Much is made of the lack of female representation in STEM courses and Michaela Taweel (pictured) will have felt that more than most, being the only woman on her course at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment as a 13-year-old.
But, after a period of homeschooling, Taweel was able to start university early and began applying for roles in game development. After speaking to her university lecturer, Angus Stevens, CEO and co-founder at AR and VR studio Start Beyond hired her and hasn’t looked back. She is still only 18 years old.
“She loves breaking things so she can fix them and make them better,” he said.
“Graduates with a rich knowledge of video gaming intuitively understand the foundational principles behind quality games and use this knowledge to inform and enhance their work. Mikaela is a fantastic example of this and wise beyond her years.”
WLT caught up with Taweel to learn more about her time in the game industry and get her advice for young women entering the space.
WLT: Why did you want to get into game programming and development?
I made the jump from playing games to making them as a teenager because I had so many ideas for games I could never find, so I decided to make them myself. In doing so I discovered I had a passion for programming them as much as I did playing them.
Game development is really rewarding. There is the satisfaction of actually playing the game you’re making along with the motivation of seeing all the pieces come together. Every feature of a game is built to be rewarding, and for the people developing these games, these features double as a reward for the effort put into them.
WLT: What was your experience like at university considering that you were the only woman on the course?
There’s an inherent pressure to being the only woman in the room. I often felt like I had to put in extra effort to fight against stereotypes and conform to the behaviour of my male peers, in the hopes that if I looked and acted less “feminine” I wouldn’t stand out as much.
WLT: Has this changed since you entered the workforce?
Whether in a classroom or an office space, the STEM industry is still very much dominated by men. My environment has remained mostly the same however my perspective has changed.
Thankfully at Start Beyond our senior technical producer Isabella Polvony manages the team and has been supportive of me from the start, and while I’m still the only woman programmer at my work, it’s something I’ve learned to take pride in.
WLT: Gaming is often seen as a very male-dominated area among players and developers. Has this changed?
The reality is women make up almost half the demographic of gamers, but culturally gaming is still seen as something for men. This manifests in the behaviour of many men in the gaming space who try to push women out, despite recent studies showing 46 per cent of gamers are women. Many seemingly male-dominated areas of interest aren’t as one-sided as you’d think. Even looking back to the 60s with Star Trek, despite the stereotypes, the majority of fans were actually women.
WLT: Have you had any mentors or sponsors in your journey and how have they helped you?
I’ve never had a mentor per se, but the closest thing would be my current boss, Jaeger Battersby, head programmer and CTO of Start Beyond. I’ve improved my skills and learned a lot about the industry from working with him.
WLT: What advice would you give to other young women looking to enter the sector?
I’ve spoken with other young women starting their journeys and they shared the same fears of being alienated as the only women in their circles, feeling like they stand out and don’t belong. Being in the spotlight as one of the few is a daunting thing, but it can also be a tool if you turn it into one. You’re the only woman in the room? Know that you command attention – that’s a powerful thing.
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