Gameheads executive director Damon Packwood teaches game design to students Jeremy Luong and Chun Tat Chan.

Photo courtesy of Malik Hardcastle

For These Students, Gaming Isn’t a Way to Kill Time. It’s a Way to Success

Parents, fear not! Your video-game-obsessed kid might just be gearing up for a rewarding tech career, says the man behind Gameheads, an Oakland nonprofit with an eye toward diversifying the tech industry.

It’s late one night when two teenagers — one an aloof perfectionist; the other, a troubled target of bullying — find themselves inhabiting the same strange dream. Though they’ve never met, the strangers share a heartbreaking connection: the recent death of a mutual friend. In their shared lucid dream, they walk under an indigo sky, trying to figure out where to go next while simultaneously coping with feelings of anger, sadness and fear after the loss of their friend. Soon, the teens encounter a giant lantern. It surges toward them, chasing them down a hallway and through a door.

It’s a nocturnal sequence that seems straight out of a mind-bending Charlie Kaufman movie. But the creator of this inventive world isn’t an established filmmaker; she’s Rebecca Taylor, herself a teenager living in the Bay Area. And the premise isn’t the plot of a blockbuster; it’s the basis for a video game about the stages of grief, called “Lucid,” that she’s helping develop. A high school senior, Taylor spends most weekends writing code with other young designers, storytellers and programmers at Gameheads, an Oakland-based nonprofit dedicated to training underserved youth the foundations of video-game design.

The yearlong curriculum, targeted to those between the ages of 15 and 24, seeks to open Silicon Valley’s enormous possibilities to low-income communities just across the San Francisco Bay, says Damon Packwood, the executive director of Gameheads. “The ubiquity of computing is akin to the printing press — it changes us culturally and permanently,” he says. “But if you have just one group of people that is part of that change, it doesn’t benefit us all.”

Packwood stumbled upon the model for Gameheads while he was teaching a web design class at another organization. To get his students interested in the subject matter, he suggested designing a website around gaming. But the students wanted to cut to the chase and learn how to build games themselves. “It’s a language they already understand,” Packwood says of the young people he mentors. Interactive storytelling, he adds, “is the medium of the 21st century.” By switching the focus of his class to video-game design, he found it was much easier to get kids excited about technology.

A screenshot from Rebecca Taylor's game "Lucid." Courtesy of Rebecca Taylor

That unique focus makes Gameheads, which currently serves about 60 students, the only tech boot camp of its kind in the Bay Area. While most other programs prioritize software development, an in-demand skill set to be sure, Packwood believes putting all the emphasis on what’s job-worthy is misplaced. Gameheads, on the other hand, is open to a wider range of roles, welcoming animators and sound engineers alongside programmers.

Since most of the Gameheads attendees are still in high school, Packwood says his main goal is seeing his students go to college. He has helped Taylor and the other students apply for financial aid, draft college essays and figure out where to enroll. (For her part, Taylor is readying applications to several schools in the University of California system and plans to study computer science once there.) And after they obtain their degree, about half of the grads consider joining the industry — a possibility many hadn’t considered before their time in Gameheads.

Taylor once suspected that because she didn’t have an “in,” she wouldn’t ever be considered as a serious job candidate by game studios. (One look at classic cult movies like “WarGames,” “Tron” and “The Last Starfighter” reveals why: White men predominate in the popular imagery of who creates electronic entertainment.) “I didn’t think it was possible,” says Taylor. But after working with Packwood and other mentors, who come from Sledgehammer, Ubisoft and other studios, her views changed. “I don’t really see it as much of a daunting task, only because a lot of my mentors are actually people of color who work in the game industry,” she says. “It seems very possible now.”

Just as Packwood had hoped — and predicted — the games being crafted by such a diverse population of young people defy genre. Teens like Taylor, whose gaming interests aren’t necessarily represented on Best Buy’s shelves, are more interested in playing “Life Is Strange,” an adventure about a high school girl who can rewind time, than first-person shooter games. “I think the industry has had enough of ‘Halo’ and ‘Call of Duty.’ They need something fresh and original, something that’s meaningful,” she says.

Taylor hopes “Lucid” is that type of game. By design, it necessitates two characters, so that one person can’t play it alone. The two players have to work through the grieving process together, like an interactive therapy. (When Packwood first heard the premise, he asked who gave the group the idea; it came from their own experiences, they told him.) “When I see friends of mine that are going through grief, they shut themselves out of the world. So why not have people try to get over it together?” Taylor asks. “I want people to know that games are more than just something you do when you’re bored. Games actually have the potential to save a life, maybe.”

Like Packwood and his cohort know, most successful game developers are the ones who can build new worlds. At Gameheads, he’s helping his students do just that: They’re carving out a space, both on their computers and in Silicon Valley.

Homepage photo of Gameheads participants courtesy of TJ Ransom

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This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

 

 

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.