Video Game Design Meets Black Lives Matter and #MeToo

By Benjamin Herold — August 30, 2018 6 min read
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When she was just a junior in high school, Sasha Williams was confronted with a big question.

How do you make a black video game?

Last Saturday, after nearly a year’s work, Williams and five teammates at an Oakland, Calif., based nonprofit called Gameheads unveiled their answer: “Sneakers and an Oversized Hoodie,” an original video game that manages to simultaneously pay homage the Black Lives Matter movement, the classic arcade game ‘Donkey Kong,’ gospel music, and the Latin American aesthetic of magical realism.

“We really wanted to understand the major problems happening in our community, then tackle them in a fun way that also had a message,” Williams said. “So we had to come up with our own rules.”

That’s music to the ears of Damon Packwood, the group’s co-founder and executive director. Run out of the United Roots Youth Impact Hub in Oakland, Gameheads is just one example of a flourishing network of community-based nonprofits working at the intersection of art, media, and technology with young people around the country.

The Gameheads experience is a far cry from typical high school life. The work is year-round, hands-on, and highly collaborative. Deadlines are intense. And the payoffs are often immediate: The program focuses on helping young people move quickly into fields such as video-game development, media production, and technology. And there’s a strong emphasis on culture and social justice—a focus that makes some observers uncomfortable, but that Packwood said is key to drawing young people in and preparing them to remake their worlds in their own image.

“Helping people of color be able to work in the industries that actually pay enough money to allow you to live in the Bay Area is important,” he said. “But to be honest, the thing that gets me really excited is thinking about what these people will create. There are so many stories yet to be told.”

‘Flip That Script’

At Gameheads’ Student Showcase last weekend, the new video games unveiled by students demonstrated a dizzying mix of message and fun.

There was ‘Offbeat,’ a role player game exploring the “model-minority myth” among Asian-Americans. ‘Beyond the Mask’, a “platformer” game featuring a magical creature that must shed a cursed mask, provided a vicarious look into the lives of LGBTQ teens.

There was also more classic video-game fare, such as the shooting games ‘Three for All’ and ‘Mediocre Shooter.’

And then there was ‘Pussy Punchout,’ a “beat-'em-up game” with a twist.

Classic arcade games from the “beat-'em-up” genre, such as ‘Double Dragon,’ are super-fun to play, said Quyen-Vi Nguyen, one of the artists behind ‘Pussy Punchout.’ But when you actually pay attention to those games, Nguyen said, the storylines and imagery often feature scenes of men brutalizing women.

Inspired by the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault, Nguyen said she and her all-female team “wanted to flip that script.”

To do so, their game puts players in the character of a cat who must punch out a parade of frat boys in order to rescue their feline friends, whom the men have kidnapped.

“It has the 3 Rs: rage, rampage, and revenge,” Nguyen said. “That’s how we want people to feel when they’re playing the game, especially women. It’s a release, in a healthy sort of way.”

Now a 20-year-old college junior majoring in cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, Nguyen started at Gameheads when she was a senior in high school. There, she said, learning meant “you sit, take in a lot of information, halfway regurgitate it, and try to reprocess it into your own thinking.”

At Gameheads, though, Nguyen found the twin focus on finding your own voice and creating something original to be a powerful way to explore her feelings, cultivate her artistic side, and learn how to work as part of a team.

The first game she worked on was ‘Amnesiacs,’ a multiplayer, text-based adventure game in which players must collaboratively explore an unfamiliar town as characters who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses.

Making people uncomfortable with ‘Pussy Punchout’ wasn’t just fun, Nguyen said. It also helped her grow.

“In the beginning, we were worried about having a really strong, bold idea and being really brazen with it,” she said. “But [Gameheads] really encouraged us to take the idea and run with it.”

Homage to Black Lives Matter

For some observers, the idea of educators encouraging teens to explore and embrace social-justice movements is cause for concern.

“If these projects were generated through the suggestion or encouragement of adults, I don’t think it’s appropriate,” said Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and the author of the forthcoming book, The Diversity Delusion.

“These are very specific political views on the world that may not seem controversial to those who hold them, but in fact they are,” MacDonald said.

Packwood said he doesn’t tell teens what to think or create. But he does push students to better understand the worlds they must navigate every day. That’s part of why Gameheads participants are so engaged, he said, and it’s key to helping them move beyond simply recreating the commercial games they already play.

“I have a rule: Pay attention to what students are doing when they’re not doing what you told them to do,” Packwood said. “If I encourage students to create something they’re personally attached to, they will make it.”

Figuring out how to make that happen has been a process of trial-and-error. When Gameheads began in 2014, he said, it used established game-design curricula, but found them lacking. Among other issues, Packwood said, there was too much focus on coding and following established game-design protocols—and not enough on learning how to hone your own message and write your own rules.

So now, Gameheads’ students can choose to focus on the technical side of game development. Or, like Quyen-Vi Nguyen, they can focus on the artistic side,

Or they can be like Sasha Williams, the 17-year old who helped create ‘Sneakers and an Oversized Hoodie.’

The game itself is many-layered: The opening features a brown-skinned teenage boy being chased through a city landscape. An image of a police officer with a gun drawn appears on the screen, followed by a rapid montage of scenes from the boy’s life.

Then, suddenly, the game begins. Players control the actions of the boy, who is now trapped in an abandoned building. The goal is to climb ladders and stairs to get the boy to the top of the building, all while avoiding shadowy figures trying to hurt him.

As players make it to each successive floor, the musical score adds new instruments. Eventually, the music crescendos, and you realize it’s a gospel dirge. The character you’ve been controlling has been dead all along, and you’ve been trying to help him find his way into heaven.

Williams said she’s a decent computer programmer—she found her way to Gameheads through another nonprofit group, Black Girls Code, which she still supports.

And she loves creative storytelling.

But she found her passion in project management, working to merge the efforts of programmers, designers, animators, artists, and musical composers into a single coherent vision.

“I want to be a business owner in the future,” Williams said. “I like being a leader.”

Screencaptures From ‘Sneakers and an Oversized Hoodie’ and ‘Pussy Punchout’ courtesy of Gameheads.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.