By Molly Kulpa ’15
Gracie Arenas Strittmatter ’04 ’08 specifically remembers Christmas 1992, because that was the year her parents finally caved and bought the family a Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Although she enjoyed playing Super Mario World with her brother growing up, it never occurred to her that video games could lead to her future career.
Today, Strittmatter works at BioWare, a division of Electronic Arts (EA) that specializes in creating roleplaying and story-based sci-fi games. Now an accomplished technical art director with more than a decade of video game development experience, she wants to help future game developers within the College of Architecture’s visualization program reach their own goals.
Strittmatter initially hoped to attend art school after she graduated from high school but decided to compromise by majoring in computer science and taking art classes on the side at Texas A&M University. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2004 and then enrolled in the College of Architecture’s burgeoning visualization department, which offered her the chance to blend her two specialties: art and tech. She earned a Master of Science in Visualization Sciences in 2008.
During her time at the university, she was heavily involved with campus activities. Gracie received the Buck Weirus Spirit Award in 2002, an honor that recognizes students who contribute to the university through student organizations, Aggie traditions and university events. As an undergraduate, she participated in the Residence Hall Association, Fish Camp, Traditions Council and FLiP, a freshmen leadership organization. She was also made a Fish Camp namesake in 2007 (Camp Arenas) while she was a graduate student.
“I couldn’t have imagined a better outcome than attending Texas A&M,” she said. “In particular, the viz program was very competitive. I had no more than 20 students in my classes, and they were all so talented; it was a bit intimidating. But once we started to learn our individual strengths, we leveraged those and learned from each other. The program provided a great environment to foster creativity and bounce ideas off one another.”
While in graduate school, Strittmatter accepted a summer internship with EA Tiburon, the EA studio in Orlando. While interning, she worked on the Tiger Woods PGA Tour game. “I didn’t know anything about golf,” she said, “but I came to understand what makes sports video games so fun to play, and how that experience related to playing those sports in real life.”
After she completed her 12-week internship with EA Tiburon, the company offered her a full-time job, and she’s enjoyed working for different divisions in EA during the past decade.
Strittmatter has personally worked on several other popular video games, such as NBA Live, Madden NFL and Star Wars: The Old Republic, as a technical artist. These days, her role is more focused on management strategy and leading her team on a new game called Anthem.
“I make sure everybody has what they need to get our games out the door,” she said. “My department acts as a quasi-liaison between the art and programming groups, so the ability to convey technical topics in layman’s terms is important. Sometimes we have to translate the designers’ ideas and work with the artists to ensure their vision is executed in the way it was originally intended.”
The visualization program has grown in prestige since Strittmatter’s days on campus. It landed the No. 7 spot among public schools and colleges in the 2018 game design school rankings and ranks first in Texas among public universities. Visualization program alumni can be found working as creative talent for Hollywood’s leading animation and special effects studios including Pixar, Blue Sky, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Industrial Light and Magic, DreamWorks Animation, Rhythm & Hues Studio, and Reel FX. Aggie Vizzers have also gone on to work for prominent game studios, such as Activision Blizzard, 343 Industries, Naughty Dog and Niantic.
The department’s growing prominence inspired her and her husband Willem ’02 to create an endowed scholarship for aspiring gamers in 2015.
“It’s really fulfilling for us to support students pursuing their dream of being in the gaming industry,” she said. “It was a pretty easy decision to make, and my company does gift-matching as well, so we funded the scholarship even faster.” The outreach program at EA gives employees the ability to match donations dollar-for-dollar up to $5,000 each year. Willem’s former employer, Siemens, also had a matching gift program that offered up to $2,000 annually for charitable giving.
Ultimately, the couple hopes to inspire future creativity in young people, especially those who might not have role models. It’s crucial to Strittmatter to assure visualization students that they can be successful in this industry too.
“In tech, there are so many possibilities and constant changes,” she said. “Our industry needs to create more and better content to keep up, and for that we need even more passionate young people involved.”
Although these days it’s harder to find the time to play video games, Strittmatter is enjoying helping other Aggies level up their careers.