Taking the Controllers

Tyrel Cain, left, watches Adam Snowden and Malik Springer play Burnout 3: Takedown while other Urban Video Game Academy students use the Internet to research animation.
Tyrel Cain, left, watches Adam Snowden and Malik Springer play Burnout 3: Takedown while other Urban Video Game Academy students use the Internet to research animation. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 6, 2005

To teenagers everywhere -- well, at least the ones tied to their Xboxes, PlayStations and GameCubes -- the ultimate dream job is creating their own video games.

"My friend and I came up with this love story. See, it's for the girls ," Jonathan Martin, a tall, lanky, quick-witted 16-year-old, starts to explain, chuckling a bit.

He is one of 25 ninth- and 10th-graders -- all students at McKinley Technology High School in Northeast Washington -- enrolled in the five-week Urban Video Game Academy that ended yesterday. Most are African Americans, the rest Latinos. Nearly a third are girls. The academy, like video game summer camps at Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, teaches the ins and outs of game design, exposing the joystick generation to the possibility of careers in the multibillion-dollar industry.

Yes, dear parents, the countless hours spent glued to the screen don't necessarily mean wasted time for your children. This generation, after all, mastered the X's and Y's of their controllers long before they learned in math class that x = horizontal and y = vertical. But unlike the elite video game summer camps that cost as much as $999 a week, the D.C. academy is free. Furthermore, it underlines the young industry's need to diversify a workforce that is the biggest white male ghetto in entertainment.

The International Game Developers Association, a San Francisco-based professional society, is about to release the first demographic snapshot of the U.S. video game industry, which in 2004 racked up $7.3 billion in game sales. Based on a July online survey that drew 2,000 respondents who work within the industry, it reveals that 80.5 percent are white, 2.5 percent black, 3.5 percent Latino and 8.5 percent Asian. The rest filled out "other." Seven out of eight are male. These racial proportions aren't hugely different from the demographics of game players, according to Nielsen Entertainment's Interactive Group, except in the coveted 18-to-24 male demographic. There, 17 percent are black and 18 percent are Latino.

To Mario Armstrong, Roderick Woodruff and Joseph Saulter, the three founders of the Urban Video Game Academy, the lack of diversity results in here-we-go-again stereotypical story lines. In some of today's hit games, they point out, black men are either athletes with major bling or ex-cons wielding pistols; Latinos, with heavy accents, are either ballplayers or gangbangers; black women and Latinas, if they're even there, are rarely more than minor characters whose major contributions are mammarian. Armstrong, who lives in Baltimore, hosts a weekly local public radio program on digital technology. Woodruff, of Howard County, runs AAgamer.com, a Columbia-based Web site for African American gamers. Saulter, from Atlanta, is the CEO of Entertainment Arts Research, one of the rare black-owned video game development companies.

If video games represent the next evolution of storytelling, as hard-core gamers and industry insiders insist they do, then who are the storytellers and what kind of stories get to be told?

"There's got to be a balance in the storytelling," says Woodruff. "You can't portray all Arabs as terrorists. You can't portray all African Americans as thugs."

Room 153 at McKinley Tech, not too far from the offices of XM Satellite Radio, is the kind of place where kids' laps are full of game magazines such as Electronic Gaming Monthly, Game Pro and Game Informer, either open or dog-eared. Neil Dixon, for one, is turning to Page 18 of GI, which features the upcoming PlayStation 3. It looks "really slick" and "kinda stylish," he says. When Armstrong yells, "Time for your 10-minute break," Dixon, like the others, doesn't leave the room. The boys stand in line, waiting their turns to play NBA Live 2005 on the PlayStation 2 in the front while the girls surf the Internet for online games such as Island Cruisin' on KillSomeTime.com.

Neil, however, reads on.

On weekdays, the 14-year-old plays for "at least three hours," either Destroy All Humans, a first-person-shooter game, on his PlayStation 2, or Twisted Metal, a car-combat game, on his PlayStation Portable. On weekend days, "at least three hours" becomes "at least seven hours." When he says he either wants to be a game programmer or a game tester, he goes on to tell you the difference between the two -- "a programmer builds the game," he says flatly, "a tester plays the game over and over again to see what's wrong with it." Upon hearing of his plan, he said, his parents, Barbara and Ron Dixon, told him, "you're not gonna be able to get anywhere with it." But they're supportive, he says -- and you know he's dead serious.

"This camp is about exposure, exposure, exposure," says Armstrong, dressed in a green Atari T-shirt, with thin-rimmed glasses and an E3 badge hanging from his neck. E3 is short for the week-long Electronic Entertainment Expo, held annually in Los Angeles. To the students in the room, all of them gamers, having an all-access E3 badge is a status symbol. It's like having a free all-year pass to Six Flags. "I tell the kids, 'Stop thinking about these games from a consumer level and think about them in a creative level. What does it take to create this game?' There's a reason why rappers like 50 Cent and Snoop are jumping on the bandwagon and making their games. There's a reason why major film studios now have video game divisions."

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