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."
"These kids here grew up with video games," adds Woodruff, preparing some of the handouts for class, "and they need to have a say as to what the industry will evolve to."
The D.C. academy is one of three the three men started this year. The Baltimore academy ended last month; the Atlanta academy starts next month. In the course of the four-hour class, which meets Fridays, Armstrong is excitable, quick on his feet, with an expansive, full-throated baritone voice. "If you don't remember Pong," he says when no one seemed to recall last week's lesson on the history of video games, "we will sit you here for an hour and make you play Pong." Then he invites six students to play a game he calls Human Pong. Two students on each side act as the walls. A girl with big silver hoop earrings acts as the ball. A boy in an oversize blue T-shirt acts as the player. "Understand that this is all physics," he emphasizes.
Throughout the class, he challenges them to ask: Who's making the games? What are they trying to say?
"What is being put out there? Sports games. Violent games. What do these titles mean?" Armstrong asks, holding up a copy of the Xbox game NBA Ballers, with New York Knicks star Stephon Marbury on the front cover "in diamond earrings bigger than his head," wearing a plush track suit and dribbling a ball. Minutes later, Armstrong takes issue with another game. "Anyone here heard of 25 to Life?" The first-person-shooter game, pitting cops against gangsters, is set for an October release. "Who's the lead? What's the plot? What's the story line?"
What takes up most of the class's time, though, is the actual learning of game design, the computer science, the graphic art, behind it all. With some oohing and aahing -- and, yes, a little groaning and moaning -- students plow through Maya, design software used by many video game developers. Before they talk about story lines, characters and design, however, they first learn to make a ball. How to animate it. Make it bounce. Get it to jump through a ring of fire.
"Why is my ball so small?" Melanie Simpson, 14, a girl in a tight ponytail, asks her friend Tameika Washington, 16.
"Check your radius," she replies.
Woodruff, the formal father figure in the room, makes the rounds, visiting students. "Hold down the alt key," Woodruff tells Simpson and Washington. "That's how you zoom in and out."
Forty-five minutes later, with a few minutes left in class, the students are in a telephone conference call with Mike Chubb, a 27-year-old artist for Sony Online Entertainment, with Armstrong facilitating the conversation. Chubb is in a car shop in San Diego, getting an oil change. A graduate of the Illinois Institute of Art-Schaumburg, Chubb was featured, with a photograph big enough for an Us Weekly cover, in last month's issue of Black Enterprise magazine. He was hailed as "one of the relatively few African Americans" who are making headway in the gaming industry.
The students ask him: What's your day like? ("Can be long but always fun.") What kind of software do you use to make games? (He, too, uses Maya.) What kind of car do you drive? ("No comment.") Chubb, as it happens, was one of the respondents in the IGDA's demographic survey. "I'm a little bit surprised at how low that is," he says upon learning that 2.5 percent of the 2,000 respondents are black. "I thought it'd be at least 5 percent.
"Granted it's only a cross section of a couple of thousand folks, but that's still an accurate picture of the industry. The industry is young -- so young if you compare it to the music business or Hollywood," Chubb goes on. "Only time will tell what will happen when blacks and Latinos start getting behind the scenes. When they start designing and programming and producing games in better numbers, what kind of stories will they tell?"
On the way home, a few minutes past noon, Martin continues to explain the idea he and his friend have for a video game, tentatively titled Love Curse. She's a half-breed -- her mother a human, her father a demon. He's a human. They fight in the beginning. They fall in love toward the end.
The music in the game will be "rock-and-roll and heavy metal sometimes," and other times "that hip-hop and R&B mix sound that Mariah Carey has," but not exactly Mariah Carey "because some people don't like her so much." The game's look will be cutting-edge, way out there, "a video game masterpiece."
The game's characters, says Martin, will be whites and blacks and Latinos and Asians.