You may not have heard of Mie Kumagai, but as the creator and producer of Virtua Tennis, she is the first female president within SEGA's development structure. We took the time to talk to her about life at SEGA and her enduring love affair with Koalas!
"Ah yes! Yesterday I saw a Koala - it was so cute!"
Mie Kumagai is grinning excitedly. This is her first time in Australia and yesterday, for the first time ever, she saw a Koala. We know this because at the very mention of the word, both Mie and her translator collapse into a fit of chuckles. We can't help but grin - Mie Kumagai is the first female head of a game's studio, not just in Japan, but globally - and here she is giggling like a schoolgirl with a crush... on a Koala.
It seems that even high powered video game developers aren't immune to the super-kawaii charms of Australia's perennial fuzzy friend.
Mie Kumagai is here to promote Virtua Tennis 4 (and check out Koalas), but we're interested in Kumagai herself. In many ways Japan is a notoriously patriarchal country, especially when it comes to high powered positions like the one Mie occupies. How did this woman - so easily disarmed by the fluffy Koala - manage to make to the top of a company like SEGA?
“How?" Kumagai pauses thoughtfully. "I think it’s thanks to SEGA. SEGA is quite flexible, it’s not a traditional Japanese company, where men have to occupy senior positions.There are no barriers for genders there. Male and female can go for the same role and positions within the company. Women and men are on an equal footing at SEGA.”
Typically there are far fewer women in high ranking positions in Japan, but in a sense Mie Kumagai is correct - there doesn't seem to be a shortage of women working in the Japanese video games industry. Especially when compared to game development in the west. According to Mie, this has more to do with video game culture in Japan - women of Mie's generation were far more likely to play video games as young girls, especially compared to the West where, until recently, video gaming was seen as a male dominated pursuit.
"It’s probably something to do with Japanese culture," begins Mie. "In japan young girls have always played video games - they grew up with games, and they have a passion for them. Because more girls grew up with games in Japan they developed the ability to become creators in the games industry."
As time goes on, believes Kumagai, we're likely to see more and more females enter Japanese game development - especially in the wake of Nintendo's attempt at broadening the video game market.
"There are a lot of new university graduates in gaming," claims Kumagai, "they really want to work for SEGA. So hopefully we’ll see a lot more female producers in the future."
She expects, however, that changes in Japanese culture as a whole will filter through - Mie is used to working incredibly long hours, and wonders if the new generation is prepared for that kind of dedication.
"I think there are some differences in new female producers, but these differences come from changes in Japanese society overall," laughs Mie. "The older generation, we’re used to working overnight! The younger generation are a bit different – they're more keen to work normal hours. In a way they have less passion – but it’s more a result of the changes in broader Japanese society. It’s not as acceptable to work for extremely long hours like before - they may have to change their level of passion if they want to succeed!"
When we ask Mie how she views herself as a role model, she's typically humble.
"Wow, How do I answer this," she wonders. "I find it difficult to see myself as a role model. There are many female producers who are stylish, clever and cool! I’m not like that - I see myself as more of a field worker. I don’t really think of myself as a role model!"
But for those interested in working in the games industry, male or female, Mie Kumagai seems like the perfect role model - humble, hard working, friend to Koalas Australia-wide - we found it strange that Mie would claim she wasn't stylish enough to be a role model, when her achievements speak for themselves.
Mie Kumagai may not think of herself as a role model - but she is. Whether she likes it or not.