Diversifying the games industry, one virtual experience at a time
Aug 28, 2023

Diversifying the games industry, one virtual experience at a time

“Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio discusses how students working with Gameheads are trying to make it in video games while expressing themselves as artists, writers and coders.

Video games are about a lot more than having fun. They also give us narrative lessons and messages about the economy and culture — issues that often affect the people who make them.

“Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio has been reporting on this in a series called “Skin in the Game.” The series took him to Oakland, California, for a visit to a nonprofit group called Gameheads.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with David about how the medium is giving students at Gameheads an outlet to translate their personal experiences into stories.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: Virtually all the games I saw really had an interesting connection with the real lives of the students. One of the group members comes from a family that had some small grocery stores in the East Bay. They made a game about gentrification. How do you make that come alive in a game that you could complete in just a couple of months of work? What they ended up with was a game called Here’s Your Change. In the first levels of the game, you’re walking down an Oakland street, it’s pretty down-home. And you go into the grocery store, and the cashier looks at you, and they want to know more about your life and jokes are traded, and it’s not just transactional. But as you rise through levels, the neighborhood starts to get spruced up. But the interactions inside the store get much more [about], this is the cost, what specifically do you need from me? And the forms of payment change. Maybe they do or do not want to take EBT cards, maybe the expectation is Apple Pay. I don’t know what your perception is of who plays these games. It’s getting more diverse all the time and video game companies are taking notice, right? Because if they’re gonna have experiences in these games that connect with people, they have to get a better sense of what the lived reality is of these players. And one good way to do that might be to hire them.

Lily Jamali: Well, for the record, I’m still playing the original Nintendo, so I have a little bit of upgrading to do. Another game that really stood out to me that’s profiled in the series is called Camino. It’s about the Cuban slave trade, and it’s about a boy trying to rescue his mom, who has been sold into slavery. And you interviewed someone at Gameheads about this, who tells you the story about the designers, these young kids who got money, tens of thousands of dollars to develop the game, including from Google. And when it was all over, they wanted to sell the game for 25 cents. And this guy is absolutely stunned at how low they set the price. He ends up getting them up to 99 cents. But that story really says something about, you know, kind of the motivations that these young developers have. It’s not always about money.

Brancaccio: No. And in fact, participants in Gameheads are not necessarily building these things for profit. But when a couple of the games seemed to find an audience and had this amazing opportunity to actually sell them, they put a premium on making the game accessible by keeping it cheap, but they did something else that really surprised the person that you’re talking about. Damon Packwood is the founder of Gameheads. When they looked for people who compose music, artists who could help with some of the illustration necessary to make these games come alive, they shared a lot of that money with the community. So it had this amazing, what economists would call a multiplier effect. But I think some of the students also may have had a sense that they themselves were the product of a community and that they wanted to give back.

Jamali: Well, another thing that really comes across, and you and I have both lived in the Bay Area at various times, is how even when you live there, the tech industry can feel a world away. A lot of kids from, you mentioned the East Bay, so that includes Oakland, Richmond, places further out, other cities in the region have not historically had access to those coveted jobs in tech.

Brancaccio: And it’s interesting to talk with younger people who have an interest in these tech jobs about where the barriers kick in. And among the issues is that many students couldn’t see themselves in that industry. They grew up thinking it was for somebody else that didn’t look like them. The way one student put it to me, the video game industry is “melanin-challenged,” OK? And so one of the goals of this nonprofit is to show students they could crack in if they had the skills, but also try to make the industry aware that people with a lot of important skills need to be considered for these jobs. It’s really a two-way street. It’s important for, I think, groups like Gameheads to think about, all right, how do you bridge these divides? And to show the industry the importance of diversifying who they bring on.

Jamali: Do you get the sense that an organization like Gameheads is helping to strengthen the talent pipeline so that younger game developers can actually break into jobs at video game studios and other employers in the field?

Brancaccio: Well, here’s the thing. Gameheads didn’t just start six months ago, it’s been going for a number of years now. So Gameheads has people who started as high school students and then got their college degrees and came out and have some pretty desirable-sounding jobs in the video game industry. One of the alums from Gameheads works for one of George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, designing immersive 3D actual experiences, you know, beyond video games. Is it moving the needle in decreasing the gap between rich and poor, when you think about disadvantaged East Bay communities? I mean, having spent some time talking to the people coming through the program, I think it is moving the needle.

Jamali: So the “Skin in the Game” videos have a vibe that’s very different from your daily morning program. What was the experience you were hoping to leave listeners and viewers with?

Brancaccio: We’re hoping the effect of watching these simulates what you might learn if you could spend a weekend at this really interesting mentoring program. People listening to this might know someone in their circle, their network or family who’d like to break into a career that’s, you know, it’s at the intersection of storytelling, arts and tech. If so, direct them to YouTube to find what I hope are some inspiring, multilayered bits of information.

More on this

You can watch all of “Marketplace Morning Report’s” “Skin in the Game” videos on our YouTube channel.

And when it comes to diversity in the games sector, check out this article from The Washington Post on the push for diversity in the gaming industry. It has examples of progress but also analysis on why the needle hasn’t moved more over the last decade-plus.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer