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The digital playground


“African American males lag behind other groups in their information technology use, with one notable exception: videogame playing.”
–Race, Gender, and Information Technology Use: The New Digital Divide.
–CyberPsychology & Behavior, 2008.

Children of color, like others of their generation, have embraced the video-game craze. What is surprising–and perhaps troubling in these times of sweeping unemployment, particularly in minority communities–is the dearth of participation by people of color in the production of the games they spend such an inordinate amount of time playing, and the lack of positive role models among the identifiably Black characters portrayed within this latest form of electronic recreation.

Before we come to the easy assumption of racism as the cause, it might help to consider other factors. Dmitri Williams of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism devotes much of his time to the study of the social and economic impact of new and emerging media, and specializes in the social consequences of video games. Toward that end he has published articles in myriad scholarly and general media publications, as well as testifying before the United States Senate.

“Games tend to reflect the demographics of their creators more than anything else,” he notes. “This helps explain why Asian characters are slightly overrepresented in comparison to the U.S. population.”

Thus there is small consolation that the antisocial elements that appear in the new medium merely echo those previously noted in older forms of media. The old adage of unbalanced representation due to unequal participation in the creation of a given product holds true.

Even so, small nuggets of ebony creativity have emerged here and there throughout the cyber system.

Media mogul

University High School product Jason “Jace” Hall entered the field without the benefit of higher education, egged on by his passion for gaming, and encourages the possibility of self-teaching, stressing that “any motivated person can gain a skill-set within the confines of their own home.”

Hall’s decade-plus track record of creating best-selling games at his game development company, Monolith, attracted the attention of Warner Bros., which recruited him to lead its own interactive entertainment branch, where he continued to create major hits.

Now heading his own production house with credits including the Jace Hall Show (airing regularly on L.A. Metro bus lines), and an online reality show promoting video-game culture and lifestyles, Hall has parlayed his success into the realm of prime-time television with the ABC science fiction series “V.” Listed on the Internet Movie Data Base with a whopping 39 producer credits, Hall is in a unique position to analyze the differences and similarities of the film and gaming businesses.

“The visual effects and production of both genres are becoming more closely aligned,” he confirms, before ruling out the suggestion that they will completely merge, explaining that the audiences of each medium make their choices with different expectations.

“In video gaming, the audience is expecting to participate,” he observes, “while in a movie the audience is expected to be passive. In this manner, there will always be a difference; one does not replace the other.”

Veteran Bay Area programmer Darryl Starr agrees with Hall’s assessment.

“Video games are very challenging to make into films,” he notes. “Motion pictures focus on characters and story, whereas video games focus on game play mechanics and level design (environment interactions).”

Besides the dearth of African American participation in making these games, there is a striking lack of minority characterizations in the plot or story lines central to video games.

The characters of color that do appear in these games as mentioned, however (at least the African American portrayals), have generated more than their fair share of controversy. These depictions overwhelmingly are of athletes participating in the numerous video games that simulate the practice of traditional sports, such as the Madden NFL series, or as career criminals generally expressing themselves through the jargon of Ebonics.

One of the most notable in this later category is “CJ,” Carl Johnson, the anti-hero of “Grand Theft Auto.” Voiced by home-grown L.A. rapper ‘Young May Lay’ (real name Christopher “Chris” Bellard), CJ is the most successful fictional protagonist of this multi-award-winning and highly profitable franchise that has generated hundreds of millions in sales worldwide.

Aside from his involvement in the eponymous title, CJ’s résumé includes stints as a drug-dealing flunky for the Mafia and the Asian Triads, and as a confidential informer for the government as the game progresses, in addition to his main “gig” as a “shot caller” for the Grove Street Family (GSF). Some versions of “Grand Theft Auto” allow players to access an embedded “minigame” (or, in the parlance of programmers, a virtual “Easter egg”) in which CJ and one of his girlfriends may take respites from his nefarious activities for “coffee breaks” (a euphemism for sex).

The extremely limited depictions of minorities are, to be sure, as the above vignette attests, less than stellar, which prompts cultural critics and social scientists to suggest that the games erode the self-esteem of impressionable youth. This deficiency in balanced images, however, may be found in all the myriad forms of media that have preceded video games, as USC’s Williams points out.

“The patterns we found in video games are very similar to those that research has consistently shown in TV for the past 30 years,” he says.

Participation in this emerging electronic diversion does, however, reap other indirect benefits.

Jeff Burns’ introduction to gaming came through an Atari 2600 console purchased by a cousin in the early 1980s. Burns progressed to the point where he could tinker with that platform’s code to make his own rudimentary games before deciding that programming was not his forte.

Still, he was able to parlay his forays into the then-novel online activity of social networking and dating services, which led to meeting his future wife. Today, he runs his own website at (an offshoot of his primary vocation as a web designer) catering to other video-game enthusiasts.

Among the acquaintances encountered in this long-term hobby/avocation was his wife’s cousin, Berkeley native Darryl Starr. While in junior high school, Starr endured long bus rides to attend meetings with the now legendary Homebrew Computer Club in the fledgling Silicon Valley, often the sole African American attendee among his adult programming colleagues. Today, this organization is a historical footnote famous for having spawned Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, along with African American Jerry Lawson, producer of the first cartridge-based video game.

Starr interrupted his studies as an electrical engineering major at UC Berkeley in the late 1980s to launch a career crafting such video games as “Medal of Honor,” “X-Men: Reign of Apocalypse,” and most recently apps for the mobile phone consumer. In spite of the sluggish economy, he remains optimistic about the future.

“It’s among my plans to branch into some new emerging media and new ways to play our games,” he says. “Besides mastering your skills of entry,” he advises aspiring developers, “I’d recommend networking with other persons of color. (Microsoft sponsored) B.I.G. (Blacks in Gaming) is doing great things at their Game Developer (an annual conference held in March in San Francisco) and at the E3 convention (held annually at the Los Angeles Convention Center in late May or early June) events. It’s a great way to meet your future fellow co-workers.”

Digital democracy?

The idea of turning an enjoyable hobby into a profitable career is among the most seductive.

“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” garnered $400 million in revenue in 24 hours of its introduction last month, which easily blows out the box-office receipts of Hollywood blockbusters. Unlike the medium of film, however, aspiring game developers are not hamstrung by the prohibitive production costs that have been historically part and parcel of the motion picture industry.

The advent of the Internet prompted social observers to proclaim a new dawn of democracy, the logic being that the ability to easily interface anonymously with other parts of the world affords unprecedented economic opportunities for the previously marginalized and socially ostracized.

Following this train of thought, technological advances are expected to open opportunities for those who have been previously been shut out of the industry due to financial limitations. One visible example is the progress of digital filmmaking, which gives voice to those otherwise shut out because of the astronomical budgets associated with motion picture production. This example of “reverse economics” applies to game production as well, although minority entrepreneurs typically lack access to the venture capitalists whose deep coffers have been a major part of the Silicon Valley and other success stories.

One current project–and one likely to bring a sorely needed positive spin to video portrayals– a single player interactive experience based on the exploits of the African American World War II fighter pilots, with the working title “Tuskegee Red Tails.” A collaboration between Starr and veteran animator/multimedia maven Leo Sullivan, the game is due to launch this January to coincide with the premiere of the big budget George Lucas motion picture “Red Tails” (with which it has no direct association).

Reflecting on the two-year process of bringing this project to the marketplace, Sullivan ruefully talks about the economic hurdles facing minority startups.

“The problems we face are that there are few Blacks who are entrepreneurs; they’re workers,” he says.

Nonetheless, he persevered in gathering some 25 investors he categorizes as “retirees, workers, and other common folk interested in preserving this historical legacy,” initially offered as an app for the IPhone, then later to the IPhone’s major competitor, the Android mobile phone operating system.

Across the country other individuals are making their own steps towards diversification. GLITCH is an outreach program directed by Georgia Tech and Morehouse College, conceived, in the words of Kenneth Perry, chair of Morehouse’s Computer Science Department, to teach Atlanta-area teenagers “what’s behind the scenes in video games.”

These youthful gamers provide quality assurance for companies in the industry via testing of their products. Plans are in the works to expand the program and groom adults for full-time employment in the industry.

A short distance away in Smyrna, Ga., lies the four-acre campus of Entertainment Arts Research Inc. Founder Joseph Saulter made his reputation as an in-demand drummer in the New York recording scene and as a Broadway actor before starting his company in 2000. The firm went public, has been traded on Wall Street since 2008, and inked a $22 million contact with China’s Zhengzhou College of Economics in 2010 to produce 3-D software that is still in development.

Los Angeles native and project manager of the state’s Department of Economic Development, Asante Bradford points to examples like these as evidence of Georgia’s commitment to nurture the electronic entertainment industry.

“The Southeast is becoming a great area for startups in the electronic entertainment space,” he says. “Georgia is perfect for aspiring game developers because of our business climate, talent and incentives to support a gaming company’s development success.”

This Internet-driven prospect for additional variety and alternative voices, that is already manifesting itself in journalism and other areas, is not lost on academics like Williams.