Nina Freeman

The Video Game Designer
Former Pace University student, Nina Freeman

Nina Freeman ’12, luminary of the video games industry, has worked across a dizzying range of disciplines over the course of her career. She started out as a data analyst, co-founded a 501c3, taught classes to high school girls, and even released a chapbook of poetry collections, titled Sierpinski Sieve, Party Poems, and Thermal, which are available for purchase on her website. That doesn’t even cover her work as a video game designer, or the way her entry into the industry forever changed the way independent games are viewed and appreciated.

It’s no wonder that Freeman’s time at Pace reflects that same spirit of Renaissance. She first arrived as a theater major before switching to English, but get this: Freeman also worked part-time at Seidenberg, and would later take computer science classes there when she began to explore the tech industry. To say that Freeman’s career took off overnight would be an understatement: her semi-autobiographical game How Do You Do It? was developed over just one weekend for the 2014 Global Game Jam, earning her significant recognition throughout the industry.

She’s since earned a master’s degree in Integrated Digital Media from New York University and gone on to join the team at Fullbright, an indie games company in Portland, Oregon. For more on Freeman’s work, check out her games! We were lucky enough to get the chance to sit down with her to discuss her impressive career climb—and where the future will take her.

How did you officially break into games?

I graduated from Pace and [started] working for the New York City Department of Education. I had a nice job there, but I was a data analyst. I wasn’t working in a creative field, which is what I really wanted. And at first I was like, oh, maybe I want to be a professor. I was in an in-between phase.

Then I got really sick, so it was a weird transitional period. I decided that I really needed to find something to latch onto and get inspired by. I happened to meet a bunch of local people in New York [who] introduced me to the indie game scene. Kentucky Route Zero, Cart Life, and Diaspora [were] smaller and narrative-driven games that reminded me of writing poetry.

I started making games with those friends and [taught] myself how to code by taking some classes at Pace in the computer science program, and I kind of just threw myself into it and didn’t look back.

Can you talk a little bit about Code Liberation? You helped get it started, right?

I’ll preface this by saying: I’m not involved with them anymore because I moved across the country and they’re based in New York, but yeah, I was one of the people who helped. There were a bunch of us, and I [taught] some of the early C++ classes. There was a local high school in Brooklyn [where] girls would come see me. I mostly did that while I was in grad school, then I moved to work at Fullbright.

What was it like teaching girls how to code?

It was awesome! I actually didn’t have much teaching experience before that, and I was fairly new to coding myself, so I was kind of learning with them. I got to come in every week to make very small games using openFrameworks, which is a C++ library that’s really great for making games or interactive art. The class was very much like a workshop where they [would] come in and I [would] give lessons in core programming concepts. We spent a lot of time actually writing code and making tiny games.

What advice would you give to other women who are interested in the games industry?

I think the best way to get into making games is to make small games using free tools, whether it’s Unity, Game Maker, or Twine. Twine is especially good for beginners because you don’t have to really code at all. I think a lot of people get hung up on making something polished or spending a lot of time on it, but I find that the best way to start making games is [to] just make a lot of small things that don’t take a lot of time or commitment.

It’s a really exciting time for women to be sharing their personal stories and I’m definitely an advocate for drawing on your own life in your work. Your lives are interesting! Being a woman in the world can be a big challenge sometimes, but it’s also a big inspiration. I just think it’s important to remember that you’re not alone in the world. If you share your story, there are going be other women—other young people—who really relate to it and that is a really good feeling. Be open to putting a little of yourself into your work, especially if you’re a woman.

That’s really great advice. Of all the games you’ve created, which is your favorite to play?

I actually rarely play my games after I’ve finished them. I guess my favorite to play would probably be How Do You Do It?. I think it’s a really funny game! I still get a laugh out of it whenever I play, and I really like funny, small games like that. We actually made it over a weekend at the 2014 Global Game Jam in New York. I made it with Decky Cross, Emmett Butler, and Joni Kittaka. It’s a good memory—to have made that with that group of people—and I have some nostalgia for it now.

Which of your games are you surprised that people like?

Let’s see...I actually have a list. There’s a game I made called Mangia, which I made in a week for a prototype studio class when I was in grad school. It’s about struggling with [chronic] illness, and when I first found out that I had it. It’s very unpolished—a small Twine game that’s all text. It has so many typos in it and I made it for class in like a week. It was part of an assignment and we had to post it publicly online and it actually blew up. People really liked it and were very moved by it. I definitely didn’t see that coming! It was a little bit darker than I’ve tackled before, so I didn’t know what to expect.

I’ve got to ask—because I have a red pen in my hand right now—did you want to go back and fix the typos?

I actually do have a version where I did! I think it still says that I’m working on that version, but it kind of got dropped because I was working with an artist on it and we both got too busy. The original version is still there and I probably won’t go back and fix it. I’ve shown some people the edited version and they’ve said [that] they like the original better because it feels more raw.

Any games that have had a profound impact on you as a maker?

Definitely! I think [one] that always resonated with [me is] Dys4ia by Anna Anthropy. It’s a personal game about her experience transitioning as a trans woman, and what that was like for her. It’s a really moving, small, concise game with mechanics that are very narrative driven. That was the game that made me realize I could also make virtual games—that [it] was a thing.

That and Gone Home. [It] was a game that inspired me to make Cibele [because] it told a very human story in a very human setting—a house. A lot of my work has ended up being [set in] more domestic spaces, and Gone Home was definitely the game that inspired me to pursue that.

What would you say is your proudest accomplishment?

I think as far as the games I’ve made, I’m proudest of Cibele. It was the first time I worked on a game for an extended period of time. It took us about a year and a half to make, and it was the most ambitious game that I tried to create. I was basically the designer, the producer, the writer, and I programmed some of it, too. I did so many different things on that game.

Obviously, I worked with a team, but I was pretty much the director, and that was a huge learning experience. It was a story I wanted to tell for a long time, and it led to a lot of pretty big things in my career, so I would say that game was probably my proudest accomplishment.

What are you hoping to do next?

I graduated from grad school and immediately went to work [at] Tacoma, so right now, I’m kind of learning to unlearn the kind of work mentality that I think working on a big project like that—and many projects on the go—can instill in you. I kind of forgot how to relax somewhere along the way.

So I guess my goal is to learn how to work at a steadier pace and build my career in a more sustainable way, because I feel like I got into games really fast. I haven’t been making games for very long, but I’ve made a lot in a very short period of time. That worked for me as far as getting my career off the ground, but I think it’s important to have a good work-life balance.

Any last thoughts?

I was an English major and now I work in the tech field. It may seem like I went for English and chose a completely different career path, but I think studying a liberal arts subject like English can really help you get involved in something like games. I bring a very different perspective than a lot of people in the industry, who maybe come from a more technical background.

That stuff is really valuable too, but I think there’s a [lot] to be said for taking a background in poetry to a field like games. Having different disciplines interact and talk to each other like that can lead to really new and unique ideas.

[There] wasn’t much language around vignette games before I started making stuff. It was definitely a thing, but I talked a lot about it publicly and kind of made it [into] more of a thing to be talked about within indie games. So you can bring your personal interests into another space that you are passionate about even if they seem unrelated. There’s always a way to get involved if you’re creative about it.

Former Pace University student, Nina Freeman

Nina Freeman ’12, luminary of the video games industry, has worked across a dizzying range of disciplines over the course of her career. She started out as a data analyst, co-founded a 501c3, taught classes to high school girls, and even released a chapbook of poetry collections, titled Sierpinski Sieve, Party Poems, and Thermal, which are available for purchase on her website. That doesn’t even cover her work as a video game designer, or the way her entry into the industry forever changed the way independent games are viewed and appreciated.

It’s no wonder that Freeman’s time at Pace reflects that same spirit of Renaissance. She first arrived as a theater major before switching to English, but get this: Freeman also worked part-time at Seidenberg, and would later take computer science classes there when she began to explore the tech industry. To say that Freeman’s career took off overnight would be an understatement: her semi-autobiographical game How Do You Do It? was developed over just one weekend for the 2014 Global Game Jam, earning her significant recognition throughout the industry.

She’s since earned a master’s degree in Integrated Digital Media from New York University and gone on to join the team at Fullbright, an indie games company in Portland, Oregon. For more on Freeman’s work, check out her games! We were lucky enough to get the chance to sit down with her to discuss her impressive career climb—and where the future will take her.

How did you officially break into games?

I graduated from Pace and [started] working for the New York City Department of Education. I had a nice job there, but I was a data analyst. I wasn’t working in a creative field, which is what I really wanted. And at first I was like, oh, maybe I want to be a professor. I was in an in-between phase.

Then I got really sick, so it was a weird transitional period. I decided that I really needed to find something to latch onto and get inspired by. I happened to meet a bunch of local people in New York [who] introduced me to the indie game scene. Kentucky Route Zero, Cart Life, and Diaspora [were] smaller and narrative-driven games that reminded me of writing poetry.

I started making games with those friends and [taught] myself how to code by taking some classes at Pace in the computer science program, and I kind of just threw myself into it and didn’t look back.

Can you talk a little bit about Code Liberation? You helped get it started, right?

I’ll preface this by saying: I’m not involved with them anymore because I moved across the country and they’re based in New York, but yeah, I was one of the people who helped. There were a bunch of us, and I [taught] some of the early C++ classes. There was a local high school in Brooklyn [where] girls would come see me. I mostly did that while I was in grad school, then I moved to work at Fullbright.

What was it like teaching girls how to code?

It was awesome! I actually didn’t have much teaching experience before that, and I was fairly new to coding myself, so I was kind of learning with them. I got to come in every week to make very small games using openFrameworks, which is a C++ library that’s really great for making games or interactive art. The class was very much like a workshop where they [would] come in and I [would] give lessons in core programming concepts. We spent a lot of time actually writing code and making tiny games.

What advice would you give to other women who are interested in the games industry?

I think the best way to get into making games is to make small games using free tools, whether it’s Unity, Game Maker, or Twine. Twine is especially good for beginners because you don’t have to really code at all. I think a lot of people get hung up on making something polished or spending a lot of time on it, but I find that the best way to start making games is [to] just make a lot of small things that don’t take a lot of time or commitment.

It’s a really exciting time for women to be sharing their personal stories and I’m definitely an advocate for drawing on your own life in your work. Your lives are interesting! Being a woman in the world can be a big challenge sometimes, but it’s also a big inspiration. I just think it’s important to remember that you’re not alone in the world. If you share your story, there are going be other women—other young people—who really relate to it and that is a really good feeling. Be open to putting a little of yourself into your work, especially if you’re a woman.

That’s really great advice. Of all the games you’ve created, which is your favorite to play?

I actually rarely play my games after I’ve finished them. I guess my favorite to play would probably be How Do You Do It?. I think it’s a really funny game! I still get a laugh out of it whenever I play, and I really like funny, small games like that. We actually made it over a weekend at the 2014 Global Game Jam in New York. I made it with Decky Cross, Emmett Butler, and Joni Kittaka. It’s a good memory—to have made that with that group of people—and I have some nostalgia for it now.

Which of your games are you surprised that people like?

Let’s see...I actually have a list. There’s a game I made called Mangia, which I made in a week for a prototype studio class when I was in grad school. It’s about struggling with [chronic] illness, and when I first found out that I had it. It’s very unpolished—a small Twine game that’s all text. It has so many typos in it and I made it for class in like a week. It was part of an assignment and we had to post it publicly online and it actually blew up. People really liked it and were very moved by it. I definitely didn’t see that coming! It was a little bit darker than I’ve tackled before, so I didn’t know what to expect.

I’ve got to ask—because I have a red pen in my hand right now—did you want to go back and fix the typos?

I actually do have a version where I did! I think it still says that I’m working on that version, but it kind of got dropped because I was working with an artist on it and we both got too busy. The original version is still there and I probably won’t go back and fix it. I’ve shown some people the edited version and they’ve said [that] they like the original better because it feels more raw.

Any games that have had a profound impact on you as a maker?

Definitely! I think [one] that always resonated with [me is] Dys4ia by Anna Anthropy. It’s a personal game about her experience transitioning as a trans woman, and what that was like for her. It’s a really moving, small, concise game with mechanics that are very narrative driven. That was the game that made me realize I could also make virtual games—that [it] was a thing.

That and Gone Home. [It] was a game that inspired me to make Cibele [because] it told a very human story in a very human setting—a house. A lot of my work has ended up being [set in] more domestic spaces, and Gone Home was definitely the game that inspired me to pursue that.

What would you say is your proudest accomplishment?

I think as far as the games I’ve made, I’m proudest of Cibele. It was the first time I worked on a game for an extended period of time. It took us about a year and a half to make, and it was the most ambitious game that I tried to create. I was basically the designer, the producer, the writer, and I programmed some of it, too. I did so many different things on that game.

Obviously, I worked with a team, but I was pretty much the director, and that was a huge learning experience. It was a story I wanted to tell for a long time, and it led to a lot of pretty big things in my career, so I would say that game was probably my proudest accomplishment.

What are you hoping to do next?

I graduated from grad school and immediately went to work [at] Tacoma, so right now, I’m kind of learning to unlearn the kind of work mentality that I think working on a big project like that—and many projects on the go—can instill in you. I kind of forgot how to relax somewhere along the way.

So I guess my goal is to learn how to work at a steadier pace and build my career in a more sustainable way, because I feel like I got into games really fast. I haven’t been making games for very long, but I’ve made a lot in a very short period of time. That worked for me as far as getting my career off the ground, but I think it’s important to have a good work-life balance.

Any last thoughts?

I was an English major and now I work in the tech field. It may seem like I went for English and chose a completely different career path, but I think studying a liberal arts subject like English can really help you get involved in something like games. I bring a very different perspective than a lot of people in the industry, who maybe come from a more technical background.

That stuff is really valuable too, but I think there’s a [lot] to be said for taking a background in poetry to a field like games. Having different disciplines interact and talk to each other like that can lead to really new and unique ideas.

[There] wasn’t much language around vignette games before I started making stuff. It was definitely a thing, but I talked a lot about it publicly and kind of made it [into] more of a thing to be talked about within indie games. So you can bring your personal interests into another space that you are passionate about even if they seem unrelated. There’s always a way to get involved if you’re creative about it.