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Shannon Studstill is helping lead female charge in video game field

As a child, Shannon Studstill sold gum to her classmates to finance her weekly trips to the video game arcade.

That early investment in "Pac-Man" and "Defender" would pay huge dividends.

Studstill, one of the most powerful women in the male-dominated world of video games, now runs Sony Santa Monica Studio, the development group responsible for the company's hit franchise "God of War" and the publisher of such critically acclaimed independent titles as "Journey."

The 43-year-old executive is an anomaly in an industry known for its underrepresentation of women. One 2012 survey of 4,000 developers found that women account for just 4% of programmers and engineers, 11% of designers and 16% of its artists and animators. 

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Women are best represented among the producer ranks, where roughly 1 in 4 are female (though they make less than their male counterparts), according to the results published last year in Game Developer Magazine.

As executives such as Studstill rise through the ranks, though, they are in a position to correct the gender imbalance.

During her tenure, Sony Santa Monica has been more successful in attracting women: About 20% of its staff is female.

"I feel like having a female in the room changes the dynamic in a positive way," Studstill said. "And we should acknowledge that and embrace it and be giving these women the opportunities that they deserve to have a voice at the table."

Games have been a constant running through Studstill's life, as her family moved from Denver to Virginia Beach, Va., to southern Florida. While attending high school in Key West, she would split her free time bodyboarding, wave riding, boating, diving and snorkeling with visiting a video game arcade on Duval Street with her boyfriend. 

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In college, she majored in graphic design and photography, then moved to Los Angeles in 1992 to study cinematography. But the slight, petite woman discovered she was unable to perform some of the physical aspects of the job — such as lugging heavy lighting equipment.

A professor at the American Film Institute urged Studstill to consider applying her cinematographer's eye to a fast-growing segment of the entertainment world: video games.

"Essentially, there are cameras in video games, and it's important that the structure of how you put a camera in a video game follows the grammar of cinema that we're used to, so the player understands where they are," said former AFI instructor Alan Lasky, who has worked in film and video games. "Shannon was one of those people that immediately got that, she immediately understood the broadening definition of cinematography."

Studstill landed an internship at Black Ops Entertainment, an independent studio in Santa Monica founded by four MIT graduates. She recalls being the only woman around as she traveled to Edwards Air Force Base to take reference photos of aircraft for a flight simulator game under development.

After working six months without a salary, and depleting her savings, Studstill finally got a full-time assignment as an artist to help create 3-D renderings of the planes she had photographed for the PlayStation game "Agile Warrior F-111X." 

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"I had some familiarity with 3-D, and that really helped me. I at least knew how to boot up a program and get a model on screen," Studstill said.

Studstill worked her way up at the studio, as texture artist, modeler, lead artist and eventually to the position of art director.

Sony lured Studstill away in 1997 to help it repair a struggling game title, "Treasures of the Deep." Two years later, she was selected to join the executive team launching Sony's new development studio in Santa Monica.

It was a rare opportunity to build a creative environment from its foundation, though, as its art director, Studstill quickly learned the difficulties of recruiting talent to a studio that lacked a flagship game title.

Even harder was assembling a team of artists capable of matching game creator David Jaffe's vision for "God of War," an action-adventure game loosely based on Greek mythology in which the central character (Kratos) is a Spartan warrior who serves the Olympic gods.

"You can put a [movie] script on someone's desk, and they can read it and get a really good idea of that character's journey," Studstill said. But with a video game, "you're talking about interactive development. It's all about, 'How does Kratos feel?'" 

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The attention to subtlety of feeling worked. "God of War" won critical acclaim and become one of Sony Computer Entertainment America's most successful franchises, selling more than 21 million units worldwide through May 2012.

That success of the franchise gave Sony Santa Monica the freedom to work with independent game developers, and run an incubation program for young game developers studying at USC. The studio gives budding developers a place to work, access to professionals who can provide advice on technical problems and a shot at funding.

"Journey" executive producer Robin Hunicke credits Studstill with taking time to mentor her early in her career.

"Shannon was a busy woman, she had a lot on her plate. But she took the time to reach out and make the connection," said Hunicke, who is co-founder of a new game company, Funomena. "She was always able to give me solid advice. She had a huge impact on my career."

The video game industry is just beginning to grapple with its deficit of senior female executives such as Studstill.

Kate Edwards, executive director of the International Game Developers Assn., blames the dearth of the young women studying science, technology, engineering and math in college.

But the industry, which meticulously tracks the demographic breakdown of its players, lacks similar data on its own workers. She said her organization, which represents 8,000 members, plans to launch a survey this month at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco to start gathering such employment and workplace information.

"We talk about this issue a great deal, but we have no information on which to take action. We don't know the percentage of women, the positions they're in," Edwards said. "We need to get some kind of scope about what's actually going on, and where to go from there."

dawn.chmielewskI@latimes.com 

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