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Jennifer Oneal: “Never Stop Learning!”

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Have you ever met a true gamer, a person who lives, dreams, eats and sleeps with video games in her brain?

Jennifer Oneal is studio head for Vicarious Visions, or VV, a company in Albany, New York, that has been making video games for over 25 years. And if you have kids, then you know some of VV’s most popular games.

Jennifer’s career path is unique, to put it mildly. She has traversed through stages as ballet dancer, French major, flight attendant and now video game creator extraordinaire. “As a child, all I wanted was be a ballet dancer,” she smiled. “I destroyed my brother and sister on Pac Man on the Atari 2600, and I was a big sci-fi nerd. When I was a teenager, my friend’s little brother had a Nintendo. I’d go over to her house and instead of hanging with her, I preferred playing Princess Peach in his Mario game with him! I loved Star Trek and Star Wars but I never saw a future for myself in video games.”

She took her ballet dream to Paris and majored in the language of ballet, Français. As happens in life, she had to come to a realization that she was not born to be the prima ballerina in The Nutcracker. So, she took that French degree and decided to become a flight attendant with the goal of traveling, knowing at some point she would be doing something else, as “slinging peanuts and drinks” wasn’t her jam!

“Living abroad gave me a love of traveling, and I thought being a flight attendant would allow me to see the world. I chose to work for a small charter company because they had this amazing around-the-world trip,” she explained. “They would convert the entire plane to first class and, in theory, I would get to fly with wealthy, cultured, worldly passengers and see Dubai, Stockholm and Hong Kong.” She tried in vain to work this flight until the airline told her she didn’t have the seniority for the assignment.

That’s when fate stepped in. Jennifer saw an ad that said “test video games and get paid.” She had always loved playing video games, so she decided to give it a try. “The ad also said they were looking for French speakers to help test their games to make sure the appropriately translated text strings got in correctly. I got to use my French degree after all!” she continued. “I truly found my passion: video games! The more time I spent playing and understanding how games were made, the more I realized this was something I wanted to do.”

Growing Skills
“But being passionate isn’t enough in this business; you also have to have the skill. I didn’t have a computer science degree and art was not a talent my artist mother passed down to me. All I knew how to do was be tenacious and outwork everyone else. I went back to school multiple times, taking classes in everything from programming and graphic arts to project management. Ultimately I figured out that production management was where my passion met my skill.” She enjoyed guiding projects, keeping them organized and on budget while providing support for her development team.

She earned her BA from the University of Florida and her MBA from the University of Southern California, which helped her more deeply understand the business of video games. She has held a variety of roles in production leadership over 15 years at Activision Blizzard, Inc., which owns Vicarious Visions, and she has worked on franchises including Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero and Skylanders. In her current role, she has helped guide VV to success with the hit games Crash Bandicoot N-Sane Trilogy and Game Critics Awards Best of E3 2017 Best PC Game, Destiny 2.

Work as Play
Being studio head, which equates to CEO, at VV is her dream job. “I was working with VV on Tony Hawk as their publishing producer at our corporate offices in Santa Monica. The studio heads at the time invited me to come out to lead creation of the video game Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 as an executive producer ten years ago,” she noted. “VV is a fantastic place to work. There are 150 to 160 who work here, and everyone is like family. Most of us are not from Albany so we are all we’ve got. This is a gem of a studio and it’s home to some of the best creative and technical talent in the industry.” Jennifer’s focus on building a positive, inclusive culture earned her an inaugural 2018 Great Place to Work® For All™ Leadership Award, through which Great Place to Work recognized the achievements of some of the top women leaders at well-known American companies.

Her intelligent mind is a perfect example of how STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, can impact a woman’s life. “STEM is the foundation for many of the jobs of the future for girls. When I think about gaming in particular, now, more than ever, we have people of all races, genders and ages playing,” she reflected. “As creators we need to have diversity in all of our ranks to reflect the population we are entertaining.”

She truly lives her work; she’s one of the lucky ones for whom work isn’t work. That’s because playing video games is where her skill meets her passion. And although her professional life is filled with fun and hard work, her most important priority is her family. “I have a wonderful wife who was a marketer with Deloitte for many years. She has her MBA from NYU but put her career on pause to devote more time to our children,” she smiled. “We have five-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, and they are the greatest part of my day and life.”

Transformation Observed
Jennifer recently gave the commencement speech to the graduating class at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, New York. This excerpt sums her up. “I haven’t regretted any of my decisions. As a producer, I’ve had amazing moments. I took part in the rise of action sports in video games while working on the Tony Hawk series. I participated in the age of licensed titles while working on Marvel products. I got to meet Stan Lee, publisher and editor-in-chief for Marvel, while doing PR for one of our games at Comicon! That was pretty cool. I saw my first iPhone game, Guitar Hero, on stage with Steve Jobs at Apple’s worldwide developer conference. I’ve seen the pure joy on children’s faces when their toys come to life while working on Skylanders. Most recently I’ve seen how our industry has grown and matured long enough that some of our gamers long for the nostalgia of games like Crash Bandicoot. And I have seen how transformative games can be when they bring people from all walks of life to play together in games like Destiny. After 20 years, I’ve seen the industry and market grow and grow through multiple console transitions and the ubiquity of games on mobile phones.”

Jennifer’s advice resonates with women of all ages. “Keep dreaming. Be confident; never stop learning and evolving or you will get left behind.” She implores all she meets to be humble. At her studio, she has a saying: “There are no free passes for jerks. Even though you believe you are the most talented person in the world, if you step on others’ necks to get what you want, no one is going to want to work with you.”

She is inspired daily by the people she works with, calling them delightful adjectives such as brilliant, creative and, at times, hilarious. Each year, the staff volunteers at a number of charitable organizations around town. “They make my job such a joy. My job is to keep them happy, remove obstacles and have a strong vision that will allow them to do the best work of their lives.”

What would Jennifer convey to women wishing to follow their dreams? “Go ahead, try things and fail a few times. Eventually, you will be untethered from that fear. Learn from it and you will achieve greater things.”

From this woman’s journey, all of us, no matter what career we have embarked upon, can learn that new things are always looming on the horizon. There is never an end to learning. And your steps along your path may be paved with ballet slippers, airplane wings, video game controls or loving children.

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