From Academia to Video Games and Beyond

Ayala Triangle (photo by Bonta Munashi)

In 2011 was looking around for interesting Filipinas to interview, and someone suggested Iris Orpi. Sometime soon I hope to interview both her and her illustrator about their book, The Espresso Effect. But here she tells what you might call a coming-of-age story. Iris kindly supplied all the photographs.

Iris’s Story

Iris in a coffee shop

I was really in love with math. As a student I was always the one in class thinking “really? wow.” My bachelor’s degree took me only three years, which was an accomplishment, so I graduated at nineteen years of age. I applied for the graduate program and for a teaching assistantship, which meant instructing the lower-level freshman courses while I was a graduate student. After I started teaching I realized I was good. I really wanted to impart my own sense of wonder to my students. Also, because I’d had to struggle myself, I was able to understand the problems my students were having. Students were lining up to be in my class. In my first semester of teaching I had three different sections, and of those three sections, eight students from different majors—tourism, education, and other programs—all decided to switch to a major in math. They told me, “It’s because of you. If I hadn’t had you for my first math teacher, I wouldn’t have made this decision.” My students put me among their top five teachers.

But of course I could only keep the job as long as I was a graduate student. I had problems with my master’s thesis. The hitch was that it directly contradicted the results of my advisor’s dissertation. He made me redo the thing over and over. I started over fourteen times. During that time I was enrolling for graduate courses every semester, so I ran out of M.S. candidate courses to take, and I had about eighteen hours of courses for PhD candidates. Then the department told me that at the University of the Philippines there’s a maximum limit to the number of classes you can take before graduation. If you go over it, they penalize you by requiring more classes. This didn’t bother me because I was planning to get a PhD anyway, and the extra classes I took could count for that.

The Institute of Mathematics at the University of the Philippines

The university has a beautiful campus, but it’s very poorly maintained. Even though we’re the major state university, we feel we’re under-subsidized. There are lots of demonstrations. If the President is coming to the Senate to deliver his State of the Nation address, UP students will go there by the thousands to protest. So UP is like the University of California at Berkeley, where people are really outspoken and really want a revolution.

I lived on campus in place called the Chio Shih Lin House. In the 1920s, during the American occupation of the Philippines, it was owned by a Chinese math professor named Lin and his wife, who was also a math professor. They had three kids who were pursuing master’s degrees in math. They were all living there, and they were all teaching. Then a law was passed that nobody could own private property on the campus. So they gave the house to the math department, and they turned it into housing for master’s candidates who were teaching. The rent is cheap. The house is old and crumbly, but it’s really nice. Every Friday we would make a good dinner in the Lin House, and the entire faculty would come to eat and talk about their research. When a new person applied for residency there, the person who’d been there the longest had to leave. It was flexible. You could let your rent accumulate and just pay at Christmas. I lived there with my friends, who were all taking all the same classes and teaching the same classes. We got really close. Then we were all writing our theses. There were times when I got so depressed that I couldn’t either get it right or tell my professor, “Maybe you were wrong. Maybe I’m right.” I was thinking of getting a new advisor and starting over.

Outside the UP Faculty Center

Then there was a big fight. One of my friends in the house did something I thought was unethical. The issue almost went to court. Everyone else was willing to forgive, but I wasn’t. My friends and I stopped trusting one another, and no longer felt like doing things together. I felt as if I’d been kicked out. That’s when I decided to leave, and I was surprised at how little money I had. I’d been giving my entire adult life to this profession. It was a wake-up call. I was twenty-five, living in a house with seven other people. My clothes were all stuffed into a box because I couldn’t afford to buy a cabinet. I had nowhere else to go. I’d lost my friends, I couldn’t finish my thesis and my life was wasting away. They say if you’re in the process of a big change you dream about death. During the entire semester when I was thinking of quitting, I often dreamed that I woke up and went to class and the entire campus was a cemetery.

So going to the question you asked earlier, why I didn’t apply to teach at Ateneo University, I thought about it. I believe the students there are just as bright, and just as promising, and it’s also a beautiful campus. But then I thought about the big fight and the probability that the math people at Ateneo had heard about it. I didn’t want to transfer there and have people saying the same things about me. I decided that one day I’d go back to teaching. Nowadays I see on Facebook that my friends are getting their PhDs in Portugal or Paris.

I should also say that for the entire five years I was teaching at UP my parents were against it. They thought I was too smart to be settling for such a low salary, which at that time was less than 10,000 pesos [about $222] a month. Right now I’m making several multiples of that amount. When I was teaching, I would also tutor the children of the wealthy Chinese, whose maids and drivers were making more than I was. Every time I went to see my parents, they pressured me to resign. But I’d convinced myself that I was serving the country, that I was doing something noble in teaching kids who have dreams. I still think that the teacher was the best version of myself. There were times when I didn’t have money for lunch. Then I’d tell myself it’s OK, starving was just part of the service I was doing for the country, that the vocation I was called to do, demanded it.

In 2008, I quit. I was jobless for a few months, which I spent writing a novel and looking for a job. At the time Gloria Arroyo was President of the Philippines but Noynoy [Benigno Aquino III] had just been elected. The president’s husband, Mike Arroyo, had established the First Gentleman Foundation, which is basically a scholarship for doctors. If you’re poor and you want to be a doctor, you write to the foundation. The foundation was looking for a writer to write up the life stories of those who had received their help. I sent my portfolio in, and I became the ghost writer for the roughly 180,000-word manuscript, which was entitled 181 Dreams. I used the money to pay off my debts, and part of it went into publishing my novel, The Espresso Effect. The illustrator and I had a contract with Bo’s Coffee, which agreed to sell it for a year. My current boss came into the shop, picked up the book, looked me up and hired me.

Games Services Group started as out as a video outsourcing company serving companies in the United States, Canada and Europe. It’s been really successful having people draw the characters and the environments for video games. But the executive doesn’t hire people to occupy a certain position. He just collects talented people, and says, “We’ll see what we can do with you.” He saw The Espresso Effect and said, “Well, she writes, she has an eye for art.” I hadn’t taken the pictures, but I had picked the ones I liked. I was gutsy enough to put out the money to get the book published. He liked the idea and the characters, so he called me for an interview and hired me on the spot. I was really happy.

Last year a game that the company had worked on, Uncharted II, won Game of the Year. It’s a game with hyper-realistic 3-D art and all the martial arts moves in the animation. We did all of the good art you see in Uncharted. Another high-profile game we recently worked on was Fifa Street. Basically, they’d give us pictures of the streets of say, Brazil or Brooklyn, and we’d have to recreate them in 3-D so the video game characters could walk on them.

In the sixteen months I’ve been with the company, the executive decided to offer an entire service. Our first clients were in the e-learning venture is the U.S. Department of Defense. The e‑learning people at DOD said, “We need a training module for preventing corrosion, like rust.” Their guns rust, their bridges rust, their tanks and their vehicles and the aircraft. So they gave us chemical engineering textbooks which explained the kind of corrosion and how it is prevented. We hired a chemical engineer, and I was the writer and educator. I was the one who was supposed to convert the textbook into something conversational and check to see whether we’d produced an effective learning tool. The chemical engineer checked to see that everything we presented was true. We also worked with some celebrities. LeVar Burton form the old Star Trek was in our first production. A studio in Florida put him against the green screen, and he acted as if he were playing with molecules. “Take two butanes and mix them with one hydrogen.” Our artists created the 3-D environment and added all the graphics. The DOD was really pleased.

Iris at work

Then we got more projects like that one, and now have five of our own full-length online courses under construction. It takes a long time to put it in realistic graphics and make it appear that the actor is holding something he isn’t. I’m in charge of twenty artists and ten programmers. We make simulations so people can do chemistry experiments which are safe. The beaker and the table look so real, and there’s an image of a hand, but if you get your chemicals mixed wrong, the explosion is only video effects on the screen. It’s fun. I’ll tell the art people, “I need a beaker,” and they give me a 3-D model of a beaker that looks so real it seems you could touch it. After sixteen months I’m still amazed at what they can do.

When they first hired me they offered me five times what I got at UP. That still increased as time went on. The artists who have been in the company longer than me can afford Bluetooth-activated earphones that cost 15,000 pesos [$353]. It’s crazy. Or an anatomically correct doll for 20,000 pesos [$470]. So I can only imagine what the big guys make.

I realize I was really naïve, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Once I stepped into a meeting with a client and my bosses, and they’d be rattling off money beyond what I could have imagined when I was teaching in UP. Or the boss might be scolding one group by comparing them with another group. “Look at them. They produce twenty environments in a week, and their project is worth twenty thousand dollars.” He would just spit out all these amounts. I would just sit there awed.

At UP, I participated in rallies and criticized the government as if I knew everything. I was looking at solutions offered by political parties and saying this is better than this. I had no idea that this amount of money was changing hands every day. It was an eye-opener. Since then I’ve learned not to be so obvious when I hear how much a twenty-minute video made for the company. I even don’t think about it anymore.

Sometimes I fear that the UP teacher in me who was willing to walk fifteen kilometers because she couldn’t afford a bus would be disappointed if she saw me now and think I was just doing this for the money. For example, quite a number of times I argued with my boss about, say, taking out a certain feature I thought was necessary to make the video an effective teaching tool, which he wanted to scrap because it would save the company man-hours of work—meaning, of course, saving the company money. I’d been adamant about keeping the feature, but of course he was the boss, he was paying me, so in the end I had to concede. And because I was the writer, I had to write the client and explain the changes, and I had to sound like taking that feature out was my personal recommendation, even though it was actually the contrary. Things like that. The company would save money and while earning the good favor of the client, so the boss would tell me, “Good job, Iris” and give me another raise.

Nowadays I come home to a nice condo in Makati, and I have my space and am now experiencing conveniences I couldn’t afford before. I don’t have to keep my clothes in a box. Sometimes the discrepancy from what my life used to be would overwhelm me, so I’ll call one of my friends who’s still teaching, and we’ll meet at some café in the UP campus at night and he’ll let me rant about my job, and the next day I’ll be back at the office. The day job lets me do the other things I want to do, buy the books that I want, nice clothes, and go to Starbucks every day. But the younger version of me would say, “That’s exactly the line you’re not supposed to fall for.” I think it’s good to have a sense of insecurity so you remain vigilant about what your standards are. At this time I’m enjoying being surrounded by people who are talented in other ways than the talented people who used to surround me.

At one time I thought I’d never say I’m working just for the money. I’m still at a junction where I’m coming to terms with maybe I’m not a better person, but maybe I didn’t become a worse person. I’m just different. I’m not protesting that a certain law didn’t get passed, but whenever I choose passwords for email or whatever, it’s always based on a law that did not get passed because my friends at the university and I protested against it, like Senate Bill XX or House Bill XX. I keep repeating the word “corporate,” which was an evil word in the academia. People tell you that what the boss pays you is nothing compared to the money he’s making. Yes, it could be true, but we can still afford the things that we want, and he’s a good person.

I want to believe I’m still making a difference. If they hadn’t had me, the company probably wouldn’t have taken this new path. Now the boss’s kids can grow up knowing that the company is serving the DOD. Without me, the artists would not be making really realistic models of F35 jets. I try to rationalize.

The company takes care of us. One of the artists drew a picture of a beautiful woman which was published in a magazine, and the boss gave him a raise because of the honor he brought to the company.

Nowadays work-related arguments are different than they used to be. At the end of the day you can still have dinner like nothing happened. Once you’re out of the office, you’re done. But on the campus it was so much more personal because if you criticize somebody’s teaching methods you’re not just criticizing the way he does his job. This job is the reason he doesn’t eat good food. It’s the reason he can’t afford to take a bus. Every work-related argument in academe is so much more personal. It shouldn’t be like that. When I was all caught up in it, I really did think that we were the greatest people in the world, like Plato’s ideal world where people care about everything. It was like you had to give your blood in order to teach math.

A reader writes:

“Excellent! I read it and liked it a lot. Iris is looking seriously at capitalism and seeing through the contradictions.”

A reader writes:

All the contradictions of life. Such an unbalanced world. Sometimes the struggle to continue seems too much, even in seeming privilege.