Jenny C. Xu ’19 created her first video game at age 12, young enough not to realize how outnumbered she would be as a female in the game developing world. She’s glad it worked out that way.
“The gender diversity in the industry needs a lot of improvement—I was lucky to have entered at a time when I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” says Xu, who designed more than 120 games—most in a genre she calls “experimental horror-comedy”—and amassed thousands of online followers and more than nine million downloads by 2018. That was the year she landed on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list as an MIT junior. “Now I just feel a sense of pride knowing that I’m different,” she says, “and hopefully people can see that difference in the games and find them to be a breath of fresh air.”
In 2019 Xu won the Niantic Beyond Reality Developer Contest, and she is using the prize money to develop Run to My Heart, a “social running game,” through her Bay Area–based company Talofa Games. Players can work with online friends, as well as virtual running companions, toward shared goals—running a combined distance of 10 miles, for example, or collecting imaginary potions from different locations. To promote safety on the road, it is a “heads-up” game, relying on audio cues rather than asking players to stare at a screen. Xu expects to release the game as a mobile app in roughly a year.
At Talofa Games, she now works with her father, her brother, and a team of contractors. But until last year Xu made games on her own, releasing her work in app stores through JCSoft, an independent production company she created in high school. In fact, most of her MIT friends first learned about her hobby when her Forbes recognition was announced. Xu says she enjoyed the anonymity and unfiltered feedback of the online gaming community, where she was known only by her username, Chibixi. But the Forbes list prompted Xu to embrace gaming publicly and help others do the same: in her senior year she started an organization, Game On Girls, to connect female MIT students with local game developers.
Xu says the covid-19 pandemic has reinforced her motivation “to make a game that gets people feeling connected in an age that you really can’t be.” With Run to My Heart, “we are very focused on the mental and physical health aspects of running—how it brings people outside when they might not otherwise go, and when they feel alone.”