Elisabeth Beinke-Schwartz, Senior Level Designer at Certain Affinity

Elisabeth Beinke-Schwartz is a senior level designer at Certain Affinity. She worked formerly as a level designer with Irrational Games and Demiurge Studios, and she’s an expert in narrative design, level design, and scripting. She helped to create several well-known games, including DOOM, Mafia III, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered, and three BioShock Infinite titles. Notably, she’s not only a mentor to others in the industry, but she’s also spoken at various influential conferences about her experience as a builder of engaging worlds. She holds a bachelor of science in interactive media and game development from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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

Interview Questions

[OnlineEducation.com] How did you initially get into video games? Do you consider yourself a gamer, or do you just work on the supply side?

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] Yes, I consider myself a gamer. I’ve always played games, even as a little kid. Maybe not exactly the same games as some of my colleagues, but I think there’s a wide swath of experiences out there; you can consider yourself a gamer, no matter the type of game.

I got my start when I went to a college and I was interested in science and biology. I initially thought I wanted to go into genetics because I was interested in the technology. I realized I was interested in the possibilities in that space, but not the actual day-to-day work. There was a fledgling games program starting at my college, and I hadn’t been exposed to the idea that you can make a career out of games. When I saw that, I realized I could make games, blending my passion for technology, science, and math with my creative side—my artistic side. As a kid, people always say you’re a logical, analytical person or a creative, artistic person, and you have to pick a career that’s either one or the other. Especially nowadays, that’s not true, and I think in games there’s a lot of leeway in between that space. That’s what really drew me to games. The passion for creating something and seeing people get enjoyment out of it; it’s really fulfilling.

[OnlineEducation.com] What’s so interesting about that is that you mentioned genetics; in the same way that you’re now building game worlds, genetics is essentially examining the building of life. I can definitely see some parallels there.

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] Yes. I don’t like to use the term “manipulate,” but genetics is about manipulating DNA to solve problems, making people’s lives better and using technology to do that. In games, I’m manipulating players in a way; specifically, I do level design, which is kind of manipulating people psychologically for good, creating an enjoyable experience in space of the game.

[OnlineEducation.com] Very cool. Can you tell me a little bit about your process when you’re creating these worlds? You’ve worked on some of biggest game franchises in history: Call of Duty, Halo, DOOM, and BioShock, among others. What’s your process? How do you go about engaging people’s attention?

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] It really depends on the type of game I’m working on. When I worked at Irrational Games, we were creating things from the ground up, as with BioShock. At Certain Affinity, we do a lot of contracting co-development work with other studios. On DOOM, Mafia III, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered, we assisted the head studio in a chunk of the content. That process is slightly different because we also have to work within their vision a little bit more. In general, my process is trying to understand the type of fun, the gameplay, and the style of game—whether it’s a shooter, a third-person shooter, or a first-person shooter. Even the difference between the design for a single-player level and a multi-player level, and knowing what the fun is in that.

Because I’m a level designer, I’m focused on the level layout and overall experience in a specific level. I usually get some graph or grid paper and pencil, and I try to just start out drawing circles to get a general idea of the sizing of different areas in a level. Then, I’ll refine it over time into squares or hexagons—or whatever is going to represent the actual space. Once I flesh that out, I usually bring in the editor and I will either use the editor’s tools to create permanent shapes, or just use boxes to perform what we call “gray-boxing.” It means using simple, block-type shapes without too much texture to just get the general layout of it. After that, we have people come and play it and see if it feels good. If it’s a single-player game, then I will start doing some scripting for combats. If there’re any narrative scenes, like on BioShock Infinite, I’ll have to use a very simple representation since the animators aren’t involved yet. Then, we have people come in and we’ll modify at this stage many times. Once it gets more solidified, then art will come in and work with me to build up those simple shapes into these stylized, beautiful versions of levels that you see in the final game. At this point, we are also still playtesting with a ton of people and modifying it. I’ll work with art to make sure that the experiences that I want the players to have are getting communicated through the art that they create.

[OnlineEducation.com] Am I the first person to compare what you do to the movie Inception, and the whole building of worlds? You must get that all the time.

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] There’s another level designer and she wrote an article about how her job is pretty much like Ellen Page from Inception. It’s kind of like that. I also explain it’s similar to architecture a little bit, where they are thinking about the sizing of spaces and how people move through the space. Also, how the space makes you feel. Of course, in architecture you try to make the space feel homey or like you want to move through it fast and not sit around, but architecture has all those real life considerations like where is the sun? And we need all these air ducts here for actual breathing! In a game, we use air ducts for game play, so it’s a little different.

[OnlineEducation.com] Not as many real-world constraints, I can imagine. At your level working in video games, are you typically one of the only women in the room? What are the demographics like?

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] It is changing. I forget the exact statistic, but I know it’s between 20 to 30 percent women overall in the industry. I think in terms of game design, that number is probably a little bit lower. I know that at the first large company where I worked, Irrational [Games], I was lucky to have worked with several women in my department and at the company. The company where I am now, I am the only designer that’s female. There are other women in other departments, but sometimes I am the only woman in the room. It is slowly changing, especially in the last five years, but the problem is some women are also leaving. There’s good change coming from the bottom up, but a lot of the women in the industry are also leaving for a variety of reasons, so it’s difficult to gain traction.

[OnlineEducation.com] Why do you think that women are still underrepresented in video games, in particular among designers?

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] I think there are many factors that affect the pipeline from the beginning. Like I mentioned before, I never thought of developing games until I was exposed to it in college. That pipeline in terms of exposing girls to games and tech in general is improving a lot. A friend of mine runs a camp here in Austin called Game Worlds that teaches children how to make video games. There are a lot of girls and little kids of a variety of backgrounds making games there. It’s awesome to see and there are a lot of initiatives like “Girls Who Code” or other game-specific programs, trying to get girls and people of color aware of careers in tech or games earlier on.

There are also issues with the way women are hired, and a lot of women experience harassment. Not necessarily at companies, but a lot of harassment from the global scene, especially with the emergence of Twitter and GamerGate. There have been some women who have left the industry because of being harassed and pushed out of the industry. They’re not getting the support they need, and it’s really sad to see.

[OnlineEducation.com] Do you think that’s getting better or worse? And how can companies or governments try to encourage more women to get into and stay in the industry, or just support them more?

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] I think a lot of companies are doing great things in examining their hiring processes and seeing how they’re phrasing things in their job listings. For example, just looking at careers in design roles, I’ve seen many job posts which say, “The designer, he will blah”—assuming that the designer applying will be male. There’s been a lot of discussion over the last few years about how to improve that process, thinking about the importance of what people have deemed a cultural fit. It’s not about, “Will this person be somebody I will want to go out for a beer with and hang out with outside of work?” That often puts women and other folks who aren’t exactly like the people who are hiring at a disadvantage. A lot of companies are looking at structures like that and trying to improve the process, and so I’ve seen a lot of traction in that regard for hiring.

Something that also drives me is the feeling that I need to be more public, not because I personally want to be more visible, but because seeing a woman in a higher-level role—someone who is more visible and present—is really valuable to younger women and girls. I know that when I was three years in, when I started at Irrational, seeing senior women in design roles there was amazing for me and so I try to do the same and help a variety of people in mentoring. It’s also very rewarding because sometimes when you’ve been working somewhere for awhile, you get a little jaded, and seeing the enthusiasm of younger folks who are really excited and passionate kind of re-energizes you. It’s a two-way street there for mentoring.

[OnlineEducation.com] I was looking over your impressive speaker credits. You’ve spoken at MIT, countless conferences, and of course, you’ve participated with Girls Who Code as well. I notice that you gave one talk called “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome.” Was that related to gender at all?

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] It wasn’t specifically related to gender. It was a ten-minute micro-talk about imposter syndrome in general, but I did mention that it often does affect more women, people of color, or other marginalized people who might feel like they’re not the typical game developer. That can cause people to feel like maybe they aren’t as capable as somebody else.

After that talk, there were actually several straight, white dudes who came up to me and said, “Thank you for giving that talk. I had this feeling and I never knew what it was until you explained it to me.” So I think that it’s important for everyone to hear what imposter syndrome is, and that most people feel it at one point in their lives no matter their skin color or gender. Acknowledging that it exists is one of the things that is recommended to help overcome that.

[OnlineEducation.com] Can you think of any other steps that either companies or women themselves who are working in video games can take in order to help overcome the unique challenges that underrepresented groups face?

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] I think for women, finding communities of other women, support networks, or mentors is important. Finding other women is great, but if you can find men as well to advocate for you, that helps. I know when you’re getting started, it can be very daunting and you might not have the resources. Also, even though Twitter has created some bad experiences, there is a lot of support—especially in the game dev community. It’s a great way to chat with other folks in the industry.

[OnlineEducation.com] What advice do you have specifically for girls and women who are interested in reaching the upper echelons of leadership in games?

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] Well, I just became a senior level designer myself, so I don’t really have too many words of wisdom for leading a big team or making it through the industry. Finding support networks and trusted people you can talk to and bounce ideas off of…that’s true in everyday life as well.

Also, make sure you apply for jobs, even if you don’t feel like you match 100 percent of the qualifications. There have been studies that say a lot of men will apply for a position when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but for women, they often will not apply until they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. Often, the qualifications might not be 100 percent necessary or they can be worked on. So even if you’re nervous or the job calls for two years of experience and you’re new, you should still apply. You’ll probably get rejected a lot and I’ve gotten rejected a lot; nowadays, there’s a lot of competition, and it can feel very disheartening to not get an immediate job offer.

[OnlineEducation.com] Do you think that companies should be doing anything more to promote, support, and encourage women into the industry?

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] I think many companies are already doing this, but it would help to take a look at hiring practices and see if there’s an issue with the pipeline that might be leaking potentially awesome candidates. Also, just advocating for female employees and promoting them in an outward-facing roles. If someone has done something awesome or there’s an achievement, then that should be publicly praised and celebrated as an insight to the studio’s culture.

[OnlineEducation.com] Do you aspire to ever open up your own studio? What do you think the future holds for you?

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] Well, I guess we’ll see. I personally am interested in being more of a creator than a business person. Running a studio and managing the finances and the day-to-day operations of the studio don’t interest me, but I’m definitely very interested in heading up projects with creative ambition.

[OnlineEducation.com] As Ellen Page’s character in Inception said: “Pure creation.”

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] I will qualify that: level design is not a “pure creation” role; you are also doing a little bit of production work, where you are talking with artists or programmers, working together to help make sure that the vision is created. So it’s not the idea of you just sitting alone in a corner just doing something. That happens some of the time, but not the whole time.

[OnlineEducation.com] For young women who want to get into video games, are there any classes or majors that they should consider at university, or would you recommend your program?

[Ms. Beinke-Schwartz] Yes, it was in Worcester, Massachusetts, about an hour outside of Boston. I haven’t caught up with the program since I graduated. It was fledgling when I started, but I know there are a lot of great programs now. There’s the Ringling College of Art and Design, Full Sail, and DigiPen; those are often the three mentioned that are the big ones, but it’s tough because those are also expensive schools. Also, you can kind of self-teach a lot of things now. I taught myself a lot.