November is Native American Heritage Month. USC Games had the pleasure of talking with USC alumna Miranda Due (Pawnee/Cherokee), Associate Producer at Treyarch, about her experience in game design, projects in interactive media, and tips for advocating for a community. She gave a special shout-out to the USC Native American Student Union, which she helped found during her time on campus.
Q: So tell me a little bit about what you’re working on recently that you’ve really enjoyed.
A: On the work side, the last game that I helped “ship” was Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. And so I’ve enjoyed playing that all this past year. It’s just become a comforting game. Outside of work, I’ve been working a lot in the diversity space and I have an event, with a museum. And so I’ve really been diving into some topics on representation in the media, and how games can serve for social change.
Q: You’ve studied interactive media. How did you get into that and what you know, what appealed to you?
A: I was introduced to games by my cousin. She’s a game designer. When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to work in that field, and so I started taking programming courses. I went to a summer program at Carnegie Mellon, where I learned about the game industry and all the different roles. I remember thinking to myself: I’m going to be a game producer someday. So I went to USC for the interactive media and games program. And now I’m a producer at a game studio, so I kind of always had my eye on the prize. I’ve taken some detours. I worked in interactive museum exhibits and augmented reality, virtual reality. The beautiful thing about interactive media was that at its core, it’s all about storytelling. And so that can be applied to different scenarios and different mediums.
Q: You call it detours, but I think these are necessary steps that would take you forward. And overall, how was your experience at USC?
A: I went into USC with no idea what to expect. And I remember on the first day of orientation, I was like, oh my God, what did I get myself into? I was never really exposed to the film industry or interactive industry at all back home. My roommate was in my program and there are only three girls in my program in my year. I think that was mind-blowing: we really are underrepresented. Over time, more women joined the program. But that roommate I had, we’re still good friends to this day, and I went to her wedding. I think that’s one of the special things about USC is it’s a very close-knit community. You get to be very close to people and they’ll help you find jobs and get new opportunities, and be your friends for life. I also had some tough times. I was an athlete at USC on the rowing team and I had a really bad injury. I had another major in international relations. I was kind of walking two lives at USC. But I think it was a really fun experience. It was definitely challenging at times, but I learned a lot and I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it wasn’t for all of the people I met at USC.
Q: How do you find the career and mentoring experience at USC?
A: I feel like it wasn’t as strong as it is now. I found an internship and that turned into my first job out of college. I got laid off at a startup by USC grads and I appreciated that connection. But I remember after getting laid off, it was really stressful. And there are things I wish I would have learned or classes I should have taken. But it did teach me how to be resilient and to be able to take skills I do have into what other studios want to see. I did keep in contact with some professors and I was able to get some referrals. I did take a moment after I got laid off. I decided to do a policy program in D.C., which was unrelated to games at all, but something I wanted to try. I appreciate that I took that chance. But I don’t like working in the government. I moved to interactive museums and then eventually back to games.
I urge anyone that’s in a studio recruiting to not look just at what games the candidates have shipped. They may have not had the opportunity to ship a Triple-A game. We need to make our studios more diverse and really welcome new talent and meet them where they are with the experience they have and just see how people can learn and grow in new environments.
Q: And you’re also involved in a lot of projects, such as museum exhibits and short films. So how do you navigate that and obviously where your interest lies and maybe tell us about some of the challenges you faced?
A: One of the first internships I had at USC was with a studio called Seventh Generation Games, whose focus is on educational games of Native American narratives. And I got that position because I became involved with the Indigenous Game Developers Group, where I found a mentor through that group who’s helped me through my career. It’s one of my biggest advocates. And having that internship was really cool just to be able to give back to my community and focus on storytelling with a Native American lens. I decided to branch out and try other things. When I did go to D.C., I was in the White House initiative for American Indian and Alaska Native Education. I care about the future of Native Americans in this country. And I think that even in my role as a storyteller, I have a duty to continue to work on that alongside any art entertainment that I do work on. I try to take any opportunity I can to help other indigenous creators share their stories. I think one of the most rewarding projects I did have was when I was working in museums and I was able to collaborate with this Pueblo artist Virgil Ortiz. I was able to help him take the story that he wanted to tell and take that vision that he had and distill it in a way that we could build an exhibit. And I did some film production and got to have that personal experience with an artist, which was really cool for me as a producer. But I still hoped to work more in the Native American field. At Activision, I was able to help get Native American Heritage Month acknowledged for the first time this year. So for the first time in Activision history, we did land acknowledgments. We have little banners and stuff for our media and it’s a big step forward. It takes a lot of work. At Activision, there are two or three of us. But it’s a lot to always have to fight for yourself and fight for your people. It’s very rewarding when it works out, but it’s very exhausting.
I remember when we launched Black Ops Cold War and I posted on my Twitter. I’m so excited and I got a lot of people messaged me and they were like, I’m from the Lakota reservation. I’m Native. It’s really cool to see another Native working in games. And for me, that makes it worth it. But being able to see kids play the game and at least know someone is thinking of them. I’d love to have more Native American storylines to be told, and I hope to help do that someday. But for now, I just, you know, I appreciate being able to give back to the native community.
Q: How should people educate themselves about Native American culture?
A: Something that’s great about living in America is that everywhere you’re at, you are on someone’s native territory. So there are websites online where you can figure out whose land I occupy. And you can start to research who they are. Some of them may not be federally recognized tribes anymore, but many are. It’s important for everyone to have an understanding of who was there first. And you know what that story was for them. Where are they now? Try to find a powwow near you. Powwows are really fun, open to public events. It’s a great way to see our dancing culture and hear music. And there’s a lot of other resources out there. I’m always happy to talk to anyone. We are getting to the point where Native American Heritage Month is becoming more widely acknowledged. I would also say we have a lot more representation in Hollywood now, like the shows Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs. I love Reservation Dogs because that’s what it’s like here in Oklahoma. I actually was an extra on a short film this weekend. And a lot of the crew members were from Reservation Dogs. It’s just cool to see natives making really awesome stuff.
Q: Do you have any advice for USC game students who are interested in advocating for certain communities?
A: The biggest thing is learning how to be the best you can be for those communities. Your voice needs to be heard and surround yourself with people that are willing to support you and listen to you. If you’re someone that’s not from that community, but you really feel a call to help, put the voices of that community first. Highlighting and elevating people’s voices from those communities is what we really need, to make sure we’re having those authentic conversations and ways of representation. I think listening is the most important thing all of us can do. We can listen to other people’s stories, other people’s challenges, figure out where we can help, figure out where we can boost and support.
And one last thing, if you’re at USC right now, the Native American Student Assembly is a really awesome group. When I was at school, we didn’t have that. In my senior year, I helped found the Native American Student Union, which turned into a student assembly. They’re doing some great work. They have a lot of great programming. I highly recommend anyone at USC to check them out to learn more about Native American events on campus.