CSU alum Bonnie Ross talks technology, female involvement in the industry

Chapman W.

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For CSU alumna Bonnie Ross, her time as a Ram was a stepping stone into a career of technology and creativity.

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Ross, who spoke to a full lecture hall Thursday, is the corporate vice president at Microsoft Studios and the head of 343 Industries, the group who produces the “Halo” series of video games. Ross spoke to students in classes during her visit to campus, and gave a talk titled “Video gaming: Empowering creativity with technology.”

“My passion really is technology blending and merging with art,” Ross said during her lecture. “Technology empowering art and technology empowering storytelling.”

During her lecture, Ross spoke about the “Halo” franchise itself, as well as the technology used for the specific sort of storytelling that interests her. She showcased videos demonstrating actors participating in motion capture, and she also showed the work that went into the remastered games that 343 Industries has released.

Ross specifically spoke about storytelling in the video game franchise and the concept of the “user’s story.” She shared an experience where filmmaker Peter Jackson expressed interest in the video game industry because of the level of interaction between the creators and the fans. 

“It’s not that they’re just playing our game and playing our story,” Ross said. “They’ve kinda broken the fourth wall, and they’ve kinda jumped into our story.”

Ross showed off creations that fans had built using the in-game Forge tool in “Halo 5: Guardians,” as well as talked about Rooster Teeth, a production company that got its start making videos using “Halo.” She cites e-sports as a successful example of player interaction, as the four winners of the most recent Halo World Championshipo split $2.5 million dollars between them.

“This year we were invited to Aspen as part of the X Games,” Ross said. “It really is a sport, and these kids compete for huge prizes.”

Following her talk about Halo and creative content, Ross began to talk about her life — specifically as a woman in the field.

Ross originally studied engineering during her time at CSU, but she said that halfway through her degree, she realized that she was not finding creativity in the major.

“Around Christmas break of my Junior year I was sitting around and I said, ‘I don’t get it,'” Ross said. “I don’t get what I can do with this degree, and I really wish I could be creative.”

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She switched majors into what is now the Journalism and Media Communication department and studied technical writing. She then began working for IBM in Boulder writing technical documents, and eventually found her way to Microsoft studios after graduating in 1989.

At this time, Microsoft was still very up-and-coming, and Ross said that she began her job writing admin guides for systems at Microsoft. 

“I wanted more creativity and at the time, Microsoft started getting into PC gaming,” Ross said. “There was this job as a project manager for this basketball game.”

Although Ross has come a long way in the field of creative technology, it wasn’t always her goal.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a professional athlete,” Ross said, laughing. “I wanted to be a professional Baseball player or Basketball player; not that it was a realistic goal.”

Ross had a passion for sports during her time at CSU, and she said it was this passion that first found her working with video games. She continued working in the game department at Microsoft and even worked with Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris, who she said that sharing experiences of working on games with helped to shape her passion for creativity in video games. 

When Microsoft acquired the rights to produce the “Halo” games from its original creator, Bungie, Ross became the head of the internal company that took over the production of the franchise, 343 Industries.

“At first, no one was very happy,” Ross said in a Q&A session following her lecture. “I think that it was about being pretty humble and owning the right to carry that torch.”

Since 343’s creation, the group has produced six Halo titles, including “Halo 4,” “Halo: The Master Chief Collection,” and “Halo 5: Guardians,” to name a few.

“The struggle with ‘Halo’ is that it’s a 15-year franchise,” Ross said. “There’s a point of ‘how do we keep what’s precious about “Halo” and how do we continue to evolve.'”

Beyond her work with the series, Ross is very passionate about the subject of diversity in the video game industry. She spoke during her lecture about the three main obstacles that females in technology fields face: lack of exposure, lack of support and lack of understanding.

Following the lecture, Ross spoke about being named in Fortune magazine’s article “10 most powerful women in video games” and the responsibility she feels in bringing diversity to the industry.

Ross talked about how her team worked to include a diverse set of characters to play from in “Halo 5,” and how important representation is in games so that players feel comfortable playing them, She cites the lack of gender diversity she faced when entering the industry as a motivating force, and she said that she almost left Microsoft initially due to the lack of female representation. Since then, she has made it her goal to bring more diversity into any part of the field she oversees.

“Why I’m so passionate about STEM is that I want more diversity in gaming,” Ross said. “How we make the funnel bigger coming from the schools and colleges — I feel like I have a huge responsibility in that.”

 

Collegian Reporter Chapman W. Croskell can be reached at news@collegian.com and on Twitter @Nescwick.