Breaking Into The Industry: Jessica Merizan, BioWare Community Manager
When the fans come to call (or, more often, to tweet), it's our Community Managers that answer. Join us as we explore the CM role via Jessica Merizan, gamer, cosplayer, and Social Media Manager for BioWare Edmonton and two of its most popular franchises: Mass Effect and Dragon Age.
What do you do as a Community Manager?
While more and more companies are putting an emphasis on consumer relations, it's still a fairly new discipline in the grand scheme of things. The job comes with a lot of experimenting to learn what resonates with a particular community and how to best communicate with the people who are building a culture around a specific franchise.
Engaging with fans and building a rapport with them is one of the most important aspects of the job, as I stand somewhat between the studio and the end user. I gather feedback to send to the team and create messaging from the developers to inform the community of various updates.
We report on sentiment from consumers on a regular basis as it helps inform the studio about what they're doing well and what aspects of the game can be improved. I also work to keep our fans engaged and to build a culture around the games by celebrating community artwork, organizing live events, and hosting contests to reward our most loyal consumers.
So it sounds like you're both the community's voice to the game developers, and the game developer’s voice to the community.
Yeah! Before being hired, I was already a huge fan of BioWare, so I think I know where the community is coming from. Since I get a glimpse of the game every now and again, I can make recommendations to the team as well as let them know how our fans are likely to react to different features. Being an advocate on both sides requires a lot of relationship nurturing and trust, but it's incredibly rewarding.
I can imagine it being rewarding to hear the community ask for something, and then be able to make it happen. Do you have any examples of that?
There are definitely times that I've made recommendations to the developers based on a well-reasoned thread by members of the community that ends up getting implemented into the game. The team really appreciates feedback, and when it comes packaged as a rational, constructive critique, it's much easier to pitch to the team.
There are a few moments in Mass Effect 3 that I can directly attribute to community requests although getting into details would be a bit “spoilery.” But I hope our fans know that their opinion does matter and I'm always listening for suggestions to pass along.
You mentioned being a fan of BioWare before getting this job. Were you always a gamer?
Gaming has always been a huge part of my life. As a kid, I was more into reading books and playing computer games than going outside and risking exposing myself to sunshine and nature. My mom used to exchange good report cards for new video games, so I permanently associate gaming with a kind of competitive reward system.
Some of my favorite games as a kid, like SSX Tricky and The Sims, come from EA, so it’s a huge source of pride to be able to work here.
Along with gaming, my best friend Holly Conrad roped me into making costumes with her from our favorite video games and going to conventions like PAX and Comic-Con. I ended up writing my master's dissertation on cosplay, video game fandom, and pop culture conventions. That's actually how I met a lot of the great folks at BioWare and how I continued developing those connections through social media.
BioWare places a huge emphasis on the personalities behind the studio and it's always been a pleasure as a Community Manager to help spotlight some of the brightest minds in the industry.
What did you study in college?
I completed my undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Historical Archaeology from UC Berkeley, studying mass consumption and material possessions. Then I studied at University College London for a Master's degree in Material and Visual Culture, which I jokingly refer to as "things you can touch and things you can see."
I've always been interested in the relationship people have with their “stuff,” arguing that our materiality isn't shallow, but rather helps define and shape our identities. It's a fascinating subject, and working in an industry like this you know that things like video games are part of who we are.
What advice would you give to people who want a job like yours?
There are two things that people who want to go into the video game industry, and specifically community management, should focus on.
First, develop your online persona. What makes you unique and why should people care about what you have to say? Establish yourself on some of the larger social media channels like Facebook or Twitter, and then start exploring what else is out there. Being an early adopter of a platform that becomes popular is a great way to leverage yourself online, but it takes a bit of creative thinking and a lot of luck to figure out what the next big thing will be.
My other suggestion is to save money and start going to conventions. It's the best place to meet people, see what's going on in the industry, and get to know its overall niche culture. But don't just go to conventions or expos, pockets loaded with business cards. Make sure you're having fun and meeting likeminded people, building your own community. Once you find your way inside, the industry is a pretty small world. I run into the same people all the time and reinforce those relationships online.
Do you have any thoughts you'd like to share about being a female in the game industry?
I was very thoroughly trained in feminist theory at Berkeley, as one might imagine, and I consider myself a third-wave feminist. That being said, I'm a lot more focused on all the aspects of my identity that make me who I am. Working for games definitely connects me with a lot of people who have similar interests or outlooks, but there is definitely a much higher ratio of males to females.
Some of the most empowered women I know are in this field enacting change in such a graceful and understated way. Having that female perspective is a huge strength for me as I think it makes me question whether my initiatives are going to appeal to one segment of the fandom or be inclusive to different kinds of fans.
I had the opportunity to speak at last year's inaugural GeekGirlCon about community and building positivity online, a topic that I feel strongly about because of the negativity within fandom that I've experienced as a woman, casual gamer, cosplayer… you name it. It's important to me to encourage girls that this is a field that will embrace them, and not to let hostility online deter them. I only hope that I spread awareness of women as powerful consumers in gaming as well as the importance of positivity and inclusivity online.
Do you have any cool hobbies you do on the side?
When I'm not playing games or looking for something to read in the airport bookstore – my favorite place to look for exciting new finds – my time is spent creating entertainment for other geek-minded folks.
The aforementioned Holly Conrad and I started a group called Crabcat Industries to make costumes, reject reality, and pretend to be convention carnies. We're actually featured in the upcoming movie Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope, directed by Morgan Spurlock. Holly is the artist and I'm the person who is always trying to turn the craft into some kind of glue-gun burn antic to make other people laugh on YouTube. We recently made some new costumes that we'll premiere at PAX East – I'm Ashley and she’s Commander Shepard from Mass Effect 3.
I also dabble in other areas of Internet entertainment and have a podcast with my physicist friend Lizzy called "The Perfect Squares." The next episode will be a Dungeons & Dragons campaign!
I somehow manage to force myself into all kinds of pop culture phenomena.
You mentioned being a gamer. What are some of your favorite games?
I enjoy quite a few games, but there are some that just seem to stick with me forever. They have timeless replay value.
Generally, I love games that have a great deal of customization or story involved. So I'll always be the first person buying the next The Sims game and setting my kitchen on fire. The Fable series really appeals to the history fan within me, and Lara Croft makes me proud to say I'm an archaeologist. Dragon Age: Origins really pushed me into becoming a BioWare superfan and Mass Effect 2 solidified it.
There are also games like The Legend of Zelda series that really shaped who I was growing up and even silly games like Pokemon Snap have a forever place in my heart. I've also spent an embarrassing amount of money on Playfish games because they're so well designed!
The Batman: Arkham franchise is a really great interpretation of my favorite comic book universe. I can go on! There's not really a particular kind of game that appeals to me, but if there are interesting customizations or great stories, I probably have it on my shelf.
Is there a specific video game job you'd like to know more about? Let us know in the comments! Plus, check out last week's interview with University Relations Specialist, Iris Lin, for more insight into the industry.