Convocation ‘19: Changing the Game

    Shelby Carleton uses her interdisciplinary Arts degree to improve how video games are made.

    By Erik Einsiedel on June 6, 2019

    In 2017, Shelby Carleton was a second-year English and Film Studies major and in her first year of the Computer Game Development Certificate, a joint program between the Faculties of Arts and Science. That same year, she was also the lead writer on a video game called Panacea, a Computer Science (CMPUT) 250 class project. It was the first game Shelby ever worked on.

    Panacea would be nominated for several awards at the 9th Annual CMPUT 250 Video Game Awards event, and although it didn’t win, Shelby describes it as “such a positive and reaffirming experience” that had a profound impact on her.

    “That was the point I realized this is exactly what I want to be doing.”

    From her experience with the Game Development program, Shelby discovered the advantages of the interdisciplinary nature of her Arts degree.

    “Being able to do all these different things you don’t normally associate with being an English major was an experience that stayed with me from that year on,” Shelby says.

    She credits that broad-based experience with securing her a summer job in an artificial intelligence (AI) lab where she learned how to code, facilitate machine learning, read spectrograms, and even attended an AI conference in Utah where her papers were published.

    This led to a placement as an Associate Software Engineer at BioWare, one of the biggest video game developers in the world, and based in Edmonton. “People always look at my work experience and ask what I studied. And when I say, ‘English,’ they say ‘that’s such a strange combination!’”

    “You’d think it would be,” she laughs, “but because of the interdisciplinary nature, I learned a lot from working with all these different people from all these different teams with all these different ideas.”

    Shelby’s love of video games eventually melded with her other passion, which she discovered in her very first Women’s and Gender Studies class.

    “I got exposed to so many ideas about how the world works, and I realized that video games and gender are so connected. That became one of my biggest passions: making video games better from a gender standpoint, and I feel I’ve been given the tools to contribute in that way.”

    Shelby says her biggest takeaway from her Arts degree is the realization that nothing is binary.

    “Everything is complicated, with so many sides to everything. And the combination of courses I was able to take in English, Computing Science and Gender Studies gave me many tools to explore the world and make things better.”

    Shelby plans to leverage what she’s learned to make positive changes in the video game industry -- not just with gender representation in games, but with harmful industry workplace practices she’s convinced can and must be changed.

    This includes addressing the issue of “crunch,” a notorious video game industry labour problem where employees are often pressured into working overtime for weeks, often months, leading up to a game’s release, with no appropriate compensation. This has led to hugely negative impacts on physical and mental health, work-life balance, as well as personal relationships.

    Believing she can help change those practices by starting with mentality shifts at the institutional level, Shelby has already begun working with U of A faculty to help students adopt healthier workplace philosophies and practices before beginning their careers.

    “There are better things we can do at the university that can translate to the industry,” she asserts.

    A champion of improving how video games are made, this talented and idealistic writer is poised to shake things up as she graduates from the Faculty of Arts this year and begins a promising career. In the meantime, Shelby’s startup video game company, Caldera Interactive, is already hard at work on a new game project, which they hope to release within the next year.

    More from Shelby

    Caldera Interactive - Shelby’s indie game studio
    Panic Mode - Shelby’s podcast about game design, culture and industry practices
    Sex, Lies and Video Games - Shelby’s 2018 TEDxUAlberta talk on perceptions of gender in games
    Conversations with Game Makers - A 2017 video interview with Shelby about her first video game, Panacea