Schooling kids on video games

Program helps city kids apply academic skills and use them as tools for success in the industry


October 08, 2006|By Ericka Blount Danois | Ericka Blount Danois,Special to The Sun

Learning how to make a video game involves more than knowing computer language. It involves telling a story.

Over the summer, students at the Urban Video Game Academy learned to do just that - playing with remote-control cars, doing computer drawings, hearing speaker presentations and listening to vintage radio broadcasts.

Founder Roderick Woodruff and his partners hope to nurture new storytellers who will venture into the video-gaming industry - a field in which African-Americans are woefully underrepresented as developers. Woodruff also is the creator of, an African-American Web site that is an advocate for diverse perspectives in gaming.

If his program is successful, games will be developed that will counter the images created in such controversial games as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was criticized last year for its portrayal of black males as gang members andkillers.

"We are black. We have a different flavor. There's that cultural divide that is also part of the technology divide," Woodruff says.

This is the second year of the Baltimore academy, which was started by Woodruff; his wife, author Connie Briscoe; Mario Armstrong, host of a technology show on local radio; and Joseph Saulter, CEO of Entertainment Arts Research, one of the first African-American 3-D game companies in the nation.

The group also started an after-school program this fall, with a curriculum similar to the summer program. And it started programs in Atlanta and Washington.

This past summer in Baltimore, 25 students participated in the academy program at Digital Harbor High School. It was part fun and games, part education with lessons in math and how to develop characters.

Ed Towles, an African-American graphic artist based in Baltimore and whose work has been published in The New York Times and Black Enterprise magazine, talked to the students about how he uses his skills and told the class members how they, too, could develop marketable skills.

"If you really like something and you make a buck at it, is there anything better than that?" Towles asked as he walked around the classroom displaying his portfolio.

In other classes, students created characters, sketching out such details as hair color, skin, body size and facial expressions.

They also played with remote-control cars as part of a geometry lesson that reinforced how math is involved with developing video games.

Woodruff also had the students listen to the 1940s vintage radio show Inner Sanctum to help them understand the broad spectrum of storytelling through the use of voices and sound effects to create imagery that can only be seen in one's imagination.

"The objective there was to show them how words can create pictures - somebody walking, how fire was simulated on the air - so listeners could really be pulled into the scene," Woodruff says.

"The route of any good game is a good story," he told the class.

During the free, six-week program, the students developed a script and created characters that move and speak.

Similar programs like this cost about $600 per week, according to the San-Francisco-based International Game Developers Association (IGDA).

Students in the urban-video program, such as the one in Baltimore, have yet to develop a game because they are still developing skills for the task. But in time, Woodruff hopes the students will produce games with the potential of going to the marketplace.

It can't come soon enough, he says.

In an industry aimed at young people, most of the video games are targeted to young white males, and 80 percent of the developers are white, according to the IGDA.

However, a study by the Kaiser Foundation shows that blacks between ages eight and 18 play video and computer games about 90 minutes a day, 30 minutes more than their white counterparts.

"Diversity is important, and we would like to see a more diverse work force, and it is encouraging to see the efforts of the Urban Video Game Academy," says Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the IGDA.

"We have a diversity committee and have begun to mentor diverse workers in the work force," Della Rocca says.

Woodruff also taught this summer at McKinley High School in Northeast Washington, a newly renovated state-of-the-art technology high school.

The school is the first high school in the country to have a motion-capture studio, which uses humans to simulate the movement in sports video games such as Madden NFL and movies such as Shrek and The Lord of the Rings.

Students at McKinley expressed concerns about the video-gaming industry and its stereotyping of African-Americans.

Larniece Brown, 17, says she is tired of all of the shoot-'em-up games.

"I would like to make games about people in everyday life - like with boyfriends and girlfriends," Brown says. "I made one on Flash - it had a stick-figure girl and boy arguing with each other."

"I am more interested in basketball and tennis," says Yasmine Saibou, 16. "There's not a video game for tennis. That's the type of game I would like to make in the future."

Back in Baltimore, students had similar thoughts.

Sixteen-year-old James Carter, an intern in Woodruff's class, says, "I want to create something that is from where I am from, so it could have more flavor to it."

Still other students at Digital Harbor High were interested in learning about gaming but not necessarily pursing it as a career.

"I am not interested in making video games for a living, but I might make a video game about my book," says 15-year-old Phillip Jones, "But my real goal is to become an astronomer."

For more details

To learn more about the Urban Video Game Academy, contact Roderick Woodruff at 301-596-9246.

The academy operates after-school programs at the Baltimore Talent and Development High School, 1500 Harlem Ave., and Digital Harbor High School, 1100 Covington St.

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