like cutting hair and jazzy music!