Meet Kenia, founder, and CEO of ListenMi, an award-winning Animation and Digital Design Studio based in Jamaica that focuses on designing and building culturally relevant digital products for global audiences. Among Kenia’s productions are a Sesame Street short film collaboration ‘D is for Dress Up’, the animation concept The Adventures of Kam Kam, and Fimimoji.com. Get to know Kenia and what her thoughts are on how Caribbean women, and women of colour in general, can be encouraged to take part in the games industry.
Note: The interview below is transcribed from a spoken interview
Tell us about yourself Kenia.
My name is Kenia Mattis, I run an animation and digital design studio based in Jamaica, in the Caribbean. For as long as I can remember, I have been a creator at heart but I have always loved to balance that with business and strategy, so I would be really into making music, coming up with stories and creative projects but I would always love to see what goes into the production, distribution, and amplification of the project. That’s sort of where my interest lies and I would say that my passion would definitely be storytelling, I love hearing strong stories, I love sharing stories and I really believe that we are the stories that we tell ourselves and so I would love to see story telling in games and animation, in digital products, impact the lives of our peers, kids, businesses and the people who come in contact with me and with the work that we do, or with anyone really. It is a really impactful way to be in the world, to be a strong storyteller.
How did you first get involved in game development?
I first got involved in game development really as a facilitator or supporter of other game developers. I had been interested in games, I was playing games as a kid, but I would say that when I first heard from Glen, from Robert, from the Jamaican Game Developer Society years ago in Jamaica, maybe 4 years ago, and their interest in building a Jamaican Community. I had a studio at the time and I was very happy to share my space with them and to become a location where we could actually meet and offering that space as a community hub was my first step into becoming more integrated into the games development community and ensuring that I could help to connect people with similar interests whether it’s in game development, animation, illustration, voice acting, just all of these different roles, just to have a hub for them to be in the same place. So that’s sort of how I got involved in the game development space in Jamaica while not quite personally developing games myself.
What are some of the games you’ve contributed to?
One of the games I have contributed to as a producer is Kam Kam Space Explorer which is currently available on the android app store, made by Glen Henry, aka SpriteWrench Studios, in association with the team at ListenMi including people like Gashwayne Hudson, Joel McFarlane, Janelle Brown, Leo Rhule and others as well. We’ve also been developing games in-house that are part of a series called ‘Make the Planet’ that we have released online to a select group of kids over the past couple of months.
What has your experience been helping organize Global Game Jamrock over the years?
My experience with helping to organise a Global Game Jamrock over the years has been a very fulfilling one. I appreciate the fact that it has grown. I think we had maybe 14 or 15 people attend daily for the first one that grew to people coming in the 20s and 30s if I am not mistaken, over the years. So just to have in one space over 35 people building games was something we have never witnessed before in Jamaica so that was really incredible and now to the point that we have a very active Discord channel. People who are part of the space are at least 23 developers, we have 5 artists, sound engineers, marketers – it’s really cool just to see that there are over a hundred people in total who are there.
My experience was also grounded in “What’s the vision? What are we trying to achieve? And what does that look like?” and in helping to pull all the elements together and connect people who are not in the community with the community just so we could start a seed grower and figure out who are some partners and stakeholders to get onboard. I am very happy that whereas I used to be very hands-on in the first year of pulling it together, we can now step back and watch volunteers come in and play very important roles that are a part of the process of getting people locked up in a room for 48 hours building games whether it’s organizing the space, getting sponsors on board, the promotion beforehand and that sort of thing.
And I also want to say that my experience has been fun! I love the energy of the room, I love seeing people making stuff and being able to get everybody pumped up, give encouraging remarks, sleeping on beanbags while they are building at 2am and seeing them hit the milestones, its really fun to see them play the games at the end of the day and just have that thrill of knowing that we did this! It’s been rewarding, it’s definitely been an experience of growth and it’s also been fun!
What are some of your favourite experiences of the games and digital art space over the years in Jamaica?
I would probably say that the first game jam that we had in my office was one of my favourite experiences where we had the premiere at like 5pm, people were lining up to play the three games that we made that day. There was this little boy named Kadaire [sp] who had come to visit us every day because he is super into games as well, and he was able to play the games that we made that weekend and just seeing the look on his face when he was like “YAY! I WON!” that was so cool for me because it just showed how there was nothing 48 hours before and then all of the sudden there was something that someone could get joy from so that was definitely a memorable moment for me where we all gathered in the room watching Kadaireplay one of those games.
What does the game development scene (or access to game development) look like for women in Jamaica and the Caribbean? Are there differences across different islands?
I would probably say there are definitely more guys than girls, more men than women, who are actively involved in the game development scene, you see this when we have meet-ups or when you take notice of who the most active people are in the channel and I don’t think it’s a reflection on interest in it, I think we can definitely look at how to increase awareness to people, to women who are involved in the design, involved in music, involved in coding, like different sectors that are involved in making games.
But I think that if we overcome the awareness hurdle then access is definitely open to girls and women as well, both in Jamaica and the Caribbean, the Discord channel is open to everyone, there are no different requirements for women versus men to be a part of it, and I think that just being confident that we belong, and to have more women championing those kinds of conversations in Jamaica will definitely be good. In the parlour space of animation, we are seeing where there are lots of strong women who are doing some amazing projects in that space and I think that just having more examples of that in the game development space would go a long way in just increasing awareness that “Okay, there are people who are like me who are in this and this is something that I can actually do” and therefore would probably prompt more persons who might not have thought of it before to join and just start acting on their own.
How would you like to encourage more women in Jamaica and/or the Caribbean to get involved in the game development scene?
Having more public conversations on social media that highlight women who are involved locally like Twitter spaces or podcasts, or just different things that would encourage that kind of communication where we are actually highlighting women whether in the Caribbean or elsewhere who are doing very cool things in game design and game development.
And secondly, by encouraging collaborations that involve women in games development as well. I think that those two things whether it’s by having a special call for projects or just highlighting projects that are involving women and teams, and encouraging that would be really powerful.
What would you like to see more of in the Jamaican game development industry and the global industry?
More events, more sprints, more collaborations, and more visibility so that we cannot just partner with people locally who are involved in the industry but also the Caribbean and Jamaican people who are overseas, in other countries, I think that they would love to know what is happening here and see that activity. I think more public activity through events that they can get connected in and that can put them on show would be really good for global visibility.
I would also love to see more Caribbean companies embracing the idea that games are an effective way to connect with their customers, to teach them new things, and get them to understand things that would otherwise be too complicated or mundane works. They could also generate engagement and powerful user stories that can grow their brand, there are so many brands that have effectively done this in other countries and I think that we could see a shift in embracing different types of technology here. Once companies start investing in this, it would elevate the platform of the local game development industry.
Another thing I would like to see a lot more games being told from a woman’s perspective or a black person’s perspective. There is so much here that we have that we can focus on, incorporating our culture, our identity, there are a lot of directions we can take games in and get powerful results.
Shout out to the guys who created the hand cart game. It is a game where you push a handcart through different landscapes in Jamaica. (You can check out StreetboyJa here: https://www.streetboyja.com/)
Anything else you would like to tell us about yourself? A fun fact?
I really like to go hiking, I have hiked the highest mountain in Jamaica, the Blue Mountains Peak, I’ve done that a couple of times and I love mountains in general. When I went to South Africa, I was in Cape Town for a weekend, I visited Table Mountain, though I didn’t hike it I went up the cable cars, it was one of the most amazing experiences I have had. I think I had like ostrich meat or something really random up there, back when I used to eat meat but yeah, I love mountains and I loved my single mountaineering experience in South Africa.
Find out more about The Adventures of Kam Kam here: https://www.listenmi.com/kam-kam-home
Play The Adventures of Kam Kam: Space Explorer on Android here: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=io.spritewrench.kamkam