Microsoft Game Designer Stays ‘Kinected’ to her Roots

Karisma Williams carves out a lane for herself and others in an industry where she's the minority

Some people like to play games while others choose to build them. Then there’s Karisma Williams, who does both. In addition to serving as creative director of Matimeo.com, the Bradley University graduate works at Microsoft as a Senior Experience Developer/Designer for Xbox Kinect, which lets players interact with video games without the use of a controller. With Williams being one of the tech leaders in her industry, BlackEnterprise.com caught up with her to discuss the hurdles she faces as a double minority—a person of color and a woman—in the gaming world and how she excels in her craft.

What are your day-to-day duties at Microsoft?

I design and develop the various onscreen interfaces, which include menus, interaction models and onscreen elements. I work with various disciplines including artists and developers during the development process. Part of my job is looking at the overall interaction models and user experience. With the launch of Kinect we focused on removing the barrier of entry for people who don’t play games—something kids could use as well as grandparents. There’s an article where a guy who had an autistic son was able to go through the menus. My job is to interpret the creative vision and ensure the user experience is geared toward our target audience and highlights the benefits of new tech.

How long have you been in the gaming industry?

I’ve been in the game industry for six years and working on Kinect for over a year. My expertise has given me great opportunities to lead implementation wise. I enjoy the problem solving involved in implementing a high level design while remaining within given technical constraints such as memory restrictions.

How do you come up with your designs?

A lot of my design ideas come from my experience playing lots of games, observing user research sections, and observing how others interact with various technologies. My talents for design are largely intuitive but I do like to supplement that gift with various research and experimentations.

How did you gain that knowledge?

[Coming in to the industry] I don’t know if I knew what UI [user interface] design was, but all I wanted to do was make video games—the end product. You don’t know what goes into getting the product on the shelf you just know you want to be a part of it. I go back to a lot of my design sense being very intuitive, the first interface team I got hired on in the games industry was an easy fit for me. The rest of my knowledge came from experience; this is a fast paced industry where you learn a bit everyday.

Have you come across many minorities in your field?

There aren’t many minorities [within the industry]. We are a big part of the consumer group. There are games targeted to us. I don’t know if we don’t know about opportunities in the game industry, but there is a huge need for different point of views in the industry. The only way the industry can continue to grow and reach new audiences is to grow its source of ideas.

How would you suggest other minorities break into the gaming industry?

There are lower barriers to get into the game industry and then you move yourself around. A lot of people get in through engineering positions, but you don’t have to be technical to get in. There are entry-level tests, and management positions. If you want to get in through art, I’d say try learning proprietary art programs and you can always work your way around to other creative positions.

The best advice I can give is to network. There are various websites and groups where you can connect with those already in the industry. There are even organizations such as Blacks In Gaming.  Most in the industry are nice and willing to help someone who is looking to break in. Use LinkedIn and if you see someone with your dream job send them a note and ask them how they got in. I did this when I was first looking to get in myself and it was very helpful.

Have you found that there are less women in the gaming industry?

I think there are not a lot of women in the industry. Having a female insight is important. The more perspectives on the team [the better], which is what the game industry needs to do to continue to grow. Sony has a Women in Games scholarship. There are groups and people who are about diversifying the game industry. We’ve come a long way. My current Studio GM is a woman; women are infiltrating and influencing the industry more and more. I want to see more female developers in the future.

As a woman of color in gaming, do you mentor?

I’ve done mentoring for people who send me emails and ask for advice. I have mentors myself. You have to really be passionate and constantly want to improve. It’s a highly sought after industry. It’s right underneath movies. You have to work hard and expect to work harder.

What tips or words of advice would you offer someone trying to break into the industry?

Networking is huge. A lot of the chances and opportunities I’ve gotten have been through networking. Also, stay focused and do what you believe in doing. If you make sure you stay focused you’ll essentially get a chance to act on it. Always ramp up on technical skills, the industry rapidly changes and it’s important to understand the latest technology advances. Lastly, learn about the game engines, development processes and the programs. Learning how to talk to the various disciplines you will encounter in the industry is important. Remember ideas are good and a lot of people have them, the real question will be can you execute them—whether it be with a team or yourself. Continue to look for opportunities to execute on your ideas. Nothing can stop you from getting into the industry these days, the tools and the marketplace is wide open.

Additional reporting by Anslem Samuel

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Microsoft.

ACROSS THE WEB
  • Natasha Bailey

    Thank you so much for posting this! It’s great to see an African American woman in the technical industry, particularly gaming. I am in college and currently work part-time in tech support for the university I attend. It can be difficult, at times, being a double underrepresented minority. Thank you for the inspiration!