From ‘vehicle vaginas’ to analyzing the language of video games, how an Arts degree helped launch a video game company.
A Conversation with Shelby Carleton
I got the chance to sit down with Shelby Carleton, who was one of the 2019 Faculty of Arts’ featured convocating students. Graduating with a major in English, a minor in Creative Writing and a certificate in Computer Game Development, Shelby is fully immersed in all things video game.
In our chat we talked more in depth about courses and profs that were influential to her undergrad experience, and what’s on the horizon as a new Arts alumna!
Tell me about one of your favourite classes.
I was very lucky to take a lot of classes that I really loved. One of my favourites was INT D 450 — Making Computer Games. It’s the capstone course in the Computer Game Development Certificate and I took it in my third year. The class was great because it taught me that I didn’t know anything! You’re in a team — six of you, programmers, an artist, a writer, a musician — and you just make a video game. There really aren’t any restrictions, and it’s your job to scope out the project and make a game in whatever engine you choose.
I learned so much in the course from continually failing, but being okay with that failure because the end product wasn’t the point. The point was to try different things, and fail, and to rethink what went wrong and how we can do this better, and how it’s okay if it’s not what we first thought it would be, but just do our best and learn at the same time.
We tried a couple of different things — there was this one thing we had at the beginning — we were set on this one mechanic, a grappling hook. And we were like ‘this is gonna be awesome’, and then we started to program out the physics and do all that stuff. Had we been in our own studio, and had a year we would’ve been okay, but to get it done in three months…. So it ended up being through the stress and frustration at ourselves we still had a lot of fun making something and reworking our plans. There were a lot of friends that came out of that class.
Was there a prof that greatly impacted your undergraduate experience?
There’s a couple, mostly surrounding my work with Game Studies. I took an MLCS course on the Culture of Video Games with Dr. Astrid Ensslin that was amazing. And I was actually a research assistant with her for a summer. We ended up publishing a paper on the linguistic elements of video games, and how language shapes how we play them and view them. I loved that work — it was a different way to think about video games.
In our MLCS 499 course on Advanced Game Theory she mentored us on our own papers. It was so rewarding, and fun, to be able to just talk about video games, and research them and kind of go on your own track.
Dr. Sean Gouglas has also been very influential even though he’s never actually taught me! I’ve done some research with him, and talked a lot about the game studies program and the state of the industry. He’s a beacon of light — wanting change — wanting better.
Also Dr. Jonathan Cohn who I had for two classes. In my third and fourth years I took a course on the cultural history of zombies and a pop culture course on social media.
In the social media course you can do a creative project for your final, and I had recently listened to a podcast episode on truck nuts. Now I’m very interested in this and frustrated that there wasn’t something for representing female genitalia. So I asked if I could build a website selling ‘vehicle vaginas’. He said ‘Shelby you can do whatever you want!’. It turned out really, really great. Along with the website I handed in a keychain with a model vagina from a 3D printer. I felt very lucky to have the opportunity to do this kind of thing that you normally don’t get to do. It was one of my most favourite projects during university.
What’s something memorable for you about your time as an Arts student.
I met my partner actually in a video game course, and he was in one of my creative writing courses too. Meeting people that have the same sort of passions as you do — it’s very exciting. There’s a discord server, it’s basically a big chat kind of server, and it was set up last year and now there’s about 50 members all across the game development certificate that are part of it. We chat all the time and do things together all the time. So, yeah, to be able to make those kind of connections wasn’t something I was expecting but it has been amazing.
Alright, undergrad degree — check! What are you looking forward to now that this chapter of your life is “done”?
I’m starting a video game studio! It’s happened really quickly, there’s five of us currently, plus an executive producer that is interested in coming aboard. We sat down with a friend of mine, and he had a plan laid out for how we would handle the business side — we’re still figuring out the business side, there’s a lot! But he had a plan and asked ‘do you want to do it?’. I said ‘let’s do it!’ so we’re starting! It’s called Caldera Interactive, and we’re going for it!
Are you nervous or anxious about anything?
Ha ha… I feel like for the next little while I’m gonna have nightmares about overdue assignments! There’s a lot of stuff to be anxious about in the industry. I’m not just entering something away from university, but I’m entering a different sort of practice where things like sexism and racism and not treating people well are very real. This has been prominent in the game industry lately, especially in the news. I’m anxious because I’m very combative when it comes to this kind of stuff.
I know that in university I’ve been very lucky because when I have said something or talked to someone they’ve been understanding and open to hearing what I had to say. But I know that’s not always the case. I worry that either something will happen to me or somebody I know, or I’ll see something, or be a part of something, and I won’t be able to do anything, or feel like I can’t do anything. That makes me nervous. I just want to make the gaming industry a better place.
To jump ahead, a year from now, where do you see yourself?
I guess it would be finishing up the game that we are starting now. It would be nice to have made some more connections and to learn more. I think the main reason I want to do this is to be able to continue to learn about game development. I’m looking forward to learning the business side and talking to people outside of a university setting, and figuring things out, and you know… making mistakes!
Read the feature article on Shelby — Convocation ’19: Changing the Game.
Learn about the Computer Game Development Certificate that is offered jointly by the Faculties of Arts and Science and open to any UAlberta undergraduate student.
Check out Shelby’s game studio Caldera Interactive!
Interview edited for length and clarity.