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Kristina Carson, Product Marketing Manager at Disney Consumer Products and Interactive

Kristina Carson-200-200

Kristina Carson is a product marketing manager at Disney Consumer Products and Interactive, where she promotes large games such as Disney Emoji Blitz, and is also the president of Good Cookie Games LLC. She served formerly as the director of marketing for Shinra Technologies, Inc., a product marketing manager at Microsoft, and a credit derivatives trader on Wall Street. She has extensive experience in global marketing strategy; branding and messaging; market research; business development; and consumer analysis, particularly as they apply to gaming platforms and services. She holds a bachelor of science in finance from Boston College and an MBA from Columbia Business School.

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

Interview Questions

[] How did you initially get into games and interactive media?

[Ms. Carson] It’s actually kind of a funny story. I started out my career in trading. I was a credit derivatives trader for five years on Wall Street. It was a big transition in my life with gaming, but I’m a lifelong gamer and I wasn’t passionate about finance and trading. It was very interesting and challenging, but it didn’t quite suit me. Right around the time the recession was happening, I was reevaluating what I wanted in my life, and I decided: well, I think now is probably the best time I could go back to school. I went back to Columbia and got my MBA in an effort to transition into video game marketing, and that’s what I did.

[] You went to Columbia Business School with the intention of getting into gaming?

[Ms. Carson] Yes. I know it sounds kind of crazy, but I knew I needed a platform from which to launch my second career. It didn’t make a lot of sense to have my story be, “Well, I was a credit derivatives trader and now I suddenly want to be a video game marketer,” so I really needed to go to a decent school that would give me that jumping off point that I needed. And it worked out really well.

[] As a gamer, what are some of your games you really enjoy?

[Ms. Carson] I am pretty competitive. League of Legends is my favorite video game. It’s actually the number one most-played game in the world right now. I don’t know how familiar you are with the eSports industry, but I follow League of Legends eSports very closely, and I compete almost everyday in ranked matches. That’s definitely my number one game right now, and it has been for the last couple years. It’s very interesting to see the level of sustain that Riot [Games] has been able to manage when there’s so much content out there. To maintain this huge community of gamers who are still very engaged is pretty amazing. Other than that, I play a lot of RPGs—Dragon Age, Mass Effect, all the Elder Scrolls games—but I play League of Legends everyday.

[] How does this experience of owning your own company, Good Cookie Games, complement your experience working for a major corporation like Disney?

[Ms. Carson] It’s a very different type of audience, but it’s actually very complementary to the games and apps I work on at Disney. At Disney, I’m focused mainly on our subscription games and apps—both for adults and children. Disney Emoji Blitz is probably the biggest product I work on. I actually just finished up a TV spot for that, which is going to air tonight—very excited about that one—but I work on a lot of smaller, mobile titles as well: Disney Story Central, which is a kids’ reading app; Disney Jigsaw, jigsaw puzzles for adults and children; and Color by Disney, an adult coloring book app.

I work on a lot of these products for a non-core audience, which is very interesting to me from a marketing perspective because it’s so different from my background in core gaming—in particular as a gamer—and then also working at Microsoft and Xbox, Halo and Forza. It’s definitely been an interesting trajectory in my career to get these diverse experiences across. I’ve worked across console gaming, PC gaming, and mobile gaming; I’ve worked on hardware and software; I’ve worked on services and platforms and games, so I feel like I have this breadth of experience that is helping to really shape my strategies when I work on new products.

[] As both a consumer and a marketer of games, what would you say are the major trends of the future? Apart from mobile and VR/AR… or maybe those, too.

[Ms. Carson] I have a lot of opinions here. There are many challenges facing gaming right now, challenges and opportunities. One of the biggest things we see is there’s so much content out there. It’s easier than ever to have indie developers creating their own content and pushing it out on PC or mobile devices, and Triple A companies are constantly pumping out really high-quality content. You’ll see all these gamers who say, “I have my shelf of shame,” where they have all these games that are really wonderful that they just haven’t had a chance to get to. It’s an interesting problem to have because how do you as a marketer make your games stand out amongst all of the content? I think services are the most critical thing to focus on: how do we curate content and then make sure that the cream really is rising to the top, that your content is being noticed amongst so much content out there? And how do you convince people to pay for content when there’s so much great, free content available? These are some of the challenges we’re facing.

In terms of VR/AR, I think there’s a lot of opportunity. In AR in particular, there’s so much hardware out there that makes it more accessible to create AR experiences. Just look at Pokémon Go. I think it didn’t have the greatest execution; they didn’t know quite how huge of a hit this game was going to be, and so the servers weren’t ready and I don’t think the sustain strategy was quite there, but you saw the impact that game had on the world for months. There are still huge communities that have these big meet-ups where they go and find all the rare Pokémon, so I definitely think that AR is the more accessible trend that I think has some staying power.

[] And with VR, there are definitely some mobility considerations, too. You can move in a vertical plane, but moving forward, backward…

[Ms. Carson] Yes, there are a lot of challenges in VR—big, clunky headsets that have to be connected to very expensive PC setups. You’re paying $600-$800 for the headset alone, and then you also need to have a gaming PC and the space available to use it properly. And then there’s the killer content question. Obviously, content is king, and what is going to be that killer content that really makes people move over to VR and want to spend all that money to get those kinds of experiences? I don’t think we’ve really seen that yet. I’m interested to see what happens. My experiences with the VIVE, in particular, have kind of turned me on to VR gaming. If they can just find that critical software that makes people really want to buy in…

[] I wanted to transition and talk a little bit about the demographics of the industry. You’re no stranger to male-dominated workplaces after your experiences on Wall Street, I’m sure, but can you just tell me a little bit about the demographics of working in games? Are you typically the only woman in the room, or one of a few?

[Ms. Carson] It’s interesting because I think every company is different. What I’ve found in general—and I’m sure other people have different experiences—but marketing is very female-driven. You will look around a room and it is all women, except for maybe PR, but every other department is male-driven. So between business and the development side, even on the creative side, so much of it is male-driven.

I do feel that in the five years I’ve been in this industry, I’ve seen more of a shift that is making me very excited about the future. When I was at Xbox, I had the distinct pleasure of working with Bonnie Ross and Kiki Wolfkill, two members of the executive team at 343 Industries, the developer that makes Halo, and they’re amazing leaders. Kiki and Bonnie were, I think, on the list of “Most Influential Women in Gaming”, so it was really wonderful to be able to work with these really strong female leaders in gaming on the development side. The same is the case at Disney. I’m working with Nacia Chambers and other female executive producers on games and apps here. They’re just very strong, talented women with amazing backgrounds. I think they’re really paving the way for more women to be in leadership roles on the development side.

[] Have you seen a transition then in the years that you entered the industry? Or is this relatively new?

[Ms. Carson] I think part of it has to do with the size of your company and your company’s culture. If you look at Microsoft and Disney—these are enormous companies—it would be challenging to find all men for all of these roles. Also, I think they’re both very focused on creating a diverse atmosphere with many points of view and with the variety of products they work on, they want to make sure that their target audience is covered from the development and marketing perspective. So I think that makes a lot of sense.

If you look at Shinra Technologies, where I was the director of marketing, I was the only woman in the room; everyone I met with from a biz-dev perspective were all men. It was definitely different working at a small subsidiary where there were maybe ten of us in a room focused so heavily on core gaming. It’s interesting to see how stereotypes persist; if you really look at the statistics, core gamers are now almost evenly split between men and women, but there’s still that stereotype that core gaming is for men and casual gaming is for women. So as a marketer, I try really hard to emphasize that to any co-workers or developers I’m working with; I say, “Hey, half of our audience is probably going to be women, so we need to make sure that we’re inclusive in our marketing efforts and our developing efforts.”

[] Yes! I was interested to learn that around 46 percent of core gamers are women. Why do you think that women are still underrepresented in many video game companies, especially in leadership positions at major firms?

[Ms. Carson] There are so many potential reasons for that. I hate to bring it back to this because I’ve had so many discussions about this very topic, but I personally think that it all comes down to women’s place in society; I know that that’s so general, but I look at so many coworkers who are out on maternity leave who either never come back or come back after a really long time. Then, they’re more focused on their families and not so much on climbing the corporate ladder. I think the challenge here is not that women are necessarily that much more the family leaders or whatever you want to call them, it’s just we have to make that choice; I think there are a lot of women who are so privileged and lucky that they’re in a position where they don’t have to make a choice—maybe they’re child-free, maybe they actually have a partner who takes over a lot of the family duties, maybe they’re much more career-focused—but I think it’s a real choice that a lot of women have to make. The only way we can combat a lot of that is through huge government reforms surrounding maternity leave. Also, it’s about sharing those responsibilities. For a lot of my friends who have children, it actually doesn’t make financial sense for them to go back to work because childcare is so expensive; their husbands make more money than they do and so they’re like, “Well, I don’t want to miss out on my kids’ childhood and development, and I can’t afford to put them in daycare anyway, so I’m just going to stay home for a few years.” That sets them back in terms of their career trajectory to the point where it’s almost like, “Well, why even bother trying to rise in the ranks?”

I just think there are all these years that women are either focused on their career or focused on their family, and it’s awful to have to make that choice. For a long time, I thought you could have it all; you could do everything. But I now am at an age where I kind of have to make that decision for myself. I’ve only recently started at Disney, and I’m very focused on my career, but I’m also 34. For the time being, I want to really make sure that I’m setting myself up for long-term success at Disney, so I’m putting any other plans on hold. People disagree with me all the time, but I maintain my assertion that women have harder choices to make than men in this country in terms of career when it comes to family.

[] And do you think it’s unique to this country or that it’s worse here?

[Ms. Carson] I think it’s certainly worse here. Many European countries, especially, are so much more progressive. Just the whole concept of paternity leave…it’s crazy to me that so many companies don’t even offer it, whereas if you look in Europe, men and women both get a ton of time off to spend with their newborns. I think it’s just indicative of American society as a whole—that we say, “Okay, women can take time off, but we’re not going to give that to men. They really need to focus on their careers.”

It’s really bad and daycare is very expensive. I talk to a lot of my friends who say childcare costs as much as a mortgage payment; not everyone has family members in the area who can help. People are spread out. In gaming, pretty much the entire industry is on the West Coast, and my family is on the East Coast. If I decide that I want to have a child, I don’t really have that family support nearby to say, “Hey, mom, can you take care of my kid a couple nights a week?” I realize I’m speaking at length about this, but I think so much of it comes down to the perspective employers must have when looking at whom they want to promote into leadership roles. If you’re looking at someone who’s devoted their entire life to their career, then I think that’s a much clearer option—and I don’t think this is right—than someone who has a family at home and might need to leave at 5:00 pm everyday to pick up their kids from daycare; it’s just that they have that split in priorities. Again, I don’t think this is right at all and the way to fix it is to have men also prioritize their family. I’m not saying they don’t—let’s be clear—I’m sure they do, but society as a whole expects men to be more career-focused as women to be more family-focused. I think that is changing over time, which is awesome, but there is still that question: I’ve got co-workers on maternity leave now and people are wondering, ”Well, are they going to come back at all?” and we don’t know. I hope they do. I really, really hope they do because they are amazing, intelligent women who have great careers ahead of them…if that’s what they choose.

[] In addition to that, can you think of any other unique barriers that face women or minorities who want to work in video games?

[Ms. Carson] Well, there’s always the issue of women in STEM degrees. I saw a statistic recently that was obscenely low. I can’t remember exactly what the percentage was, but we need more female programmers; we need more women on the technical side; we need female game designers. It’s tough to be one of the pioneers; being that only woman in the room can be daunting. It takes a really strong person to say, “Okay, this is my passion and this is what I want to do. Even if I haven’t been encouraged on this path, I know this is where I want to be.”

I do love all of the initiatives that have been coming out lately encouraging more women to stay in STEM, but I do also want to point out that sexism is very, very real. I find it stressful when people say, “Oh, women just need to gut it out and maybe they’re just not up for it.” Well, we face so much sexism in many scientific and technical industries—gaming being one of them—and I don’t blame women for not being more represented; you can’t blame the victim here.

[] Exactly. When you learn that your co-worker writes a manifesto suggesting that women are biologically inferior scientists and engineers…

[Ms. Carson] I know. That was infuriating, and then they were going to have that all-hands meeting at Google to discuss gender representation, but they cancelled it because the more outspoken progressives were being doxed. This kind of thing is insane.

I have a friend who was a community manager in gaming for many years at a pretty major company, and she eventually left gaming because she got so many threats. Every day she would get threats to her personally and to her family. They would say they hoped someone would come to her home and rape her or make comments about her looks, talking about her breast size or her face…

[] Was this related to Gamergate at all, or around that time?

[Ms. Carson] This was before Gamergate. This is not new. None of this is new. It’s very challenging to be a woman in this industry, especially if you are consumer-facing. Consumer-facing positions are far more challenging than just a typical marketing position where nobody ever sees my face or my name. Also, there’s a difference between gaming companies and gamers. Gamers can be a challenging community to work with. There are a lot of very outspoken people. I felt very bad for my friend. She’s shown me a ton of the tweets that she’s gotten, the comments on her YouTube videos, and emails she’s gotten because people found her personal email. There’s just so much vitriol. Just because somebody’s a woman…

[] What kind of consumer-facing role was she in where she’s subjected to that?

[Ms. Carson] She was a community manager for a very popular core game. The consumers were mostly teenage males. She was heavily featured in videos, constantly at events and things, and she was one of the biggest speakers. It was an unpleasant experience for her and turned her off from working in the industry. So there you go: there’s an example of women who left gaming because of the sexism in the industry. I do think it is important to make it clear that that was from the gamers themselves and not necessarily the company policies, or anything like that.

[] On that note, what advice do you have for women who are aspiring to work in video games into the future?

[Ms. Carson] It seems trite to say, but just try to have thick skin; don’t read the comments if you can avoid them if you are consumer-facing, and find a company that has the right culture for you. As I was saying, every company is different. The culture at Microsoft is very different from Disney. I think both were overwhelmingly positive, but they were still different, so you really have to find your particular niche where you feel comfortable and happy. There will always be the right position for you, so don’t settle for a role in which you feel inferior in any way. Make sure you really do focus on finding that right fit, and you can definitely succeed. I’m feeling very optimistic about my career. I think I found a really good position at Disney, a place that really focuses on diversity. So find the right fit and try to ignore the horrible sexism in this country, and hopefully, eventually things will get better.