Graphics whiz kid, Sophie O’Gara, a University of Limerick undergraduate, is cultivating business savvy in the world of animation and gaming, writes John Rainsford.
By John Rainsford
BROCON – a highly successful summer gaming convention organised by a group of students from the University of Limerick (UL) could yet prove to be a career maker for some.
Typical of these is young Ennis woman, Sophie O’Gara, who will soon enter her final year in Multimedia and Computer Games Development at the university. She is the current president of the UL Anime and Manga Society and was instrumental in organising the nascent event in July.
The Chicago-born wunderkind is the daughter of Irish emigrants who returned to live in Ireland with her twin sister and younger brother when she was only two years old. Her mother is an English teacher while her father’s interest in computing inspired her subsequent passion for the subject. It was a rare lineage that delivered both mathematical and artistic talent simultaneously into Sophie’s formative brain.
She attended Coláiste Muire in Ennis but was increasingly absorbed by computer images and the drawing of cartoon characters. Indeed, sometimes her father would find her still at her computer screen when he got up in the morning. It was more useful than Irish she told him. She still barely gets five hours sleep even on a good night today.
She found programming boring but graphics seemed to combine all her creative talents. With animation she found that you could create your own characters making them come alive in the virtual worlds she loved.
The name BROCON, she explains, was intended to be a play on words and an in-joke with society members (if ain’t broken fix it). The ‘con’ stands for ‘convention’ of which this is the UL society’s first. There has been a games society in UL going back over 20 years but Sophie and her colleagues launched the Anime and Manga Society in September last year.
The development has been an immediate success with the society now having 90 members, 60 being active at any one time, and the Games Society having 150. Sophie, as president of the former together, with vice-president, Rory Kelly, recently picked up the annual award for Best New Society given by the national Board of Irish College Societies (BICS).
Japanese anime (animated works) and manga (comics) now cater for a growing niche interest within the university. Practically every city in Ireland now has a big convention once a year but this is UL’s first foray into the area of animation and games. Planning for the event started back in October/November 2009.
Contact was made with a number of subject matter experts (SMEs) in the field to help with planning. The vendors who attended included REPLY, Cartoon Passion, Tall Tales, Alison Cosgrave and Limerick’s The Gathering.
Modern console games like Xbox and old reliables like the Nintendo 64 could be played during the day while the university grounds were adorned by cosplayers who dressed up and won prizes as their favourite games and anime characters. Inevitably, the events described conjure up discriminatory comparisons with nerds but Sophie is upfront about her own cultural baggage.
“I am happy to be a nerd,” she laughs. “There is less of a stigma about it today. I wear it like a badge of honour. Nerds, today, are good fun – it is not like years ago when they were persecuted for who they were. It is almost a compliment today and the convention and society are really a celebration of nerd culture’ if you like. We do not try and hide it anymore. It is part of who we are.”
For those not in the know, war games involve throwing dice and choosing strategies based on the results but half the prestige comes from designing the exquisite, and expensive, models that go with the sets. They are all handcrafted one-off pieces. Sophie explains, “People think anime refers to cartoons for kids like pokemon but this is only a small part of the market. In Japan, adults have being drawing in miniature for generations and TV shows are dedicated to it. I vacation in the USA a lot and was inspired by animated series like Cowboy Bebop. These are evocative adult creations that grip the imagination. Anime means short animation film. They are not always violent; some are love stories with sympathetic characters like Tamaki in Ouran High School Host Club.
“I also like role-playing games with my friends. A games master, or GM, sets the plot and any number of characters can play. No matter how many times you play it, there will be new scenarios that you never thought of previously. We play nearly every week while we are at college. The GM is behind a screen and we have great fun sitting at a table playing our parts,” she explains.
Sophie, herself, hopes to complete a short animated film as part of her final-year project and wants to do an MSc at the University of Kent or DIT in Dublin, both of which are world-renowned for animation. In the meantime, she and her colleagues are already planning next year’s event.
“Next July, we hope to invite new guests and have even bigger events. I just cannot wait. This year, we brought the world-famous cosplayer Francesca Dani from Italy. We held question-and-answer sessions with her over the weekend. You can buy costumes online but Francesca makes her own, which are really fantastic. She travels the world doing conferences. We really enjoyed her this year. It was amazing being able to bring such a big star over for our first ever conference,” she says.
Not content to be simply a graphics whizz kid, Sophie has also taken to artistic entrepreneurship using the brand name Raving. She draws images and scans them to her computer where they are inked and coloured digitally for use as cards or framed art, for which she has a growing number of commissions.
“I tend to do artwork on my time off to relax and unwind or to get feelings off of my chest. I started with pen-and-paper drawings and I still do a lot of traditional work but as I moved into computer graphics, I began to do digital pieces of artwork as well.
“My style is heavily influenced by Japanese anime and manga and has been since I was about 14 or so. I draw for myself, most of the time, as it brings me joy. Most of the work that I would post online would be character concepts for comic series that I have been thinking about making or character ideas that are just good fun.”
Techno-wizardry also has its dark side, however, as Sophie points out. “We held a charity auction at the Stables Bar over the convention weekend with material donated by the vendors. We raised over €1,000 for charity. This year, our charity was suicide prevention. Suicide has taken a heavy toll on gamers in recent years. Usually, this has resulted from bullying at school but at least, it is increasingly out in the open today and more is being done to address it.
“Gamers have their own culture and it can be difficult to get acceptance at times. I play games late into the night. You can meet so many different people from all over the world but it can, also, be an excuse to pick on people at school. In the USA, schools are so large that teachers hardly know who their students are not to mind how to cope with bullying,” she says.
Things are changing, however, and there is now less of a stigma about playing them, according to Sophie.
“Most good schools have a zero-tolerance policy on bullying today and it is not hidden away anymore. Suicide is a real problem and we have acknowledged that in our charitable work in the society. The issue is now in the public domain and more people are saying let’s stop it.”
Sophie’s artblog can be viewed at ravingsohma.tumblr.com and her artistic work is also posted at www.ravingsohma.deviantart.com. The UL Anime and Manga society’s website is: www.anime.skynet.ie. The Games Society can be found at www.gsoc.skynet.ie.