USC Annenberg Student Works to Increase Visibility of Women in Gaming

“Everything I’ve learned in the program so far is coming into play in my career goals,” says online MS in Digital Media Management student Serena Garcia.

Serena Garcia began the Master of Science in Digital Media Management (MSDMM) online program with the goal of carving a path for herself and other women in the gaming world. But she had no idea that the program’s remote coursework would lead to actual travel from Southern California to South Korea.

Recently, Garcia journeyed to Seoul to shoot footage for her capstone project: a documentary about women’s roles in the gaming industry.

“I’ve always loved playing videogames,” Garcia said. “I have pictures of me at age 5 running around with my Game Boy.”

But growing up, she believed a career in gaming was beyond her reach: “It seemed like a very male-dominant field,” she noted.

Garcia ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree in geological sciences, graduating in 2019. Shortly after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and social distancing orders led to her rediscovery of her love of gaming — and a determination to enroll in a graduate program that could accelerate her career.

Garcia’s research took her to the MSDMM program, provided online through the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“You can tailor the MSDMM to whatever you want to do,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what your industry focus is.”

Garcia said she would have pursued gaming sooner if she had had female role models to look up to. Although nearly half of gamers identify as women, female representation among game developers lags at about 30 percent overall.

“When I finally found my way and started working in the video game industry, I came to realize that there actually are a lot of women in the field,” she added. “I just had no idea because no one was telling their stories.”

Garcia knew she wanted to improve the visibility of women in gaming. Her first step toward that goal soon became a giant leap forward. She learned that Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill, co-founders of Riot Games, were USC alumni. An industry leader, Riot’s successes include the massively popular League of Legends.

“Within the first four weeks of the program, I had my heart set on working there,” Garcia confessed. “And I knew I wanted to highlight the different career possibilities in esports and gaming.”

After consulting with MSDMM Program Director Joseph Itaya, she emailed Beck and Merril, introducing herself and explaining her capstone idea. Both founders emailed back within 24 hours and put her in contact with multiple executives at Riot Games.

“About a week later, I was on a call to pitch my idea,” Garcia recalled. She was also gratified to learn of the number of women holding powerful positions at the company.

Garcia cites a quote by civil rights champion Marian Wright Edelman — “You can’t be what you can’t see” — as her capstone project’s inspiration.

“I wanted to tell the stories of these incredible women in the gaming industry so that others who had the same impression I had 10 years ago can see the possibilities and start now,” she explained.

That included connecting with Riot President of Esports John Needham, who invited Garcia to the League of Legends World Championship in South Korea’s capital city. The event — “the Super Bowl or World Series” of gaming — attracts thousands of gaming fans every year from across the globe.

Traveling to Seoul also enabled Garcia to meet some of her Riot mentors in person. In addition to Needham, she got to know Naz Aletaha, global head of League of Legends Esports — another USC graduate and one of the female leaders supportive of Garcia’s project.

“The power of the Trojan network is incredible,” Garcia said. “As soon as you reach out, people are there to help — you don’t even have to wait for graduation.”

With digital media becoming increasingly vital to both businesses and our personal lives, it’s not surprising that the MSDMM program attracts a diverse array of students.

“Everyone in the program comes from different careers and walks of life,” Garcia said.

In addition to connecting with her classmates and Riot Games, Garcia has enjoyed getting to know her instructors, who are all working professionals and experts in their respective fields. Garcia noted they are always “willing to put in the extra time to answer any questions that you might have.”

Meanwhile, Garcia has gone from studying online to embracing the on-campus experience by joining the USC Trojan Marching Band, for which she plays alto saxophone. She also covers her field of interest by working at the USC Annenberg Media Gaming and Esports desk.

With experience as a K-12 substitute teacher, Garcia has long been passionate about the importance of education, and her capstone documentary extends from that commitment.

“I want to inspire younger generations — men and women alike — to follow their dreams,” she said.

The MSDMM program is helping her achieve just that. In the long run, Garcia hopes to develop a collegiate-level gaming league that could feed into professional esports play. She is also looking to develop esports scholarships that would motivate more players to attend college. This would open up wider opportunities for esports champions, since they tend to retire at around 26 — an age when most other people are just starting their careers.

That ambition comes from what Garcia describes as her core value: making sure that we prepare the younger generation to succeed.

“Everything I’ve learned in the MSDMM program so far is coming into play in my career goals,” she said. “And I couldn’t be happier about that.”

Learn more about the online Master of Science in Digital Media Management program today.