Cy Wise - Studio Director at Owlchemy Labs

Cy Wise is the studio director at Owlchemy Labs, an Austin-based games company acquired by Google in May 2017. She plays multivariate roles, from business development and operations to marketing management and community support. Prior to joining Owlchemy, she was an independent social media marketing consultant for technology and entertainment companies, including BattleCry Studios, where she served as the marketing coordinator. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas, graduating summa cum laude and focusing her studies on gaming and internet communities. Notably, she’s the co-organizer of VR Austin, one of the largest groups in the US serving the growing population of professionals who work in virtual reality.

Ms. Wise graciously agreed to a 30-minute interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Questions

[] How did you initially get into gaming and VR? And for those unfamiliar with the industry, what is social VR?

[Cy Wise] This is a good question. I actually started in traditional gaming, specifically AAA games and MMOs about eleven years ago. I was around twenty when I got involved in these companies, so I went through the gamut of roles—everything from customer support to QA, team lead, and VR sales operations. I was all over the place.

I left at some point to go back to school and get my degree in sociology and computer media communications, focusing on on digital tribes and the use of emergent technologies for people to connect and form groups. I took this path because I was really interested, and it turned out that it would be really useful to me for the rest of my life. I came back and was at Zenimax for a quick moment, and then I started working in VR. My first position was actually with Gunfire games where they were working on an Oculus title called Chronos. I was helping out there in QA, and I left to join Owlchemy Labs.

[] And what is social VR?

[Cy Wise] Instead of doing virtual reality just by yourself alone in your room, when you get into VR, you can connect through these multi-presence worlds—basically these areas in games where you can connect with other players from their systems; you can talk together, play together, go on quests together, and watch shows together. Basically, it’s a social space using virtual reality.

I’m definitely that quintessential person who uses VR to hang out with friends across the United States; I have a friend who’s in Chicago, and I’m going to meet up with him tonight in VR to hang out. So he and I still get to hang out and be friends, play games together, and we do a lot of these things that we would do if we were living in the same town. It’s fantastic for facilitating relationships. I’ve also used VR for everything from working to being co-present with fellow speakers when we’re working on a talk together. I’ve definitely attended shows and art galleries. Overall, social VR allows you to connect with other human beings and have these interesting, multi-present experiences.

[] In addition to those applications, now VR is being used in healthcare, cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, and other things. What do you consider to be the most exciting or promising future applications of virtual reality?

[Cy Wise] The interesting thing for me in virtual reality is that it catches all of these different fields with varying applications. It’s just the pervasiveness of virtual reality that makes me really excited. I make VR games, so I’m interested to see how people are experimenting with with the medium to make unique experiences. VR provides access to much more than other mediums.

One of the first VR experiences I had was when the Oculus Developer Kit 1 launched. It was right after the Kickstarter, and there was an early game called Titans of Space; you’re in a spaceship pod sitting in a chair, but when you look down, you see your little astronaut legs and arms, and through this huge bubble of glass, you can see space. You start off orbiting the moon and it allows you to look at all of these different planets in our solar system. The game used photographs from NASA of the planets and you could view planets spinning, as well as see all of the planets’ sizes in relation to each other. You could zoom out even more to get this really great sense of scale, even comparing our sun to other larger stars. Incredibly educational.

This is an experience I’m never going to have anywhere else! People can draw representations of the scale of the universe and the scale of the solar system, but there’s something about actually being in space, hovering in a spaceship with this beautiful, inspirational music. VR allows for very personal experiences. It’s basically a sense of presence—the feeling that you’re in this space and that it is real, even though you know that it’s not.

[] It seems that every year, VR is on the cusp of reaching a wider audience. What do you think are some of the major impediments to making it more ubiquitous? What are some of the challenges in the industry right now?

[Cy Wise] We have a couple of challenges. Right now, it’s incredibly expensive, although—big asterisk—Oculus and HTC Vive just reduced the price of their headsets. Also, there’s a problem with hardware. If you’re running an Oculus or a Vive, you have to have a really powerful gaming PC, and you also have to know what’s in that gaming PC—what video card is required, the processor, and other things. Another thing is that you’re basically blindfolded, which can make some people uncomfortable. Also, a lot of people don’t have room for it. Most people don’t construct their living room the way I do with the coffee table that’s out of the way.

[] Your LinkedIn profile describes you as a sociologist with a focus on gaming culture. What can you tell me as a sociologist about the demographics of the gaming industry? Are you typically one of the only women in the room, or do you think it’s becoming more equitable?

[Cy Wise] In the gaming industry, we’re definitely not at parity. Check me on this, but I feel like the current percentage of women working in game studios is between 15 and 20 percent. If you’re looking at people in marketing, communications, or community, you might see more women, but when you get into programming and quality assurance, you’re likely to see a smaller percentage of women.

[] What do you think accounts for those?

[Cy Wise] There’s definitely the sexism that’s in our culture and in tech. In sociology, we talk about it in terms of the competency versus relational clusters. Women tend to be associated with relational clusters. A lot of the positive traits ascribed to women tend to be relational or defined by other people. Whereas males are generally associated with competency clusters—things they do themselves. In other words, women aren’t defined in terms of how good they are at something; women are often defined by how much everyone else likes them.

[] Can you think of any other obstacles that women face getting into VR and gaming?

[Cy Wise] From very early ages, women may be overtly told not to pursue tech or they get discouraged from doing so. People grow up with the stereotype that women aren’t good at math, science, or technology. So you may have these beliefs about yourself, which are reinforced by others. If your abilities are constantly questioned, it becomes harder to maintain motivation.

There was an interesting report examining GitHub’s code. It found that on average, the code posted by women was less buggy and more legibly written than that by men. It’s not because women are better coders, but rather because women are less likely to put forth code samples for everyone else to review unless it’s as perfect as they can possibly make it; they will face a much harsher backlash for putting out buggier code because of the perception of women. A lot of it is this: if a women is involved in tech, she doesn’t have to be as good as her male counterparts—a lot of times, she has to be better. The sexism in tech is not specific to tech. It is an outgrowth of the wider sexism in western culture.

[] Given all of these constraints and paying thought to your sociological background, what advice do you have for women who are interested in working in VR?

[Cy Wise] Because VR is so new, we actually have a greater share of female developers and creators than the game industry for now. Culture is being talked about frequently, even at this early stage. It’s still a challenge, but there are a lot of resources available, including groups and support networks on social media where women can connect. I really recommend reaching out to communities; there are local, virtual reality meetups and educational workshops that are very positive.

I’m one of the co-organizers of VR Austin—one of the larger VR meetup groups in the United States. We constantly have new people coming in looking for resources; you can chat with developers; meet and hang out; and share info. Also, if someone’s looking for a job, members may know who’s hiring and will facilitate introductions.