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Game Faces

Digital Harbor High School To Host Video-Game Design Summer Program For Inner-City Students

Jefferson Jackson Steele
DON'T HATE THE PLAYERS: Roderick Weldon Woodruff (left) and Mario Armstrong (center) want to draw more young African-Americans toward careers in video game design.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 6/22/2005

Local technology guru Mario Armstrong says he is tired of how minorities are portrayed in video games.

“The game was developed by white guys, which in and of itself is not a problem,” says Armstrong, 33, referring to Midway Games’ NBA Ballers, an urban playground-set basketball game. “Until you play the game and realize all of the players are wearing bling-bling, and gold chains are hanging off of their necks and wrists. And I don’t know anybody in the ’hood who plays basketball with all of that stuff on.”

A story last month in The Sun provided evidence for Armstrong’s concerns.

“In 2001, a report by Children Now, a Los Angeles-based child advocacy group that studies the media, found that among 70 top-selling video games, 87 percent of the heroes were white and the vast majority of nonwhite characters appeared only in sports games,” The Sun reported. “No Hispanic women appeared.”

To do something about it, Armstrong, who advises Martin O’Malley as the mayor’s “technology advocate,” has partnered with Roderick Weldon Woodruff, president and co-founder of AAGamer (a Columbia-based video-game advocacy and information group for African-American youth), and Joseph Saulter, CEO of Entertainment Arts Research (a black-owned 3-D video-game development company), to form the Urban Video Game Academy, a five-week program beginning June 27 that will teach video-game design to 50 kids at Federal Hill’s Digital Harbor High School. All the kids who take part will come from inner-city neighborhoods, and, Armstrong says, they are thirsting for accurate representation in video games.

“What’s happening today in the video games is that you have mostly nerdy white males creating the stories,” he says. “But we want kids to realize that they can become storytellers, thereby controlling the outcome of their games.”

Though it will focus on gaming, the academy won’t be all fun. A math teacher from Digital Harbor will be on hand to teach kids math skills. The kids will also be ushered into design classes to learn how to use, say, the octagon they just learned about in geometry in their own version of Tekken or Madden NFL.

“What people don’t realize is that you cannot create a video game that boys and girls love without knowing geometric shapes, the law of physics, and the ability to story-tell,” says Armstrong, who also acts as a technology consultant/commentator on a number of National Public Radio shows. “We’re just taking something kids like to play, peeling back the layers, and saying, ‘Hey guys, we know you like to play video games. Wouldn’t it be great to create your own?’”

At this summer’s Digital Harbor program, students will get to meet designers from nearby Hunt Valley, one of the nation’s largest video-game design centers. Plans being put together by Armstrong and his partners are also underway for Urban Video Game Academy programs later this year in Atlanta and Washington.

Meanwhile, students at Digital Harbor say they are psyched about participating in the Urban Video Game Academy. Amiel Tomlin, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, says he has known for years that when he grows up he wants go to college and move to Japan, where most of the video games he loves are designed, and work his way up to becoming a game programmer. Tomlin says he notices the less-than-accurate representations of minorities in the games he plays.

“In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, African-Americans are portrayed speaking slang, driving lowriders, and selling drugs,” Tomlin says. “This would make someone who doesn’t know about my culture [make assumptions] or believe what they see on TV. But if someone came up to me on the street talking about ‘yo this’ or ‘yo that,’ my response would be, ‘Why don’t you just say hello?’”

AAGamer’s Woodruff says the images of African-Americans presented in many video games comes from images seen in music videos.

“In the game you have the soundtrack that goes along with it, the music,” he says. “And with the music comes a perceived lifestyle, because that’s what perpetuated through the media. And that’s what kids buy.”

Woodruff says he understands that video games are “escapist entertainment” and are not designed to reflect real life, so he’s not looking to obliterate hyperbolic images in the games. “Like the karate moves in The Matrix, nobody moves like that either [in real life],” he says.

But Woodruff does want to bring a dose of education and culture to the video-gaming community. “We have to get to a point where we have balance,” he says. “It’s not all black and white, and it’s not all bling and bad.”

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