Womenize! – Inspiring Stories is our weekly series featuring inspirational women from games and tech. For this edition we talked to Jennifer Estaris, Game Director at ustwo games. She shares how we can make our industry more sustainable and where we can find mentorship support. Read more about Jennifer in this interview:
Hi Jennifer! Do you have advice for gaming studios that would like to work in a sustainable and climate friendly manner?

I’ll start with one of my favorite heart beats (essentially, beats that live in my heart), by the venerable Maya Angelou: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

First of all, congratulations on being a part of a gaming studio that wants to do better. Lucky you! Lucky us. Lucky world. Thankfully, there are many paths to regenerative sustainability in games. The best is to join Playing for the Planet. It is a United Nations Environment Programme supported initiative, consisting of over 40 game studios and other organizations: Microsoft, Supercell, Rovio, SYBO, Ubisoft, ustwo games (where I work), and many others. Alliance members have made commitments ranging from integrating green activations in games via the inspiring Green Game Jam, reducing their emissions, and many other activities, like tree planting and reducing plastic in their products. For last year’s GGJ, I game directed Monument Valley 2’s DLC The Lost Forest, a special chapter which led to a petition about forest conservation. Playing for the Planet representatives like me have given talks about our mission all over the world, for example at SXSW and GDC. And we threw a good party! 

Once your studio has joined Playing for the Planet and is ready for the next level of challenge, look into becoming a B Corp. The studio where I work, ustwo games, was recently certified as one. Fanfare! The B Corp certification is a designation that a business is meeting high standards of performance, accountability, and transparency on factors like employee benefits, charitable giving, and responsible supply chain practices. It’s a holistic approach to the sustainability issue, because the sustainability issue is about more than just the environment. It’s ultra-intersectional. It’s about a business’ total societal impact, not just the bottom line.

Individuals and smaller studios should also join the IGDA Climate Special Interest Group – we’re a friendly group with an active and fun Discord, run by the coolest founders (hi Paula and Hugo!), with monthly meetings that keep our community strong, informed and empowered. Also, go to our Discord for great gardening tips, in games but more so for the real world. Compost convos for days.

Besides joining these lovely organizations, internally you and your studio can start reflecting and seeing what you’d like to do first. Is it taking action in how your studio operates, such as composting coffee grounds or switching to a green energy supplier? Or do you want to look at who you partner with, whether it’s a socially responsible pension provider or consciously choosing an outsource partner in the Global South? Or is it in your games, from adding green nudges like renewable energy visuals in the game environment to integrating in-game activations that allow players to donate to climate justice causes or spend on real-life tree planting? ustwo games’ Alba: A Wildlife Adventure plants a tree for every download; so far we’ve planted over a million trees! 

Take it one step at a time, and as Games for Good founder Deborah Mensah-Bonsu recommends, identify at least one other person at the studio willing to walk that journey with you. To quote environmentalist David Orr, “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up”. If we want to give the world hope, then we have lots to do – and shouldn’t do it alone.

Where do Game Design and Game Direction have connection points?

Such a pertinent question given that my team and I have been doing some 1:1 Roles & Responsibility conversations lately. Or as we’ve been calling them, Heart to Hearts. 

A Game Director is responsible for leading and communicating the vision of the game, both creatively and commercially, with a holistic eye that captures and elevates the interconnections between the various disciplines – art, design, tech, narrative, audio, production, etc. While my background is in Game Design, Game Directors can emerge from any discipline. Game Design focuses on the mechanics and content and should be enabled to have a zoomed in, micro view of the project, while the Game Director is more zoomed out. Game Direction and Game Design have some overlap, as does Game Direction and many other roles on the team. For us it’s about having a conversation, sharing our experience on the different roles, looking at role descriptions, and digging into what we are interested in exploring and why. Further reflection though, and maybe the answer to your question is: Game Direction is the connection point between all the disciplines, one of which is Game Design. 

Specifically on our team, I would like to share the indirect connection points the Lead Game Designer, Emily Brown, and I have: We are both mothers with daughters who skateboard. We are from underrepresented backgrounds – very different backgrounds, but it lets us see the value that diversity provides. We love tortang talong, a Filipino eggplant dish. We both want to have a positive impact in the world. 

Throughout your career, did you come across any outstanding mentorship programs, events or tools that supported your personal development?

When I first joined the industry, almost 20 years ago, there weren’t anywhere near as many personal development avenues as there are today. There was always the IGDA, especially with their various scholarship programs and Special Interest Groups which have blossomed to cover many important topics, from Climate to Women to Indigenous Advocacy Awareness to Accessibility to more. Game conferences were essential to my growth, and you don’t only have to go to the big ones like GDC – small local events like NYC’s Game Devs of Color Expo (which isn’t so small anymore) and Games for Change (also no longer small) were and continue to be great. 

These conferences had sessions that lit fires, sparked imagination, and updated knowledge, followed by equally important networking events that expanded my network (and friendships!) (most importantly the friendships!). Informal, organic mentor-friend-ships were formed, and for those I am eternally grateful. Being an ambassador for Women In Games continues to help me develop as a leader, as does participating in, and sometimes instigating, Playing for the Planet’s various activities. 

For solo work, reading is fundamental. Here are some I’d like to recommend, in hopes of leveling up the game industry’s impact skills: 

The Future We Choose (Christina Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac), Hope Matters (Elin Kelsey), Climate Change is Racist (Jeremy Williams), and Small World, Big Ideas (compiled by Sateesh Kumar). If you’re not a book person, read articles. Pocket Gamer. The Escapist. Game Developer. Deconstructor of Fun. Womenize!

Finally, play games. Games that help with personal development – and I mean personal. Games that help us connect more, become more empathic, become more reflective. An extremely brief list: Journey, Gone Home, Bury Me, My Love, and the very recently released on Netflix, ustwo games’ Desta: The Memories Between (we are hiring! Join us). Films do this, art does this, literature does this, sure, but it is games’ time to shine… and our time to shine through them. Take what you carry in your heart – and share it with the world.

Thanks for this interview, Jennifer!

Jennifer’s links: LinkedInTwitterustwo Games – official websitePlaying for the Planet

Womenize! – Inspiring Stories Feature by Sophie Brugmann