I have discovered that I have a passion for helping students and aspiring game developers learn more about the industry. Part of this is because I occasionally feel like I stumbled into this career, and feel compelled to educate young people about game development in hopes of inspiring other people who were like me (potentially saving them 8 years of figuring out what they want to do with their lives).  So far, my favorite outlet for student outreach has been Game Mentor Online, an online service that matches up aspiring developers with industry professionals and facilitates one-on-one mentorships.

About the Program

Game Mentor Online is an initiative that was kicked off by Women in Games International.  Originally concocted by Karen Clark and Sheri Graner Ray in 2006, its first form was a mailing list where mentors and mentees were able to link up and communicate.  The program was able to raise funds with the help of the IGDA Women in Games SIG to convert to an online mentoring software solution, which is how it has appeared since 2011.  Game Mentor Online is entirely volunteer-run and donation based.

We have over 100 proteges and more than 60 mentors from all over the world, and we’ve had more than 100 mentor-protege pairings since moving to the new system

-Karen Clark
GMO Admin

The main function of the site is as a sort of matchmaker, trying to pair up mentors and mentees, though there is a community area with member-posted articles and questions from proteges that any mentor can answer.  As a freshly signed-up mentor, you first fill out a profile with your skills, discipline, experience and match preferences (such as how many proteges you would like to mentor at a time).  It is the responsibility of the proteges to search through available mentors, though the system does suggest potential matches based on your profile information.  A protege will then contact a potential mentor, and the administrators can set up the mentorship.

Once a match is made, a mentoring area is created on the site for the connection, where you and your protege can post messages to one another and set goals.  At this point it is up to the two of you to decide how the mentorship will proceed.

My Experience

TRACED, a hacking-themed game, is my protege’s side project

My protege is an aspiring designer named Kaylin Norman.  He and I plan to meet and chat about every 2 weeks, give or take depending on both of our schedules, where we dedicate at least an hour to chat over Google Talk.  These sessions can range broadly in topics, but it can be anything from answering “Day in the Life of” questions, helping with his resume, giving feedback on his game projects, discussing design tips, and answering any question that Kaylin might have encountered in his most recent game design adventures.

How often and what form through which you mentor your protege is decided by both of you depending on your particular circumstances.  Some mentor/protege pairs prefer to do regular Skype sessions while others carry on their mentorship primarily through email exchange.   It’s very flexible, and the online site serves mostly to facilitate the mentor relationship and get it started in a natural direction.

What you bring to the table

Mentoring a student has given me a lot of insights of how much knowledge I have gained (and subsequently taken for granted) since working in the industry.  There have been several times in a discussion when I would answer a question or make a suggestion of something that had become so commonplace to me that I assumed it to be common knowledge, only to find that it provided an amazing insight and learning point for my protege.

Besides your own experience, you also indirectly provide your protege the advantage of your professional network.  A few times Kaylin has had a question or had a situation that I wasn’t sure I could give a lot of information on from my own experience, so instead I would take the question to my other friends and colleagues in the industry.  I’d often return to my protege with responses from multiple industry veterans that he would find invaluable to his own development as a designer.

As far as what you can get out of mentoring relationship, I’ve found mentoring Kaylin to be incredibly rewarding.  It’s made me very proud to see him grow as a designer, see him achieve academic goals and watch him work towards others.  On days where my job has been trying or I’ve been frustrated by a design problem, chatting with Kaylin and seeing his enthusiasm about design and hearing how he is progressing proves to be quite renewing.

A Growing Program

Game Mentor Online in its current form has been around for 1-2 years, and one of their most admirable traits is how open they are to feedback about the program.  Any time I’ve had a suggestion, the administrators have responded promptly with a plan on how they could incorporate the feedback.  They are very passionate and eager to grow and improve the program.

As I mentioned before, Game Mentor Online is very good at facilitating the beginning of a mentoring connection by providing a formal structure through which the mentor and protege can find their footing with one another.  But it seems to be common for pairs to move to other more standard means of communication once they establish a relationship.  I think this is certainly a good thing, but it does mean that the population that actually interacts on the site appears to be kind of low.  There are occasional articles, links, and questions posted in the community areas of the site, but the activity there is minimal.

I don’t think this trend is necessarily a bad thing.  Afterall, if mentors and proteges are finding more natural ways of carrying out the mentoring relationship, that means the site has done its job of kicking off that connection.  However, it would be good to grow the culture of mentors posting articles and proteges posting questions to create value for proteges on the site who have not yet been connected to a mentor.

Tips for Mentors

If you decide that you’d like to mentor an aspiring developer and sign up for Game Mentor Online, or any other mentoring program, here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way:

  • Communication of expectations is critical.  When you get started, make it very clear what kind of time you’ll be able to commit.  Encourage your protege to share his or her expectations for what they hope to get out of the mentorship and be honest on how you think you can help fulfill those expectations.
  • Be really specific about times you are available.  If you start a habit of chatting every two weeks, and then something comes up that may disrupt that pattern (like a conference or a big milestone), let your protege know early so they can expect the change.  If you have to miss a session or expect to be late, inform your protege as soon as you can.  Establishing and maintaining trust is really important for a good mentorship
  • Don’t hold back sharing experiences or stories because you feel they are mundane or routine.  What your mentee may not know may surprise you, and you probably have a lot more to offer than you realize.
  • There is some element of luck of the draw as far as your compatibility with your protege.  I was extremely lucky in that Kaylin and I forged a strong connection right off the bat, but it’s possible that you and your assigned mentee don’t click. I would advise not to get discouraged and to keep at it.  The default length for a mentor connection is 4 months (though you can extend it for as long as you like if you and your protege are hitting it off) and the next protege you get paired with could be a completely new experience.
  • Meanwhile, the program has an FAQ for potential mentors that I would recommend reading for more information.  I’d also suggest looking over the FAQ for proteges to get an idea of the frame of mind your mentee will be coming from when you get matched.

Other Opportunities

I love Game Mentor Online because it is easy and convenient to incorporate into my busy designer life, and because I feel very comfortable with remote communication.  But there are other opportunities in our industry that I’d recommend checking out if you are interested in mentoring.

  • If you like to do your mentoring face-to-face, check out the IGDA mentoring program, where professionals are paired up with IGDA scholars at GDC, E3, and other industry events.  You can go to talks with your scholar, meet up and discuss different talks that you’ve seen, answer their questions in person, and introduce them to a greater professional network.
  • MentorNet has a similar online structure to GMO, but is more generalized for engineering and tech careers and students.  I found I didn’t have as prosperous a mentoring experience here, but part of that could be that I didn’t click with my mentee there in the same way as Game Mentor Online
  • Schools and educational institutes might have opportunities  to connect you with a student that you may be able to help.  Some schools have alumni networks for advising in career services, and sometimes it’s as much as emailing an old professor to say you’re available to answer any student questions about game development.
  • LinkedIn’s Video Game Careers group has a lot of student posters and is very active .  It creates a lot of ways to give feedback to students by reviewing portfolios and giving feedback for their projects – a good way to advise and help many students in very specific ways versus a single relationship with one person over time.

If any readers know of other good mentoring opportunities, please let me know in the comments and I will add them here!

My Protege’s Perspective

I asked Kaylin if he would like to write a bit about his perspective on the program as a mentee.  Here is what he had to say:

For the longest time, I’ve been teaching myself the aspects of game design from a young age, unsure of whether or not I was forging down the right path to reaching my goal of working in the games industry. Living within the sheltered life style that I did live in, television and the internet were the only mediums I had to explore the games industry, or at least what I had perceived to be the games industry at that time. With game schools posting commercials exploiting starry eyed aspiring developers from their funds by making them believe that the industry is this “easy place to carve out a name for yourself” along with the exclusivity of access to developers of any established company, from small studios like 5th cell and Flowplay all the way up to 343 Industries and Bethesda, there was no one in my life to tell me how the game industry really functioned and what the experience was like, until that one defining moment when I got the message the hard way –from a veteran who was very disgruntled with my misguided passion.

Upon meeting Lisa through Game Mentor Online, I’ve been not only enlightened about the experience of working in the games industry, but also how to think and act like a game designer—a crucial yet often taken for granted thing when the majority of students already have a network with other designers in the industry. Because of Lisa and her connections, her willingness to answer my various questions, show me certain processes that I would otherwise have to learn through private schools and simply helping me when I’m in a hard spot, I’ve transformed from a shy sheltered boy to a confident designer. Her feedback was crucial to getting my side project—TRACED off of the ground, Without her overall input over the concept and her introducing me to the process of play-testing, concept documentation, etc. I would have never managed to find the three other teammates I have working on this project and keep them working on this project for a full year.

Game Mentor Online and my mentor/protégé relationship with Lisa have transformed my thinking! I would recommend it to all of my aspiring friends who want to also become game developers some day! I’d rather get it from the professionals rather than school commercials!

- Kaylin Norman

Conclusion

I know that our lives as professional developers are extremely busy, but we have so much that we can offer to the next generation of developers.  Game Mentor Online’s flexibility and online focus is a great opportunity to connect with a student in a way that can fit into a very full game dev life.  Even if you are new to the industry, you still have more to offer to an aspiring developer than you may realize.  If you could spare as little as an hour a month to connect with an ambitious, excited, and curious protege, I suspect you may come away from the experience feeling inspired and renewed.