Returning to school to pursue her passion: How Zoe Straw is turning her love for video games into a career in Virtual Reality development

Category: Mature learners

Category: Student Profiles

Graduate Spotlight – Zoe Straw

For Zoe Straw, video games have always been a part of who she is. From a young age, Zoe was obsessed with learning everything she could about how they were designed and created.

It wasn’t until adulthood though, that she decided to return to school to translate that passion into a career.

Now, as a new Computer Programming and Analysis (CPA) graduate, we caught up with Zoe to hear about her experience at Durham College (DC), her second place win at the 2023 IT Student Expo – an annual event where students present their capstone projects infront of faculty, industry partners, and peers – plus, her future goals in the game development industry.

Why did you decide to take Computer Programming and Analysis at DC?

I was struggling to find my path so in my late 20s, I decided to go back to school. As an autistic woman, I tend to do well with logical problem solving and I have always had strong technical knowledge. I decided that studying software development – which is essentially what the CPA program covers – would be a great way to build a career. I also have always loved the idea of creating video games, and while I didn’t have a sense yet that I wanted to go into game development, I knew that learning to program would allow me to start learning game development skills.

How have the skills you’ve developed at DC helped you?

My classes on Systems Development and Object Oriented Programming helped me a lot in developing my game development skills. It feels very cool as a new programmer to recognize and improve on the shortcomings of code from those who have been doing it much longer than you.

What opportunities are you most grateful for at DC?

By far the best opportunity was working at the Mixed Reality Capture (MRC) Studio on campus. I worked as a research assistant for over a year while I was studying and got to work on multiple commercial game development and virtual reality (VR) projects. My focus as a developer is on VR and the MRC was an amazing opportunity to build my resume and experience outside of what we covered in class. I also got to work under two amazing research leads, Harrison Forsythe and Ryan Miller, who were incredibly passionate mentors.

What did you love most about your experience at DC?

I’m a transgender woman and I began my transition during my first year studying at DC. Coming out was terrifying at first and I had no idea how people would react but was really happy about how great campus life was in regard to my gender identity. It helped me build my confidence over those first vulnerable years of transition and now I am excited to join the work force as the confident woman I’ve become.

Were there any specific DC supports or services that helped you with transitioning your gender identity?

The college made changing my name and pronouns on the class lists and my student email really easy. My first piece of photo ID in my name was actually a Durham College student ID card, even before my government ID changed.

Tell us about your experience at the 2023 IT Student Expo.

The IT Expo was my finest hour and a great way to finish the semester! I was nervous at first, but after the first few visitors to my booth were amazed by my game I started having a lot of fun. I won second place overall, and the first place team was a group of five, so as a solo developer that’s about as good as I think it could’ve gone. My hard work really paid off and I was so proud of myself. I’ve since used my capstone project as a portfolio piece.

Can you tell us about the VR game you created?

I developed VR Missions as a stealth game for the Quest 2, a VR platform. I set it in a dystopian, cyberpunk city and your job is to sneak past the corporate security. I created a dark but colourful stylized virtual setting. I only had 12 weeks to create it, but I managed to create a prototype with three full levels and a very polished stealth system. I’m really proud of it, it’s a great portfolio piece and the most polished and complex game I have managed to make on my own.

What would you say to other women who are thinking of starting their education in tech?

Go for it! I know that tech has a reputation of being a bit of a boy’s club, but the other women in the industry will back you up. There’s a great sense of solidarity that women in tech have with one another. I have a close friend and mentor who is also a VR game developer and loves encouraging other women in tech. Whenever I thank her for her help and support, she says, “you’ll pay it forward once you’re more experienced.” I will definitely do that!

What are your goals for the future?

I want to build a career in the Canadian games industry with a focus on VR. And one day, I would love to found my own studio and work with a team of talented queer people. I really want to make VR games that people enjoy and that also shape our perspectives and experiences within pop culture.

Are you a critical thinker with a passion for innovation? Check out these popular programs offered at DC in the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Information Technology: