Gamer Girl

She wants your kids to love video games...and create them!

It was some ungodly hour in the bowels of a Carnegie Mellon University computer lab in 2003. A group of tired, haggard undergraduates was slumped over their keyboards. Character sketches for a video game based on Pixar’s Monster’s Inc. littered the table next to empty Red Bull cans and cold pizza.

Shanna Tellerman, the group’s leader, didn’t need this stress. The fine-arts major could have been nursing her senioritis with phys-ed classes and preparing to move to New York City, where she planned to work for an art dealer after graduation.

Instead, she enrolled in Building Virtual Worlds, a notoriously challenging class taught by the late professor Randy Pausch. In this course, students from different backgrounds work in teams to create a 3-D, virtual reality video game experience that is displayed in front of a 500-person audience at the end of the semester. “The class completely changed the direction of my life,” Tellerman says. “180 degrees.”

Paired with computer scientists, Tellerman was out of her element. When she was growing up in her hometown of Baltimore, her lenient parents had only one rule: no video games. But Pausch saw her portfolio of oil paintings and knew that, with a lot of work, her creativity could translate to a virtual environment. While creating video games from scratch seemed fun on the syllabus, the work soon turned grueling, and on the night before the final project was due, Tellerman’s team was frantic, bleary-eyed and nearly burnt-out.

When Pausch popped into the lab around 2 a.m. to check on his students, they yearned for just a glimmer of inspiration from their professor—a slice of the always-sunny positivity that he would later deliver in his “Last Lecture,” the stirring speech that Pausch gave to colleagues and former students—and later millions around the world after the video spread on YouTube—in September 2007, less than a year before he died of pancreatic cancer at age 47. But Pausch simply looked at the project and said, “You know, I don’t think this is coming together.”

Shocked, the team disbanded for an hour. “I cried for a while,” Tellerman says. “But then our whole team regrouped and worked through the night to make sure we nailed it. That’s when I knew I wanted to create games for a living.” After wowing crowds at the course’s showcase, Tellerman rethought her New York plans and instead enrolled in CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center graduate program. There, she led the development of HazMat Hotzone—3-D virtual training simulations for emergency responders. Thousands of fire departments across the United States are now using the free software, including the fire departments of Pittsburgh and New York City.

Tellerman’s success opened the door to an internship at video game giant Electronic Arts in Redwood City, Calif. After graduation, she could have joined the company and helped create the next $100 million “Sims” game, but instead, she returned to Pittsburgh to be her own boss, launching the CMU spin-off Wild Pockets in 2006.

From the company’s South Side office, the now 28-year-old CEO and her team started with a simple vision: Everyone should be able to create video games, regardless of educational background or economic standing. To achieve this, the team created a simple, straightforward online platform for teaching computer programming to the masses. Instead of downloading pricey software that requires a high-end computer to run properly, users simply log on to, fire up the free interactive toolbox and start creating 3-D worlds with the help of common-sense tutorials.

 Wild Pockets demo video


"Seeing an environment that you created up and running in just seconds is a magical experience,” says Tellerman. “Computer science can seem daunting to young people, but we want programming to be viewed in the same way as taking piano lessons or dance classes.” The approach seems to be working. Wild Pockets already has a community of more than 5,000 registered users, from high school students to professional game designers.

While the young CEO still lives off of pizza and energy drinks, now her main responsibility is to raise capital to expand the fledgling company. Tellerman recently relocated to San Francisco to have better access to the “tech start-up ecosystem." However, she decided to keep the majority of her development team in Pittsburgh. Despite the challenges of being two time zones away from her colleagues (she conducts weekly staff meetings via Skype videoconferencing), Tellerman saw something special in Pittsburgh that she couldn’t find on the West coast. “In San Francisco, people jump around from one trend, one company to the next,” she explains. “The loyalty and commitment you find in Pittsburgh is truly unique.” 

Tellerman’s long-distance gamble paid off. Last year, the company secured another $3 million in funding, even in the face of a crippling global recession. Business Week took notice, naming Tellerman as a finalist for its Best Young Tech Entrepreneurs of 2009. Next stop: the classroom.

Tellerman and her team are now developing a curriculum for middle school and high school teachers so they can use Wild Pockets to introduce students to programming, and they are hosting game-building workshops for students around the country, including two free camps open to eligible students here this summer. “We’re living Randy Pausch’s philosophy with Wild Pockets,” Tellerman says. “We’re not afraid of our dreams. We just go after them.”

>> Summer Game Design Workshops in Pittsburgh

Techno Teens Camp, aimed at high school students: July 6-23. Info: Lori Rue, 412/227-4166.
Build Your “A” Game Camp, for Pittsburgh Public Schools students in grades six to eight: July 12-Aug. 6. Info: Eddie Wilson, 412/622-3985.


Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Community Feature