As a teenager, Marisa Muscari '01 would play video games with her two older brothers, but it was just a casual pastime, playing FIFA and GoldenEye 007.
So she never expected to land a plum job in the video game industry. Now she is the senior manager of product management for Call of Duty at Activision, one of the largest U.S. video game publishers. Here inside the Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters, she works with a PlayStation 4 on her desk in an office where no one gets reprimanded for playing games on the job.
"It's a fun, exciting industry," she said. "Even though it was unexpected, this was the right position. I have never looked back."
The 32-year-old Harvard M.B.A. landed her initial job at Activision not because of her joystick skills but because of her Chinese proficiency and business experience in Asia. She helped Activision launch a free-to-play online version of the company's megahit game, Call of Duty, in China.
She first learned the notoriously difficult language at Shady Side Academy. Joining SSA as a freshman, she knew Mei-Wang Shao's class was, at the time, one of the few high school Chinese classes in the nation.
Compared to Spanish, French and German, Mandarin is staggeringly difficult for an English speaker. Not only are there thousands of characters to memorize, the grammar is totally different. "There is no sense of familiarity," Muscari said. "Each word has a specific tone, so you have to not only learn the word, but the tone to accompany it."
Realizing what her students were up against and to prevent them from getting discouraged, Shao made it fun. To help them remember characters, she made up stories. For example, the character for "man/male" is the shape of a rice patty, so she told them to think how men worked the rice fields historically in China. She used rhymes, songs and skits to teach other characters. "We laughed a lot – usually at our mistakes. And that was terrific to be able to so freely fumble around and not have to worry about being criticized."
The class was small and tight-knit, and the bond strengthened her sophomore year, when Shao took four students on a two-week tour of China. Muscari's senses went into overdrive as she experienced the excitement and chaos on the streets. "Every single day in China is its own mini-adventure," she recalled.
In Shanghai, she loved the vibrancy of the city, the crush of people, the frantic rush of bicycles, scooters and cars. The juxtaposition of old and new fascinated her – alleys and street markets contrasting with high-rises going up in a bustling city of about 20 million people. In the capital of Beijing, they toured the Great Wall, got lost in the Forbidden City and feasted in restaurants.
That whirlwind trip of China whetted her appetite for more. Muscari proposed a senior year abroad studying in China, which was difficult to fit into the Shady Side calendar year. "Ms. Shao and the administration were very helpful in getting me there," she said.
Upon landing in Beijing, she was bewildered by how quickly everyone spoke. It was one thing to understand her teacher enunciating slowly in class, and quite another to follow the rat-a-tat of everyday conversation on the street. Even worse, she became self-conscious speaking, worried about making a mistake.
Her host mother told her: Stop trying to be so precise. Just say what you want to say.
That advice freed her to be less inhibited and to express herself. "That is what I love about Chinese culture. You don't need to be perfect."
Besides the now-retired Shao, Muscari was inspired by other SSA teachers, including William Sayles in biology and Susan Rhodes in history.
She moved across the country to attend Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., where she dabbled in economics before majoring in biology, minoring in Chinese. "I stuck with it. I am glad I did," she said.
After graduation, she had no idea what she wanted to do. But in 2005, she accepted a job with L'Oréal, the cosmetics giant. She had thought she was going to work in New Jersey, but at the last minute, they told her about a new opening at a research and development lab in Shanghai.
Would she be interested?
"I'm in," she said without hesitation.
Two weeks before her overseas adventure, however, she had second thoughts. "I freaked out," she said. "I was 22 and did not know a soul in Shanghai."
Those fears disappeared soon after she landed and hung out with other expatriates from around the world. "I had a blast. I had an amazing group of like-minded friends. They were very adventurous and curious." She also made lasting friendships with her Chinese colleagues, who welcomed her into their homes for dinner.
Creating beauty products for Chinese women gave her a window into the culture. Unlike American women, Chinese women didn't grow up watching their mothers put on lipstick and foundation, and weren't used to the dizzying array of cosmetics found in a U.S. drugstore aisle. So the research and development team had to create makeup that was easy-to-use and part of a simple beauty regimen.
L'Oréal developed a lipstick for Chinese women. But unlike the long-lasting lipsticks sold to American women, the Chinese lipstick formulation was easy to swipe off with a tissue. "The Chinese like to remove lipstick before they eat. It had to be very soft," she said.
She stayed there about three years. Though her Chinese improved dramatically, Muscari has never called herself fluent. "I am comfortable with the day-to-day Chinese."
Eager to learn more about marketing and strategy, she returned to the United States to apply to M.B.A. programs, including Harvard Business School. "Why not shoot for the stars?" said Muscari, who was accepted. "It was a generalist program and I loved it. There was so much for me to learn in the business world – marketing, supply chain, finance."
Her classmate and friend, Aland Failde, said she was both highly analytical but also spontaneous and creative. "It is rare to find people who are good at both. She uses both sides of her brain."
"She would be the person who would organize karaoke night or find the best Korean restaurant," Failde said. "She was definitely one of those social architect people who made it a lot better for all of us."
After graduation in 2010, she took another job in Asia – this time, as an internal strategy consultant for Samsung in Seoul. "It was a much more difficult transition than Shanghai. I didn't know the language."
Even so, she became the social organizer for a group of expatriates there, helping to make their transition easier. "She is an effervescent person," said Ayelet Konrad, also a consultant at Samsung then and now an account executive at LinkedIn. "She made all of us ex-pats feel at home. She would use every opportunity to have people in her apartment – board game night, brunch, her famous Mad Men fiesta."
As a consultant, Muscari got valuable work experience at Samsung, South Korea's largest conglomerate. "It's a monster of a company, with electronic products, a health care arm, retail, amusement parks."
After two years in Seoul, she returned to the states. Failde, her Harvard classmate who was then working at Activision, told her about a job at the video game company. "Are you interested?"
"Yes, of course," she answered. But she was a little worried because it had been a while since she had played video games.
She was hired to help launch Call of Duty Online in China. "It was a great way for me to join the company," she said. "The Chinese love their video games, but it was a totally different market." Unlike Americans who grew up playing on consoles, the Chinese played on PCs because consoles had been banned until a year ago.
In January 2015, the company launched Call of Duty Online, and it was an instant success. The action game simulates combat and allows players to compete against friends online.
The free-to-play online game – a new business model for Activision – relied on players making many small "microtransactions," such as buying a pair of sunglasses or camouflage for their avatar. "There are all these great funky designs to use," she said. "In China, they love that stuff . They go crazy." One small group of players buys hundreds of dollars' worth of merchandise, while another segment buys a modest amount of virtual merchandise. Another group buys nothing but plays constantly, still valuable because they keep the buzz for the game going.
Failde said Muscari proved herself in the high-risk, fast-changing video game industry. "It's hit or miss when people come from outside the gaming business," said Failde, now the director of product marketing at Pocket Gems, a mobile gaming startup in San Francisco. "Creative industries are very volatile. You can go from the top-of-the-world to nothing. You have to be okay with the risk. It takes the right person to excel in that. Marisa is so versatile."
He also said she excelled in China because of her astute read of cultural nuances. "For Western game publishers, those are new markets," Failde said. "She understands cultural nuances, the reasons why things are a certain way. In the Western world, people like to problem solve. In some Asian markets, problem solving in a game would not give them enjoyment. So you would lead them to where they need to go. You can be academically smart and not get things like that. But Marisa did."
Now Muscari is working on global marketing for Call of Duty: Black Ops III, one of the biggest U.S. entertainment brands, "Call of Duty is huge," she said. "As a franchise, it made more money than all the Harry Potter movies combined. It's pretty insane how much fandom we have."
"I like to play, but I am terrible," she said with a laugh. "It is a really hard game."
Her two older brothers and her nephew love that she is working in the video game industry, and her job title is a good conversational point in social settings. "If I mention that I work on Call of Duty, heads will turn," she said. "It is a bit unexpected that I am a female working on Call of Duty."
The popularity of Call of Duty: Black Ops III was obvious in its blockbuster Nov. 7 launch. In the first three days, sales exceeded $550 million worldwide, and fans played more than 75 million hours online. Those sales figures made it the biggest entertainment launch of 2015, including theatrical box office, game, music or book, the company said.
Activision held a launch party for Black Ops III for the entire office. "We work hard, but the company is constantly trying to make sure we enjoy ourselves too and get the benefits that we are creating for consumers."
by Cristina Rouvalis | Photography provided by Marisa Muscari
Published in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of Shady Side Academy Magazine