Carla Harris: Studies show that African Americans, Latinos, and Asians are more active in the gaming community than their white counterparts. But despite who is more likely to play video games, game developers of color only make up about 13% of the industry, according to a study by Pew Research.
In recent years, the video game industry has been criticized for discriminatory hiring practices and gatekeeping, which have driven developers of color away from the field. But, there are individuals who are working to diversify the gaming industry.
Damon Packwood: I always tell companies, I'm like look, the players of the future are all going to be extremely diverse right? The next billion players are coming from South America and Africa and Asia, and these are countries that the gaming industry never had to consider.
Carla Harris: That was Damon Packwood, Co-Founder of Gameheads. I sit down with Damon to talk about his Oakland-based tech training program that equips young people of color and low-income youth with the tech and life skills they need to build successful careers in the video game industry.
But first, we'll hear from Neil Jones, an independent game developer who set off on his own journey to develop a game after years of being rejected by the traditional gaming industry.
Neil Jones: I wanted the game to be an example. I wanted to say, hey, look, what one person that no one like in the gaming industry wanted, could do by themselves. Imagine what. He could do if you actually gave him opportunities and funding-
Carla Harris: Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I'm your host Carla Harris. And we're telling stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We provide context about systemic inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.
Carla Harris: 71% of American children play video games according to a recent study from the Entertainment Software Association. Neil Jones is one of many American children who started gaming at a young age.
Neil Jones: My grandmother ran a bowling alley slash kitchen, and I would just hang out there all day. There was an arcade in the bowling alley and I would just sneak into the arcade and grab a bunch of quarters that she had laying around and play everything that was in there. Mario or…it was definitely Pacman, Gallica, things like that.
Carla Harris: As Neil got older he started to feel more and more pressure to choose a career path. He was unsure of what he wanted to pursue but wise words from his grandmother encouraged him to follow his dreams.
Neil Jones: My grandmother growing up always said, I just want you to do things that you enjoy because I don't want you going to a job that you hate. Like I had to, and I really took that advice.
Neil Jones: Me trying to figure out what I wanted to do, game development was the only thing that I could see myself as enjoying and being really proud of.
Carla Harris: Neil decided to turn his love of gaming into a career. After high school he pursued a BFA in game design and digital media to become a video game developer.
Neil Jones: A video game developer is a lot of things. Anyone who generally puts anything into the game be it voice actors, be it artists or musicians or like coders, they're all developers. But there are many other roles as far as marketing, and producers and people managers. a lot of developers wouldn't be able to do what they do without those people.
Carla Harris: These are just some of the roles that make up the US video game industry, a $90 billion business that has grown 10% year over year since 2017, according to a study from IBIS World. Neil wanted to join the growing field come graduation, but despite his technical skills, he struggled to find his place within the expected career routes.
Neil Jones: So I think there's this fantasy that everyone has that you just graduate and you just either make your own amazing game and put it out there and make a million dollars. Or you work at a triple A game studio. And it's not either one of those things. You graduate and you get a regular day job. And your responsibility now is to do work outside of school to increase your portfolio, make it very good. Or you can work on your own game.
Me, personally, when I came out of school, I thought that I was very good at 3D modeling and development of games. But, time and time again, when I would apply at jobs you name a favorite studio I applied there and made a portfolio specifically for that place and would get letters back just, when I did get letters back, saying that I wasn't a good fit. And I would take that as the things that I showed them weren't good enough. So I would take that kind of feedback and hone my skills and try to just be better.
Carla Harris: Neil was on the job hunt for years, interviewing with big studios but never quite catching a break. He spent that time trying to become the best developer he could be.
Neil Jones: It was just a workaround way of not hiring the people that they didn't want to hire. I never thought of it like that until I heard so many other stories from black people in the game industry trying to apply for these same positions that I was applying to. And they would be amazing. I would see their work and say, “This person definitely deserves to have a job somewhere.” And it was ridiculous that they couldn't get a job anywhere.
Neil Jones: And then you would see the team photos after games came out, games that I tried to work on, and it's just all white people. And there's nothing wrong with having all white people but it's a hell of a coincidence.
Carla Harris: Neil realized he didn't need acceptance from the mainstream video game industry to follow his dreams.
Neil Jones: I decided I'm gonna use all these skills and I'm going to just make my own game. Just a one off. If people like it, cool. But this game is gonna be for me and I'm gonna make it as cool as possible and take all the things I learned over this like last 10 years of chasing this dream and try to put it into one thing.
I wanted the game to be an example. I wanted to say, “Hey look what one person that no one like in the gaming industry wanted, could do by themselves. Imagine what he could do if you actually gave him opportunities and funding and all of these things.”.
Carla Harris: Figuring out what game to make was no small task. In the end Neil decided to put his own spin on a simple concept. That is how Aerial Knight's Never Yield, his futuristic survival game came to be.
Neil Jones: So I picked more of a runner mechanic, so something that you would see in Temple Run and those types of games. But to give it a lot more style and flare with the animations. I added cut scenes, which you don't normally see within those types of games.
Something that kids can play, something that adults can play with their kids. It was something that I just wanted to make for everyone but specifically something that I would've enjoyed when I was a little bit younger.
Carla Harris: Along with the freedom that comes with making a game on your own also comes the challenges. At big studios all of the elements such as programming, voice acting and promotion get dedicated departments or teams. But besides help from a few of his former classmates and professional network Neil was on his own.
Neil Jones: I'm what is called an indie developer, meaning that I'm very independent. I do a lot of these jobs as far as marketing, creating of the art. I do code. I do music. Yeah, I do a little bit of everything.
I think the thing that surprised me the most as far as the entire development was how much time goes into marketing. I had to do a lot of interviews. I had to write a lot of articles and documentation, which I appreciated. It was good, good work. But I just didn't, I underestimated how much time those kind of things actually take.
Carla Harris: It took three long years to make Aerial Knight's Never Yield, but once it was released into the world it was a hit. Fans and fellow indie developers alike enjoyed Neil's creation. The success of his first game encouraged Neil to continue to pursue his passion as an indie developer.
Neil Jones: Initially this was gonna be like my last game, but after just talking to people and going to so many events and meeting so many kids who like really appreciate what I made and enjoyed it with their family. It made me want to make more.
One day, maybe I might just give it a shot to work with a giant publisher to do that one, one big, giant thing that everyone sees and loves. But until then I just, I like my little space. No one bothers me here. I get to make whatever I want. So I think I'll just chill here until otherwise.
Carla: Neil became an indie game developer largely because of barriers within the industry. And while he doesn't regret going independent, he recognizes that true change will require an industry-wide shift to ensure that up-and-coming Black developers won't struggle as he did early on.
There’s a lot to be done, but he's optimistic.
Neil Jones: It's systematic. It's not an individual. We can't look at the game industry and say, these people are the problem. It's the industry as a whole. It's the good people, it's the bad people because it's built into it. It's what it was built off of.
Anyone in game development will tell you it's rough for anybody trying to get into this industry. Specifically someone of color. There's a lot of stories out there, and there's a lot of trauma and a lot of issues with the industry. I don't think anyone can deny that, but I think that's, that's in a lot of industries and this industry's getting a little bit better.
Carla Harris: Although Neil Jones struggled for years to find a foothold in the video game industry, his bet on himself paid off tremendously. The indie game community as well as established video game studios, have taken notice of his work for Aerial Knight's Never Yield in a way that has changed the trajectory of his career and inspired so many other black developers.
But his story exists largely as an outlier.
Our next guest is focused on making more and better stories of success for marginalized developers, by creating clearer pathways into the insular world of major and mid-size gaming studios.
Damon Packwood co-founded the Bay Area-based nonprofit organization Gameheads in 2015 to train youth nationwide in all aspects of the video game industry.
Damon was first introduced to youth empowerment when he was a child himself taking part in the federally funded education program Upward Bound. He continued to be involved with the program into adulthood while also beginning his career in media. But, he soon realized it was the youth in his community that needed him most.
I sat down with Damon to discuss the potential he saw in teaching video game development to the next generation, and how it will help diversify the industry in the years to come.
Carla Harris: Damon Packwood, thank you so much for being here with me today. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. And are you ready to jump in?
Damon Packwood: I am.
Carla Harris: Alrighty. So before we dig into your work with Gameheads, a youth tech training program that leverages video game design. I'm curious about your early experiences with community engagement.
How was that modeled for you growing up in San Francisco?
Damon Packwood: I'm born and raised in San Francisco. I'm a Bay Area kid. I'm a Cali boy. My family was a part of the great migration of black folks that moved here from the south. So my family's from Texas. They had been here since the fifties. I'm maybe third generation.
And when I grew up, all of my family members were involved in the community. Like my grandmother worked with senior citizens. My mom did daycare. I had aunts that were teachers. My uncle was a part of the Longshoreman's Union. I had other aunties and grandparents that were like entrepreneurs in the Fillmore district. What do they call it? The Harlem of the West?
Carla Harris: Yes, that's exactly right.
Damon Packwood: They were business owners there. So I was just raised with it.
Carla Harris: Outstanding. Outstanding. Let's talk bringing that forward into the growing tech scene in the Bay Area. So how did you think about this new industry and how it could impact your community?
Damon Packwood: I remember the conversation at the time in the Bay Area is we were all freaking out because we could see that the traditional working class neighborhoods were being disrupted because the tech industry was exploding in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. And obviously you have workers coming into the Bay Area, they're moving into these traditionally low income communities raising up the property value. And that was dismantling communities.
Now I'm in graduate school at the time, this is happening and I'm like, coding is not easy. Like it's just, it's not for everybody and it's science, technology, engineering, and math. And we all know over the years if you're an educator, you know, that those are the areas where communities of color don't perform well, and it has more to do with the funding of those departments or of those programs in public institutions. So I was like, alright, what's the solution? What are people in the black and brown communities like naturally good at? We're good at visual performing arts. We're good at art animation, we're good at dance, we're good at music. We're good at voice acting, we're good at organizing, right? We're good at poetry, we're good at spoken word. And then I was like, how do you translate that into tech? Games. The game industry needs artists, animators. The game industry needs motion capture artists, voice actors. They need program managers. They need level designers. They need game designers and they need programmers, right?
Carla Harris: Mm-hmm, that’s correct.
Damon Packwood: And then you look at the data. If you look at the data and you look at the gaming industry, the majority of the people that play video games it's actually black and brown folks. In the game industry black folks make up 2%. Women make up 22%. They're the fastest growing demographic. Latinx folks make 7%. And then the next billion players are gonna come from Nigeria, Kenya, Brazil, Argentina, China, India.
Carla Harris: All of color.
Damon Packwood: Exactly. And so I'm like, that's the area of tech that's going to need us and we're better positioned to work in this industry. And now all I gotta do is just give students access and training. But they don't come into a class at zero. They come into a class at five.
Everybody has a cousin that knows how to make music. So it's like alright, now I'm not teaching you how to make music. I'm teaching you how to make music for games, or I'm teaching you how to do sound effects for games. Things like that. So that was my theory. And then I, that's how I started Gameheads is to test out the theory.
Carla Harris: Wow. Let me add a little bit of stats for our listeners to what the stats that you've already given. While gamers are stereotypically considered to be white and male here are the stats that tell a different story. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows people of color play video games 30 minutes more per day than their white counterparts which is a significant point to the points that you made, that there are larger numbers playing for a longer period of time. Translation, commercial impact. The next one, Northwestern University found that black children are twice as likely to have a gaming console in their room compared to white youth of the same age. Point number three, and Google conducted its own study on the rise of female gamers. Finding females now make up 49% of mobile gamers. And so despite all of this nearly 80% of video game characters are male, and 54.2% are white, which is in direct contrast to the forecast that you just gave us. And so based on what you know, what appetite is there for games with characters that look more like the players that we just talked about?
Damon Packwood: I think from 20 years of experience, I think what you'll find is there's more of an appetite for this than you think.
It's not the employees necessarily. It's the companies. They're having a really hard time turning. So what, if you look at the data that came out of, like the GDC a couple of years ago, and this has been pretty consistent. The actual employees in the gaming industry want this and have wanted it for years.
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Carla Harris: So you brought up Gameheads. So let's talk a little bit about that. In 2015, you founded Gameheads. So share with us what the mission statement is or what it was. If it's evolved, you know who it's for? How is it beneficial to your community?
Damon Packwood: Gameheads is a nonprofit organization. We're based out of Oakland, California. We teach game design development, DevOps and mixed media to low income students, ages 15 to 25. At the end of the day I always tell people this, I know it sounds like a cliche but the goal is to ensure that our students are happy.
Learning should be fun and games are – at the heart of it a video game is basically a learning system. And some video games, like you literally have to figure out. Your inventory or figure out how much money you're gonna spend, like they're learning when they play these video games.
We want students to learn about the system that we live in the United States and we assume that they're not interested, but when they go home they play games. And those games are systems. The issue is not that the young folks don't wanna learn. The issue is that the way we are teaching them is very antiquated.
And so the reason why we chose games is, A not only can I make the learning experience fun for you, but also that industry is interested in you. And the idea is that it's the tech industry and it's a lucrative industry. And if you end up getting a career out of it, you're set. And now that you're set, you can live here in the Bay Area. You can live in communities of color. You don't have to move out. You can help feed your family, and you're doing something that hopefully you enjoy and that you love doing.
Carla Harris: Okay. So talk to me about what it was like to get it off the ground, because obviously starting anything as an entrepreneur is hard. You gotta first get all the students involved, and how big were you at from the start?
Damon Packwood: What I can tell you is that getting students involved was super easy.
Carla Harris: Okay.
Damon Packwood: I, matter of fact when we first started, the first couple months that we were doing it as a prototype. I had a full-time job and I told the students, “Look, man, I'm working with you guys on Saturdays, but I got a full-time job. So we need to wrap this up cause I gotta go to actual work.”
So I said, “Why don't you guys just build a video game in Little Big Planet?” And they built this game about grief, which was like insane. They built a website around it, everything.
Carla Harris: Grief? As in G-R-I-E-F, grief?
Damon Packwood: Oh yeah, they built this game about the five levels of grief and you had to play it with somebody because – and this is what they told me: “Young people typically deal with grief by themselves. We want the players to play with somebody else so that they can deal with grief together.” And I'm just like, “Okay, who gave you guys this idea?” And they're like, “No, we did it.” So I said, “Okay, I want you guys to submit this to a competition.” And they said, “Okay.” They submitted it and it wasn't just a normal competition, it was the ESA LOFT Innovation Fellowship which is done in partnership with the White House.
They won and the White House invited them out to D.C. to present their game to the National Hispanic Caucus and the Electronic Software Association. So the Obama administration paid for their trip, gave them a thousand dollars in seed capital and free tickets to E3. And when they came back, I said, “Yo do you guys want to keep learning about video games?”
And they said, “Yes.” So I said, “Okay.” So I had to start figuring out ways to continue to teach them. I said, “Great don't tell your friends.” They told their friends. So then more people started showing up. I said, “Alright, look, don't tell your parents.” So they told their parents. So then the parents started reaching out and then they gave me feedback on what they wanted to see us do, which was the college component. So I said, “Okay, add that.” Then next thing you know, I had to quit my job.
Carla Harris: Let's walk through so our listeners can really embrace and understand exactly what the kids are learning from the program, cause obviously they're learning some things about programming. But you've talked about a lot of other things, so just tick them off for us.
Damon Packwood: There's a lot of different programs that we have, but the primary program, the Classic Program, is our sort of bread and butter. So when you come into Gameheads, there's six months of in-class instruction and we walk the students through game design, level design, which is more like architecture.
Game design is all about the user experience, coding, which is C Sharp, C++, art and animation. So we're using Adobe Creative Cloud. We're giving our students graphic tablets so they know how to use the professional software. We're teaching them about the representation of women and people of color in video games because it's traditionally not been positive.
So we want our students to make games that reflect those demographics in a positive light. We teach them about narrative design and so on and so forth. So we do that over six months. And then, prior to the summer we ask these students to get into development teams of five to seven, assume a role on the team and then come up with a concept for a video game.
We had one group one year wanted to make a game about motherhood, right? And it's about a chicken that lays somewhere and then has to teach their little chick after it hatches like how to walk, right? That was the nature of the game. And so for 15 weeks they work on that video game. And depending on your role on the team, we provide you with a mentor that has the same role at the company that they work in. And then at the end of the summer, you have to present that at a big event, 500 people, industry professionals.
And then throughout the fall they have to polish their game, showcase it at various events and then release it online around the week of Christmas. And then after they release it online, we take a break, we ask them to come back in February. And then we do it again, but we scaffold it and their classes are more advanced.
And then the following year we do it again, and we do it again, and we do it again. Until they've transitioned from high school, they're in college, then they transition into an internship opportunity. And then after that, after doing that for years, all of their instructors are video game industry professionals.
They have a mentor every year. They have an internship. They've made three and four video games. There should be no reason why any company should be telling them ‘no’ once they apply outta college.
Carla Harris: This is outstanding because it sounds like the projects and the assignments are all designed for them to have practical skills, know how to sell themselves, and therefore be extremely attractive in a job market.
Damon Packwood: Absolutely.
Carla Harris: Wow. So Let's talk a little bit about the mentorship and who's mentoring them, who's teaching them?
Damon Packwood: Yeah. I get to invite students to class or mentors and put them, one on one with the young folks that are at the companies that make the games that they like to play. We've had Insomniac involved and they made Spider-Man and they made Miles Morales.
We have two students that work on Call of Duty right now. Xbox and all of the Xbox game studios. So anywhere from 343 Industries that does Halo to Turn 10 that does Forza. We've had people from Little Big Planet, Media Molecule, Sony Interactive Entertainment, and all of their different studios have been involved. So we have, we have mentors from all over. Some of 'em are not even in the country. We've had mentors from Denmark. We've had mentors from Mexico, from Buenos Aires.
Carla Harris: But Damon, how did you get all these relationships?
Damon Packwood: The funny thing is everybody that I speak to says they've been waiting for a program like this to pop up for years, and it turns out they don't really exist. So when we started, I just assumed that a lot of people were doing this, and it turns out we were the only one. And not only were we teaching game design, but we were all about game design. It wasn't like a side thing we were doing.
And what we would tell people at the studios is we're like: “Anything that you are teaching each other, I want you to teach our students. Do not come here and teach Video Games 101. If you're teaching this to your friends and your colleagues, I want you to come here and teach it to our students.”
We wanna make sure that what they're learning is college level, and then when they get in college we wanna make sure that what they're learning is graduate level. So that's why all of our instructors are at least 10 years of experience in the video game industry or they’re academics. We teach them like real skills.
Carla Harris: Wow. Okay, alright. So what do you hope is the long term impact of Gameheads and what do you think is the long term impact in particular on your community and the gaming industry?
Damon Packwood: I always tell my students, I said, “Look, man, 10 years from now, I want to get that phone call from you while you on a beach in Brazil talking about how you living your good life. That's really all I want. I want to get the invitation to your wedding.” I really want to see people happy. I've been doing youth work for 40 years. The reason why I started doing Gameheads is because I really wanted to start creating actual change.
Carla Harris: Mm-hmm.
Damon Packwood: When I was in Upward Bound, if Upward Bound was on a college application people looked at that college application different. So what I keep telling people, I said, “If Gameheads is on a resume, I want us to get to a point where when people see ‘Gameheads’ on your resume, they look at that applicant a little differently.”
So that's my aspiration before I leave.
Carla Harris: Aw man, that is a major statement. Major statement. Damon Packwood, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. It's been terrific.
Damon Packwood: Thank you so much for having me. This is awesome.
Carla: I want to thank Neil Jones and Damon Packwood for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity. What did you think of today's episode? Send us your thoughts at email@example.com. And to continue learning about individuals working to drive systematic change within their communities, subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along.