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Providing economic opportunity to underrepresented youth through gaming

July 22, 2021 in News | 12 min. read
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I (virtually) sat down with Gameheads’ Co-Founder and Executive Director Damon Packwood to discuss their recent game design certificate program, why video game development is an essential skill, the importance of access to economic opportunity, and more.

At Unity, we believe the world is a better place with more creators in it, and we want to empower creators all over the world, no matter their background. Unity creators are storytellers, and the stories that shape our world the most are the ones we hear the least - those told by underrepresented voices. Giving rise to the voices from these communities provides a richer understanding of ourselves and the solutions that can make the world a better place. 

This focus on inclusive storytelling has deeply informed the team I work on - Unity Social Impact. All too often, underrepresented groups don’t have the resources they need to connect their creativity to economic opportunity. Moreover, many don’t have networks that allow them to build a long-term career in an industry like game development.

In order to help address this inequity, Unity partnered with Gameheads, an Oakland-based tech training program, through our Inclusion Team in 2019. Unity Spotlight Technical Director, Raymond Graham, is on the Board of Gameheads and I have the privilege of working with Gameheads as a mentor for the second year in a row. In a new initiative with Unity’s Social Impact Team, we expanded this relationship, and alongside other leaders in technology, we co-launched a game design certificate program at Cal State East Bay through the university's art and continuing education departments. The program is designed to help low-income students and students of color graduate early and save tuition costs while providing an industry-standard education and access to mentors in video game design and extended reality. 

I wanted to take a moment to (virtually) sit down with Damon Packwood, Co-Founder and  Executive Director of Gameheads, since we last spoke at the Unity for Humanity Summit, to discuss why this mission is so critical.

Take a look at our conversation:

James: Hey Damon, it’s great to connect with you again. It’s been a while since we last spoke at the Unity for Humanity Summit. You and I have known each other for almost a year now, given my work as a mentor with Gameheads last summer, but for the readers, I’d love for you to share a bit more about your background, your work with Gameheads, and how you got started in this space. 

Damon: I grew up in San Francisco, the third generation in my family to do so. I watched as my community-- the Black community -- was systematically removed from the city. We were unprepared for the enormous impact that the tech industry had on gentrification and inequality in the Bay Area. 

Fluency in math and science, and success in STEAM industries, require access, opportunities, and awareness of career prospects, all of which are lacking in Black and Brown communities because of generational and systemic racism. Despite this adversity, Black and Brown folks are, broadly speaking and by a number of measured observations, quite comparable to other communities in our adoption of technology and engagement in the arts. And, like so many tech and arts industries, the video game is sorely lacking in cultural representation. 

The picture that all the data painted for me was so clear: we can create true diversity in tech, and address the barriers to success our communities face, using video game design and development as a jumping off point. 

After years of thinking all this through, and ideating a program that encompassed all these elements, I took a chance and launched Gameheads full time. The rest is history.

James: Can you tell me more about the students you work with? Being based in Oakland, can you share how the changing landscape of the Bay Area has impacted them and what Gameheads has offered?

Damon: We intentionally engage low-income youth, youth of color, and LGBTQ+ youth ages 15-25. Black, Indigenous and youth of color are less likely to graduate, more likely to be pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline, and less likely to access well-paying jobs like in tech and gaming, even, and perhaps especially, in the shadow of Silicon Valley. 

But with the right support, the young people we have the privilege to work with are unstoppable. Their diverse backgrounds and experiences represent smart, necessary talent and perspectives the tech industry needs to continue to grow, and to produce content that represents the people that actually consume that content. 

Their vision for a new world, their fresh voices and bold creativity are what the industry needs to stay relevant and stay cool. They are already shaping the future of tech; our students are getting accepted to the country’s most competitive colleges, like USC, NYU and UC Berkeley. They are getting paid internships and full time employment with industry leaders like XBox, Riot Games and EA. And they are showing the next generation of young people of color that they too have a place in this industry. 

James: Can you share more about Gameheads’ recent partnership with Unity and how you think this initiative will help the students you work with?

Damon: We launched Gameheads to provide young people with a unique gaming and tech curriculum, and to give them a competitive advantage in a tech-driven job market. 

The game design certificate program that we partnered with Unity, Oculus from Facebook and Niantic to launch through Cal State East Bay’s art and continuing education departments is a big piece of that puzzle. This is an opportunity to provide students of color and students with low incomes with academic and industry standard education in video game design and extended reality -- and help them lower tuition costs and graduate early. 

Tapping into our students’ genius and creativity by bringing them together with professional mentors is core to our approach. That one-on-one industry exposure is an invaluable leg up in the job market. All of the courses offered as part of the Cal State East Bay certificate program will be taught in part by professionals from our game industry partners. 

We’re particularly excited about the first of the three courses, Introduction to Unity. Students will design a complete game in Unity and iterate through concept development, prototyping, programming challenges, quizzes, and personal projects, all while exploring the cultural impacts of video games on society.

James: In your opinion, why do you think video game development is a critical skill to teach young learners?

Damon: Young people, and particularly young people of color, are already highly engaged in video games. Research shows that Black, Latinx and Asians are more active in the gaming community even than their white counterparts. 

I developed my career living in downtown Oakland where some of the most famous tech nonprofits started. I loved the mission behind that movement -- to train youth of color for the tech ecosystem -- and was inspired by pioneers like Black Girls Code, The Hidden Genius Project, YesWeCode and Impact Hub Oakland. But while I watched their programming and their impact grow, after a while I noticed no one was paying attention to the video game industry. 

This is a medium that young people are already deeply immersed in, and provides a unique opportunity to develop their coding skills, definitely, but also to learn how to design, create, manage projects, work in teams, lead, and tell stories that matter.

James: What would you ask tech companies like Unity to do to better support your mission and provide much-needed educational and economic opportunities to students of color and low-income students?

Damon: Right now, young people of color are shut out of pathways into a multi-billion dollar industry that they've shaped as consumers, and they hold the keys to a bigger and brighter future for the tech and gaming industries. 

We need industry professionals to get involved to ensure that young people of color have the tools they need to shape our collective futures. Donating to support our program is a start; we need real funding to build a different tech ecosystem. 

Providing access to professional mentorship is an easy way to have an outsized impact on the lives of these young people, their families and our collective communities. 

And, of course, we encourage tech leaders like Unity to stay in touch with Gameheads and our incredible students -- provide them with internships, hire them for full time positions so they can help reshape tech to reflect the communities it serves and profits from.

James: Lastly, how can people get involved with the incredible work that you’re doing?

Damon: You can learn more about how to get involved in Gameheads’ work at our website, where you’ll find information on how to donate, apply to become a mentor, or the program application for the budding game designer in your life. 

We also encourage all our game industry partners to join us for our Annual Student Showcase, a capstone event for our Gameheads: Classic Summer Accelerator Program where student teams present the games they ideate, design and develop together over the course of the summer. 

The 7th Annual Student Showcase will be back August 28, 2021. Folks who want to partner with us as sponsors can reach out to me at damon@gameheadsoakland.org.

To learn more about Gameheads, visit: gameheadsoakland.org or follow Gameheads on Twitter @Wearegameheads. To learn more about Unity Social Impact, visit: https://unity.com/social-impact.

July 22, 2021 in News | 12 min. read