Womenize! – Inspiring Stories is our weekly series featuring inspirational women from games and tech. For this edition we talked to Karla Reyes, Founder & Studio Director at Anima Interactive. She speaks about her journey from the financial technology industry to game development and emphasizes the importance of mentorship while sharing insights and advice for aspiring professionals in the gaming industry. Read more about Karla in this interview:
Hi Karla! From working in the payments industry to becoming a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient and working in the games industry. What inspired you to transition into this creative space, and what valuable skills from your past career did you bring with you?

I had always sought to pursue a career path that combines my love of art and technology; however, as the daughter of working-class immigrant parents, I was unfortunately discouraged from cultivating a profession in the arts due to potential lack of economic security. Upon graduating from university, I worked in the financial technology space to pay off student loans but constantly craved a more creative outlet. I’ve been a lifelong gamer but truthfully hadn’t really considered video game development as a career path until I watched the film Her during university and was inspired by Amy Adams’s character who is a video game designer. It was cool to see a woman game developer represented in the media like that. It was around this time that I began teaching myself programming more seriously with the goal of making my own small games. I will unashamedly admit that I finally decided to take the leap and try to break into the video games industry when I was tens of hours deep into Breath of the Wild and reminded of the power of this immersive art form. I haven’t looked back since. 🙂

That said, I am grateful for my experience working in another industry. I generally think it’s valuable to work in multiple industries throughout one’s career because it gives you unique perspectives that can be refreshing in certain contexts. When I worked in payments, I helped develop products that reached billions of people globally. Understanding how to design and execute experiences at that scale helped when I transitioned to developing games for large studios such as Square Enix and Niantic that have millions of players across the globe. Beyond that, I acquired valuable transferable knowledge and skills including but not limited to: 1) agile software development and flexibility/adaptability to change, which are crucial in the inherently iterative world of game dev 2) technical proficiency and literacy (e.g. system design and software architecture) 3) user research and human-centered design and 4) cross-discipline collaboration.

Last but certainly not least, I was quite fortunate to participate in a leadership development program early in my career, and my learnings from that experience have been invaluable in my career in games. I’ve observed that studios do not always invest in mentoring and training junior talent, often leaving those who are interested in assuming leadership responsibilities with little resources or direction on how to grow. 

I used to joke that I was ‘selling my soul’ while working in financial technology, but I’m truly grateful for many of my takeaways from that experience and recognize how it has shaped my perspective.

Creating your own studio “Anima Interactive” is an exciting venture. Can you tell us more about the vision and mission behind the studio? 

Anima Interactive is a socially conscious indie games and immersive media studio that blends art and technology to craft experiences that leave a positive cultural impact. Our team is composed of a diverse collective of artists, storytellers, thinkers, and tinkerers dotted across the globe. We’re excited about the ways video games and interactive storytelling can explore bold subjects and shift hearts and minds, and we believe in the untapped potential of games as the largest entertainment medium to drive real-world change. 

We’re currently developing an original unannounced project but also aim to support and uplift other like-minded creators and foster a community that is aligned with our ethos. As an example, we hosted a game jam last year that encouraged developers to weave justice-related themes into their projects. We received submissions from all over the world that sensitively and artfully shine a light on heavy-hitting topics such as abortion rights, groundwater depletion, and geopolitical instability in the Middle East. It has been deeply inspiring to see the stories and community that have formed around this initiative, and we will actually be showcasing some projects at SXSW (March 8-16, 2024) in Austin, Texas later this week!

Overall, my goal with Anima Interactive is to challenge the status quo in an industry that has unfortunately often been associated with toxicity and homogeneity. With the adversity that thousands of game developers have encountered as a result of mass layoffs in our industry and consequent attrition, it’s a critical and opportune time to adopt and establish new and more sustainable structures and practices. My hope is that Anima can join a new wave of game development that is more inclusive and just. I’m sure we won’t always get it right, but like most things in game development, we’ll fail fast, learn, and iterate.

You’ve been an active mentor and tutor in the games industry. How important is mentorship to you personally, and what advice would you offer aspiring professionals looking to make a mark in the world of gaming?

Mentors have played an instrumental role in my personal and professional life. Words cannot adequately express my appreciation of my mentors, and I would not be where I am today without them. I’m a firm believer of paying forward and have personally mentored other active and aspiring game developers and have also invested in mentorship for many of my team members at Anima. For aspiring professionals looking to ‘make a mark in the world of gaming’, I would first want to understand their personal visions and definitions of making a mark. I might ask questions similar to those asked of players/Sora in Kingdom Hearts upon arriving on Destiny Island:

“What’s most important to you?”
Being number one.
2. Friendship.
3. My prized possessions.

“What do you want outta life?”
To see rare sights.
2. To broaden my horizons.
3. To be strong.

“What are you afraid of?”
Getting old.
2. Being different.
3. Being indecisive.

The answers to these might help inform appropriate responses! On a more serious note though, there’s a Japanese concept Ikigai, which essentially means life’s purpose and is found at the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for. I would encourage anyone to try to find their Ikigai and to remain steadfast in their values and goals but also humble and patient. You might not always be in your ‘dream job’, but trust in the journey and process. Celebrate small wins and milestones, and treat ‘failure’ as a learning opportunity. Try to remain on the pulse of the parts of the industry you’re interested in because it’s a rapidly evolving universe. You can do this by reading industry news, following developers or projects that inspire you on social media, and joining relevant online communities. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people whose careers you admire and ask for a moment of their time! And please also be generous with your time because making a mark isn’t just about making your art. It’s also about supporting others to do the same. 

Thanks for this interview, Karla!

Karla’s links: LinkedIn, Twitter

Womenize! – Inspiring Stories Feature by Madeleine Egger