Long Beach native Rachel Day is one of a number of alumni of Orange County School of the Arts (formerly Orange County High School of the Arts) speaking to current students this week. The school might be best known for producing recognizable actors like Glee’s Matthew Morrison or OITNB’s Taryn Manning, but it also launches artists into careers behind the scenes—including more technical careers like becoming a Disney Imagineer… or a Senior FX Artist for Blizzard.
When Rachel went to OCSA, she was there to dance. If she hadn’t been encouraged to try extracurriculars, she might never have found the career she loves in the video game industry. The day before her presentation at her alma mater, we talked about the road that led to her career, how OCSA fostered her ease in cosplaying and more.
Leona Laurie: Since you’re coming “home” to OCSA this week, let’s start there. Were you already focused on visual arts in high school?
Rachel Day: Actually I was a dancer. I was in dance when I went to OCSA, and I spent my childhood in community theater and dance programs and things like that. OCSA was the perfect next step for me to pursue that.
While going to OCSA we had elective classes every year, and I chose photography for all four of my years since I loved the artistry of it. I loved being able to go out and go on adventures and take photos and develop my own photos and all that stuff. It was really fascinating for me, and it actually ended up putting me in our yearbook class my senior year, which set me up with my very first time working with Photoshop and digital art and putting together layouts and graphic design and all that stuff. So that’s kind of how my interest in visual arts kind of came about– through my elective classes at OCSA.
That’s a good endorsement of the power of electives.
Yeah, and it’s really cool to allow people to be more exploratory. You know what you want to do, but it’s maybe because you haven’t tried everything out there yet. So being able to try stuff is really awesome.
Were you on the video game career path before you enrolled in art school after high school, or is that something that sort of emerged while you were there?
I signed up for the Art Institute to do graphic design because I did yearbook. While I was there, I found they had a video game program. I’ve been playing games my whole life, so I thought I’d try that out. It stuck.
I heard that your dad got an Atari the day before you were born.
He did. I remember sitting in his lap and playing games and DOS games– all of that. It’s been a part of my life literally from the beginning.
So what were the earliest games that you were attached to?
I think … Okay, so this is a really dumb one, but a DOS game that I remember vividly playing as a kid was called “Bouncing Babies.” You had to save the babies from a burning hospital. Seriously. I still remember to this day exactly how to play. But I had to have been like, I don’t know, four years old, maybe younger playing that game. Then of course Frogger, Pitfall… all of the old Atari games are really, really early memories for me.
I know you’ve spoken about being a woman in a “man’s” field before. What advice do you have for girls who want to get into the gaming industry?
Okay, honest piece of advice for girls specifically who want to get into the gaming industry: don’t take anybody’s discouragement to heart. People will tell you that you can’t do it, but you can. Just remember that you’re just as good as everybody else and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. So that is so important.
Are there classes that you wish you’d taken when you were younger that would have prepared you differently for the field that you’re in right now?
I honestly wish I knew how to program better. I’ve taken classes in college and stuff on programming, but it’s never quite clicked with me the way it does with some other people. I know there’s a lot of courses and things like that that are awesome now that people can get into from a young age. So if you can understand a programming language, you’re set. It opens so many doors for you.
Are you involved with or actively aware of Girls Who Code or any similar groups?
I’m not actively involved with them, but they do come to the Blizzard campus. I think I’ve done two different tours. We take an afternoon and kind of give them a presentation about what it’s like to work here and show them around the campus and what a future in gaming is like. It’s super fun, and I totally endorse them.
Do you feel like there are holes in terms of representation behind the scenes that you’d like to see filled by groups of people who just don’t even know that this is a career option that’s open to them?
Oh, for sure. This is a bit of a touchy subject, so I don’t want to dive too deep into it, but as far as diversity in games, I really think it comes from people who make games having diverse backgrounds. I’m really lucky that on the Overwatch team we have such a wide range of human existence that we can build from. And we’re all pretty open about sharing about our pasts and involving our cultures and things like that in the game. But I think as a whole, it would be so awesome to see more people of color and more women coming forward. We’re slowly starting to see that rise up. I can’t wait until it’s not even a question anymore.
Overwatch is kind of unusual in how diverse it is. It’s received worldwide acclaim for that. Why do you think that is? Is that something that was part of the original intention or is it something that evolved in response to the audience?
I want to say it was from the original intention. I fell in love with how the game was pitched to me before I started working on it. I was impressed with the characters they showed me from the very beginning. I think our goal here was to create a cast of characters that people can find themselves in, and the community’s so vast and it’s so beautiful and wonderful and being able to have this cast of characters that comes from all over the world and all different backgrounds and all different strengths and weaknesses and all that I think was really important to us from the beginning. So I don’t think it ever came about from a push specifically for diversity, but more of “we want this to be inclusive; we want people to see themselves in our game.”
My colleagues really want to know what your personal favorite Overwatch character is.
Oh, boy, okay. This is going to be controversial. I love Widowmaker. I love her so much, and I know that she’s a little bit of an edge-case character for us as far as diversity goes, but I love that she has a tragic background, she has a tragic story and where she comes from is this beautiful, sad but strong place at the same time. She’s kind of taken this tragedy in her life and turned it around, and she knows what she is and she’s not afraid to use her strengths and all of that. She’s a character that I really relate to, and I really enjoy her story a lot.
What is like working for a company as big as Blizzard?
Blizzard is a huge family, and I know that sounds so cliché, but Blizzard is literally my second family. I’ve made some of my strongest friendships through work here, but more on the company scale, we have pillars that we live by.
I know a lot of companies have pillars and it’s like, “Okay, this is what we work towards.” But we believe it, and we talk about them every day. One of those pillars of ours is “Every Voice Matters.” So when we’re in meetings, no one’s talking over each other, literally every voice is heard. Just because we don’t act on every opinion doesn’t mean it’s not heard. I’ve never felt cast aside or alone. I know that if I have an idea or an opinion, I can bring it up to somebody and they’ll listen. It’s always been that way.
When you’re not playing Overwatch, what games are you personally into?
Oh, boy. This changes a lot. I kind of bounce around through a bunch of different games. I’m kind of doing this throwback right now and playing Terraria. I don’t know if you’ve ever played it or not, but it’s super cool. It’s like a side scroller, Minecraft kind of game. It’s a lot of exploration and building magic weapons and stuff. It’s super fun. Then I also play Hearthstone and Diablo and Starcraft and all those older games.
In addition to working for Blizzard, you’re also really into cosplay. Do you feel like going to a high school for the arts has any direct relationship with your comfort being a cosplayer now?
Oh, sure. Yeah. Honestly, when I hear that the high school experience and how hard it is for girls in that age group and all of that, I look back on my own high school experience, and I had none of that, and I feel so lucky.
It wasn’t hard in the way that a lot of teenage girls have to go through hard stuff. No one was picking on anybody and bullying each other. That literally never happened, that I can recall anyways, in high school. So I just think having that freedom to be able to express myself at such a young age and try dance, try acting, try visual arts… it really shaped a lot of what I did.
I think as far as cosplay and that kind of stuff goes, coming from a background where there is no shame in acting or modeling or being something else for a little while or creating something with your hands or throwing your passion into stuff like that, I think it did help a ton.
How do the amazing underwater photos all over your Instagram factor into that?
I cosplay, and I costume and make my own stuff all the time. That’s kind of my “how do I keep up with creativity when I don’t feel like making video games at home?” I can’t make video games when I go home, so I do costumes.
A photographer named Cheryl Walsh noticed my costumes and asked if I wanted to try underwater photography. I had done it once or twice before with a different photographer. But when she asked, it was kind of a perfect storm. She lives very close to where I live, she has the same kind of artistic vision that I do, so collaborating with her has been super easy, and it’s so fun just to be able to create whatever I’m creating on Saturday and then go over to her house on Sunday and have these fantastical underwater experiences being mermaids or elves or whatever. It’s a whole other world and it’s beautiful.
Okay, two follow up questions. Number one, are they for anything? Are they just for you and for her to enjoy or are they being used in some commercial or gallery setting?
For me, on my side of it, it’s all just really art of it. It’s fills my soul, to sound cheesy, but it really does give me something to have expression that is not being used in a commercial way.
Question number two, does it ruin your costumes?
No, because I build the costumes in mind for underwater. So I use stuff that’s waterproof, and we make sure to dry everything completely. I can’t think of a single piece that I’ve ruined by being underwater.
What’s the next thing you’re looking forward to excitedly that you also feel like sharing with any kind of public audience?
Oh, boy. Well, for Overwatch in particular, we have the Overwatch League that is coming out in January. We just had our preseason last week, and I have never been much of a traditional sports fan, but oh, my God, I’ve been up at our arena in Burbank twice already for three days watching all of the E-Sports stuff happening. So that’s just this whole other world of video game stuff that I haven’t been privy to yet that I’m so excited about. So keep an eye open for Overwatch League.
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