Jill Wilson is the creative leader of Jam City’s game development, managing the direction of the company’s industry-leading games portfolio from concept through lifecycle. Dubbed, the ‘Queen of Fun,’ Wilson is widely regarded as a leading female executive in the mobile games industry, and is a frequent speaker at industry events. In 2015, the National Diversity Council named her one of the Top 50 Women in Tech. Prior to Jam City, Jill was responsible for creating and distributing some of the world’s best-selling board games for company, Imagination Games. Born and raised in New York City
Photography by: Lauren Pisano
Girls At Library: What was the name of the first book you fell in love with, that turned you into a lifelong reader?
Jill Wilson: It was less about a specific book and more about who was reading the book to me. My mother is the best and most expressive reader I've ever heard. When she reads you a story, she brings such life and excitement to it that your imagination runs wild with ideas about who those characters are and the world they live in. If we can't be together on the holidays, I still call her and have her read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas and Danny the Dreidel to me over the phone.
GAL: What is the power of story? Describe some ways in which fictional narratives have impacted you and your life.
JW: The power of story is epic. I still to this day think about ideas from books I read 25 years ago. If I had the chance to live forever but everyone I knew and loved would still have to die, would I do it (Tuck Everlasting)? Am I taking the time in my daily life to appreciate the small moments, be present and grateful (Our Town)? Am I really thinking for myself or making a decision because it's what I'm supposed to do (The Giver)?
And then of course, there are the fictional stories that make you literally look at the world differently. Ever since I read Time and Again (Jack Finney) - a story that takes you back in time to the 1800s when the famous
famous NYC apartment building 'The Dakota' was just built - I can't help but see the history in the structures around me, and often find my mind wandering to what people's lives must have been like in that particular place back in the day.
Story is an incredibly important component of the games we make at Jam City. Even though you might not see extensive dialogue written out, the emotional connection that the player has with the main characters in a game is one of the keys to its success.
GAL: Narrative plays a distinctive role in Jam City games. Is that something you advocate for or are personally responsible for?
JW: Everything is very much a team effort, and narrative is definitely something we all are thinking about. Every team at Jam City is making a conscious effort to include more story in our games. One of our most popular games is a bubble shooter game called Panda Pop. The object of the game is to save baby pandas through bursting bubbles, and even though there isn't a lot of dialogue in the game. It’s just an overarching story of a momma panda saving her babies. When you lose, the babies cry and it's upsetting, but when you win, the babies are happy. Even just that baseline has really connected with people. In our next generation of games which are coming out this year, all have made a stronger effort to include real storylines in the games. We're really excited about it.
GAL: How does storyline influence the way in which Jam City creates games?
JW: In the past, people have made the argument that nobody really wants to read while playing games. Jam City makes their tutorials short so people have to read as little as possible prior to playing. I think that's evolving, though. People expect more from the games they are playing and storyline is a big part of that. Interestingly, I think one of the new drivers is a new demographic coming to games: older women in the USA. Women 35 and older are our biggest demographic. I think if you look back at what the older part of that population was doing before games came around; soap operas were really popular, daytime talk shows, things that had a lot of story involved in them. Now that those have gone out of vogue and people spend their downtime playing games I think people are craving that kind of entertainment again. We're trying to supply that for people.
GAL: Are there any games you love which have a strong storyline?
JW: The one that's coming to my mind isn't so current. I loved Diner Dash. It's a time management game that revolves around seating people at tables. I always thought I'd make a really great hostess because I could seat people at tables really efficiently! A girl named Flo opens this tiny diner and the game is spent helping her grow her restaurant empire. The game has all these nice little story moments in it. I remember the character of Flo vividly. Getting the audience to relate and empathize with a character is a really important part of any story.
GAL: Do you play video games at home?
JW: [laughs] I'm not well rounded. Most people do other things with their free time but I play a lot of games during mine! There's a game called Hearthstone which is one I'm currently playing. It's a complicated card battling game.
GAL: Is there a fictional heroine with whom you strongly identify?
JW: Did you ever read A Little Princess? I loved the main character. She was nice to everybody, no matter what was going on in her life. Whether she was rich or poor, having good days or bad days, she was simply the kindest person. She also possesses an incredible imagination. The section of the book when she and the other little girl banished to the attic pretend to create a feast and wear warm shoes and there are all these bright colors and delicious food captivated me. I've always been a big believer that life can throw things at you which you cannot control, but if you approach things in a playful and imaginative way, you can control your own happiness. She definitely embodies that.
GAL: How often would you say you read?
JW: I "read" every day. I put that in quotes because the daily reading I do is mostly game design specs, news articles and listening to books (via Audible). As I mentioned earlier, I still love being read to, and a great audiobook read by the author can feel like that person is in the car with you, personally sharing with you their story. My favorite audiobooks are personal memoir comedies that are read by the author, like the books by Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling and Chelsea Handler. I make sure to carve out time for actual book reading on the weekends.
GAL: Do you have a current – or “forever” – favorite book?
JW: Forever favorite - Letters to a Young Poet (Rainer Maria Rilke)
GAL: What about a favorite author?
JW: I think it would have to be Dr. Seuss. So apropos for this - the more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go!
GAL: Do you have a current favorite reading spot?
JW: For listening, in the car. For reading, in bed, under the covers, wearing really soft, cozy sweats and thick socks (the reading dress code is really important for the overall experience!)
GAL: Is it important for you to physically hold a book you read?
JW: My devices are reserved for games! I've never read a book on a device. I love the feel of holding an actual book and flipping through the pages. I also much prefer hard cover to soft cover. There's just something about the weight of a heavy book that pairs really well with my thick socks.
GAL: Do you prefer non-fiction to fiction? If so, why?
JW: I do prefer non-fiction to fiction. I'll get really interested in a particular topic and want to learn everything about it - from the history of Monopoly to religious cults to The Grameen Bank to Backgammon strategy to nutrition. If you want to have a nervous breakdown about what you've been eating your whole life but then come out the other side of that breakdown with a real understanding of food and the food industry, I'd start with Cooked and Food Rules (Michael Pollan) and Salt Sugar Fat (Michael Moss). If post-breakdown you decide you want to do something about it, read It Starts With Food (Dallas and Melissa Hartwig) and try a Whole30.
I think that curiosity and creativity are closely linked. The more I learn, the more perspectives and tools I have to be creative with.
GAL: If you read non-fiction, what genre do you prefer?
JW: I wouldn't exactly call this a genre but fun fact about me: I read the Zagat guide every year, cover to cover as if it was an actual book. Then, I read the good reviews out loud to my husband, who thinks I sound exactly like Chris Farley (Beverly Gelfand) in that sketch from SNL.
GAL: How do you choose the books you read?
JW: Mostly from recommendations and from research into whatever topic I'm interested in at the time.
GAL: Do you have a favorite bookshop or library in LA?
JW: The Last Bookstore which is downtown. It has an amazing array of books - new books, rare books - but the thing that impresses me the most is the way they display them. It's incredible. It almost looks like an Alice in Wonderland for books. It's such a lovely place. I try as hard as I can to buy books from stores rather than online. I drag my husband into every bookstore we pass whenever we go anywhere. I'd be so sad if any of them went away so I try to make a concerted effort to buy in bookstores.
This probably came from the fact that there is a bookstore in my neighborhood growing up called The Corner Bookstore. Everything on the block has turned over several times but the bookstore remains. I honestly think it's the entire reason the neighborhood is so charming.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to re-read for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
JW: 1) Letters to a Young Poet - (Rainer Maria Rilke) I've gifted this book to people so many times that I think I should be getting some sort of royalty at this point. It's essentially an owner's manual on living a fulfilling, passionate life.
2) The Essential Neruda - (Pablo Neruda) my favorite poet.
3) Penny Dell Puzzle Books - there is nothing I find more pleasurable or relaxing than curling up with a great puzzle. These books have nice variety and the perfect difficulty level for a lazy Sunday morning or a long flight.
GAL: Are there any books you recommend reading if you’re a young woman interested in becoming involved in the gaming industry?
JW: I can't think of any, actually. Someone needs to write one! There's a book called What Should I do With My Life? by Po Bronson. It's a very on the nose kind of title but I read it in college and it really struck a chord with me. The book is made up of little vignettes of different people who had jobs they didn't really love so they quit them and decide to pursue their passions instead. All the people in the book think their passion includes things that you can't make money doing, but they end up successfully doing the things they love. I wish there was a book specific to gaming which accomplishes this. I spend as much time as I can talking about how my job does exist. Many young girls now love to play games but they don't necessarily put two and two together and see it as a career option for them. I'd love to figure out a way to make it more visible.
GAL: What are three books you recommend reading, and the reasons for your choices.
JW: 1) Creativity, Inc. - (Edwin Catmull) best business book I've read in awhile. It talks about how to best manage and inspire creativity, which is my primary focus both at work and in my personal life, and is applicable to anyone who manages makers and/or is one themselves. And since it's also a story about the inner workings of Pixar, it's a fascinating book for just about anyone.
2) Never Broken - (Jewel) I'm listening to Jewel's audiobook memoir right now and would recommend it to anyone, even though I'm not finished yet. It's that good! She has lived a really tumultuous, interesting life and through it all has learned how to be happy regardless of what life throws at her. It's an inspiring story told by an inspiring woman.
3) Superbetter - (Jane McGonigal) The story of a woman who battled through a serious concussion by making up a game for herself, and practical advise about how to approach your own obstacles in a gameful way. Coincidentally, I read this book right after I had made up a game to get myself through my own time of illness. I strongly believe in the benefits of approaching life with a gaming mentality, and this book is a great intro guide to that lifestyle.
GAL: One last one, if you were to write your memoir, what would you title it?
JW: Jill Plays Games... because, that's what I really love to do, all day every day.